The Importance of a Smart Marketing Strategy for Trade Shows

By all accounts, my first time exhibiting at Surtex in 2017 was a success. I reached the goals I had set for myself, connected with lots of new-to-me companies looking for art, and finally had a chance to meet countless designers I "knew" online.

But that doesn't mean there's no room for me to improve. On the contrary, my freshman experience at Surtex highlighted just how much more I have to learn about this wonderful industry. So as I'm gearing up for my second time at Surtex, I thought it would be fun to reflect on what I did last year and ways I hope to improve my experience this time around. 

This will hopefully be the first of several 2018 Surtex blogposts and just like my 2017 blog series, I hope to highlight aspects of the trade show experience that aren't as talked about so I can help others avoid the mistakes I made.

 Surtex 2018 Blog Series | Marketing Strategies for Surtex: Lessons Learned from Last Year's Show | shannonmcnab.com

Of all the aspects of Surtex preparations, the one area where I feel I have the potential to improve the most is my marketing efforts. Last time around, I spent very little time marketing myself to companies and looking back it was a huge missed opportunity. 

So I spent a few weeks at the beginning of the year, taking a closer look at what I did in 2017 and developing what I hope is a stronger marketing plan that will pay off for me at Surtex. But before I dive into what I'm doing differently this year, let me recap what I did last year and the lessons I learned.
 

A Heavy Focus on Social Media

I spent a LOT of time creating lots of square Surtex images (seriously you guys, I made 11 of them) to post to Instagram in the two months leading up to the show. 

Of course they're pretty and visually represent my design style very well, but I'm not sure there was any benefit to doing so many simply because most of my IG followers are other designers and not brands I hope to work with. Looking back, I wish I had spent less time on creating these Instagram images and used that time elsewhere.
 

A Lack of Company Connections

I spent a couple of weeks last March creating a spreadsheet of companies I wanted to work with, researching their current product lines, and tracking art directors down with a month long LinkedIn Premium trial.

But after all that hard work, the ONLY thing I did with the information I'd obtained was send them a single postcard in the mail announcing my Surtex debut. Ok, that's not entirely true. I actually did InMail message a few of them on LinkedIn, but didn't send a single email to any of them to introduce myself and my art prior to the show (mostly because I didn't have their email addresses).

 Surtex 2017 Marketing Mailers | designed by Shannon McNab

It's funny because at the time I was so incredibly proud of myself when I put the big batch of postcards in the mail, yet I didn't realize that the effort, time and money I spent was mostly wasted because A) many of the contacts I had weren't even the correct person to talk to and B) I didn't try and cultivate a relationship with them first.

So if I had to pick one regret from last year's show, it would be that I didn't dedicate enough time to find the correct company contacts and start a dialogue with them prior to the show.
 

Not Identifying My Strengths

The back of my marketing postcards that I sent to art directors had my booth number, contact info and then simply said:

"I'm Shannon, a surface designer from sunny California! I'll be in New York making my Surtex debut and I'd love to meet you!"

It can't get much simpler (or more boring) than that! I mentioned in my May 2017 blogpost that I kept things simple for a number of very good reasons, but what I failed to realize at the time was that I wasn't giving these art directors any important information about how I work or what makes me different from other designers.

The surface design industry is incredibly competitive, with talented designers around every corner, so I was doing myself a HUGE disservice by not addressing the reasons why an art director should work with me over another designer.
 


My Marketing Plan for Surtex 2018

There is a steep learning curve in figuring out certain parts of this industry and although I feel my marketing efforts in 2017 weren't all that effective, I feel the experience I gained was worth the lack of results. So with that in mind, here's my plan of attack for this year's show:

Cultivating More Client Relationships

Since the beginning of the new year, I've been contacting new companies every other week. By starting earlier and working to build a relationship with them prior to the show, my hope is that more art directors and buyers will come to my booth and I'll receive more licensing and commission inquiries as a result.

I feel it's equally important to build upon the client relationships I already have, especially for those I met at last year's show. I send out a newsletter with new art once every two weeks and also send individual follow up emails to my contacts once a month. By staying on their radar and showing them I'm still interested in collaborating, I hope they'll continue to work with and buy art from me.

 My Surtex 2017 Booth: Counter Closeup | shannonmcnab.com

Being Laser Focused with Targeting Marketing

This one is the biggie! It is so important to me to make sure I'm contacting the RIGHT person. Tracking down contact information is time consuming enough as it is, so it's a waste if I'm taking a "shot in the dark" hoping I've found the right person.

The reality of this is that it's going to push me outside my introverted comfort zone as I'll likely have to resort to calling companies to obtain the correct contact (which honestly terrifies me because I hate talking on the phone). But as Neale Donald Walsch said:

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

That's going to be my mantra anytime I get anxious about this process. I just have to keep in mind that it's a worthy endeavor and one that could potentially have an enormous impact on my career.
 

