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Sunday, June 17, 2007

ask a designer: answers (port2port press)

hello there. first, i want to thank grace for asking me to be the "designer" in the
"ask a designer" series. as long as i have read design*sponge {2+ years now} grace has been a force for helping people get their work in front of more eyes ... i am very grateful for the online space she has created. second, thanks for being so curious! i am shocked that i had so many questions come in but i'm happy to give whatever information i can. as you will see, i organized them in a way that i thought was helpful. i wish you all luck in your endeavors and i thank you for reading my
answers ...


Where did you go to school and what did you study there? Did you pretty much know what you wanted to do when you entered college?

i went to school at indiana university and studied fine art/graphic design. i did not know what i wanted to study when i got there; not at all. i ended up in art when english just seemed to be the wrong fit for me. i never took one art class in high school nor did i show any interest in it as i was growing up. now, i get nearly all of my inspiration from the art world and i am very grateful to be a small part of it.

Do you have a day job? Does Port2Port pay the household bills? Is port2port a hobby business - something you do in your spare time for fun and to make a little extra cash or is it your sole source of income? How many hours a week would you say you spend designing,fulfilling orders, drumming up new business, and printing?

first, let me say that i love these questions. i can see why they are asked because of course you want some kind of context to my answers
to these "design" questions! so, i do not have a "day job"; port2port is my main source of income; i do some graphic design, art direction, photography & styling on the side to supplement. i do all of the work for port2port so i would say i put in at least 40 hours each week, maybe more. i will be completely honest and tell you that every month is a struggle to pay bills & rent. but i work hard and put all of my
effort into what i create so ... it works for me to have my work-life set up this way. {note: i have not been to the dentist in ages nor do i have health insurance; don't tell my parents}.

I have a question about location: is it tough to promote, make and find customers (or shops) for your work living outside of a "big city" ?

my location is portland, maine. we have a small town feel up here but i have found the community nothing but positive and supportive. i do not think one needs to be in a big city to have a creative & artistic company. i do think it may take more work to make connections but i don't mind because a small town fits my lifestyle needs completely.

Is there any part of the business that you expected to have trouble doing yourself, and how is it really? What, if anything, has helped? I am always thinking I would love to live on west coast, in part for the way I feel when I'm there; how did you decide to move across country? Was it a big move? And how did the move compel you to start port2port

when i moved from chicago to portland it was a big move and a big decision. i had a major support system in place in my life with friends and family so that helped quite a bit. the move certainly helped streamline my life and made having a small business possible {not that i had the idea back then}. i pay less for everything here so it helps in a practical sense and i am very inspired by my surroundings {the ocean, the woods, the cobble streets, etc} and that propelled me to make art. port2port press was started on a whim. i made one card in late 2005 and put it online. the next thing i knew i was making one card each month and expanding to one card set each month. it was a very organic process that was inched on by my daily life and how i had it set up. as i wanted to create more work, i found that i was dropping more freelance work {or it just worked out that the projects ended} and the business grew because there was a demand for it to grow. i have always expected to have trouble with a few parts of the business: the planning & the funding. i tend to plow forward with making work and not necessarily thinking about the possible consequences of making that work. for the most part i am okay with that struggle and i can't honestly tell you that it will go away any time soon.

Do you do a lot of planning? And do you actually go through with your plans?

as i just mentioned, i do some planning and for the most part i do go through with the plans. of course i think it's easy for me to go through with them because they are mainly small things like: "next month buy shipping supplies."

How do you have everything looking so professional? Say for example who writes your text on your website? Do you have any other people helping you?

thank you! i think that my work experience helps me make things look "professional". i have been lucky to work with many talented people and i am always like a sponge ... i like to learn from others. i write the text on my website; truly, i do everything for port2port press. however, i have lots of people who help me. with a small business i always think it's best to call on your friends. i have a dear friend from high school who is my marketing guru and another one who programs my website. i have lots of online friends from the blog community who i get tons of opinions from. i may do all of the work but i constantly call on my community for help.

