Andy J. Miller: 25 Ways to Stand Out From the Crowd as a Commercial Creative
May 4, 2017
How are you going to soar above and beyond in your career and stand out from the crowd as a creative?
For whatever reason, we think that the most logical way to get attention is to perform better than everyone else. But standing out requires more than polished skill.
This is not to dismiss the effort behind fantastic creative work. To advance in your craft, you obviously have to get better and better, but don’t be fooled by the illusion that fantastic creative work is enough. Remember: The race to being the most impressive *something* has already been won years ago.
So how are you going to be memorable? There’s a piece by illustrator Jon Burgerman that’s always stuck with me: “If you can’t be good, be different.” Years ago, I put Burgerman’s words to the test. I was at an Indiana Pacers game with my family (who obsessed over basketball). I admit I was terrible at being a good fan—out of the 100s of hours I sat in the arena throughout my life, I never spent more than 25 minutes watching the game. However, I was really good at being different—being the noisiest, embarrassment-free guy in the arena. You can say: I’m a big fan of public weirdness. And to prove it, I was the guy who always won the free t-shirt, without fail.
I encourage you to do the same in your creative careers; be inspired by my stadium behavior and see how you can apply it to your everyday. And, you don’t only need one trick to stand out. Find the many things that make you stand out. I’ll share 25 different ways to help you rise above the sea of people vying for the same opportunities.
1. Create a Side Plot
In other words, identify your superpower—what’s the hidden skill you have that complements your day job and creative mission? For instance, my side plot is public speaking. That means I’ve trained myself to think in verbal analogies rather than just visual ones.
Identify your superpower—what’s the hidden skill you have that complements your day job and creative mission?
To do this in your own career, reflect on what makes you special other than your ability to draw pictures, push pixels—or whatever it is you do. Then, find how to creatively bridge it to your career. At first, it will seem impossible. So before you conclude that your side plot couldn’t possibly impact your creative career, get into open mode, out of self-judgement and think of what makes you special.
2. Distinguish Between Style and Substance
This is where aesthetic versus content comes into play. Are you able to make an impactful connection between two contradictory subjects—and make people love it? Perhaps you can blend traditional editorial-style with quirky fashion illustration.
Aesthetically for me, I have a modern, mid-century approach to color, minimalism and shape. But, to shake things up, I mix it with psychedelic-style art. So as a creative, how can you take style and substance from different worlds and mash them together? If you do it successfully, you’ll stand out—guaranteed.
3. Collaborate to Reach Massive Audiences
As a self-employed professional, chances are, you spend most days working by yourself. But I promise you, it’s so much easier to make *noise* if there are two of you being weird together.
When you collaborate, just think about the people you can reach. Instead of attracting the same audience every time you release new work, you have the opportunity to create a collective audience—made up of your network plus theirs. Trust me, if you haven’t teamed up with another creative already, I encourage you to try it out.
4. Find a New Medium
Marketer Gary Vaynerchuk says it best. Don’t get romantic about the what. You want to get romantic about the why; the core essence of your energy. Because, in reality, the what will shift.
Whether it’s YouTube, Instagram, television or podcasting—what platforms or media have an explosive audience that you can participate in, and not drown in all the noise? For me, I chose podcasting. Point is, there will always be a shiny, new platform, medium and technology. But don’t get caught up in the romance within the medium. When I started podcasting, I looked at it as an unromantic medium, but the big thing was thinking of podcasting as an art. And, that’s why I went in that direction.
5. Do the Thing That You Can Tolerate
Think of this as the “Forrest Gump effect”. What I mean is, if you go for a jog around the block, no one will notice. But if you marathon across the country, you’ll receive endless attention. So as a creative, what can you spend your time and energy doing that would make others burn out?
Maybe you’ll challenge yourself to a 100-day project or begin hosting weekly video logs. Whatever it is, I promise you’ll turn that project into something so authentic that it will get people talking, and you’ll never get tired of it. Learn to spend your time having breakthroughs, always think of new strategies and have the willingness to go the distance—people are really interested in that.