Demonstrating my Talent to Potential Clients

My approach to my mailer is going to be a bit different this year as I want to make sure to articulate my strengths and what sets me apart from other designers.

Of course that's nearly impossible to achieve in a single postcard, so my current plan is to create a small booklet with a little bit about my design strengths. It will showcase new art, cover some accomplishments I've made over the last year, and most importantly, have a space for me to write a hand written note to each recipient explaining why I'd love to work with them and their company.

By being clear about who I am and what I can offer, my hope is that art directors will give my art some serious consideration and will decide to make the trip to Surtex to meet me in person and chat about surface design. 

Only time will tell if my new approach this year will pay off, but you can be sure I'll be blogging about it after the show!


3 Reasons Why You Should Have Coordinate Patterns in Your Portfolio

Maybe it's because of my previous experience as a scrapbook product designer, but I've always had a soft spot for designing coordinate patterns. They play such an important role in the world of scrapbooking; customers constantly look for simple patterns to complement more complicated ones on their pages.

 3 Reasons Why You Should Have Coordinate Patterns in Your Portfolio | shannonmcnab.com

That's why nearly all scrapbook collections out there feature double-sided papers; the A-side is reserved for unique and/or busy patterns while the B-side is the place for simpler, complementing ones. You see something similar in bolt fabric lines; a few stunning hero patterns sitting next to several other simpler designs to help round out the collection.

Both the scrapbooking and bolt fabric markets are unique in how much they focus on patterns when compared to other parts of the surface design industry. However, even as I've personally shifted towards more illustrative work, I still find a lot of value from including coordinates alongside hero patterns and illustrations in my portfolio.

Actually, I feel it's such an important part of a well rounded portfolio, that I'm sharing 3 reasons why you should consider including them in your portfolio too!

#1: Adds Value to Your Designs

You probably already know how competitive the surface design industry is, so you should always try and package your designs to be as attractive to buyers as possible, especially because art directors want to get the most out of their budget as possible.

So when an art director is looking for new art and asking you to send them designs, think about which scenario provides a better outcome:

  • Scenario A: You have single holiday pattern with lots of detail.
  • Scenario B: You have that same detailed pattern sitting with 2 additional patterns that complement it.

If you were the art director, which would you choose? All things being equal, you'd probably choose the option that gave you the most to work with.

Try Something: Cover the 2 coordinates on the piece below and view the hero pattern on its own. Now remove your hand. Doesn't it look more enticing seeing it all packaged up like this?

 Cozy Cabins design collection | ©2018 Shannon McNab

#2: Shows You Understand Pattern Mixing

There are many instances in surface design where a product features multiple images or patterns together, so it's important to show buyers that you've thought about how different patterns can work together harmoniously.

Now not every designer will have to understand pattern mixing (like an artist who focuses on editorial illustration for example), but if you're looking to get into a market where larger pattern collections are more common OR you're interested in taking on commissioned work from art directors that involves multiple patterns, confident pattern mixing is an important skill to develop and will make you all the more attractive to work with.
 

#3: Attracts Buyers Looking for Simple Designs

This may be a much less obvious reason, but it's one I was surprised and ecstatic to discover. It wasn't until I was reviewing my notes from Surtex last year that I realized how much impact a single coordinate pattern could have.

Sometimes art directors or buyers want something different, something understated, which is the perfect opportunity for simple coordinates! I had no less than half a dozen people at Surtex giving my coordinates more attention than their main pattern counterparts.

Crazy right?!? I had no idea that would happen, but I'm happy I had so many designs that included coordinates. The #1 favorite coordinate of the show: the fun polka dot you see in my holiday design below.

 Christmas Baubles pattern collection | ©2018 Shannon McNab

This is just another reason it's important to be able to give your client options. If I hadn't included some of my quirky coordinates alongside hero patterns on my booth banners and in my portfolio, some people I talked to at the show may have just passed my booth by. Think about those potential missed opportunities??


I hope I've convinced you how important and helpful it is to have interesting coordinate patterns in your portfolio. And I hope as you create new work, you'll consider adding some to your designs.

However, I also know lots of designers struggle with creating quick, yet interesting coordinate designs to enhance their portfolios.

That's why when deciding what my first Skillshare class would be, I realized this was the most helpful topic I could start with. My new class, How to Create Strong Coordinate Patterns, is just 15 minutes long so you can gain valuable insights fast and then immediately apply what you've learned to your portfolio.

My class has only been online for two weeks and I'm already so overwhelmed by the positive response it's gotten! I'm elated to hear just how many designers find my insights helpful for their own creative careers. You can read all the amazing reviews of the class here.

