Scratch that itch: Turn your creativity into a career

One of Tomas Cottle’s many designs for Wellington brewery Garage Project

One of Tomas Cottle’s many designs for Wellington brewery Garage Project

Passionate about a creative pursuit, but too scared to turn it into a full-time career? Here’s some expert advice to help you make the leap.

For too long, potential creatives have been relegating their passions to the realms of side hustles and hobbies, too scared to try to turn them into viable careers. 

Cliches don’t rule

Why? For many, two correlating cliches stand in their way. The first is that of the tortured artist. There’s the idea that creatives should eschew financial security because their minds should be on loftier things than eating and paying rent. The second is that true art comes at the cost of widespread appeal, because to be commercially successful means sacrificing authenticity. It’s safer to have a day job, regulating your creative pursuits to weekends in the garden shed between loads of laundry and the weekly supermarket shop. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Now, more than ever, it is possible to turn your creative pursuits into a fully-fledged career. We chatted to Dr Jon He, programme coordinator of our Master of Creative Enterprise and freelance designer Tomas Cottle about how to make it happen.

Balancing business with creativity  

For Jon, the biggest challenge for creatively-inclined people is creating something that people actually want. “It’s difficult, we make art because we’re interested and want to create something new and interesting for ourselves; it always starts with self. Getting caught up in personal interests when going into commercialisation rather than considering what people need and want is a fine balance.” 

Tomas, who graduated from Massey’s Wellington School of Design and now designs packaging for clients like Garage Project, The Eco Store and Part Time Rangers, agrees finding the balance between your own own creative impulses and commercial requirements can be tricky. 

“Sometimes my creative solution aligns with what the client had in mind and it’s a smooth journey. Other times, I have to negotiate and decide how much I’m willing to fight for something that I believe will truly make the design better, and what to let go,” he says. “It’s pretty rare that everything will go my way, but also, I’m under no illusions that I’m always going to get it right by myself. Some of my best work has come from client suggestions.”

An understanding of what people are feeling and the environment you are working in and what you can bring to it trumps business nous, says Jon. “The business side can be taught. As a creative, once you truly understand the environment and what your audience or client wants, and can make something they want and desire while still getting your message across, it is invaluable for your personal growth.”

It’s not selling out, it’s buying in 

Jon says a common myth among creatives is that once turn your creative output into a business (in other words, actually try to make a living from it), you’ll lose your artistic integrity. 

“It’s a catch-22, because creating something the market requires/desires, and creating something that excites you are often two very different things. But you can still shape your creative process with vigour. Just because it’s disseminated at a large scale doesn’t mean that you’re selling out. Rather, it means that you’re a good conveyor of your message because you can understand it.”  

Jon reckons aspiring creatives should throw away their preconceptions about what commercialising their work means. “There are many ways to go to market in a way that’s perfectly fine for you,” he says.” I don’t see it as selling out. I see it as buying in.” 

Tomas has found that just because work is created for commercial purposes, doesn’t mean it can’t also be personally fulfilling. “A lot of my freelance work is creatively satisfying. I don’t consider it laborious work; it’s something I look forward to,” he says. 

Tomas Cottle's designs for Ecostore
Tomas Cottle’s limited-edition Ecostore designs

Analyse your work critically

One of the important things that Massey’s Master of Creative Enterprise programme teaches students is how to analyse their existing work critically so they can draw insights. “One key emphasis of the programme is that we need to be critical of our own work. By evaluating and asking difficult questions about process and outcomes, new ideas and approaches may be discovered.” 

For Tomas, analysing his work critically is something he sees as a “responsibility”, both to himself and his clients. “My designs are sometimes replicated millions of times, and if something causes a little confusion or is annoying for some reason, that adds up.” At the same time, he says too much analysis early on can make progress difficult. “I find now that if I'm getting excited by an idea I'm probably on the right track and try to go with my gut a bit before getting too critical.”

Use mentors and market research 

Jon says that having a business mentor and using market research is useful throughout your creative career. “Mentors are key for getting your business going. Not only can they help you set goals and offer advice - they’re a platform,” says Jon. “They can help you look at things in a way you otherwise wouldn’t. They have an understanding of both your creative process and your character - they can help you navigate the business world, kind of like a parent.”

Market research can also be used to gain an understanding of how your work is going to translate to the market. “Surveys are good for large sample sizes, while focus groups are good for immediate feedback,” Jon advises. “Depending on how niche your product is, you might also like to get experts in the field to offer their thoughts as well.” 

Scratch that itch 

Tomas’ number-one piece of advice for anyone looking to turn their creative pursuit into a career is to worry about the commercial side of things second, and work out what truly interests you first. “Scratch whatever creative itch you have,” he says. “If you follow your interests the work will be easier, it’ll be better, and you’ll enjoy it more.”

This content was first published on The Big Idea.

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Toi Rauwhārangi
College of Creative Arts
Wellington, Aotearoa