Art Licensing Fundamentals: Finding Buyers for Your Art | Shannon McNab | Skillshare

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Art Licensing Fundamentals: Finding Buyers for Your Art

teacher avatar Shannon McNab, Surface Designer & Illustrator

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

7 Lessons (27m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Understanding Your Portfolio's Potential

    • 3. Where Should You Go Looking for Companies?

    • 4. Searching for the Right Contact

    • 5. Knowing Who’s in Charge

    • 6. Become an Inbox Hunter

    • 7. Final Thoughts + Your Assignment

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About This Class

So far my classes have focused on giving you strategies for improving your pattern design skills, but now I’m switching gears and focusing on the business side of the industry.  Finding Buyers for Your Art delves into one of the most important components of a healthy surface design career.

Here's just a few things you'll learn in class:

  • How to describe your art (and how it helps you find buyers)
  • 6 different methods for finding companies
  • How to decide if your art is a good fit for a company
  • Common job titles to look for when searching for contacts
  • 6 ways to search for the correct contact
  • The BEST method I've found to find a contact's email address

My hope is that by the end of this class, you’ll have more confidence to search for and connect with buyers. Because at the end of the day, that’s what will help your business grow!

Meet Your Teacher

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Shannon McNab

Surface Designer & Illustrator


Hi ya! I'm Shannon, an American surface designer living in Dublin, Ireland who specializes in patterns and hand lettering. My focus is on helping you not only improve your creative work, but also your business skills – anyone who dreams of making a living from their work needs BOTH to succeed. But community is also really important, which is why I started Sketch Design Repeat – to support and encourage you.


PS. Want to keep in touch and know when I have new classes or articles? Sign up for my newsletter.

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1. Introduction: Hi there. I'm Sucre McNabb and I'm a service designer and illustrator working in the San Francisco Bay area. Now so far, my classes sculpture have focus mostly on the pattern design side of things and helping you improve your skills. But, that's only a small piece of being successful service designer and that's why I've decided to switch gears in this class and instead talk about the business side of things. More specifically, how to find companies who want to purchase your art. Now, I've only been a surface designer for the past two years. In that time though, I've researched and reached out to more than 100 companies, and from my efforts, I secured over 20 licensing deals and if there's anything I've learned in my brief time as a service designer is that there's more than one right way to find potential new buyers. You just have to experiment a lot. Because the service design business is first and foremost a number scheme, and the truth is, very few leaves will pan out. In fact, you're likely to receive replies from only about 5-10 percent of the people you contact. You might as well start the process by knowing how to find the best companies out there for you in your portfolio. In this class, I'll discuss how to review your portfolio and generate a word list about your style that will help you in your quest for finding buyers. Then, we'll dive into different methods you can use to search for companies and how to decide if your art is a good fit for that. Finally, we'll tackle the tough task of how to find the right person you need to contact or the company you're interested in working with. My hope is by the end of this class that you'll have more confidence to search for and connect with buyers. Because at the end of the day, that's one of the best things you can do to help your business grow. 2. Understanding Your Portfolio's Potential: Before we dive headfirst into the process of finding companies you'd like to sell your art to, I think it's important to first discuss your portfolio and to understand its strengths and limitations. After all, what good is it to reach out to companies if you can't articulate what makes you and your art special? Your art should always reflect the work you hope to get and the markets you'd most like to see your designs in. Likewise, it's important to have a wide range of subject matter and a mix of both patterns and illustrations to help you broaden your reach within the markets you plan to target. For example, if you were hoping to license your art to the gift wrap market, you'd want to make sure you had portfolio pieces themed to big occasions like Christmas and birthday. Plus a healthy mix of non holiday designs, like florals or animals. While gift wrap utilizes mostly patterns, you shouldn't completely omit hand lettering or spot illustrations as they could be easily used for gift bags and tags. However, if you were hoping to get work illustrating children's books, your art would be much more focused on illustrating characters and hand lettering. Unless so on patterns. Of course, it's unlikely you'll make a living with art licensing if you only target a single market. So it's a good idea to pick several. My best advice is to focus on creating new work and themes that aren't currently represented in your designs. So the breadth of your portfolio does the work for you. Now, besides the type of art you create, it's also important to have a basic understanding of your style. Doing so will make it much easier for you to find companies that are best suited to your art and help you approach them with more confidence. I know many of you may be saying, "Well, I don't have a style" or "I work in multiple styles." But the fact is your art often speaks louder for you than you think. If you're unsure about how to describe your work, here's a quick exercise that can help. First, gather your 10 favorite pieces from your portfolio. Look at them all individually and then together as a group. Next, print out the PDF titled "Portfolio Style Guide" found into your project section of this class. Or take a blank piece of paper and jot down any trends you notice between your designs, whether it's color, texture, shading, line quality, subject matter, etc. I bet you that after 10-20 minutes of examining them, you'll find at least one connective thread between them. Then, think about the words that you feel best describe your work and write them all down. I've included a short word list in the PDF, if you're having trouble coming up with your own. From your notes and word list, you should be able to come up with a good phrase or two to uniquely describe your work to potential clients. For example, the current phrase I use to represent my art is sweet yet sophisticated. It's extremely short, but it gives someone a very clear idea of the type of work I create. 3. Where Should You Go Looking for Companies?: There is an endless supply of companies that need art for their products. But it can be really tough to find them, especially if you're new to the industry. Of course, they're the big names we've all heard of, like Target, Land of Nod, Anthropologie or HallMark. But what about the countless other smaller businesses? How do you go about finding them? The good news is there's lots of different ways you can find companies. Here's just a few different methods I personally use to find the names and websites of potential buyers. Google Search. This may be the easiest method, but it can also be the most time-consuming and often hit or miss on the results you'll get. Typically, the more descriptive you are, the better your search results will be. So instead of just typing in wall art, type something more specific, like watercolor holiday wall art. If you're not sure what descriptors to use to narrow your search, simply review the word list you created when defining your style from video two and use one or more of those words. Product research shopping. Head to your favorite store and browse the products you'd like to see your art on. Then when you come across a product that resonates with you and your art style, pick it up and look for the company information. Which you can usually find on the back or bottom of the product or on the UPC label. I find it helpful to snap a quick photo of the company's information on my phone for me to reference later. But you can also keep a running list on your phone or in a notebook. I find this method is something that works in tandem with other methods and should be your main resource for finding companies. Social media shoutouts. Chances are you follow lots of other surface designers on Instagram. I'm sure you've seen posts from them occasionally sharing a product their art is featured on, usually tagged with a company who's selling it. Well, the next time that happens, take a beat and jot down the company's name. Or better yet, use Instagram's saved feature and start a collection of post featuring company products. Here's how you do it. First, find the little flag just below the right-hand side of the photo you'd like to save and press and hold it until it brings up the Save To screen. Next, press the plus sign in the right corner and entitled a collection. Something you'll remember easily, like companies or SD businesses and press Done. Once you've created the collection, it will show up in the Save To screen the next time you go to save an image. If you'd like to view the entire collection of saved images, you first have to be on your Instagram profile page. From there press the navigation icon in the top right corner. Then press Saved. Finally, click on the Collection. Artist and agents websites. I bet you viewed your fair share of designers websites and peruse their beautiful work. But how often do you read their about page? If you didn't before, here's a big reason you should now. Many artists about page includes a list of companies they've worked with, which makes them an incredible resource to you. This is one of my absolute favorite ways to find companies because it means that the company is listed, already work with independent artists and not just an in-house design team. Trade show exhibitor lists. As part of a trade shows marketing efforts, they usually publish the entire exhibitor lists to help entice buyers to attend the show. But those exhibitor lists can be incredibly useful to you. Now, I'm not talking about trade shows like Surtex where you would be the exhibitor. I'm talking about trade shows like the National Stationary Show or the Atlantic Gift Show where the companies you want to work with are exhibiting. Most shows have hundreds, if not thousands, of exhibitors. So just like Google Search, this method can be incredibly time-consuming. However, if you set aside a few days, once or twice a year to sift through an upcoming trade shows exhibitor list, the payoff can be well worth the effort. Exhibiting at a trade show. I know the time and financial investment to exhibit at a trade show like Surtex or Blueprint is high, but it has been the single most helpful method I've used to find new companies. During my most recent show at Surtex in 2018, I've met with roughly 50 different companies at my booth. To put that into perspective, remember in the intro video when I mentioned how surface design is a numbers game and that you're likely to only hear back from about 10 percent of those you contact. We'll think about how many weeks and months you'd have to dedicate to researching and contacting 500 different companies. Just so you might get a response from approximately 50 of them. That's probably the easiest way for me to illustrate why I think trade shows are still the absolute best way to get your art in front of the people that matter. Now I know that exhibiting isn't always possible for everyone, especially if you're at the beginning of your surface design journey. That's why I thought it was important to detail several other methods in this video to help you get started. However, if exhibiting at a trade show is something you're considering in the future, I have a series on my blog dedicated to sharing my experiences as an exhibitor at Surtex. You can find a link to the series along with additional links you may find helpful in the class resources PDF found under the year Project tab of this class. 4. Searching for the Right Contact: If only we lived in a world where art directors and buyers always publicly share their contact information, wouldn't that be incredible? It would certainly make our job a bit easier. Unfortunately, that world doesn't exist. It's up to us as surface designers to hunt that information down. Another process of doing so is not as easy as it is searching for companies. It's sometimes not as difficult as we think either. The trick is to know where to look. Here are six ways I've successfully found the right company contact ranked from least to most successful. Company website. This works best with small to medium-sized businesses, as you can sometimes find the names of the head of each department somewhere in the about us section of their website. Since you're going to be browsing the company's website anyway, this is an easy first tactic to try. On one occasion, I've even found the email address for the art director on the company's contact page. While you're at it, take a few minutes and go digging on their website to see what you can find. Google search. Yeah, good old Google is not to be underestimated when looking for a company contact. Usually, it's best to start with the most popular design titles I mentioned in Video 5. Simply start your search by typing in art director, followed by the company's name. Usually, if there are any names to be found, there will be visible on the first or second page of results, so don't waste your time scrolling past that. If you come up empty, try one of the less common design titles. This strategy can be hit or miss, but I have found several correct contacts after the occasional Google search. Calling the company directly. Again, this is a tactic which works best with small to medium companies, when it's much easier to find the phone number of their corporate office than with large companies. You'll need to make sure to find the correct number, which most likely can be found on their contact page. Once you found it, you can give them a call. You should start the conversation with an extremely brief introduction about yourself, followed by kindly asking them if they can direct you to the correct person in charge of purchasing art. If you're unsure about how to word everything, I provided a brief cold call speech prompt in the resources PDF, you can print out and use, which you'll find in your project tab of this class. If you're nervous about making the call, practice your cold call speech a couple of times first, to get some of the nerves out. Be prepared to jot down any information they give you, either on your computer or a scrap of paper. Also, don't be discouraged if they're unable to provide you with any information, as receptionists are sometimes instructed to not give out contact info. LinkedIn search. Much more targeted than Google search. LinkedIn can give you much more accurate results when searching for company contacts. The most useful way I've found the names of art directors is by first searching for the company itself. As many companies have their own LinkedIn profile. From the top of their profile page, you'll often find a link that says, see all employees on LinkedIn. If it's a smaller company, that's probably all you'll have to do. You just scroll through the search results until you find people with the correct job titles. But what about larger companies? Like Hallmark, for example, where they have over 14 thousand employees on LinkedIn. In cases like that, it's best to use the filters at the top of your screen to help narrow your search as it can save you a lot of time and endless scrolling. Simply click all filters, navigate to the industry's section, select design, and then apply. If there's still over ten pages to scroll through, you can always go back and try adding a location filter. Just make sure you choose location where the main corporate headquarters is, which in Hallmark's case is Kansas City. One unfortunate downside to LinkedIn is the limit they put searches on if you do not have a paid account, which let's be honest, most of us don't because it's incredibly expensive. The worst part is LinkedIn hasn't publicly shared how many searches it deems too much. You often have no way of knowing how close you are to hitting their monthly limit. To help avoid that, I suggest you limit your searches to one or two days a month, only searching for a few companies at a time. Submission guidelines. It's always worthwhile when visiting a company's website to search for any information they have about submitting your work. Sometimes a company will have a dedicated page detailing artist's submissions, or you might find the information on their frequently asked questions or contact pages. In instances where a company provides submission information, I suggest you follow them exactly. It may mean you'll be emailing submissions at instead of directly with an art director. But the company set those guidelines for a reason, so you should always follow them. Trade shows and their attendee list. Just like when searching for companies, trade shows are the absolute best way to find the right person to talk to mostly because they are the people actually attending the show. It's standard practice that when someone chats with you at your booth, they'll usually provide you with a business card and ask for your orders. This makes the process easy because not only do you have a name and title, but also the direct email address. But there's a second benefit to exhibitors of a trade show, and that's having access to the full attendees list of the show, something that's not publicly available, but the exhibitor list is, especially for the companies you were hoping to see during the show, but didn't. You'll at least have access to the company contact, full name and title, and depending on the show, their email address may be included as well. Again, I know not everyone is able to exhibit at a trade show, which is absolutely okay, and it's why it's not the only strategy I wanted to share. The important thing is to find the mix of tactics that work best for you when searching for the people in charge. 5. Knowing Who’s in Charge: So you've done a little research and have a nice little list of companies you'd like to contact. But now what? This is the part of the process that often trips designers up the most, because finding a company is an easy part. But finding the right person to contact at that company, not so much. However, it's important that you do, because again, you could be wasting their time and yours if they aren't the right person to talk to, and the chances you'll hear back from them are lower because of it. Now, there may be a few rare occasions when you'll get lucky. And that person will be nice enough to either forward your information to the correct contact or that were applied to you with the correct email address. But that's not something you can count on. The first step to finding the right person is knowing what types of job titles you should be looking for when searching for company contacts. Unfortunately, there's no set standard among companies. Luckily though, there are a few pretty common ones. Most often, you'll be looking for one of two job titles, either creative or art director and buyer or art buyer. However, there's several other titles you may encounter and they may not be as popular that there's still comment. And those include senior designer or designer, product development, business manager, and editor. You'll also occasionally see owner or president, especially in smaller companies, when the main person in charge makes all their major creative decisions too 6. Become an Inbox Hunter: If you got lucky when searching for the right person to contact and found their email address and the process, bravo. But chances are more often than not, that all you'll have at this point is a name, which isn't of much use to you without a way to reach out to them directly. How do you find their email address and if it's not on the website, in their LinkedIn profile or provided to you by the nice receptionist you talked to. Some may tell you to message them directly on LinkedIn asking for their email address. That sounds great in theory, but the reality is it's extremely hard to do so. There's only two ways to message someone on LinkedIn. That is, one if you're already connected to them, which is highly unlikely. Number two, you have a paid account. As nice as it sounds, I personally feel like messaging directly in LinkedIn is mostly a waste of time. Unless you're able to pony up almost 50 bucks a month. Instead, I'd like to introduce you to my little friend, Hunter. has a set of handy-dandy tools that allows you to search for the likely email extension of company websites. The best part is there free plan allows you to perform a 100 searches per month, which is usually way more than you'll need. Here's how it works. On their domain search page, I'll type and a company in the search bar, let's say You see that search brings up a lot of emails. But what you should be most interested in here is the most common e-mail extension pattern Hunter finds for you. You can usually find that right under the search bar. In this case, it's the initial of a person's first name plus their last name, at It's important to note here that you're unlikely to find the exact contact information for the person you're looking for in the search results. But you can use the information to formulate an email address. As a hypothetical, say or found out the Art Director of Homewares Anthropologies name was Cynthia Jones. Using the information I gathered on a Hunter, I could guess with a certain degree of certainty that her e-mail address would most likely be Isn't that great? I do want to mention that a Hunter isn't always able to find an exact match to an email extension, especially for smaller companies. On occasion, it won't be able to find anything at all. However, most often I find that the searches usually bring up at least a few results and one or two likely extensions to try. That means your first attempt, sending them in introduction email may get kicks back to you as undeliverable, but at least it gives you a place to start. Again, the process of finding companies and the correct contact information takes patients and a lot of trial and error. With time and practice, you will get better at hunting it down, I promise. 7. Final Thoughts + Your Assignment: Now it's time for a little pep talk. The surface design industry is not an easy one to navigate. There's lots of trial and error involved, and lots of rejection too. So when you don't hear back from someone you've contacted or can't even find the information at all, just know that it's normal. Every surface assigner goes through the very same thing. Also, you're absolutely allowed to give yourself time and space to process the experience, and even feel sad about it when you've been rejected. Just don't let it paralyze you. That's why I always like to think of rejection as a learning opportunity. If you can't find contact information, maybe you need to change your tactics and try a different approach. Didn't receive a reply from the nice e-mail you sent? Well, maybe they liked your art but are just too busy to answer back, so keep following up. Or maybe you art isn't quite the right fit. So go and research new companies to contact. Just keep adapting and trying new things. Before we dive right into the assignment, I first want to say, thank you so much for watching. I really enjoyed making this class and I hope you've learned a lot about how to find buyers for your art, as it's one of the most integral parts of the business side of surface design. If you did like this class, please leave a review or give it a thumbs up. Doing so helps the class rank better in skill shares rankings, and it allows other people to find the class much easier. Now that that's all settled, it's finally time to get to your assignment, which I broke down into two steps. Step one, review your portfolio and fill out the portfolio style guide PDF provided. Then take a screenshot of your ten favorite pieces from your portfolio. Posts this screenshot and share with us a few words from the word list you created to describe your work. Step two, research five new companies and search for contact info utilizing the tips I gave you in class. This step may take you several weeks, so don't think you have to finish it all in one go. Once you're done though, come back to your projects and update it with a brief summary of what you did. I do want to note here, you do not need to provide a list of companies or contexts you found. Just a brief explanation of what you learned and any successes you've had so your fellow classmates can learn from you, and cheer you on. Again, thank you so much for watching, and I can't wait to hear all about how your company hunt goes. [ MUSIC]