And I'm happy to say I'm already busy planning my 2nd Skillshare class! If you'd like to hear when my next class goes live you can follow me on Skillshare OR sign up for my newsletter.


New Year, New Goals: 3 Easy Tips to Help You Achieve Them

The beginning of a new year can be wonderfully motivating; you have a well of ideas and energy and can set exciting new goals. However, did you know that only 20% are still working towards them come February and by the end of the year it's only 8%?

The reason goals are so hard to stick to is that most people don't develop a plan to get themselves from Point A (where they are) to Point B (accomplishing their goal).

 3 Tips for Setting Creative Biz Goals You'll Actually Achieve + FREE 15-page Worksheet | shannonmcnab.com

I was once part of the 92% that didn't stick to my goals, but last year was a wake up call. My 2017 goal was to exhibit at Surtex and successfully land enough work to exceed the costs of the trade show by 150%. And I'm proud to say that I had hit my goal by August.

But it wasn't just a fluke that I achieved my goal. It was because I was so driven to make it happen AND I developed a year-long plan to help keep me on track. So today, I'm sharing 3 helpful tips  to help you achieve (and exceed) your goal!

1. Set a Meaningful Goal

This may sound obvious, but in order to be successful, your goal needs to be something that excites you to your very core. Whether it's an income goal you wished you'd reach someday or landing one of your dream clients, pick something that will keep you motivated all year long.

There will be times during the year where you'll struggle, but if you have a goal you're eager to accomplish, you can tap into that excitement and help it carry you through.

 Surtex 2017 at the Javits Center | shannonmcnab.com

In my case, Surtex was something I have dreamt about since I first learned what it was in graduate school a decade ago. So when I transitioned to surface design in the summer of 2016, I knew that Surtex was where I wanted to be. Of course my path to exhibiting wasn't easy and there were several moments of self doubt or frustration, but one thing that helped me keep going was the thought of walking into the Javits as an exhibitor for the very first time.
 

2. Do a Brain Dump

In order to create a solid plan for your goal, you need to contemplate everything you need to do to get there. Take out a piece of paper (you'll probably need several) and write down every task you can think of to help you work toward your goal, no matter how small.

 My 2017 Goal Brain Dump: Exhibiting at Surtex | shannonmcnab.com

If that feels too daunting, start by breaking your large goal into smaller goals or categories and work through them one-by-one. By focusing on smaller aspects of your large goal, you're less likely to get overwhelmed.

When I did a brain dump for my 2017 goal of exhibiting at Surtex, I broke down tasks into the different aspects of preparation for the show, like exhibiting logistics, marketing, building my portfolio, etc.

Then I worked on each category one-by-one until I had 3 full pages of tasks I needed to complete.
 

Don't get too hung up on whether you've thought of absolutely everything. You can always come back to your list and add to it. 
 

3. Stay Accountable

For your goal action plan to work, you need to continually keep it in mind. One of the best ways to do this is to find someone like your partner, close friend, or family member. Tell them what your goal is and have them check in with you every month to keep you on track. 

You could also get a accountability buddy; it’s especially helpful if they are in the same industry and/or are working towards a similar goal. Or you could announce your goal on Instagram, to your email list, or even in the comments of this post (hint, hint!). Declaring your goal publicly can help make your goal seem more real, plus you’re likely get some people to cheer you on.

 Me & my accountability partner, Lizzie Clark at Surtex 2017 | shannonmcnab.com

I was so fortunate enough to have an accountability partner for Surtex. My friend and fellow surface designer, Lizzie Clark, was also exhibiting for the first time in 2017, so it was the perfect solution for us to pair up. We Skyped every other week and emailed in-between; it kept our to-do list in the front of our minds and little by little, we checked off everything together. She's been an incredibly supportive partner-in-crime! 
 

Want to Achieve Your Goals This Year?

 Goal Getter Worksheet by Shannon McNab | shannonmcnab.com

The business life of a designer can be a struggle, but developing a road map to get to your goals can make the journey a lot easier. So if you liked my tips in this post, but are struggling to figure out how to reach your goals or expand your business, my Goal Getter worksheet can help! 

I'll walk you through the entire process step-by-step from setting the RIGHT goal through developing a plan to stay ahead all year long.


The Completed 2017 Christmas Art Countdown

2017 is almost gone and another successful Christmas Art Countdown is in the books! You can see the entire countdown below OR view the detail of each individual design in my Instagram feed.

 2017 Christmas Art Countdown Advent Challenge | ©2018 Shannon McNab

This year's advent countdown definitely challenged me, but I came out the other side with an abundance of new holiday art (I'll be adding at least 15 of these to my portfolio), plus a few lessons learned. Here's my reflection on this year's experience:
 

A Focus on Illustrative Work

For last year's Christmas Art Countdown, my focus was split between hand lettering, patterns, and illustrations. However, after the overwhelmingly positive response to the few illustration pieces in my portfolio at Surtex, I've spent a lot more time working to develop my illustration skills.

So this year, I focused a LOT more on drawing characters – there are 12 designs this year featuring character art (contrasted by 3 from 2016). I'm happy to say I feel much more confident creating character illustrations now. It's fun when you can look back over just a few months' work and see your designs progress.

I'm also hoping that my shift in focus towards more illustrative work will land me more design contracts and commissions this year. Only time will tell if it's going to pay off!
 

Pre-planning Still Pays Off

I probably sound like a broken record on this particular point, but pre-planning my designs really makes such a difference! I was presented with an especially difficult challenge this year by being out of town for the first 8 days of the countdown.

Of course I was vacationing in Disneyland with my hubby which is hard to complain about, but that meant I had to do some serious art making ahead of time. Luckily, I found the time to finish the first 10 days of the countdown before we left. I also managed to sketch out all but the last 4 days in my sketchbook.

Posting every morning while on vacation was surprisingly easy to remember. I think the most challenging part was coming home from Disneyland and immediately jumping back into daily designing. By the time the end of the countdown rolled around, I was just about out of creative energy (and am happy to take a break between now and the new year).
 

Encouraging Others Keeps Me Inspired

Perhaps my favorite part of the challenge this year was opening up Instagram app each morning and looking through the #christmasartcountdown2017 hashtag to see the art my fellow designers were posting. Since it was the 2nd year of the challenge, there was a LOT more participation, which meant tons of beautiful art to scroll through.

Seeing everyone's individual interpretations of the prompts and cheering them on all month long was really rewarding and it helped to keep my creative juices flowing. I really appreciate the surface design community on Instagram and look forward to cultivating even more friendships on there in 2018.


So just like last year, I guess the big question is will the Christmas Art Countdown continue in December 2018? And right now, I'm not 100% sure. I quite enjoy the challenge of daily art making for 24 days (it's about as long as I think I can handle), but I have no idea what is in store for me next year. I guess we'll just have to wait and see!


2017 Christmas Art Challenge

When I posted my completed Christmas art challenge last year, I wasn't sure if I'd be bringing back the challenge for 2017 because I had no inkling of how the following 12 months would play out.

Fortunately, 2017 has been a tremendous year! I crossed my biggest artistic goal of exhibiting at Surtex off my list and am looking forward to a bigger and better year in 2018.

And that's where the Christmas Art Countdown comes in! Just like last year, I'm utilizing this challenge as a way to create lots of new holiday art in a short time period. From the designs I created for 2016's Christmas Art Countdown, I added 16 of them to my portfolio; I'm hoping for a similar outcome this year.

 2016 Christmas Art Countdown: A Christmas Advent Challenge by Shannon McNab

For those of you who followed along with this challenge last year, you may notice two big differences in this year's list:

  1. There's no difference made between illustration/pattern and hand lettering prompts. That's because I'm focusing on illustration and pattern work since I already have a fair amount of typography based designs in my portfolio. Of course, typography will inevitably creep in on some of them because I love hand lettering so much!
  2. The prompts are simpler. The reason for this was two fold: 1) I'm looking forward to sketching out multiple ideas for some prompts and hopefully a few of the final designs will be unexpected, and 2) I tried to choose words that could be interpreted in a number of ways. Variety is the spice of life after all!

Now you may be wondering why I'm bothering to post the challenge so early, but if there's one thing I learned from doing the Christmas Art Countdown last year it was: 

Being prepared pays off!


I firmly believe that the only way I was successful in posting daily images for the entire challenge in 2016 was all the pre-planning I did. And because I'll be on vacation (at Disneyland, of course) for the first week of the challenge, this year it's EXTRA important that I plan ahead!

As a matter of fact, I've already sketched out ideas for the first third of the list and hope to have most of my prompt ideas in my sketchbook by the end of the month. My plan of attack is that by the time Dec 1st rolls around, I'll have at least the first 8 designs completed and ready for Instagram (which will make leaving for a week long vacation at the beginning of the challenge a little less stressful).
 

Now I'm Challenging You!

While I really loved doing my own Christmas Art Challenge last year, what made it even better was seeing all the designs my fellow designers posted on Instagram. So with that, I'd love to encourage you to join me! Maybe you see a few prompts that inspire you or you want to challenge yourself to tackle the entire list – either way I'd love to see what you come up with!

Feel free to pin the image above to Pinterest or share my post on Instagram so you'll remember the prompts for each day. And be sure to use the hashtag #christmasartcountdown2017 anytime you post your work so I can see your lovely designs!