You win some, you lose some. Why feedback matters.

You might not know this, but I designed three sets of iMessage Stickers that are available in the Apple App Store. My husband is a software developer and when Apple introduced “Stickers” we thought it would be a fun way to collaborate on something. So he wrote the code and I made the art. I did a set of sewing themed stickers, a set of knitting themed stickers and a set of black cat stickers.

What are iMessage Stickers? Well, that’s part of my story. They are like big emoji but they are only available in iMessage on Apple devices. (Believe me we tried to figure out how to make them work for Android or in Facebook, but they just don’t all play nice.) But if you have an iPhone or an iPad, you can use them in messages. My mom and sisters and I send them back and forth all the time.

The problem is that Apple implemented them in kind of a dumb way. They are hard to find in the iMessage app and if someone doesn’t show you, I don’t think you’d even know they were there. And although when you go to the App store to purchase one, it looks exactly like a regular app, it doesn’t work the same way at all. Instead of installing on your phone with an icon like you expect it to, Stickers get installed inside iMessage. So you download it and it looks like nothing happened. And then you have to go in to some place in your phone settings and activate it before you can use it. It’s all doable, but you are never going to figure that out on your own. Much of technology is like this, sadly.

The other day, I was surfing around in the App Store looking for a sticker set with dinosaurs (I forget why) and I saw this:

That’s my Sticker set of sewing stickers showing up as #19 on the Top Charts for Sticker Sets. WHAT? I was so excited. Getting featured like that is huge! I took a screenshot and texted it to my husband.

It struck me as funny that is was that set because I thought “why is the sewing one in the top charts and not the knitting one? I thought the knitting one would be 10x more popular because I know soooo many more knitters”. So I dug in to the stats a little bit. And there’s where I found the issue.

Horrible Feedback.

That is horrible feedback. Look at all of those angry faces. My sewing stickers had a rating of 4+, but the knitting stickers were rated a 2. I wouldn’t download anything that had 2 stars.

But the catch is that the feedback actually had nothing to do with the quality of my stickers or the way they worked, it was all negative feedback from people who couldn’t figure out how to install them in the first place.There weren’t any reviews that said “Your art sucked.” or “Your stickers are dumb.” I can take that kind of feedback and work with it. But these reviews were not anything I can fix. I can’t make the Stickers install in a different way. I can’t make it so you don’t have to do that extra “activate” step. That whole part of the experience and everything they are frustrated with is something Apple designed and not me. And I know it’s confusing and there is nothing I can do. Sadly, I have a link to a help page that says “Did it install but you can’t see it anywhere? Here’s how to fix it.”, but none of these people clicked through that link before they left these reviews. (Some people do click through and ask for help and I am always super grateful for them. 99% of the time we can fix it with just an email.)

Feedback matters.

There were only about half a dozen negative reviews (all about how it didn’t install properly), but those six people made a huge impact on my product. And that is worth thinking about. The new algorithms with Facebook and Instagram are doing kind of the same thing. Their algorithms favor posts that are getting positive feedback as soon as they are posted (rich interaction like lengthier comments & shares) and demotes those that don’t. It is intensifying the effect in both directions. Likes get promoted and get more likes which get them more promoted, which gets more likes and so on. At the other end, if you don’t have any likes, then they just won’t show it to anyone. So no one ever sees it in order to like it. You get the idea.

When feedback is doing its job, that’s awesome. When I buy a can opener on Amazon, I want the one that is getting positive feedback. I don’t want the one that everyone says is junk. We can all agree on that. Honest feedback is truly helpful.

But the Instagram and Facebook algorithms don’t quite do that. And there isn’t anything I can do about that either. My husband’s Instagram algorithm is insane. It can’t figure out what to show him, so he will have 25 posts in a row from the same person, and he only sees the things I post about half the time. And if you follow me on IG, you probably only see half of what I post too. And not because you don’t like it or wouldn’t like it. But because you only check Instagram on your lunch hour and didn’t instantly comment on the thing I posted. So IG decided that you weren’t interested without you even being in the room. Talk about pressure.

Facebook is scolding me right now about my response rate for messages.

I don’t know what “the badge” is, but I am not getting it. Because I think 100% at 37 minutes is pretty darn excellent considering I have a life that doesn’t involve me being on Facebook 24/7. Ask me about the last time I had to contact the power company to help me with something. They definitely don’t have “the badge”. But that probably means that I get demoted somewhere in the algorithm.

