Sean Mosher-Smith, Echo Designlab and The Conspiracy

Thursday, July 01 by Juliette Wolf-Robin, ADBASE

Posted in: Industry Interviews

Juliette Wolf-Robin speaks with Sean Mosher-Smith, founder and creative director with New York-based Echo Designlab and The Conspiracy. Recently named one of the 200 best illustrators worldwide by Archive Magazine, Mosher-Smith and Echo Designlab have produced award-winning images, design, advertising and creative and branding campaigns. Mosher-Smith has more than 16 years of experience as a creative director with Virgin/Capitol Records, The Sloan Group and RCA Records.

  • Package your print portfolio to reflect your brand
  • Why you should simplify your website
  • Effective print and email promotions
  • How the music industry is using photography, illustration and design

Interview Transcript

This is an edited transcript of Juliette Wolf-Robin's interview with Sean Mosher-Smith founder and creative director with New York-based Echo Designlab and The Conspiracy

Juliette Wolf-Robin:

Echo Designlab is your company that focuses primarily on art direction, design and branding. And the Conspiracy Group is more about digital technology. So, tell me a little bit about the difference between those two businesses.

Sean Mosher-Smith:

Okay. I started Echo Designlab about three years ago and then started The Conspiracy about two years ago. And I started The Conspiracy with some partners because of the demand for more digital work - things like websites, iPhone applications, Facebook applications. And so what I do in that... my role is as creative director for both of them. And Echo Designlab kind of deals a lot more with print design and photo illustration. But they both exist kind of the same - it's the same company, it's the same people and I'm just the creative person in charge of both of those companies.

Juliette:

And how important do you think it is for an artist to consider their work being shown on an iPhone or an iPad?

Sean:

I think it's really important. I think that the technology and design need to kind of merge a little bit more and that seems to be what's happening throughout the industry. And I think that good design has some strong technology. And strong technology should also have really good design. I think that the iPad and the iPhone are really good examples of really good design. And it's just a nice way to showcase your work and it's a different way to showcase your work.

Juliette:

Have you seen a difference in the way artists present themselves now overall than a few years ago?

Sean:

I think so. I think people are trying to be heard and seen a little bit more. There are less expensive ways to promote yourself now. So, you know, I think that you're seeing a lot more promotion... I can tell you that at my studio we get a lot of promos. We get a lot more promos now than we did two years ago, than we did three years ago. When I left the company I was working for before I started these companies, I was getting tons of stuff and I'm just getting more and more because it's becoming cheaper and cheaper to print stuff, to send electronic emails or promo pieces, whatever.

Juliette:

Mm-hmm.

Sean:

Yeah, so...

Juliette:

And how important do you think a physical, traditional portfolio is?

Sean:

I think they're important. I think you should always have one. I myself am in the process right now of possibly getting rid of mine or at least not using it unless it's requested because they're expensive to make. And I think that it's important that the paper be right - the quality of the paper, the quality of the packaging is done right because it's got to stand out. People have to know that your work is quality work and that comes with not just what's on the page but the page itself.

Juliette:

Do you think it's worth spending money on an elaborate case?

Sean:

No, not if it's cumbersome. I mean, I can tell you that I have a portfolio, my print portfolio right now, and I spent a lot of money on the cases and the books and all that. And you know, I've had these new books for about a year and they already need to be replaced because they're scratched or they're, you know, someone dropped the slip case and a little bit of it cracked. I think that you shouldn't get really elaborate. I think your work should dictate the packaging itself. If you have a very clean and simple style, your books should be clean and simple...

Juliette:

And what about the images in the portfolio? How do you think they should be presented? Does it matter if they're in sleeves, plastic sleeves, if they're laminated... I mean, is there any way that you think they should be seen?

Sean:

Well, I've been editing portfolios with my agent and photographers come to me to re-edit their books because I've seen so many books in the past and I know what works or I feel like I know it works. I try to get rid of the plastic sleeves because once again it's something that you end up having you replace all the time. So, I try to do...

Juliette:

But then the pages without the plastic sleeves, you end up replacing all the time as well.

Sean:

Well, you do but I think that if you print it well and you get quality paper and all that, you end up not replacing it as much. The work on the page, I think needs to tell a story. You shouldn't put your biggest clients first. You know, I think every portfolio should tell a story and I think that that story should gradually progress while you're turning through the pages of the book.

