Saturday, November 5, 2011

:: on the question of what my ART is ::

even though i suggested yesterday that there are two halves to the nss story, there are more. more factors that go into deciding how i want to move up up creative forward in 2012 and beyond.

one of the factors is a strange one, and it's one that i'm going to have to deal with before i deal with any of the others.

i said all that stuff i said yesterday about my ideal customers, but there's a way in which perhaps those folks i so badly want to be my customers aren't completely ideal after all. there are things i care quite deeply about that the customers i profiled yesterday don't care as much about. or don't care about at all. or don't value or prioritize financially even if they do possibly care.

and part of the weirdness in the equation is that these are not things i used to care about. they are not things i cared about even a few years ago. and they're things that i even feel a little bit hypocritical caring about.

i really really care about the quality of the final product. i know i "only" print on a pro photo printer, something that, yes, any schmoe with enough money, a USB cable, and the ability to hit cmd-P can do. but i've spent years learning all about the inks and papers that combine to create the very best, most vibrant output. i've cultivated business relationships and have so grown my print volume that i can now order my paper at significant discounts. and i've learned tricks. 

at nss last may i was situated near a company that prints on the same paper i print on, using a comparable (and in fact more expensive and slightly more advanced model) printer and i noticed that their output, while vibrant and dense, was pixelated - and even quite rough in places - around the edges of elements. and immediately i knew exactly why, and it's such an easy thing to correct, but it took me three years to figure out.

after my september experiment, when i was staring down the barrel of a significant number of orders and two printers to print them on, i realized i would never be able to keep up that volume, even though my goal for future volume is actually significantly higher than what came in throughout september. 

and so despite all i've said about in-sourcing and wanting to control the output and the quality and wanting to have my hands on things, i started looking into outsourcing at least some of my printing.

i did crazy amounts of research and found the top five or so recommendations for the kind of work i'm looking to have done and i started requesting samples. i got paper sample books, printed sample books, and i also ordered small opening orders with three shops that had the best paper options for me using my own designs, just so i could compare them with my own output here in the studio.

the first order to arrive came in wrong. the back was printed in the wrong orientation and so arrived misaligned, turned 90 degrees, and cut off on one side. also, the color intensity was weak and there was that pesky rough-edge pixel problem. i requested that the problem be corrected and a week later i got the corrected order. a week! for ten prints that were supposedly expedited. the back was correct this time, but the print quality was the same.

the next order to arrive was actually so ugly i actually gasped when i saw it. it arrived extremely promptly, i'll give them that, but ohmygod i was shocked at what i received. the paper, supposedly a premium matte-finish paper, was shiny. not glossy, mind you. not luster. just kind of shiny. like sort of matte-shiny. it's hard to explain but it's awful. and the trimming isn't square or consistent, and on 5 of the 25 prints, part of the crop marks appear on the top corner. for real. and the whole stack is significantly curled. and oh. the pixelly problem again.

if only i could get my hands on those printers myself, i'm positive i could produce significantly better output. and the trimming? come on.

and the thing is, this quality is acceptable to a lot of people. i got lots of recommendations from graphic designers and photographers i know and trust. these places are the best in the biz.

i did find one place that prints with the same ink and papers i use here in-house: giclee printing on heavy duty fine-art 100% cotton paper. the cost there is $9 for a 5x7 print if you order a minimum of 75, which in order for me to make profitable would have to marked up to about $21 per invitation, envelopes excluded. which makes me laugh and laugh and laugh. perhaps i'm underpricing on these because my market won't support the price i probably should be charging, but certainly they're charging a premium for a level of output that just isn't expected by most.

including my supposedly ideal customers, who i've asked about their printing expectations. what they've told me is that while they are in awe at the quality of my prints, it's just not something they're willing to pay for. it's not a priority for them. they have, in fact, often asked for printable versions that they can have printed at places i'd be appalled to use because the quality is so shoddy. 

and the thing is? until i started doing all of this and learning everything i can about printing in-house, it wasn't a priority for me, either. 

and yeah. i know, i'm not my own ideal customer. i came to this realization awhile ago and i'm pretty good about remembering it. but at the same time, there's something that still nags at me - something that makes me question whether anyone who doesn't have their hands on the goods each day, who isn't a printer themselves, prioritizes the kind of quality i've come to think of as a benchmark.

or, more to the point, are the people who prioritize paper and quality output and the time and expertise it takes to make paper magic happen, are they really at all interested in digital printing? are the people who have the money to spend on this kind of quality, who care deeply about it like i do, are they all really much more interested in letterpress and even screenprinted work?

and further: do i want to make it my job to educate people about the high quality stuff they can get without a letterpress printer? do i want to devote time and energy to creating my own market?

and finally: do i see myself as an artist? a printmaker? or a graphic designer? is the art i create the design (and the design only) or is it the final product?

if it's the final product, which is the model i've been operating under for awhile now without really acknowledging it, then how do i begin to create a desire for the kind of art i'm putting out there? how do i create my own market?

there are, of course, so many other things to consider, like what i can realistically accomplish within the confines of my own set of circumstances. like, from my attic studio, all 150 square feet of it, and my 17 hours a week of daycare plus all my nights and weekends. i need to be making the kind of salary that i could make if i worked a full-time job. that's what my family needs. if that's the case, do i really have the right to focus so much on the quality of the end product when the demand is not (yet, anyway) enough to sustain us? is it responsible of me to set out courting a market i don't yet know how to find or cultivate when there's a market of customers i relate to, know how to reach and inspire, and can find sustainable ways to serve?

or if i'm going to go whole-hog in the direction of artist-slash-printmaker, should i really be setting up shop with a letterpress and trying to really court the customers who are most interested in the kind of work i do? should i start providing both options - the giclee and the letterpress?

but from where? my garage, where an unused 1979 MG takes up space beside nine bikes and a human-powered lawn mower and about sixteen thousand other things? the garage i won't allow my kids in? the one that's unheated, uninsulated, offering no protection for any paper or ink, and in no way shape or form appropriate for the task?

these, my friends, these are the questions that keep me up nights i'm afraid. they're the questions that make decision-making so hard.

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