I received this email yesterday and it confounded me. How should I reply? Should I reply?
It's polite enough, and spelled correctly with proper punctuation; he knows my name, and my work very well (which all help ensure I make time to give an enquirer a reply).
But this is the email, and it stumped me. (Im)pertinent info has been removed.
I am a cartoonist and creative entrepreneur based out of *** (home/school). This week and next I will be making a hand drawn calligraphic website banner for ***'s new *** creative magazine The ***.
During my research phase I came across your poster for ***. I really enjoy the *** and plan to use the lettering for "***" as a template for my own lettering. If you have a minute, I want to ask you some questions regarding your experience with the poster:
1. What did you use as a reference to come up with the lettering for "***"?
2. What was the format and medium for the poster design?
3. Which inking tools did you use? Pens, brushes, digital?
4. Did you use any stencils to render the letters?
5. Anything else that you would like to share about the creative process behind this poster.
I have attached a copy of the poster to let you know which one I am talking about.
Now, these are the kinds of questions I get when someone's writing a thesis. A PhD, a dissertation. I've received, and fulsomely replied to, countless emails from students and still-learning illustrators about just about everything over the years - promotion, methods, working practice, fees and so on. I'm usually happy to reply, and use my two and a half decades of experience to lend my opinion to those already offered to a student by their tutors and peers. After all these students are the future of the industry - well, some of them will be, I'm always aware not all will pursue their chosen subject - and mine will be only one of several voices chiming in. I won't tell you how to make your work - only you can do that - but I can suggest how you market it, promote it, refine it, sell it and so on.
But this was an email from someone referring to themselves as a CEO, essentially i) telling me they are going to copy my lettering for their own piece of work - work they intend to take to market, and ii) asking me how to do it, implying in the process that I copied it in the first place.
Was I wrong to interpret this as a politely-written request for a set of instructions on how to re-create the work they want to mimic? Sure, I pulled on all sorts of specific historical references for the work in question - four A3 sheets full of clippings, sketches, photos; my old books and their ornate spines, type books by the likes of Louise Fili, Steven Heller, my Letraset catalogues from the 70s - did they really not have access to the same stuff as me? Maybe they just don't know what to Google, what typographic books to dig into.
I didn't know where to start with it. My first thought was bemusement, then I was a little breathtaken by their cheek, then cross. Then the opposite. I started to think 'OK; just a student, they're learning, and that includes learning protocol and etiquette, I'll just talk to them about their approach'.
But then I saw their website and that as well as being a student, that they're calling themselves a CEO - "the position of the most senior corporate officer, executive, leader or administrator in charge of managing an organization".
That bothered me. I'm a Company Director, but I don't call myself that day to day - you'll find it on legal paperwork but that's about it. It's a legal status regarding how our company's set up - it doesn't give me any special hierarchy or status. And yes, I guess it's technically possible to be a CEO and be student - many people go back to study after first careers, or set up fully operational companies while they're still undergraduates.
So what was it about that that bothered me so much?
My thoughts moved onto wondering whether this is 'Just How People Learn Now'. I thought about this for ages - all afternoon in fact, as I did my work. Work that was original, on paper, created afresh, without anyone else's work in front of me, just some references of the particular ancient ethnic henna tattoo style I was taking as influence for the very specific content of this book.
Hang on - how was what I was doing any different from what this person wanted to do?
I recalled a colleague recently talking about an email he'd had from another, presumably newish, illustrator wanting to know his short cuts, what software effects he used and how he could make work like his. My colleague was very cross with the enquirer, as they'd implied that Bob* (not his real name) used some kind of filter, software effect or short cut, when in fact he hand-draws individual elements by hand in hundreds of layers to build up very complex illustrations. Bob was happy to tell the enquirer this, in what we shall call a Firmly Worded Reply. The essence of his reply was, There Is No Short Cut.