Juliette:

Should a photographer's portfolio be presented differently than an illustration portfolio?

Sean:

I think all should be dictated by the work itself. I don't think it needs to be a complete separate animal. I think... that each one needs to just kind of be presented the way it's going to be strongest for the work itself.

Juliette:

What do you see as a common mistake on people's presentations of their work?

Sean:

... no attention to the quality of the packaging itself because that's the first thing someone sees. Before they see your work, they see the package that it comes in. And I think that a lot of people forget that.

There was a time when all books were all in those black leather, padded leather books. all portfolios were in those padded leather books. You know, no one stood out and I think that there's a tendency for people to not really pay enough attention to the packaging of themselves because they are, at the end of the day, they are a brand. Every photographer, every creative person is putting forth themselves as a brand and you want your brand to look the best it can on the outside as well as what's inside.

Juliette:

So, how important do you think the overall branding is for an artist? Like how they present the whole thing as a package versus just work. How much influence is the branding that they have?

Sean:

Well... I guess I'm going to think a little bit differently because I also am a designer and I do a lot of branding and stuff like that. So, I think everything should be - I think that the branding of a photographer, of a designer, of an illustrator, whatever, any creative - I think it's important because it creates some sort of consistency. It creates recognition. If you hit people with promo pieces enough times and you keep... there's some sort of consistency in your branding, I think people start to recognize it. And if you've created a fan with one or two pieces, they'll look forward and they'll know when they're getting another piece because it looks familiar to them.

Juliette:

When an artist comes to you with help on updating the look of their presentation, what are you looking at first? Is it the edit or is it their branding or is it - what part is it?

Sean:

I look at their edit first. I mean, I end up editing, re-editing a lot of portfolios for people. I start with the work. I usually put a time limit on how far back you should go with your portfolio, in years, and then I weed out. Because it's really hard for a photographer or a creative person to kind of self-edit. And so I go in there with a "nothing is sacred" mentality and I remove. Most of the time I end up removing half of the stuff that's in people's books.

Juliette:

Because you don't have the emotional attachment to those images.

Sean:

Right, exactly. I mean, I find it hard to do it on my own work. But I can do it really easily with anyone else's work.

Juliette:

Right.

Sean:

So, I know how hard it is to do.

Juliette:

Right. Do you like them to be there when you're doing it or do you take it and then work on it and come back...

Sean:

I've done it both ways. I think that they both have their strong points. I think that when the photographer's there with me, I can actually explain why I'm doing what I'm doing and sometimes they get it and then they kind of get on board and they help with the process. It makes it easier at the end of the process for them to continue on.

Once I'm done editing a book and it's out at clients and all that, I don't want to kind of just leave them hanging and then have them in a year filling their book up with stuff again that doesn't necessarily feel right. So, they need to be part of that process I think.

Juliette:

What do you think of taglines, logos, other design elements? How important do you think that is to an artist?

Sean:

I don't think a tagline is necessary. I think a logo, something simple and clean is a good idea because once again, you can take that and run with it. You can do stickers, you can do promo pieces that people will recognize.

Juliette:

What's an important feature to consider when looking at an artist's website design?

Sean:

Functionality. I think that the images should be... you should always be only one click away from either a phone number or an image. I think the more levels you create between you and the work and the person looking at the work, the more they're going to turn off and they're going to walk away from the site or go somewhere else because it's too complicated I think...

Juliette:

Do you think that's a common mistake for artists?

Sean:

Yeah, yeah. I mean, in the websites that we do, or we redo for people, a lot of the times we're asked to come in and simplify it. You know, you always want someone to know how to get in touch with you immediately and you always want people to see your best work and it's got to be updatable. It's got to be easy to update.

We built content management systems for all of our photographers' websites so that they can keep... we make it easy for them to update their site, update whatever information they want so that when people go to their site, there's always something fresh to see.

Juliette:

And what type of print promotion do you think is the most effective? Do you think it can be a simple card? Do you like more elaborate design pieces because you think they get more attention? What do you think works best?

Sean:

Something needs to stand out. We've done postcards and we've gotten really good responses of the work but not necessarily always of what the work is printed on. And that has made us change a lot of stuff but I think that...

Juliette:

It must be hard because as a designer, you're going to be more interested in elaborate pieces but you've also seen... as being a creative director, when you receive the different pieces, did the design make you stop more often? Did you appreciate that more often?

