This the story behind the pop-up card that turned around my career
There are times when opportunities are abundant and money seems easy. The economy is booming and everyone is dreaming of glory. This is how it was when I was starting out in design and illustration. Then, seemingly overnight, things changed. Almost everyone I knew was out of work and the economy was sliding into a deep recession.
There was talk of lay-offs where I was working and many of my free-lance clients were cutting back. Not wanting to be tossed out, I quit my job and headed back to college. (Truthfully, the college experience wasn’t looking good either, as I had already studied commercial art under Bud Norton—once the student of Burnt Horgarth (legendary American cartoonist)—who was a tough teacher with the gift of being able to efficiently pound high professional standards into my head at a tender age.) When I quit my design job, my expectation was that I could carry on in school supported by my free-lance illustration work for advertising agencies. It didn’t take long before I found so few clients left standing that I had to search for a new strategy to break out of my local market.
With next to nothing left in my bank account, I was up against what has remained the most difficult and gut-renching existential moment in my career. I needed a new ad plan for my illos, something that would really “pop” to get people’s attention. As I thought about this, I came up with the idea of a pop-up card—a literal take on the idea of advertising that pops. This was not to be the usual mass-mailed illustration postcard idea, but a carefully targeted 3-D self-promotion—something strange enough to leave viewers wondering.
I was confident it could be done, but I was short on cash. It had to be printed in B&W and I would have to hand cut each card. Maybe a risky way to deal out my last bucks, but the alternative was sure career death by invisibility.
I made a few prototypes to ensure it would work, printed the minimum print run, built a jig for applying an even layer of spray-mount glue, and started hand cutting each card.
This laborious task of cutting complex cards seemed to take forever. I carried cards and fresh X-acto blades with me everywhere for the next few days—to class, to dinners with friends, etc.—until I had cut out about around 25 cards. One of these cards I sent to HOW magazine, a periodical for print design professionals. This is when the gods smiled on me. The HOW magazine’s editors gave me, without any charge, a full page in an upcoming edition. Among the people who saw it was a designer at Henry Holt publishing in New York. This is how I got my start illustrating children’s books…