As much as I can understand a student's eagerness to just bloody well know how to do it, and quickly please because I live in a world where everything happens NOW, I can also understand my colleague's umbrage. One day you find yourself ten years into a career, and you've built up certain skills through years of trial and error, you're working long days, longer nights. Then you find yourself 15 years into the same career, a little more confident, faster maybe, but still learning, and you're a bit more knackered, the days seem longer. One day you hit 20 years, which you can't believe because only yesterday it was new Year's Eve 1999, and you're adept, busy, confident (ish), and, possibly, well established and well known. Maybe a bit less tired, because some things might have become easier, and still learning. Nobody who reaches any of these chronological landmarks, nor any in between, having spent the entire time working in their craft, likes to believe that anyone thinks their work's just 'knocked out' using filters or effects. We might love our largely anonymous existences as creators of images 'behind the scenes' - we don't get into this to be pop stars - but we are just as vulnerable to pride, fear of eclipse and puffed-out-chests. So we do time-lapses, GIFs, step-by-steps, BTS and WIP Instas to show how we do it; to prove we have skills and what that unique set of skills comprises. We might, as I did in the middle years of my career, share and teach the very thing that's making us unique and marketable at that time - in my case, my lettering work. As early as 2000, I was showing students how to use myriad pens and nibs, create styles like mine, and explore how lettering can be a standalone thing, its enormous creative potential.
So you've got to watch yourself. The industry and how it is both taught and learned has changed radically in the time since my own graduation. Hours are shorter. Expectation is higher. Software must be learned, or the course risks being seen as not delivering. Courses are paid for - grants in the UK at least are no more than a wistful look in an over-40-year-old's tired eyeball - so skills must be handed out, quickly. How do we know what these learners are being taught? Maybe they're encouraged to contact their favourite illustrators directly with exactly these enquiries, rather than waste time experimenting or playing about with materials. After all, a full time course is no longer a full time course - my own experience of teaching degree level has illuminated the squeeze on teachable, on-site hours.
So back to my confusion. This person was only asking me things that a student might have done, face to face, in a workshop. They just 'need to know'. They have a deadline. There had to be something else behind my initial discomfort.
I've thought about this email a LOT since it came in, and my conclusion about my own reaction to it is this. Their email was polite, kind, well-worded, and correct. What they are asking is, technically, and perhaps even morally, perfectly reasonable. What I realised is at the root of my discomfort is the sense of laziness, and my judgement about that. From a position of wanting to have it both ways - being taken seriously as a CEO but wanting to be shown the patience and insights a student would be given - there's a waft of entitlement in the email that suggests I'm expected to hand out easy answers, solutions and instructions to cut out all of the exploration, experimentation, cock ups, embarrassing went-wrongs, wonderful went-rights and messy playfulness that go with working it out for yourself. That's the GOOD STUFF. It's the gritty, awkward, painful side of this work that's hard to engage with, that takes time, and which ultimately makes for a better, more original, more authentic product. I still struggle with that myself. Daily. But to jump that bit and go straight to Go is to do yourself a creative disservice. And I'm not even sure it's possible, if longevity is something you desire.
I'm a professional and I'm experienced, but this makes me neither The Expert nor immune to the struggle to create something new. Maybe that's why it rankled. I want that person to go through what I did - perhaps borne from a misplaced sense of 'fairness', and 'earning' your position...earning that CEO title. They didn't mean, I'm quite sure, to come across as rude. I'm pretty confident they think there's nothing at all wrong with their email; and maybe there isn't. Maybe the difference here is simply that he told me what he was going to do, instead of just doing it without me knowing. My work is copied all the time - as is that of my colleagues - we see it, you know. We just accept it if it's in the context of exploration and learning as we expect that learners will move on and evolve, like we feel we did.
I want CEO Cheeky to go ahead and try the poster without my help. They'll probably do a damn fine job. I hope it doesn't look like mine. I hope it looks like theirs, for better or for worse. In the end, we can only ever do our own thing, and I'm all occupied keeping that fresh and alive. Lord knows that takes enough energy all by itself.
Yes, those are spud prints.