This interview is part of a series featuring the presenters participating in this year's Core77 Conference, "Now What? Launching & Growing Your Creative Business" , a one-day event aimed to equip attendees with tangible skills and toolkits to help produce and promote their products or services.
From one-off product launches to marketing for small firms, crowdfunding has become a norm in the design world. If you've ever wondered where the Kickstarter bug first bit the design community, look no further than Chicago-based designer and illustrator, Craighton Berman, who was one of the first designers to ever launch a product on the platform. What started with the launch of a single product eventually lead to the Kickstarter launch of his full-fledged design brand, Manual. Now, Craighton has a multifaceted relationship with Kickstarter that even includes a published informational zine. In addition to his Kickstarter endeavors, Craighton also does illustration work that's been loved by the design community for years, including past work for Core77 and more recently his Instagram account, @no_commercial_value.
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We sat down with Craighton, who will be leading one of his popular Kickstarter Project Jam workshops at the 2018 Core77 Conference, to learn about starting his own firm, how he manages multiple creative platforms at once and what Kickstarter can mean for the design community.
You started out working for design and innovation firms, including Gravitytank, for quite some time before deciding to start your own studio. What was this transition like?
Working in innovation opened my eyes to the diversity of what designers can do. We were basically doing design thinking consulting work, so sometimes I was doing work that resembled industrial design, but other times I wasn't. That opened my mind to the fact that designers don't always need to be doing hardcore product design, unless that's what they absolutely want to be doing.
I also realized that drawing in my certain style didn't always match with what is expected in the industrial design world. But when I was in innovation, it made a lot of sense because I was able to bring ideas to life really quickly and visualize ideas that weren't even products—like services or experiences. At the end of the day, it's all visual communication, right? It's about taking an idea and quickly communicating it. When I realized I have a skillset that is desired across a lot of different industries, it opened the door for me to make it a consulting business.
When you work in an innovation firm, you're not necessarily doing a lot of physical design work, so I ended up entering a lot of design competitions and working on stuff for New York Design Week on the side. I launched a ceramic salt and pepper set on Kickstarter in 2010 while I still had a full-time job. Over time, I went independent, and then I formed this brand called Manual. Now I pretty much only make products for Manual. I find designing for my own brand super exciting because there's always so much to do.
You recently introduced your very humorous Instagram account, No Commercial Value, to your already long list of creative outlets. How do you strike a balance and distinguish between the many facets of your design identity?
Having a brand name and not my name on Manual is one of the most obvious separations. I realized I had to do that at a certain point. For the first two years I was independent, I produced objects, did my consulting work and my cartoon work all under my name. There are arguments either way, whether you should keep everything under the same umbrella and embrace it, or whether you should split it up. I decided after a while that it made sense to split it up. That way, Manual could eventually work with other designers and produce products as a brand instead of under my name.
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And then vice versa, by having Craighton Berman not necessarily tied to Manual, I can do some projects where I criticize design and consumerism through No Commercial Value. To keep that distance from Manual is probably healthy. I don't know how healthy it is for my clients on the illustration side, but I think it's all in good fun, and I think the bigger story with No Commercial Value—at least if I'm going to spin it towards something that's a little more commercial—is the idea of ongoing ideation. I pretty much work on ideas for No Commercial Value every day. This kind of outlet has been super exciting, and I think a whole new side of my practice is finally opening back up again.
Circling back to Kickstarter, how did you form your relationship with the crowdfunding platform, and what projects have you been working on with them?
I was actually the first designer to launch a product on Kickstarter, so at the time, there wasn't a lot of orthodoxy about what you're supposed to do. I launched the ceramic salt and pepper set i mentioned before, and it ended up being super successful. Then things kind of blew up from there.
"I don't want to become a financial strategist, but as a designer it is super exciting that you can very directly play with numbers and make a project or maybe even a business that works."
You learn a lot of valuable information through successfully launching something and shipping even two dozen or even a hundred of something. I knew I was addicted right away because from the beginning, Kickstarter felt like it really worked with the way I've always wanted to work in design. It's immediate in that there is a lot of design work in preparation—getting suppliers, all those kinds of things set up—but once you've done that, there is the whole communication part of it and making a budget that works. I'm not afraid of a spreadsheet—they're like a prototype to me. If you make them right, you can play with them and learn from them. I don't want to become a financial strategist, but as a designer it is super exciting that you can very directly play with numbers and make a project or maybe even a business that works.
When Manual's first coffee maker had a super successful launch, that caught the attention of University of Illinois Chicago who offered me a Kickstarter class to teach. I'm really interested in applied design and don't have a master's degree, so it was perfect. The class is called Entrepreneurial Product Development. Instead of talking about what entrepreneurship is, we would just fucking do it. Within the first semester, the students would conceive an idea, find a way to get it manufactured locally, get quotes, build a business model, document, take photos, create the storytelling, the video, all the stuff for the campaign, and then get it all ready to go. As soon as they come back from winter break, they launch the project. Most of them were funded within 30 days. For the rest of the spring semester, they worked on manufacturing and shipping. We met once a week, so you literally had to come up with your idea within two or three classes, and then you had to have a manufactured product within six or seven classes. It was intense.