I was wondering if you worked with a mentor to get your business up and running or was this all of your own accord? How did you know how to handle the business & marketing things?

i have had a few mentors with the letterpress part of the business. i learned about printing from a few guys who had a real passion for the precision of it all. i gathered a ton of knowledge just working in someone else's printshop and getting my hands dirty. as mentioned above, the business & marketing parts of my business are parts that i do but reluctantly. thankfully i have an old friend who i can call on for advice in such matters. port2port press doesn't have too many business and marketing matters though so i guess i'm lucky in that regard.

How have you gone about finding shops to carry your work? What have you found out when it comes to getting your goods into shops all around? Do you do any of the large trade shows, catalogs, sales reps? Does this take alot of time away from creating?

i have chosen to set up my business, for now, without wholesale accounts. it really comes down to the fact that i can't create it all myself the way i want to and make enough of the product to try to get it into shops, etc. for me it has never been about getting my work into shops. it has been about getting my work out of my head and onto paper. i would say port2port press is less stationery company and more monthly goods on paper company {if that makes any sense}. i design new paper goods each month and i don't reprint designs because that would defeat the purpose. i love creating and working from a place of monthly inspiration. if i was going to develop a wholesale line i don't think i would do the printing myself and that would just create a whole new wing of port2port press. i'm not quite ready for that and therefore things like trade shows, catalogs, sales reps, etc.

Is it hard to make a decent living with so much competition?

yes. one thousand times yes.


I'd love to know if Maria feels limited by the size and mechanics of the Pilot. I suppose I could email her to ask but I get the feeling it would be useful for folks to know - they're coveted and hard to come by, which in turn is reflected in the price for one, and yet I wonder how she compares it to work on the Vandercook or other larger press.

indeed the Pilot has lots of limitations but i don't spend too much time thinking about it. since most of the work i make are folded or flat cards it works quite well for such small pieces. i completely love the Vandercook. i learned to print on a press of this size. if i could squeeze one into my apartment {where i have my studio} i would do it in a second. they are such beautiful machines. i encourage all letterpress lovers to try printing on as many presses as they can.

What type of ink do you use with your press and where can i find it? Do you use polymer or magnesium plates? which do you find to work better? How do you get the shimmer? i have never had such luck with the rubber-based inks. What would you do if your press broke and you were
in the middle of a time-sensitive project?

i use rubber based & oil based inks. i buy them all from NA Graphics out of Colorado. i use magnesium plates which i get produced monthly by Owosso Graphics in Michigan. i don't do anything special to my metallic inks to get them to shimmer. i will say that for those printings i tend to use more ink; it's possible that that helps. if my press broke i would cry. after that i would figure out a plan of attack. luckily i just procured a 2nd Pilot so i am feeling less stressed about this kind of scenario. also i don't take on too many time-sensitive projects as i don't do a ton of custom work.

What camera do you use to shoot your inspiration shots and your
finished product shots? Do you alter them much in photoshop or just the

i use a Nikon d40. i also do a ton of shooting with film cameras. i
prefer film so i use it whenever i can. when necessary i certainly do use Photoshop for my digital images. i think that Photoshop is a part of the "basics" of digital photography since after all the images are meant to be seen on a computer.


I'm wondering what advice you might have for somebody hoping to start up a similar business? Do you suggest buying a letterpress right off the bat? In the early stages of your business, what steps did you take to build up your visibility and customer base into what it is today?

it's so hard for me to give advice since my business is so personal and customized to me but here are my thoughts ... if you want to have a letterpress business then firstly, spend time printing. i think it's important to know that the printing itself is often times tedious and hard on the body. so i would say find a print shop and see if you can intern there. if you fall in love then certainly it would make sense to buy a press. i have noticed in recent years that they are hard to find but briarpress.org is a great resource for all things letterpress-related. then i think it's important to define the kind of business you want. it's very easy, once you start, to hold yourself up against other businesses and think "mine should be like this" but i advise against that. i know that for me i want to make a modest living and make monthly art. those were my defining factors. so, define yours and go from there. as for building visibility and gaining a customer base, for me it sort of happened as a consequence of my life. i started a blog with one of my best friends in april of 2005. we started it to communicate with each other and take more photographs. i would say that the experience of being a part of the online artistic community just propelled me to
where i am. i didn't stop to think about it that much. it was nothing that i worked on and i certainly had no idea when i started it all that anyone would care to read an interview like this about me and my business! for me it has been about intentions and modest actions. again, this may not be practical advice to you and i do wish i had more of it but i guess i would say just get out there and do it.

