A photographer friend of mine told me about the Autumn Fair, which is one of, if not the largest home and gift-buying event in the UK; and I was really interested to check it out. My main aim was to take a look at the children’s industry and greeting cards sections and get a feeling for what’s out there in a design sense and whether my work was ready for application.
I wasn’t sure really where I would fit in to it all, but I’m always keen to learn new things, different routes for my business and potential opportunities; so on that basis in amongst a busy schedule, I put my “business” hat on and drove to Birmingham.
The NEC is an enormous complex, oh, and blessed with free parking (at least, on the day I went), lovely staff and a free shuttle bus to take you to the main entrance. You need it: it’s a vast estate, divided into 9 halls in colour-coded sections, hosting around 2,000 exhibitors! They included china, glass and tabletop, design and innovation, art and framing, greetings and gift stationery, jewellery, leather goods and accessories, general and volume giftware.
With only a one-day visit, it was time to prioritise.
It’s a well laid out venue, but can feel quite overwhelming. Since I was just there on a recce for the day, I decided to take the snake trail approach; weaving up and down at my own pace to ensure I got to see everything.
Naturally, my first port of call was the children’s section where I was met with a beautiful display of large character toys and games. You can see from my pictures that for any illustrator or creative interested in children, this is FUN.
I got a good feeling for the types of product which can be produced and so had an opportunity to think about where my work might sit in this market.
Often, I see illustrations which may have originally been intended for print publication, and which are not well suited to the physical product because they were originally designed without the necessary forethought. I’ve also been tempted in the past myself to use what I have, rather than a new design created specifically around a product. Whether it’s a T-shirt or tote bag, it’s better to think ahead and design specifically for the product or range.
With that in mind I could think about trends, for example seasonal applications. With Christmas frighteningly close, the Autumn Fair was full of ranges of merchandise in the run up to the holidays. My observation: muted and natural tones, retro styling and shabby chic are definitely still the order of the day.
The fair is so diverse that it enables you to cherry pick the ranges in which you are specifically interested. If nothing else, you can certainly get a feel for how a successful business presents itself in a formal setting. With so many illustrators selling their wares at fairs and events these days, it’s definitely worth thinking about presentation, branding and design, and I found it really interesting to see how so many different companies had achieved their look.
In terms of networking, I also found the event to be very rewarding; I was able to have very frank discussions with retailers and publishers alike who were all extremely approachable and friendly. It was great to be there as an artist, since it’s not typically a show many artists would attend. Also, by day three when I popped in, many exhibitors had been standing around for days and were only too happy to sit and chat for a while without the pressure of having to “sell”. I was able to sound out some product ideas and even make contact with people who were very encouraging and had the vision and experience to advise me on how to make my ideas a reality.
Overall the Autumn Fair gave me the chance to meet suppliers and talk about production and manufacturing issues in a realistic sense. I was pleasantly surprised at people’s willingness to talk to me upon realising I was not a potential buyer – not everyone, of course, but most. As a lowly illustrator, with cap in hand, I felt like quite a small fish, but was keen to promote my services and picked up some fantastic contacts in the process and also received very encouraging feedback.
Most interestingly, having spent over 10 years in the publishing industry in a production role, I found myself slipping seamlessly back into that frame of thinking when discussing manufacturing of goods with suppliers. It’s always nice to know my time in that role was not wasted when in reality I always wanted to be an illustrator/creative. I find more and more these days that my experience in print buying has put me in good stead in terms of understanding the technicalities of print, be it for publication or product development.
Essentially the same rules apply; for example, in print you can print large runs on a litho press, whereas for smaller runs it is more cost effective to print digitally, since you don’t have to cover the start-up costs of a large press before you receive the economies of scale of run-on. This is also exactly the case in the manufacturing of merchandise.
Also, much like the use of Pantone colours in book production, the same rules apply to product screen-printing. The fewer colours you use, the cheaper the cost. As an illustrator this would not only affect my design, but also how I would set the file up for print.
It’s amazing how many hats we illustrators have to wear; the legalities of licensing our work, manufacturing cost effective products for profit, understanding style trends, customers, managing your marketing and sourcing contacts and contracts and managing your online presence but most importantly the creativity of producing fresh and beautiful artwork to deadline with a commercially focused and visually communicative style. The Autumn Fair really made me think how we’re all multi-disciplinary now… a pen and paper alone won’t earn much of a living… and an eye on commercial value is essential… but if you get that right, there is a world of manufacturers, often without a good understanding of or easy access to artistic talent, who might just be the perfect untapped market.