Sean:

I always gravitated towards the packaging first because I think when you get 100 postcards in a week or more, or 100 promo pieces and all of them are postcards - it's really hard to go through. But I think that, my personal preference... like oversized or posters that come in rolls... I think those are very hard because if people still file things... You know, I do a little bit of filing of promo pieces that I get, but a lot of the times I try to look at a lot of stuff online once I see someone I like. But it's really hard to...

Juliette:

Do you bookmark them?

Sean:

Yeah.

Juliette:

And do you organize them in any particular way?

Sean:

Just by photographers, illustrators, designers and other, whatever else I'm getting... jewelry designers, stylists. Yeah, and I think that it's tough with the oversized with anything that's bigger than can fit in a file that's not pre-folded.

Juliette:

Right. Do you think social media is important for an artist to be using?

Sean:

Yeah. I mean, you can be introduced to a lot of new people when you do it. I opened a Facebook page recently, a Fan page for Echo Designlab and I've gotten a lot of people that I know or at least I've known in the business who are looking at my stuff which is really cool. I mean, it's really nice and people refer my stuff and I try to link back. I think it just grows a bigger creative community now. It's not all about getting that next client or getting another piece of business, but I think it's awareness and I think awareness is very important.

Juliette:

Have you ever hired somebody that you found through social media?

Sean:

Yes... right now we're in the middle of it...

Juliette:

Wow.

Sean:

Yeah. So, it's worked in that respect. And it's also given me an inspiration too, looking at some other people's Fan pages and seeing what they're doing has made me say, "Wow, I really need to do this," or "I need to go and research this," because I identify with it.

Juliette:

How do you usually like to be solicited by talent? By phone, email, print? What have you found as an effective way to be targeted?

Sean:

Print always gets me just because I'm a little bit old school on that. But I also respond to phone calls and emails. I think the email blasts, even though I'm guilty of doing it myself, but I try to do it only when there's something to say. Otherwise, it's just junk. But eblasts are good though they're becoming so widespread and so constant that it's really hard to keep up. Because you get, if I'm away from my desk for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, I'll get a couple in that timeframe and it fills up your inbox pretty quickly.

Juliette:

Do you keep some of them?

Sean:

Oh yeah, yeah. And I have a file for those, too, in my mail system.

Juliette:

Do you tend to look for people that you know, that you've worked with before, that you've heard of, or do you find that you're open to any type of talent that's out there whether you know them or not?

Sean:

I'm open to anyone. I mean, I look for the work that's going to solve the problem that I have as creative director. When I have a very delicate situation or a very kind of unique or very important job that there's no room for any mistakes, I'll usually go to someone that I know I can trust and someone that I've worked with in the past.

Juliette:

You've been very heavily involved in the music industry having worked at a record label and in also doing freelance, how do you think that that industry has evolved as far as its use of photography, illustration, design?

Sean:

I hate to say it but I feel like they've gotten a little safe. I think that budgets are getting smaller - a lot smaller - and they're not taking as many risks because they look at them as a risk. So, you see a lot of the same photographers working for that industry, see a lot of the same-looking stuff and I think that the record companies, in general, if they would just start to embrace the digital world as opposed to fighting it as much as they do, I think that there would be a renaissance of good photographers, good designers and everything because that's not where we as designers make our money anymore. It's from music. I think music has now turned into so much more of a fun, kind of creative release, more so than the thing that's going to put the food on the table.

Juliette:

So, what's the most important element - somebody wanting to go after that business - what would be the thing that they really need to have in their portfolio?

Sean:

I think it would be just to have something that's unique. Have your own voice. Don't try to kind of emulate anyone else's work. Try to have your own style, have your own look. And I think that's what's going to stand out.

Juliette:

Who would they be approaching now at the record labels or in the music industry? Who should they even be trying to get their portfolio in front of?

Sean:

Still the art directors and their creative directors and all that. I think that there are still some that are left within the industry. But I think more so the marketing people. There are now more marketers. There are now more marketing departments. There are more product managers that are kind of overseeing the creative now.

Juliette:

You've been on both sides of negotiation, as an artist and as a creative director, where do you see the main issues come up in negotiations?

Sean:

Usage I think is a big one.

Juliette:

Mm-hmm. Do you have any advice for artists on how they should handle negotiations?