What is it that keeps you going on those oh-so-tired days? Any words of advice for beginning designers that need to balance their creative work with a busy day job?

i remember last year i was running behind on printing my calendar
and i was running 2-3 inks each day ... i was just exhausted and my body was so sore that i was nearly crying on press. but somehow i just kind of made it through. maybe it was because it was me and my work and that was such a satisfying feeling. maybe it was the few glasses of wine i had each night. or maybe it was the fact that i had somehow surrounded myself with people who were working just as hard as i was, be it artists i had met in the online community or friends in town who were buzzing around with their "day jobs." i guess somehow even when i am tired i try to remind myself that i like what i do most days and that is really important. so i guess it's inner peace and all that rot. and i think if you are working a "day job" and wanting to also do letterpress printing maybe just shoot for doing one project each month. or one project each season. i think even that could be extremely rewarding if not more so than having to do more than that.

I love the concept of the card society. I have thought about doing something similar with the jewelry I make. Can you tell us about how you came up with the idea, the pros and cons, any other advice about it?

thank you! the card society is the love of my life. printing 2 cards each month and sending them out to places all over our country and the world just makes my heart skip a beat. the idea just sort of hit me {somewhat influenced by the Vosges Lunar Club Haut-Chocolat because i worked for Vosges for years} ... and i didn't put to much more thought into it after that. my marketing friend and other friends helped me define what it would be and then it just began! it was when i was 6 months into it that i figured out the financial numbers {oops} and made a few adjustments and certainly adjustments are still being made. a pro is that i can create new work each month and have a reason to get it out into the world. a con is that it's quite a bit of work and if i get right down to it i am not making that much money. my advice is just start small. if you want to do a mailorder club make sure you offer options and be ready to change and learn as you go. there is nothing wrong with change when it comes to a project like this... don't be afraid of it.

I would love advice on how to get that first design job. I worked in
photography and went back to school for graphic design. I find that places want 2+ years experience and find it's tough to get a foot in the door.

ack! i hate that "2+ years experience" line. i remember that. i would say that the best advice i have is to network. maybe that seems like an annoying word but it's really not. why shouldn't you meet people and talk to them about yourself and what you're looking for out of a work situation? maybe you will find something in a place that you never knew to look! many of my favorite jobs have been found via friends or acquaintances. and maybe don't be afraid to take something that may seem "beneath" you. there is much to learn on the bottom rung and there are always rungs above it as well.


Do you do your own illustrations? if you do, what suggestion would you have for someone who would like to make stationery but can't make their own illustrations?

i do not draw but often times use my photography or scanning to
create original illustrations. i also use lots of bits from old books and clip art, etc {and i alter them}. it doesn't bother me in the least to use art that is out in the public domain. i don't think that all illustrations need to be original. i think it's more about intention and original creation. if i take an illustration that i find in an old book and alter it a little and print it on a card it becomes something new. there are lots of places to find illustrations; you could start with Dover Publications.

