Andy J. Miller: Be a Commercial Creative Master (& Why it Matters)

October 4, 2016


Mastering your craft is a long road that involves time, energy and dedication to the right kinds of practice. We talked before about unearthing your creative gold. Now, we’re going to talk about how to take that creative gold and turn it into something worth buying.

I’m going to build the concept of becoming a “master” on George Washington Carver – the man who brought us peanut butter. Do you know there’s about 500 peanuts in a jar of peanut butter?! Carver originally encouraged the farmers to plant peanuts to give the soil a break from cotton. And what happened was this bountiful crop of peanuts and then they had to figure out what to make with all those nuts.

Creatives are like that today: we have millions of creatives all vying for attention. We actually don’t need more talent – everybody’s got it! But not many people will develop that talent into a dense jar of peanut butter. We’re going to look at how to do that today:

1. Grind Your Creative Talent Down to the Basics

If you’re going to make peanut butter you gotta grind some peanuts! This is about taking your market, your niche, whatever you think you want to do for a living and breaking it down beyond your job title. For me: I put away the idea of being a “graphic designer” or “illustrator.” Divorcing myself from the job title let me figure out what makes me euphoric when I’m doing the work.

This led me to understand that what I like to do is take some abstract notion and make those notions visible. And when I do that it really strikes a chord with other people. I do the same thing with my podcast — basically I’m illustrating abstract concepts around creativity. So I came full circle understanding myself as an “illustrator.” But I had to grind what I love doing down to understand what that word really meant.

Once I got it, I could see other people who were doing the same thing. I’d obsessively read their biographies, understand the language. This helps you grasp the fundamentals of your industry in a really robust way—not just a jargon-y, market-speak way. So before you try to make something saleable you’ve got to study the fundamentals, the bare bones of what makes your industry work.



2. Enhance Your Creative Talent for the Marketplace

For the sake of the illustration, we’re going to talk about it as if you’re making that terribly delicious mainstream corporate peanut butter — the kind with all the junk in it that makes it taste extra special. So next, you’ve got to take that raw material and add extra ingredients to make it palatable to an audience and to the commercial world.

a. First, Add a Pinch of Salt

Here’s what I’m going to call adding salt: Working on the weaknesses of your strengths. I’m a person who buys into the idea that you should focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Don’t try to develop your weaknesses because the likely best case scenario is that you’re going to get average at it. However, if you build on those things you already have a supernatural inclination for, you can take that to crazy levels. It’s not enough to have that supernatural gifting.

Some time ago, I realized that while I’m good at thinking on my feet and coming up with analogies to make sense of abstract concepts, the weakness of this strength is that I don’t think in a linear fashion. I go off on tangents and can lose my audience. The solution for me was simple: Have an outline to give my thoughts more structure.

Does Accounting Give You the Hebbie-Jeebies?

Now, my podcast may sound like an off-the-cuff soliloquy. But in reality I’ve done tons of reading and learning about public speaking, about preparing outlines and knowing what the components of a moving speech are. And I’ve worked very hard to master the craft of this tiny inkling that I had talent for doing this.

So I really encourage you to take that thing that you’re naturally inclined to do and don’t leave it there, develop it. Figure out where it’s weak, where it’s still not accessible and dive in with the resources and development.

b. Then, Add A Spoonful of Sugar

The sugar is the “wow factor.” You have to think about how your work can jump up in the spot and grab some attention.

Your “wow factor” might be technique that you use. It might be spending time on extra things to develop little delight moments. It could be humor. It could be attention-to-detail. It could be precision. Ask yourself: what’s the thing that stops people in their tracks?

Always remember, people don’t owe you their attention; something has to grab. If you’re going to be in the commercial art world, your work has to have some clear x-factor. And that’s the sugar.

c. Finally, Add a Stabilizer

The stabilizer is the thing that keeps your peanut butter ready-to-use whenever, no stirring necessary. What I’m talking about here is practice. Put in the 10,000 hours. The interesting thing about the 10,000 hour rule is it’s not about practicing, it’s about doing the right kind of practicing.

The way I’ve been flexing my illustration muscle is that I make a unique image for every single episode of the podcast. And that practice is my stabilizer so that when the big dream client calls, you’re ready.



3. Package Your Creative Talent Beautifully

The final point is to package your product and make it look good. And this is about selling and presentation. I know a lot of artists aren’t stoked about the words “sales” or “marketing” but I’m sold on selling and here’s why. Zig Ziglar gives the example of having that teacher who really sold them on a subject at school. If you think of selling this way, it’s not at all insidious – in fact it’s a talent that elevates a subject!

I want you to think about presentation as well. Presentation is massive when it comes to selling yourself and it’s part of developing it. Think about how you’re presenting your work online, for example, with your website and your social media. All of that stuff goes into how people perceive your work. And so I think it’s important to be really serious about the presentation of your work.

You got to buy what you’re selling for yourself and then use it. Now, if you find what you’re selling is a waste of your own money, you should quit. But hopefully you find the benefit of the thing you’re selling and that changes your game. I sell to myself when I do the cover images for the podcast episodes. I serve myself to the same high standard I’d serve a client. And so when a client comes to me I feel confident about the money that I’m charging because I know that it’s worth it.

So what would it look like for you to understand the return on investment of our talent? For you to be the first person who bets on it? Take the risk and see if your creativity has an return on investment. And if it doesn’t, go back to the drawing board, go back to your peanuts and explore how you can develop that talent into something that will have an return on investment. Because if you want to be a creative for a living, that is the whole game.

Listen to the full original podcast this post was based on:


about the author

Commercial Artist & Podcaster Andy J. Miller is a commercial artist who breathes life and weirdness into simple shapes. He specializes in brand collaborations, advertising illustration, kids market illustration, editorial illustration, gig posters, album art, hand lettering, mural design, visual development for animation and book design. Listen to his podcast, Creative Pep Talk.