I’ve had students tell me on class evaluations: “I thought your class was amazing, but I don’t believe in giving 5s so you get all 4s. But it was really great.” Not that I expect to be 5 stars to every person, but I’m not exactly sure what to do with that information. I am not sure that feedback is helpful to anyone.

Moral of the story? What’s the takeaway?

I’m not sure exactly. Maybe it’s to think about the feedback that you are giving. My mom was a teacher and one of her colleagues had a rule for students making comments that was something like: Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it helpful? Is it true? Is it kind?  I think those are pretty wise words.

Apple has a new mechanism for letting creators ask for comments to be reviewed and we are doing that and hoping that they will see that the comments are to do with their interface and not our sticker set. Maybe it will help it look more balanced.

Sisterhood of Knitters

It’s International Women’s Day (and my birthday) this week and in honor of that, Spoonflower’s Design Challenge was “Sisterhood Around the World”. I thought this one was really hard and I nearly skipped the week. I really struggled to come up with something that fit the theme and was interesting. I really like to make sure that my designs have a life that is beyond the theme of the challenge because I look at design challenges as a way to help build up my body of work. Having a deadline is great motivation and sometimes having a topic (like Kilim) or colors that I would never choose is a great creative challenge.

So I tried to think about “sisterhood” and I was just bored with the idea of a bunch of little girls in cultural costumes (which was the first thing that came to my mind.) I don’t like to draw people. I was tempted to do an abstract design to represent me and my two sisters and I thought about that for a while but it just wasn’t clicking. Then while in the car driving to a meeting, I had the idea of a sisterhood of knitters. (I absolutely get my best ideas while driving. Something about occupying the active part of your brain so the creative part can wander.)

I take knitting with me a lot when I am out in the world. I knit while waiting for meetings and at appointments. I knit during meetings sometimes. I knit in the evening after a stressful day. I meet friends for coffee and we knit together. I knit while waiting around for my husband’s band concerts to start. I make small projects like mittens and hats. I don’t like anything too complex but I do like beautiful yarn.

There is something about knitting in public that creates conversation. If I were to sit at all of these places and stare at my phone, no one would even make eye contact with me. But when I knit, it’s somehow like giving permission to interact. Someone will watch me knit and smile. Or sometimes they watch me knit and look at me like I am bonkers; it depends on the crowd. Someone will ask me what I am working on. Other knitters will ask me about the yarn or the stitch pattern. Little kids will stare and sometimes, if they are brave, will come over and feel how soft the yarn is. Someone within earshot will tell their friend that I am crocheting or will say “my mom does that”. At conferences, I have been the topic of a whole series of tweets: “Did u see that someone was sitting in that session and knitting?! She wasn’t even looking at it.” I had a delightful conversation with a guy at an airport once when I was making a pair of mittens with dpns. (If you’ve never seen someone working with dpns, it vaguely resembles wrestling a porcupine.) He’d seen little old ladies knitting sedately, but whatever I was doing with all of those spikes sticking out made it look pretty badass.

The best way to learn to knit (I think) is to have a friend show you, one-on-one. That’s how I learned. My first knitting lesson was with my friend Berit (a family friend) when I was about 11 years old. She told me that she was teaching me the Norwegian way to knit (continental) and that people might think it was odd, but it was much better than the American way. I didn’t understand what she meant until I was much older, but I thought it was something special. My first project was a tiny hoodie cardigan sweater for my tiny Steiff teddy bear, knit on size 3s or so with baby yarn. White with little rainbow tweed flecks. Then she taught me how to make cables. I didn’t know that I “shouldn’t be able to” do those things as a beginner, because no one told me it was hard.

I taught a beginning knitting class the last two weeks to some highschool students. Eight Somali girls who chattered through class half in English and half in Somali. I wish I had thought to ask them if there was a Somali word for knitting. One girl wanted to know why there were no boys in class and didn’t believe us when we said there were boys who knit, just maybe not as many of them as girls. I told her about the knitter that did a bunch of costume pieces for the Black Panther movie being a boy and although she was still skeptical, we had a great conversation about the costumes in that movie. That somehow made it cooler. By the end of class, everyone was making knit stitches. Some with needles, some with fingers. One of the girls asked at the end of class, “Can I say I am a knitter now?” Absolutely! She’s part of the sisterhood.