6. Don’t Be Boring
It sounds obvious, but you’d be blown away by the dull work that exists out there. So before you make something, ask yourself: Is this boring? The reason why we get to this place is because we obsess over the idea of “good”—meaning slick, presentable, well crafted.
Are you the type who just dials in good work? I think we get so bogged down with doing, that we sometimes fail to unlock our best work—our most interesting masterpieces. So remember: We’re artists, and we have the freedom to be human, not robots (because robots don’t stand out).
7. Get Personal
If you want to be memorable, you need to connect with an audience and be willing to put yourself out there. Maybe you’re at a point in your career where you need to take on a project that’s all about you: host an Ask Me Anything on Reddit, nurture your network. This allows others to get to know who you *really* are, and bond over quirks about you beyond your work.
8. Invest in Your Work
This point is pretty straightforward, so I won’t dive quite as deep into this subject. Save up, invest in some weird project and make it a spectacle. It’s okay to throw a little money into showing off your work because, surely, it has the potential to put you on the map.
9. Surprise Your Audience
It’s a noisy world out there—and we’re constantly being served content every day. Take musicians for example. At one point, many of them struggled because they believed quantity trumped quality. So there was a flurry of music releases, but all of them sounded the same. Then, all of a sudden, Beyonce dropped her visual album overnight and shut down the internet.
My advice: As a commercial artist, unleash your inner “Beyonce”. What kind of work could you secretly cook up and release when least expected? Take the road less taken, hide from all the noise for a few months, then make noise of your own.
My advice: As a commercial artist, unleash your inner “Beyonce”.
10. Find Strength in Numbers
Working in the creative field, I’ve developed relationships with many illustrators and designers—and I’m constantly inspired by how awesome they are. Everyone knows and loves these people. Everyone talks about them.
Of course, they deserve every bit of the individual attention, but I really believe that there’s something special in banding together. We’re all working and striving to reach similar goals, so why not create a powerful force between uber-talented people? Now, I challenge you: Who would you lock arms with? How can you gather together to be amazing, support each other and stand out?
11. Be Remarkable
This is a simple one but I love it. Marketer Seth Godin wrote a whole book about being remarkable. To him, being remarkable means remarking upon. It’s a tough challenge but it’s a great litmus test as you make creative work. Godin says if you share your idea with 10 friends and none of them tell anyone else about it, you have a bad idea on your hands. Even just ask yourself: For this creative piece I’m making, is it worth remarking on?
12. Make a Spectacle
How can you really craft an experience that can be described as a spectacle? By spectacle, I mean showing your creative work at a tradeshow or running a quirky campaign to get people talking. By adding a little spark to your business, it can really go a long way.
Whenever I get into this “spectacle” mind frame, the effort to stand out seems so much easier. But, before we do that, we need to step away from being cool and fitting in, and start creating something worthy of the term “spectacle”.
13. Take a Risk
I’m constantly blown away by our current state of creativity where the status quo is: “How do I just create work that looks like everyone else’s?” I recently listened to Seth Godin on Debbie Millman’s podcast, Design Matters. He talks about how landing a corporate job is incredibly tough to crack. You can send a resumé that’s a better fit than anyone else’s—which is challenging. But instead, what if you asked yourself: “What can I do to completely stop them in their tracks?”
I want to encourage you to take a risk. Do something you think people in your industry will raise their eyebrow at. Not everyone is going to like it, but that’s okay. If you can get to that level then maybe you’re onto something special.
14. Combine More Than One Practice
Now that we’re hovering the halfway point of this monster list, what can you take away from the points you’ve learned so far, and combine them to achieve massive impact? Allow me to put this into perspective.
In 2013, designers Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman took on an interesting experiment called the 40 Days of Dating. There, they chronicled their adventures on a blog using design, words and video—which has since drawn in millions of views. By embarking on the experiment, they risked doing what other designers have never done before, and spun it in a really unique, compelling way. They combined a number of practices I’ve outlined above: collaborate, make a spectacle, take a risk—just to name a few. To stand out as a creative doesn’t mean you need to limit yourself to one way of achieving it, nor should you.
15. Create a Hook
If you illustrate a children’s book, what’s catchy about it? Is there a visual element that can hook the reader? Creating a hook is especially crucial in storytelling, and much of the amazing art you create must tell a story.