Through doing that class, I got to know some more folks at Kickstarter. They had a thought leaders program, and they asked me to be a part of it. That was pretty low key, but it also had some pretty cool opportunities come out of it. I took a break from teaching this year just because I had too much on my platter, but it's a lot of knowledge to waste away, so I put together a 52-page zine that explains how you should go about launching a Kickstarter as a designer. Kickstarter helped fund and promote that, which is awesome.
You've also been hosting what you call Kickstarter Project Jams, which will be close to the format for your workshop at "Now What?" Can you delve into that a bit?
With Kickstarter Project Jams, I have people come out to my studio, and we talk high level about some of the stuff to think about when launching a project through Kickstarter. We spend the majority of the time taking people's ideas and playing with them, brainstorming and critiquing them. A lot of people graduate from design school and lose that crew that you can shoot ideas around with. Maybe you get feedback online or have some friends that are designers and still want to do that, but a lot of people "grow up" and don't want to do that anymore. They want to go to bars and watch sports or whatever. But it's still a lot of fun to just shoot the shit about ideas that could maybe be something.
Some people show up with prototypes and are definitely going to make them happen. Some people just have a half-assed idea they want to think through with people. It's been a super cool, really supportive environment. Everyone really wants to help each other out and share resources, so I'm excited to keep doing them.
Many freelance or independent designers are working alone most of the time, so I'm sure getting honest feedback is a challenge...
Especially getting feedback from people who aren't your friends. If I don't know someone, I'm willing to be a little bit more honest with them. A lot of times I'll post something on Instagram, and of course I'll get a lot of likes and people say, "That's so great. I'd totally buy that." But when it comes down to it, they may, or they may not.
What do you think is one of the most common misconceptions about launching your own Kickstarter campaign?
I think the biggest one is that people expect it to be a pit of money—that you just go there, throw up your project and money rains on you. Every time I run a campaign I remind myself that you have to have people that are interested in your work ahead of time and that outreach is crucial as soon as the campaign starts. It's your life for 30 days, but a lot of people might not even know about it. You have to work hard to rise above all the noise on the internet and really get people to pay attention.
Tied to that whole notion of a money pit, a lot of people overreach for their first Kickstarter and think they want to do something really audacious. I'm a big fan of trying out something small first. It doesn't make it any less of a project if it's not $100,000 or half a million. You can learn so much from raising $5,000 to $10,000, and it inspires you to reach a little further the next time. The goal for my Kickstarters is to always break even in a way. I profit in product, meaning I'll have product to sell afterwards that's in inventory because I want to keep producing a line. I think too many people look at the model of the grand slam million dollar project as if that's the way it has to be, but I'm a big fan of low and slow.
I like to remind people that the cool thing about Kickstarter is that you can not only fund a project but also learn and do research. Essentially you are doing a more intense focus group where instead of just asking, "Would you buy this for $30?" and you get a bunch of people that say, "Oh yeah, sure," you actually have people following through by using their credit card if they like the project enough. Taking risks or just trying things out is okay because if something doesn't work out, you can always relaunch it. It's like that stupid ass cooler that I think is still the biggest project ever funded on Kickstarter. It failed the first time, and then they relaunched it and did really well.
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Designers love to test things out and prototype, and if we think of a Kickstarter the same way it can become something a little more experimental. Just recently, Oscar Lhermitte started Quickstarter, which had a similar manifesto tied to it. Basically, cut the bullshit. Come up with a creative small project, get it together really quickly and get it out there. Let's go back to the core of just trying to get creative projects out there and keep it real simple.
You're currently Kickstarting your latest design for Manual, Stool Nº1. What is the inspiration behind this project, and how has it been going?
Manual focuses on design for slow food, so I'm interested in ways to celebrate rituals around food, repetition and things we do every day—thinking about food, where it comes from and how you work with it. We've been focused on that for at least five years, so I had the itch to broaden that vision a bit.
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I've done furniture in the past, but I've never had the right outlet for it, so Stool Nº1 is a design I've had for a while. I found a way to make it locally at a pretty good price, and it's a good chance to experiment with launching furniture on Kickstarter. It's a good test to see how much I can stretch the brand that way. It's going pretty well.
I worry a lot because it's very different from all the other small consumer product campaigns I've done. My past products might be a little expensive, but you still get the whole experience for around $100. In this case, you generally need more than one stool. If you're going to put them at a breakfast bar or something, you'd have at least two, and if you have a bigger home you could have four. They're a little under $200 a piece, so they're quite a bit more expensive. It's way more than I've ever asked for in the past.
Learning how people engage with that has been interesting. My approach to marketing this has been a little bit different because I don't think blasting every single influencer and blog and media outlet is the way this is going to grow. I think I need to nurture relationships with people I know that would be interested, including restaurants. There's a coffee shop locally that's about to open up that's going to have six of them in their shop, so it's about exploring new avenues. This may or may not be the same audience as some of our other products. Like I said, the cool thing about Kickstarter is the chance to try out ideas and see how they sit and how they fit. If it goes well, and I think it will, then I think it's something that could grow within Manual. It may not end up always being a Kickstarter launch for different variation, but launching this way is a great chance to learn.
Emily is a freelance writer based in NYC with an interest in all things design, specifically the design process. When she's not writing about design, Emily can either be found taking care of her 31 houseplants, going on "nature" walks in her neighborhood or studying Japanese. Before going freelance, Emily was an Editor at Core77.