So my sisterhood design is knitters working side-by-side, celebrating that community of knitters. Their silhouettes have long hair and short hair, hijabs and ponytails. You might even see a certain Princess you recognize. There are straight needles, dpns and circulars. And lots of knitting.

The voting for this design challenge doesn’t open until tomorrow, but I was really excited about talking about this today. (If you want to give me a little present for my birthday, go vote for it tomorrow. That would be awesome.) Edited: Here is the link to vote. Open through March 13.

Are you a knitter? Has knitting in public ever been a fun conversation starter for you?

A whale of a design.

I think it’s fun once in a while to talk about a design and how I put it together. When I teach classes, this is an exercise that we often do: deconstructing a design so you can understand how it goes together.

One of the recent design challenges at Spoonflower was a limited color palette design. There was no theme, just a set of colors to use in your design: navy, orchid pink, maroon and black or white. I am not sure where my humpback whales inspiration came from, but when I posted the challenge on Facebook many of you also had watery/nautical suggestions: lighthouses, coral, semaphore flags. So we were all on a similar wavelength. I didn’t actually love this color combination. I am not a real fan of red and I do not like that orchid pink at all. So I knew I had to do a design that was primarily navy.

I decided to draw the whales by hand. I like to draw on plain cardstock and for this I used a black rollerball pen. I drew each of the whales on a separate sheet and didn’t worry about what the repeat was going to look like yet. I only drew the outline and filled in the solid black part of each one in Photoshop. (It was easier to do it that way than color it in with a sharpie.) For inspiration, I did a google image search of humpback whales. I like to bring up a bunch of pictures, spend some time studying them and then go draw without the photos in front of me. Details I noticed about humpbacks were the distinct stripes on their bellies, bumps on their “nose” and fins, and the fact that I think they always look like they are smiling. I scanned the whales after I drew them.

For the background I looked up a repeating “zentangle” pattern on Pinterest and sort of followed the directions. I wanted the background to also be handdrawn to match the style of the whales. I drew it originally in black on white, but realized as I put this together that I needed it to be white lines on a dark background, so I ended up using the invert filter in Photoshop once I had it all done.

The most time consuming part of this was making that background pattern seamless and matching up all of the lines so you couldn’t see breaks or gaps. If you have done any experiments with seamless patterns, you have probably seen tutorials about cutting a piece of paper and taping it back together again to make a seamless pattern. I just watched a Facebook Live post by Spoonflower doing this same technique. That’s exactly what I did with this one, but I realized after I did it that it is nowhere near as easy as those tutorials make it look. (Spoiler alert: I am planning to make that the focus of my next online class: how to finish a design done that way and why it sometimes still doesn’t look seamless.)

When I layered these elements together (waves, whales, fish) I realized that the fish and whales needed to pop out from the background just a tiny bit more, so I added a white stroke (outline) around all of them.

I didn’t worry about arranging all of the pieces until I had the colors and layers all figured out. There’s a lot of math/planning to do when you are figuring out how to make layers work together. My waves background was drawn on an 8×10 rectangle, so the rest of my design also had to fit proportionally in an 8×10 rectangle. (I wouldn’t be able to make it a square without distorting the design or cropping, which would make it no longer seamless). I did a lot of tests to check the repeat on a much larger canvas to make sure I liked the way it was repeating and about midway through I drew a few more fish because with the very large whales and very small fish it wasn’t feeling balanced.

Here is the 8×8 inch swatch of fabric that I got to check out the design. You can see only a bit of a whale chin. I made this a large repeat, which seemed appropriate for whales so you can only see a bit when you only print a swatch. I think it will make really cute tote bags with just a whale or two on each side. I am planning to order some of this design on canvas later this week to try that out.

It’s never not about marketing. (More things they don’t tell you about being an artist.)

It’s been 3-and-a-little-bit years now that I have been doing this gig as a full-time artist instead of trying to squeeze in some art around a full-time job. There are a lot of things about it that I love and I am feeling like my system (Etsy + teaching + exhibiting/grant projects) is working for me and my little business is keeping me busy and sustaining itself. Let’s be honest, I am not making enough to retire on, but I am making enough to not need to wonder if I need to be out job hunting because I need the steady paycheck.