How do you stay inspired after all this time to create new and interesting designs? What inspires you? Who are you favorite artists?
Artists you admire and ones that inspire you? What books, movies and music do you find most inspiring?

i am certainly not up & inspired every day. somedays i just need to do the grunt work of printing or shipping so i can zone out! but i try
to keep myself inspired by taking lots of walks, giving myself plenty of time off, browsing online content {blogs, flickr, artist sites}, photographing, tearing out bits from magazines, blogging, talking to other artists or friends, not getting bogged down by the details. i keep my studio, the largest room in my apartment, pretty organized and i update my inspirations wires regularly {see them here}. it helps me to take old inspirations down and replace them with new ones. bottom line: i'm inspired by simple, practical, beautiful. inspiring me lately: {these lists could be longer but ... }

artists: Maude Arsenault, Elisabeth Dunker, Camilla Engman, Gracia Haby + Louise Jennison, Christopher Ryan, Ditte Isager, Chie Nakagawa, Lena Corwin, Ivana Helsinki, Roland Bello, Caitlin Mociun, Akira Minagawa, Ben Loiz, Karen Gelardi, Karin Eriksson.

books: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austin, The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater, Pure Style Living by Jane Cumberbatch, The Years by Virginia Woolf, Evening by Susan Minot ... i love japanese craft-style books and magazines too!

movies: Dead Man, Reconstruction, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Rear Window, The House of Sand, Amelie, V for Vendetta, Punch Drunk Love, 25th Hour, Matrix


I'll be visiting a friend in Portland in a couple weeks - is there a store I can find your work in?

i have my Aurum Stria series of cards {done with the wonderful illustrator Natalie Tweedie} in Edith & Edna on Exchange Street. they can also be seen online at Little Paper Planes, Papa Stour & Tote.


Blogger Andy Mathis said...

Thanks for sharing your experience and advice, Maria. Very informative.

Kudos for the card society, great idea.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

thanks! this is a great insight to your process. Thanks for being so transparent about your process/business.

7:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for such honest open answers and keep up the beautiful work!

7:05 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

So truthful and interesting! I can definitely relate to the accounts you gave! It's nice to read about the "true" side of a 1-person indie business without all the smoke and mirrors. Congrats on living such an authentic and fulfilling life!

7:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading these responses! Thank you Maria and Grace!

7:13 AM  
Blogger Peggy said...

this is so interesting!
When I get your cards in the mail they just seem so mystical and special to me! I think it's funny that I order my supplies from the same sources, and even have some of the same dover pub. books that you've used images from. But it's the way that you put it all together that makes it truly unique and special!

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful group interview, authentic, alive, and exciting!

8:39 AM  
Blogger Wicked Good Dinner said...

I've been an admirer of your work for some time. It was very neat and inspiring to read about your business - I love your philosophy :-) Best wishes and much continued success!


8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great read. Very inspiring! Thanks for spending the time to give such thoughful answers. I had lunch with Katrina at Taste3 last year and we talked about her package design and how she really valued the designers she worked with...I had no idea it was you!

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much Maria for such insight into your work and business. It is really quite eye-opening and inspiring, so thank you again for taking the time to go into the detail you did. Your work is just beautiful, and thank you Grace for bringing your readers this great column!
Best to you both!

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fantastic questions! fantastic answers! fantastic YOU!

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks mav & grace! this was FANTASTIC! -joyo

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heart you mav. Thanks for the inspiration and honesty!

3:03 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

The Years is one of my favorite books, too. Seems like many people know Mrs. Dalloway or To The Lighthouse, but The Years, ah! The Years. I suppose you know the story of how long it took Woolf to write it and how she thought it was going to include essays. Anyway, thanks for your lovely answers.

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh sweet friend... SO glad the stars have kept us aligned. You are an inspiration.

8:33 PM  
Blogger julie said...

an inspirational read!!!!!!!

4:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great interview. I have followed Port2Port for awhile now, and as I am branching out into paper, this came along at the right time. Thank you!

10:19 AM  
Blogger Kelly Lynn Jones said...

she makes beautiful work..xoxo

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just discovered your 3191 blog and port2port and found it all VERY inspiring. my head filled up with many questions and so i was delighted to find a lot of them answered in this interview. hats off to you for getting out there and doing it and keeping it simple and fresh, unique and individual.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Léah said...

i read this over and over... i appreciate the honesty and it gives me hope, smiles and makes me glad someone else likes House of Sand too. :D

10:05 PM  

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