Interview: Jim Datz

As I've said before, I am completely in love with Sam Weber's podcast Your Dreams My Nightmares.

Recently I listened to the episode with Jim Datz.

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Jim in his Brooklyn studio, and have lunch with him while Andrew Neyer and I were doing our Color Me _____ show in NYC.

Not only is Jim just a super nice and super talented guy, he's also quite brilliant in his thoughts and approach to his work and the greater illustration and design industry.

I was so intrigued with this episode, I shot him some follow up questions that I thought might be useful for the readers of my blog...and Jim was gracious enough with his time to dive deeper into these topics for our benefit! ENJOY!

1. You talked a lot about the benefits and disadvantages on creative people living in NYC. Would you encourage other creative people to move there? Even if it's just for a season?

Living and working here, your life yo-yos between exhilaration and exhaustion. There's simply more of everything. More ups, more downs, more opportunity, more competition. The people who thrive here are at peace with that acceleration and intensity. So it helps to know whether you're that type of person before heading to NYC. If you feel yourself bumping against the ceiling of your town, and you are strongly self-motivated, then it would certainly be worth a try. LA is just as viable now, creatively, but business is transacted differently and there's obviously a very different lifestyle out there. Choice of city also depends on what industry segment you want to attach yourself to—entertainment, retail fashion, publishing, editorial, tech, etc.

If you decide to go for it, allocate more than a season. You won't learn more in a season than you would in a 2-week vacation. Give it a few years to really know the place and the people, to integrate into the mechanism. And be prepared to WORK—really hard—to compete with everyone else who's very good, already connected, and fully assimilated into the existing socioeconomic rhythm. If you're accustomed to regularly kicking back and taking it easy, don't pack your bags for Manhattan. When I was living in Philly I commuted to NYC for a bunch of projects, so I thought I'd be well prepared for moving here. But once I moved to Brooklyn, I was shocked at how much my path to "success" (or rather, baseline sustainable income) depended upon conforming to the system here—to becoming a "New Yorker". This sometimes manifests as a reduced quality of life. Less space, less freedom, more schlepping. Here, we trade space for opportunity and access. We learn to socialize in the thin margins between obligations. We squeeze a lot out of every day.

That same conformity makes many New Yorkers appear to be totally up their own asses most of the time. If you are not externally funded, survival/success here demands full immersion, risk-taking and sacrifice. You shouldn't come here unless you are ready to put it all on the line (possibly going into debt to sustain yourself initially), while you slowly build influence and hang on to the rock until opportunity knocks

2. One of themes of your conversation with Sam was "not putting all your eggs in one basket". There's a lot of conversation on this topic for illustration, for instance, many people believe that now, unlike in the past, it's nearly impossible to live completely off of one stream of work, i.e. Editorial illustration. With that in mind could you dive a bit deeper into this, and suggest how one could go about diversifying your practice in an appropriate / organic manner?

Everything is evolving rapidly, so it's hard to make a definitive statement about this. In my opinion, the now-obligatory diversified income stream is a symptom of a larger issue: Over the past decade, the way designers/illustrators engage with clients and bosses has fundamentally changed. Old, relationship-based, mutually-nurturing partnerships have been replaced with quick hookups and a parade of novelty. As I mentioned to Sam, the world has constructed exquisite machinery for the consumption of young blood. This is understandable in a marketplace that chases relevancy.

In many mainstream industry segments (retail, advertising, etc) people in a position to hire are increasingly averse to visual risk-taking—because it is simply easier to get your non-visual boss to approve "inspiration/swipe," and then execute derivative work in that style. As a result, pre-existing styles are more important than custom solutions, the cult of the amateur prevails, and anyone concerned with quality and depth now finds it difficult to sustain a living. Few clients will throw money at you for exploratory R&D.

At the same time, "applied artwork" has evolved into "digital content." Distribution of work now approaches zero cost, the tools of creation are increasingly affordable, so the barriers to access have fallen. Doing "what you love" is cool, so more creative graduates flood the market, supply exceeds demand, competition drives fees ever lower, and companies take advantage of that.

