Working the web

Johanna Basford makes great use of social media, enabling her to share projects and get work, too

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Illustrator Johanna Basford graduated in 2005 and since then has worked on some great client commissions helped, in part, by her creative use of blogging and Twitter. We talked to her about how she uses her web presence alongside social networking to start relationships with clients.

Creative Review: When did you start thinking about self-promotional ideas; was it before or after you graduated?

Johanna Basford: Just ahead of graduating in textile design I went through the usual motions of ordering business cards and setting up a simple portfolio website. I also wrote letters to around 100 studios I wanted to work for and sent them an invitation to come and see my work at New Designers in London. I also sent them a simple A4 printout featuring images of my work, and some little fabric sample cuttings. I got less than five replies from those letters. At first that was really disheartening, but when I got to New Designers it paid off hugely. A handful of the studios I’d written to came along, saw my work and offered me placements, or invited me to freelance for them. I definitely think sending a letter in the post, along with some tangible examples of my work had more appeal that just a standard email with a PDF attached. I did a series of other graduate shows and, encouraged by the reaction people had to the first set of letters, I went on to make silkscreen-printed envelopes for press releases, hand-printed black and white invitations and mini sample books of my work to give away instead of business cards.

CR: What led you to develop an online presence beyond a portfolio website? How do you use your blog?

JB: I added a blog to my website in 2008. Aside from Twitter, it’s my strongest marketing tool. It’s a great way for me to open up my studio and tell people about my work and my practice. It acts as a window into my inky world and allows me to show people what I’m working on, list new products I’ve added to my online shop, upcoming events, and of course, gives me a platform to talk about my love of various different pens. It’s a place to communicate; an online show and tell and a bit of a soap box.

CR: You’re known for you enthusiasm for Twitter. What does it enable you to do, as an illustrator, and what you have found using it has then led to?

JB: Twitter is the single most powerful marketing tool I use to promote my work and gain new clients. I can’t emphasise enough the pivotal effect that using it has had on my practice as a freelancer. And it’s free! Microblogging has allowed me to share my desk with the world and to reach out and talk to commissioners, art directors, clients and buyers who I would have struggled for years to get in touch with by more traditional methods. I can take snap-shots of my studio, current projects, sketches of new work, first print samples etc and share them. I can also tweet links to blog articles, new items in my shop and updates in my portfolio. Basically, Twitter burns up the distance between myself and my clients, allowing me to speak to them in an unobtrusive and friendly way.

CR: What’s the idea behind TwitterPicture and what’s the reaction to the project been like?

JB: TwitterPicture began life as a project where I wanted to explore how Twitter could be used to co-create and crowdsource the content of an illustration. People tweeted me what they wanted me to draw and I obliged. I liked the idea of mashing up analogue and digital; a digital method of generating the creative direction of a design which was drawn by hand, then silkscreen printed. Initially, I began with an A3 sheet of paper and plans to post photo updates every 30 minutes. But the overwhelming response meant that I quickly upgraded to A1 sheets of paper and progressed to setting up a webcam and streaming the drawing process live. The TwitterPicture projects opened up my work to a huge new audience who, I think, were drawn to its quirky, playful nature. Since then I’ve evolved the concept to fit with several commercial briefs; most notably the Edinburgh Fringe programme cover last year, and a live drawing commission for Smart Car in May this year. I’m always amazed at how many new clients mention they first saw my work when I was doing a TwitterPicture project and that they’ve followed my progress since.

CR: Can you talk through how using the web enabled you to propose projects for Creative Review and, more recently, Starbucks?

JB: When I set my sights on making some work for CR, I knew I had to do something extraordinary to capture the attention of a publication whose offices and email accounts are no doubt inundated with work by talented hopefuls. I set about designing an alternative cover for the most recent edition. I popped my contact details on the spine, spray-mounted my cover to the magazine, wrapped it in brown paper and posted it back to CR HQ. In the meantime, I uploaded a bit of a cheeky post on my blog about it, complete with step by step photos and my message of intent (to create some work for CR). When the magazine arrived back at CR, they must have checked out my blog and spotted the post, as a few hours later it appeared on the CR blog. A few tweets, emails and telephone calls later and I completed my first (of several) commissions for them.

The Starbucks work is actually on-going. I have a list of five dream clients I aspire to work for pinned to my studio wall and Starbucks is right at the top of that list. Initially, I began saving up my latte cups, taking them back to the studio and drawing on them. Once I had a sizable collection of hand-penned cups, I started mailing them to Darcy Wilson-Rymer, the managing director of Starbucks UK and Daniele Monti, the creative director of Starbucks in Seattle. I followed up the cup parcels with an email and in Darcy’s case a tweet, which was then RT’ed by so many people that Darcy rang me later that day. I explained my ambition to create some work for Starbucks and a few weeks later, I met him for an early morning coffee at Starbucks HQ. Daniele, too, luckily saw the intriguing side to a random Scottish girl sending him graffitied paper cups in the post and we’ve exchanged emails. I have no doubt that without doing something a little odd to capture their attention, I would have struggled to speak to either of them. As I say, this ‘commission mission’ is still in progress, so you’ll have to keep an eye on my blog for the most recent updates!

CR: What advice would you offer recent graduates in terms of the best way to use a blog and social media?

JB: I think the key with all things creative is to try and do something a bit different. People’s minds, inboxes and post boxes are jam packed with ‘stuff’ – it’s your task to do something a little more inspired than everyone else to ensure you capture the imagination of the person you are targeting. Keep your content up to date; an abandoned blog that hasn’t been changed for months looks tired and uninspiring. Be pro-active. There’s no point posting some images online, then sitting back and waiting to be discovered. It just doesn’t happen like that. Find ways to introduce your work to as many people as possible. Be nice. Both online and offline. Be patient. Even if a client likes your work, they have to wait until the right brief comes along before they can commission you. Keep in touch with people, send them updates of your recent work but don’t spam them. Then, when the right opportunity comes along, they’ll know who to contact.

CR: Lastly, what do you think having a good web presence, blog and Twitter account has enabled you to achieve as a creative?

JB: Undoubtedly my web presence secures 99% of my commissions. I do a tiny fraction of work for clients in the north-east of Scotland; the majority is for customers based either in the big cities down south or overseas. Blogging, Twitter, my website and portfolio sites such as Behance are vital in circulating images of my work and driving customers to my website where they can then contact me. There’s a big misconception amongst graduates that after art college you have to move to London to ‘make it’. The internet has changed all that. You no longer need to be physically based where your clients are. Thanks to the internet I can promote my work, network, share projects and deliver final images all from my little studio in Aberdeen.

Johanna Basford is represented by agency NB Illustration. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @johannabasford