Reflect on this: If it takes you 10 minutes to explain your idea, then I’m afraid you don’t have one. It isn’t simple to do, but find a way to get to that place where you imagine your hook—and can explain it with ease. It has to have a clear selling point that’s novel. At least one-half of creativity is about being novel and useful. So create projects and work that have a natural hook.
16. Fearlessly Release Your Inner Weird
What’s the thing about you that makes you insecure? As an artist, I learned that if I’m feeling anxious about something, then that *something* sets me apart from the status quo. So instead of hiding your quirk, how can you use it to make a splash?
17. Turn Something Lame into Something Cool
I’m saying it: Reclaim the lame. We see this in fashion all the time—designers constantly go back through history, dig up something we let go of and call it new. Perhaps now is the time to unlock your time capsule of inspiration and reclaim the styles others wrote off. For instance, I recently experimented with psychedelic work, while everyone else chose to go mid-century modern and minimal. At the time, psychedelic obviously wasn’t trending but decided to reclaim it and make it my own.
18. Zig When Others Zag
Similar to the point above, push your work beyond the status quo. One of the things you can do is just look at your market. See what everyone is doing and, instead of jumping on a trend, go the other way. Instead of creating opportunities through trends, how can you take that and do the exact opposite?
19. Work for Exposure (Yeah, I Said It)
“Exposure.” It’s the word that makes every commercial creative cringe. However, there is a qualifier: “Don’t engage in work for exposure for someone else.” Don’t do it for a brand; do it purely for yourself. Create work that has an inherent value and give it away to trade for people’s attention. In the simplest terms: DIY that project.
20. Polarize People
Let’s face it: Haters exist. Chances are you’re going to create your possé—the people who will endlessly root for you—but you’re going to also attract the naysayers. It happens all too often: Creative people have amazing personalities, but their flair is completely absent in their work. Remember, it’s okay to put off some people and not be afraid to polarize audiences. This is because, in order to turn on the right people, you need to turn off the wrong people.
21. Dive Deep into the Details
How can you deliver delight by going deep in the details? It’s a mouthful, I know, but what can you do to dive super deep into crafting something unique? I once heard the definition of delightful as “the willingness to obsess over details that don’t have any consequence.” In other words, people take notice when they run into something that’s been crafted with no immediate purpose other than beauty, humor or appreciation.
22. Unleash the *Wow*
This is about taking all the tricks you’ve got and combining it into a super piece of work. Every few years, I take everything I’ve learned over the years and create a monster masterpiece in a single illustration. Perhaps you’re a songwriter. Do everything you’ve learned to date and bake it into one super song. I’m sure it won’t all be great, but maybe you’ll stumble upon ways to create a piece that will stop people in their tracks.
23. Be Novel
I can’t stress enough the importance of the novelty effect as a commercial creative. Working in a market where the competition is so close, being different is required. Find a way to cut through to audiences in a novel way. Think out of the box and out of your comfort zone. Maybe there’s a project you can take on that covers a topic that excites you but is a little bit weird. Go for it.
24. Just Get Weird
As I’ve said before, I love public weirdness. What one thing can you do to get everyone’s eyes on you? Standing out from the crowd is all about shattering the status quo—not just challenging it. Don’t be afraid to do something that will put off people, but oddly compel others.
Standing out is all about shattering the status quo—not just challenging it.
25. Be in It for the Long Game
Sure, short-term bursts of risk and experimentation are widely encouraged. But beyond that, one of the things that really stands out is the dedication to authentic work over a long period of time. Because, in the end, making a splash is all about holding on longer than anyone else.
How do you make enough work and money to survive just a little longer than everyone else?
Keep this tidbit of advice in your back pocket: Great creative work is the baseline, not the finish line. So you need to continue to get better and better and achieve small breakthroughs in between. And to do that, you need to find different ways to stand out. Why? People are rarely called artists if they don’t stand out from the crowd. So ask yourself this: What’s stopping you from putting yourself out there? Do you want the reward bad enough that you’ll risk ridicule? If you don’t, then maybe you’re not ready…
Listen to the original podcast this article was based on:
about the author
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.