In light of this paradigm shift, a diverse practice is paramount for survival, because it reduces vulnerability. For me, a combination of client commissions (of all sizes, both design and illustration), supplemented by wholesaling/retailing self-made goods, seems to work. I suspect this is similar to most people. Of course, If you have built up enough of a personal "brand" to insulate you from the effects of competition, then it's less essential to diversify in the short term. But this involves a mountain of natural talent, luck or connections. I still think that diversification will matter in the long run, because tastes shift, and your once in-demand "product" will lose relevance over time.

Strategically, I think it's best to play to your strengths. If your working method is super fast and prolific, do more editorial work. If you're a slow, methodical maker, look for clients and projects that indulge longer lead times or larger campaigns. If you like making, selling and shipping your own stuff, add that to the mix. Or teach, or whatever. The appropriate combination depends on the individual. I currently earn around 30% of my income from passive sources (sales, royalties), but my goal is 50-60%. Passive income allows me to be more selective with commissions. This results in a stronger portfolio of better clients. Everything improves in unison. To achieve this, I have to constantly tweak my practice. There's no such thing as "set it and forget it."

3. I've been thinking a lot about what an illustrator actually is this year. I came up with something similar to what you and Sam discussed, the ability to take something formless and give it form, and then in your words "put it out into the world". Can you talk a little more about this desire, and what it looks like for you to continually pursue it?

Well I've had a very long path to illustration, it hasn't been very efficient, and I'm still trying to figure out if it's sustainable, career-wise. But the motivation to express myself visually is rooted in very old habits and needs: to draw, to share—and I suppose to seek praise. It's totally rudimentary. Initially, I felt obligated to elevate that simple act to something lofty (Architecture), so I tried that for years, but learned that complex products (buildings) require complex processes (lots of people, lots of barriers to completion). Things get watered down, and tons of time is spent preparing, planning, and defending, rather than making. Too much distance between the designer and the end product. Not much room for exploration.

I think my best work comes from direct engagement with the medium (ink, paper, etc). The ideas arrive during that process of discovery. So it's in my best interest to build a practice that indulges that process with minimal interruptions, with a goal of producing something useful/meaningful for society. That's where the "putting it into the world" part comes in. Without that, it's just self-indulgent wanking.

But the more I move to monetize my most basic instinct, the more vulnerable it feels. Because the acceptance/rejection, the success/failure becomes more personal, you know? There's nothing to hide behind now. It's as direct as it gets. And of course, I now have no days off and make less $$ than ever, but hey, I am more "free", right? :-)

4. From your vantage point, what are the upsides and downfalls of self authorship of projects for illustrators?

It's mostly upside, as long as you are willing to accept that not everyone wants what you are selling. If your expectations are flexible, and you don't mind carrying some up-front risk (paying for printing, etc), it's great. The negatives emerge when everyone does exactly the same thing, flooding the market with too much paper, fatiguing an audience who only has so much wall space. The increased competition conditions the public to expect that all illustrated goods should be cheap, and that all packages should be delivered at the speed of Amazon. Like most things, there's a scale beyond which things get shitty. Everything works better when it's small, including the indie marketplace.

For me, selling my own goods is one way to ensure a degree of independence. I've benefitted a great deal from in-house corporate jobs over the years—the stability of a regular paycheck and the accrual of benefits were fantastic. But those benefits were offset by a litany of other challenges, like a prescribed growth path that lead away from away from hands-on making, toward management/meetings/bureaucracy (mostly talk, little action). And the obligation of maneuvering through a company hierarchy without losing my mind in the process. Scale brings stability at the cost of efficiency. I prefer small and efficient.

5. Balancing the "go getter", "goal oriented" mindset with the "waiting on the wave to come" attitude is a tough thing to get right. It seems to me, that you have to feel comfortable somewhere in between these things. Like Sam said, some illustrators get obsessed with one goal and kind of miss all the waves of opportunity passing them by. Do you feel like you've found a happy medium? What tips in this area could you give other illustrators who are struggling with this?

Oh man, this is so hard to get right. I am old enough to have some observational distance from myself, so I know what works for me: Work hard while waiting for opportunity to arrive. Stay alert because that opportunity might be tangential or peripheral to what's in front of you. I have found a happy medium in that regard. What I haven't found yet is a way to ensure that it yields the income-to-life balance that I'd prefer. Everyone has different drive, passion, goals, so it's difficult (and probably irresponsible) to prescribe a method for this stuff. Learn to live outside yourself enough to analyze what really makes you tick. Then construct a system of behavior that harmonizes with that. Be true to yourself, not some artificial notion of who you "should" be (unless you'd rather be someone else, of course.)

6. Right now with the online culture of  elevating "famous" designers and illustrators, do you think there's and unhealthy fixation on going freelance early on, and a pressure to be a wunderkind of some sort, right out of college? As someone who has said that there is a ton to learn from working in a group setting, in a company, before becoming a freelance illustrator, could you share some of your perspective on this?

Any system that produces a cult of personality is structurally flawed, and suggests deep dissatisfaction and lack of confidence among the fans of the community-anointed "stars." It's fine to laud brilliance, and to learn from others, but when the lecture circuit becomes a nearly full-time option for some folks, we need to step back and examine why we collectively clamor for their "secret sauce". The way forward is probably not found in soundbites and slideshows.

I don't know if there's a correlation between this hero worship and emerging designers' career aspirations. Mostly I see bored mid-career people mesmerized by outliers who appear to have found success without the slog. This is a fantasy, because the most successful independent people I know all worked for someone else initially, learning the business first, before striking off on their own. Even if you are fortunate to get noticed early in your career, it's pretty unrealistic to think you'll acquire a well-rounded set of business skills from the outside. At some point you have to engage with the industry in a deeper way. Your goal should be to fine tune a career that supports your life aspirations. This is a bigger task than making a name for yourself early on.

It all depends on who you are and where you work. For some, it might be better to begin as a freelancer, to build a portfolio that will open the door to a full-time, in-house role. For others, starting on the bottom rung of an organization, spongeing up everything about the business while working inside it, then spinning off, will work better. There's no guaranteed path. Everything is in flux and everyone has to find their own way. The trick is to get the timing (of transitions) right, and don't get stuck.

In my experience, working in-house made me a better, more valuable freelancer. I am now able to serve clients better, because I used to be "the client." I understand the processes and concerns of the entire organization, not just the creative department. I can articulate my proposals in a way that speaks to upper management as well as the AD of the job. This reduces the chance that the work will be shot down, watered down, or otherwise mediated—and ultimately that benefits all of us.

7. I think there's also certain bravado in the industry of "letting the work speak for itself", but in my opinion you'll likely be left in the dust of those who understand how to pitch their work, and how to talk about their work. Can you further explain your defense for the "pitch"?

Everyone strives for merit-based acceptance. That's the ideal, and it's so satisfying when that happens. But it's misguided, in my opinion. Unless you are already an in-demand individual whose work is a commodity unto itself, the majority of people who have the power to yep/nope your proposal will not be aligned with your mindset, your experience, or be visually educated at all. And why should they be? That's why they hired you. They had the good sense to rely on your expertise. 

Also, things can get squirrelly during the presentation process, because as we all know, anyone can be a "creative" now. Everyone has a little bit of knowledge, and they wield it unevenly. This information/experience gap can be exploited by articulate, persuasive people, allowing work that is objectively lower quality to trump other, better work. So the burden is on each of us to provide the work AND the context for it. It's a key part of our job. We have an obligation to complete clients' visual education while also delivering the goods. Ultimately it benefits everyone, because clients get smarter, more sympathetic to the process and make better commissions.