Sean:

I think they should listen to what the company... the reasons why the company is asking for whatever rights they're asking for and see if you can work out a deal that both sides can agree on.

Juliette:

Have you seen fees go up or down over the years?

Sean:

Oh, they're down. I mean, they're down. I see enough swing. I do see that within the past three or four months that - I'm not going to say that budgets are getting bigger but I can say that the phone's ringing a little bit more now than it was four months ago.

Juliette:

Is there anything that an artist can say to help them get higher fees or any selling point that they should be trying to bring up?

Sean:

No. I think that being available to go a little bit further with the work is going to make a bigger difference. We go into a company and they say, "We want you to do the package design for this artist." I'll ask questions like, "Who's doing the website?" or "How do you want us to work with the web designer?"

And a lot of the times, they don't have a website person yet and I'll say, "Look, why don't you just come to us? We'll do the website. We'll do the design of the package. We'll do the merch and we can oversee the photo shoot." My company can pretty much handle as an outside art department. And it makes it easier for them because if it's a band or if it's a record label, there are two things that happen.

The record label itself is looking for something that's going to have them do less work. And if it's less work for them to make one phone call to get everything done, that's probably... your kind of upselling. Also, with management companies, if you're working with management companies, which is another great place to go rather than to the record label because then you create fans with the band themselves and then the management can insist on them using you as photographer, designer, illustrator, whatever it is... to the record company. If you go to a manger and you solicit doing the packaging, the website, whatever it is ... you're more likely to be able to sell it into the record label because the band is already a fan.

Juliette:

Do you find that rep'd artists know how to get higher fees than non-rep'd artists?

Sean:

No. I don't necessarily think so. I think sometimes with an agent or a rep, you are removed from having to make the uncomfortable phone calls about money or negotiations and I think that's the benefit. That's one of the great benefits of having a rep is that it kind of lets you stay as being, or at least it makes you look like you're just dealing with the creative, you're not dealing with the management and all that stuff. It's so much easier to let someone else do that because they're more seasoned with it.

Juliette:

When you've been in the role of hiring the photographer, how much did budget impact your choice of the talent versus the talent of the artist?

Sean:

I try to sell the work. If I'm creative directing an ad campaign or whatever it is, I try to sell the creativity of it... and it doesn't matter if the person requires a big budget or a small budget. It's more trying to get the talent, the photographer, the designer, the illustrator to be more excited about the project and want to do the project and not look at it as a money... as only for how much they're going to make from it.

I want them to own it. I want them to have a voice in the creativity. It's not going to be heavy-handed and all these things go in to help sell a really strong piece in someone's portfolio which is what I love to see... work that I've done in collaboration with a photographer, an illustrator, a designer. I like seeing it in their book because it just makes me feel like, "Okay, this person obviously respected the process. They had fun doing it and they're proud of the results."

Juliette:

Do you have advice for new people getting into the business? Anything you've noticed over the years that you're like, "Oh, if I were to start now, I would do this differently."

Sean:

Yeah, I guess I have to go right back to the quality of your image, and by image I mean your outside, your packaging. It's really easy to get a $200 postcard made but, at the end of the day, it's inexpensive paper... and I still do them if I have something urgent and immediate, I have to get out. I still do those fast, cheap postcards.

But I think the quality for a good creative director, for a photographer or an illustrator who are sending something to a creative director or a designer, if they're like me, they're going to care about the quality of the piece they're getting. Not just the work on it but how it's printed, what materials are used to create it and all that. I think that those things are very important to learn early on. That paper, selection of paper, glossy mat, thick stock, thin stock, metallic ink... whatever it is, whatever makes it special and unique is going to benefit you in the long run because you're not going to be one of hundreds and thousands that do the $200 postcard.

Juliette:

Do you have advice for a photographer who is established, but not hot right now, who is trying to revamp themselves?

Sean:

Think digital. Everything is headed towards this digital future and I think that you need to just kind of embrace it. It's the same thing I'd say to record companies. Embrace this digital technology because it's not going away. If you become a part of it, it's going to be a lot easier further down the line than if you fought it for so long. So, focus on your website, focus on digital whatever - whether it's emails or social networking, start a Fan page on Facebook and try to just get your name out there in that respect to show people that you can be current and just like all of the new people that are coming into the business now.

Juliette:

Okay. Thank you very much for your time.

Sean:

Okay, thank you.

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