But one of the big surprises for me in this journey is realizing just how much of my time I spend marketing myself. (Spoiler alert: It’s way more time than I spend making art.)

The idea of going to a cocktail party and having to make small talk with people I don’t know is about the most horrible way I can think of to spend an evening. I hesitate to fall into the introvert/extrovert cliché, but I absolutely don’t enjoy social gatherings meant for networking. I would rather stay home and scrub the bathroom, seriously. But I have realized that as an independent artist, I pretty much need to spend some part of every week (probably more realistically, every day) in interacting with somebody I don’t know and telling them about me. Posting something to Instagram. Writing an engaging post on Facebook. Remembering to tweet something. Writing something thoughtful for my blog. Adding something to my Etsy shop. Planning out a newsletter. Going to a meeting. Pitching a new class. It’s like a series of tiny little cocktail parties looking for someone who’d like to chat. Every day.

Because the only way I get to DO projects/classes/sales is by connecting with someone and getting my stuff in front of them.

According to all of the marketing gurus and “10 steps to being a successful artist” posts out there, I am pretty much doing all of the right things. I have an email list. I have an up-to-date website. I post on social media as much as I can stand to. I co-wrote a book. It’s even ranked #15 on Amazon’s best seller list for Books > Crafts, Hobbies & Home > Crafts & Hobbies > Needlecrafts & Textile Crafts > Fiber Arts & Textiles. (Which sounds more impressive than it is, I think.) I do the rounds of local shows and have taught at a bunch of national fiber art conferences. I’m doing the stuff I am supposed to be doing. (I’m not always doing it great, but I am doing it.)

There is a marketing tenant that says that 80% of your social media presence should be “lifestyle”. Things that are related to the brand you want to convey but aren’t all all “me me ME!” posts. People get bored with “buy my thing” posts all the time, so you have to engage them in other ways. I totally get that. I unfollow accounts that are constant sales announcements and I bet you do too. But there is also another marketing rule that says you have to get your stuff in front of people 7 times before it makes an impact. ie. You would have to see my zipper bags on Instagram seven times before you would be motivated to do something (click through, buy one, share it or whatever) If we do the math on all of that quick, that means I need to post 28 things that are not zipper bags (and not necessarily about me but about the lifestyle) for every 7 posts that are that zipper bag. I am just exhausted typing that sentence.

Instagram and Facebook have also recently tweaked their algorithms for what posts you get to see as a follower of someone. Both are favoring posts that generate interactions. Instagram even goes so far to say “meaningful interactions”, which means a comment of more than 4 words and not just “great post!” or “love it!” You have to actually type a complete sentence. On average when I post something, only about 20% of my followers see it. I think. (It’s difficult to track down a real number and understand what all of the stats are really telling you.) And according to the new Instagram info, if the 20% of the people that see that post don’t interact with it, the algorithm won’t bother to show it to the rest of you. Don’t you love algorithms?!?

Why am I telling you all about this? Because I really think it’s important to be real as an artist. I think it’s easy to be just getting started trying to get your art out there and to get really discouraged. It is HARD to put yourself out there and have it feel like no one cares. I know so many people who enthusiastically started an Etsy shop only to get discouraged after four months and let it drift off into internet-oblivion because they couldn’t get any momentum. I get discouraged too. All. The. Time. So many feeds are so highly curated, polished, and perfected that it makes many things look easy. And those “10 step” marketing plans make it seem like if only you followed directions, you too would be an instant success.

What might not be obvious is that the perfect looking picture that you are seeing in your feed could only be making it to 10 people. You probably don’t think about it when you click, but every time you click that “like” button on one of my posts, I see every one of those clicks. I get a report of stats and percentages and engagement and so on from every one of those platforms telling me how many of you are willing to chat at the cocktail party. By liking something, you are telling the dumb algorithm that maybe it should show that post to other people who follow me too. Basically the algorithms favor the people who are already established. Instagram and YouTube even limit features available to you if you have fewer than a certain number of followers. That means if I don’t already have lots of people liking and commenting, then it won’t show it to other people who might want to like and comment. The algorithm makes it harder. It’s not just you doing it wrong.

Comments are like a gift. I read every comment. I try to respond to every one. (I don’t always catch them, but I try.) A share of a post is like winning the prize on a scratch off lottery ticket. Why? Because that part of the job is way harder than making the art. Your share just bought drinks at the cocktail party for 200 people I’ve never met before. Woohoo! I am putting together a set of new classes right now and the part I worry about isn’t the prep, the teaching, the photos or the pricing, but the marketing. How do I get the word out there to the right people that this thing is happening?

I want to know. What’s the hardest part of getting your art out there? What do you wish was just a little easier?

 

 

 

Exploring the Black, a dye reference e-book

I was invited to present a talk about dyeing with black to a weaving study group this weekend. They knew that black was a challenging color and wondered if I could provide some tips and tricks for working with black dyes. I usually skip over black in my beginning dye classes because it is challenging and I think it is confusing for beginners when one color breaks all the rules.

So I spent a couple of days dyeing and photographing samples. I worked with 3 dyes (2 for plant fibers and 1 for animal fibers) and 27 different substrates (fabric, roving, ribbon, yarn). I asked friends of mine, who have years of dyeing experience, for their tips for working with black and I incorporated those into my samples. When I got done, I realized that I had way more information than would reasonably fit in a class handout, so I put it all together into a 28-page e-book. It’s not an instruction book about how to dye, but it is a reference manual for how black dyes are influenced by fiber choice, temperature, salt and more. You can get it at my Etsy shop and see sample pages and more info there.

Tutorial: Make a valentine cut-out design

Since Valentines Day is just around the corner, I thought I would post a quick tutorial for making a heart shaped cut out design. You can use any image or pattern and “cut it out” to make it into a heart shape. (Or any other shape you want to use. The steps are the same.)

Make a heart

The first thing is to create your heart. I want a nice smooth shape that is basic black and white. You could use some clip art, but I really prefer to make my own “clip art”. (pun intended) With my own art, I never have to worry about using a copyrighted image or inadvertently stealing someone else’s design. I could draw something in Illustrator or use the vector tools in Photoshop, but I think it is so much easier to just start with a piece of paper. Seriously.

Why? I like the quality of the shape. Vector designs often look too perfect to me. It is really fast and easy to use the circle tool and the pen tool to create something that is symmetrical and has perfectly smooth lines, but I think that’s boring. It is also fast and easy to use scissors and a piece of dark colored paper to cut out a shape, and get all kinds of imperfections: little wobbles of the scissors, curves that are more irregular and so on. It looks less computer generated to me and I like that.

So I sketched a heart with an arrow design on a piece of black paper and cut it out. I used a paper punch to make the little dots. Then, I scanned it. I adjusted the scanner so it was scanning it black and white and I bumped up the contrast. The scanner DPI settings aren’t very important here, so I chose 150 dpi because that should be plenty of pixels to work with.

If you have Photoshop, you can use that do do this next step, but it is also really easy to do in PicMonkey and that’s what I will show you in this tutorial.

Use PicMonkey

Go to picmonkey.com and choose Design (t icon) from the menu at the top. Then create a custom canvas. I am going to make mine 600×600 pixels. That’s a great size for a blog post or email and by making it square, it will look great in my Instagram feed.

Go to the Overlays menu (butterfly icon at left) and choose Add your Own at the top of that column. Then find your scanned heart design.

Next choose the photo or image that you want to “cut out” with this heart. I will use a picture of my dogs as my example. Choose Add Your Own in Overlays again and find that image.

To make it “cut out” you just need to select a different blend mode for this new overlay layer. Look in the Overlay pop up palette that should have popped up somewhere in your editor. (It’s on the right side in my screen shot) Under the Blend Mode dropdown, choose Add.

I can adjust the size of the overlay by using the bubble toggles at the corners or rotating with the handle at the top until I have the image and the heart cutout aligned the way I like it.

You can also use another repeating design instead of a photo; in fact any .jpg image will work. How about a sushi valentine? For this one, I just took a screen shot of this sushi stripe design that I created and used it to make an overlay.

And here I took the same idea with a different design and then uploaded it to Spoonflower to make a repeating pattern for a fabric design. This one would be cute as wrapping paper!

If you want to learn more techniques like this for designing your own patterns and fabrics, be sure to check out my online classes. There is even a free one to get you started and it builds on some of the ideas in this tutorial. Or check out my events calendar for in-person classes.

Sign up for my e-newsletter to see tutorials, events, upcoming classes and more.

%d bloggers like this: