Ask an Art Buyer: The Importance of Branding and Other Things

by Heather on December 1, 2009

Last week, in response to the post about your portfolios, I received this question:

How do logos and branding make Art Buyers see you? Does (stuff like that) make you guys pay more attention to a book/promo?

I think that developing your brand identity is very important. As I’ve said before, you are working in an industry that is all about branding so you can assume that your audience is sensitive to these sorts of things.

Just to keep it interesting, I asked my colleague, Leila Courey, Art Buyer at Leo Burnett, Toronto what she thought:

I don’t mind if photographers want to bling out their promos for extra attention as long as the quality of the work goes along with it. What I don’t dig, is photographers spending what looks like a ton of money on business cards, expensive promos or portfolios meanwhile they really need to spend more time crafting their work.

When an artist is more established, or has been off the radar for a while, I can understand wanting to brand/re brand themselves to let it be known that they’re still available for assignment but even still, this won’t sway me. It’s all about the work. I may notice a fancy promo package poking out of my mail box or left at reception sure, but it won’t necessarily elevate my desire to shoot with the artist any more then his/her competitor. There are many photographers out there who are so talented but may not be working enough to afford extravagant promo material.

What I do place value on is how accessible they are during the bid stage, the way they present their treatments (when applicable) and their estimates. Believe it or not, sometimes estimates come in late, sloppy or with missing information which to me, is a reflection on how buttoned up (or not) they’ll be on the job.

And if artists or agents are planning their next direct mail promo: keep it simple! I have very little use for over-sized promos mainly due to space. I like to keep all promos together but when they are too large or cumbersome, they end up being filed somewhere that’s not frequently accessed.

Let’s keep Leila’s point that ultimately, “It’s all about the work” in mind as we dive into an in-depth look at emerging photographer Michael Clinard’s branding journey.

In March 2008, I attended the Photographer’s Survival Tour led by Suzanne Sease and Amanda Sosa-Stone in Seattle. The main idea I came away with it isn’t just about the photography I make, but how well I represent myself through the marriage of my images and identity—identity being anything from a logo, type treatment, or combination thereof. I also walked away knowing that I wasn’t at all interested in frou-frou colors or novelty (something like the “a” in one’s last name cleverly becoming the lens of a camera). That really isn’t me or my work.

Soon after the event, I read Elyse Weissberg’s “Successful Self-Promotion for Photographers,” Alina Wheeler’s “Designing Brand Identity” and the works of Marty Neuimeier. I also started bookmarking every design/typeface incorporated in photographer’s identities and studied how those worked with their images.

I let that information seep in until the end of 2008, when I decided to hire a designer to create my look on market. As a photographer who appreciates good design, I saw the benefit in hiring a professional to help establish something memorable and edgy to represent my style. January ’09 was a sea of meet and greets, RFPs to firms, and design referrals from colleagues. I didn’t find the right fit until late January when I stumbled across the work of Tim Lahan of Trademark-TM in NYC. He’s equal parts illustrator and designer and can balance humor and message to a “T.”

I sent him an email explaining my position: an emerging Seattle-based photographer specializing in quirky, conceptual portrait and tabletop work in need of an arresting brand identity that supported my current and future body of work. He wrote me back within the hour, and we hit it off.

I sent him tons of research and influences: the work of Nessim Higson and Alex Trochut, a folder of portrait busts and oval paintings, stills from the Hudsucker Proxy and vintage stationery/identity examples. All of these things resonated with me for their left-of-center, quirky and conceptual feel. I also pointed him toward photographers who did interesting things with their look on market: David and Lyndon Wade, Matthew Mahon, Chris Hornbecker and Tim Morris.

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

Tim pumped out three potential treatment directions: 1) the subtly confounded option, 2) the safe option, and 3) some tripped-out, 1950s throwback with Futura font that a small-town optometrist or pharmacist would have etched on the glass door of his office. Ultimately, the third direction became the winner, and the Office of Michael Clinard, General Photography was born.

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

By March of ’09, Tim and I had worked out small kinks in the trademark and started addressing the identity system (letterhead, business cards, envelopes, and printed promo pieces). We both agreed that a letterpress treatment was the way to go, so I tapped a local studio in Seattle to handle the basics. The die-cut business card features the identity on the front and an appointment card on the back. The first round of printing just wrapped a couple weeks back, and I was able to tackle the card, my letterhead and envelope. I’m still working on the finishing touches for my print promo mailers, and I’m weighing the option of adding a letterpress buckslip and greeting card/thank you card to the mix.

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

© Michael Clinard

Rather than seeing all of this as a huge cost, I chose to see it as an important and necessary investment in my march toward offering my photography services. A well-executed identity and system that takes a year or more to construct could actually save me time in the long run. In other words, I’d hate to rush into something, put it out and get a year or two in, only to realize what I had just wasn’t representative of who I was or what I did.

Right now, I’m holding on my printed portfolio as I’ve been discussing the best way to approach my book with a couple of designers. I know I can’t wait forever, but I want to give it the same attention to detail that I’ve given every other component of the identity, including the website that’s just gone live after five months in the making:

If I could give any advice, it would be don’t just rely on your own opinion. Lean on colleagues, friends, photographers, designers and agency pros to get their take. They’ll either confirm your gut feeling or lend advice on why things are (or aren’t) working. I’ve done this on every step of the project, and I feel it’s benefited greatly from it.

The reception I’ve been getting from the identity has been quite amazing. I confess that it’s coming mostly from my colleagues in the Seattle area, but it seems to be growing. I’m on the verge of sending out my promo mailers and an introductory “Greetings from The Office of Michael Clinard, General Photography” email introducing my work to creatives, agencies and firms.

I love what I do and am inspired by the growing community of photographers. I’m excited to see how things take shape and look forward to putting myself out there.

For more info on Michael’s journey- including pictures of his work on-press, head over to his blog.

I must add a footnote to this story to tell you that during our back and forth over the last two weeks regarding this post, Michael has been unbelievably thorough- he shot his collateral two different ways so I would have options and he knew enough about my blog to send images at exactly the right size for insertion (not necessary since wordpress does this automatically now thank the good lord, but nevertheless its the thought that counts). Plus, customizing the collateral pieces to HMAb, including a nice letter- very smart. This thorough, considerate approach is what will bring any first-time clients back for more. Maybe… if you work’s good enough… and the job’s right for you… Anyway, you get my drift.

Also, please consider all the research that Michael put into his own identity. Art Director’s love references. If Michael provided half of these back to an AD during production, he’d be well on his way to earning repeat business (see caveat above).

So, we’ve covered a lot of important things in this post. Keeping in mind that developing your vision and producing good work is of ultimate importance, I am a believer that good branding and the way you approach a project can tell me a lot about what my working experience is going to be like with you. Don’t let an opportunity to show your well-roundedness go to waste.

Thanks for sharing this Michael, all the best.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

danno watts December 1, 2009 at 10:56 pm

thanks for sharing in such depth and detail michael, very appreciated.


Mike Tittel December 2, 2009 at 10:23 am

Great post Heather and Michael. It’s always interesting to read what other’s are doing. I too just rebranded and thought your readers might like another photographer’s perspective on the design process. I wrote a blog post about it here:
My designer also did a write up on his design blog which can be found here:



Marc Altman December 2, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for sharing, Michael! It’s great to get an in-depth perspective into an emerging photographer trying to establish their “brand”. While I agree that it should go without saying that a photographer’s work is the ultimate judging point, it’s very important to have a consistent look to accompany it. Keep up the good work.

Angus Gastle December 2, 2009 at 12:47 pm

That guy has a bad ass brand. Adds a little pomp and ceremony to the process of doing a photoshoot. Hopefully, his bite backs up his bark.

Absolutely love it. Will be posting on this shortly.

Jeff Singer December 2, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Do people still mail letters on letterhead in envelopes?

Love the design, but I can’t remember the last time I physically mailed anything other than a promo.

It’s a bit sad since an actual letter on a nicely chosen paper beats a PDF… but I think there is enough wasted paper out there.


Peter Karlsson, Svarteld December 2, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Nice work of the designer.

I don’t quite see it telling the story of Clinard’s pictures though; the impression when I do see his work is IMO somewhat underwhelming, when first looking at the graphics presenting them. Maybe the design shouldn’t be more worked than what it presents…

Nat Coalson December 2, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Heather – great blog; thanks for providing information so valuable to so many photographers. I have one question, from your personal perspective: do you or your colleagues ever notice that someone’s carefully crafted identity clashes with your own aesthetic sensibility? Does this keep them from getting the job? How much does the photographer’s identity need to gel with something you are comfortable with?

Ron December 2, 2009 at 8:18 pm

To be honest, I find Michael Clinard’s branding to be downright scary, like a mugger in a dark alleyway. It immediately turns me off to the point that I didn’t even want to click the link to his website for fear of what I might find.

Don Giannatti December 2, 2009 at 9:12 pm

Simply an enlightening post. As a designer and a photographer, I tend to be pragmatic. I tell my clients that they should really keep the work to the fore… and that means with their budgets as well.

It is sad to read that some people think (on other comments sections) that the post is saying not to bother on branding and marketing.

That certainly is not what is being said here. Of course the presentation should be good, great even. But the best presentation will not sell the mediocre work. While a rather simple presentation with astounding work will win in most cases.

thanks for this, Heather.

Ian Goode December 2, 2009 at 10:42 pm

I think, when reacting to this post, “emerging photographer” is important to realize and like all of us out there, we have to start somewhere. I really feel that anyone else who wants to put their best foot forward should take a note from Michael. You can see his passion all over this stuff.

From my side, I see someone who took the time to establish something completely cohesive and tight. To the viewer, the person behind this brand translates as professional with maybe a sense of humor. Without saying too much, he has told you a lot.

Say what you will about your feelings on the design and styling of a brand. The post wasn’t about aesthetics. Maybe you really like it, or maybe it’s not be your taste. You may feel it looks like “a mugger in a dark alleyway”. Totally valid. Either way, he made you look. That’s one more than yesterday

Thanks Heather. Good luck Michael

Damien Cooper December 3, 2009 at 2:04 am

Hey, again a great post. Interesting to read. I just blogged a bit of my promo and branding. Who’s interested is encouraged to comment and leave constructive critique:

Well, I actually don’t really like the logo itself either. But this is just a personal taste. But He did very well when it comes to branding itself.
I really don’t understand that so many photographers don’t have a unique branding. Having a good designer is definitely a plus, as I myself let design for me. But it isn’t a must have. I see so many photographers books which great work, without even a name on the cover. Great work, but who’s is it??
Well, I often read something about that you ask if the expensive promoline sells your photography better. I don’t think this is really the question, is it? No one really believes that a 3000 Dollar book with bad work helps selling it, right?
The question is, does a great promo line attract the art buyer more to even look at it. And here is my opinion: yes. Whenever I see a gib expensive book or promo I’m curious how this dudes website looks like and if he (or she) can keep this high bar in his work. The disappointment is bigger if he can’t, but at least I looked at his work.
so my 2 cents ;)

Jaime Hogge December 3, 2009 at 11:13 am

Whoa, late to the party on a question I asked.. Thanks for posting this and thanks Michael for all the in depth info. I’m not really a fan of the work but I’m pretty impressed with the way the whole package fits together from website to promo to business cards and so on. I know it all boils down to doing quality work but putting together a complete package like this must communicate some level of professionalism would it not?

Suzanne Sease December 6, 2009 at 11:19 am

Hey Michael,

Thanks for sharing this information with Amanda and I. It makes us so happy that we could get you thinking and re-brand yourself!!! I hope you are working with Amanda to make the images as fantastic as the brand! Best to you!!!!

Leave a Comment

{ 9 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: