Influential design curator Janice Blackburn’s very popular FuelRCA masterclasses last year focused on how designer-makers from the RCA School of Material should present, market and sell their work. Here, she reflects on how she has helped graduates launch successful careers.
FuelRCA: Several people that you’ve mentored or been associated with in the past are now very successful. Is it possible to sum up some of the qualities that those successful people have?
JB: I would say, a belief in what they were doing. I look back at some of the work that I was showing then, and I would say it had potential, but it certainly wasn’t resolved, and I think that a lot of them learned from those experiences. You have to be incredibly persistent and hardworking, and be prepared to take the knocks, because there are many knocks. I often say to people, “Actually, it’s the bad experiences that are, in the end, the things you learn most about.” The people who made it were confident in their abilities, but they weren’t cocky in other ways. They just slogged away, showed, were very up for showing wherever they were asked to show, and followed through with customers and clients, whether they were private clients or companies. You have to just persevere, be confident in what you are doing, in your abilities, and not be in too much of a hurry. With design, it’s about keeping at it and building relationships. I’m not saying that everyone that builds relationships is going to be a star, and also not everyone is going to be a star, but there are certainly careers for non-stars.
FuelRCA: What are people in the industry expecting and looking for when they encounter emerging designers?
JB: They’re looking for potential. I’m not really interested in whether something is perfectly made – in fact, I’d prefer it wasn’t. It should be something that you want to develop further, because actually that’s what’s going to happen.
FuelRCA: How do you demonstrate potential?
JB: I think it’s to do with ideas, it’s to do with your creativity. I think potential is always thinking ahead. You always know that there’s more you can do or there are more ideas. You’re perfecting what you do, but then when you’ve done that, you’re developing it further. I think that’s what I mean by ‘potential’. I think that it’s not just doing one thing, being really happy with what you do, and saying, “Well, it seemed to sell, so I’ll just keep on doing this for the rest of my life” – that’s really boring. Many of the artists that I’ve worked with go through periods of working on ideas that aren’t working, and that’s good. At the time, it’s not good for them, because they feel, ‘Why is this not working?’ but I think you have to constantly be pushing yourself, questioning yourself and your work, and taking it forward. So a lot of artists who have done one thing and it’s been very successful, just stick with that and never go anywhere. Others move in other directions and maybe people don’t like it. But I think creatively you have to keep going forward or sideways.
FuelRCA: What would you say to students and graduates who do quite experimental, maybe conceptual work, and they’re struggling because they can’t find a ready market?
JB: It’s very difficult unless they’re very lucky, because conceptual work is not easy to sell. They might have to do something else as well as their art. They might have to have two legs to what they do – they have their conceptual work, but they might also have to produce a sellable product or work with somebody where they can have the time to do their own work. Very few people can afford to do conceptual work and live, so you have to work. But you have to think that out yourself – how are you going to live? How are you actually going to pay the rent? Either you’re going to teach, or work in a gallery, or get a part-time paying job and balance it that way. But these are really serious questions, and there’s no point going off into the woods and thinking it’s all going to work out.