How designing is like writing

Alternative title: How manufacturing is like publishing

Ostensibly I’m a writer so I read a lot about writing and publishing. Meandering, I find so many analogies from writing and publishing that are equally appropriate to designing and manufacturing. I realize that some of what I have to say doesn’t resonate so maybe an alternative context will make some things clearer.

First is a bit of humor. Janet Reid, Literary Agent, says this video is the best example she’s ever seen of how to pitch an agent. Or rather, you first get to see how not to pitch an agent. I can’t count how many designers have pitched me exactly like the bad examples. You can’t pitch a service provider, sales rep or buyer the way you would a consumer. Here are better suggestions.

Switching gears, many new writers (designers) have the idea that all they have to do is come up with a great story line (sketches) and a big publisher (manufacturer) will swoop in with their cape to give them an advance (royalties) and make the book (line) a bestseller (Vogue cover). In real life, the publisher (contractor) is only responsible for printing and distributing the book (cut and sew sale ready products). The author (designer) is responsible for writing a book (designing and producing a line) that resonates with consumers and to market it effectively.

In the same vein, some writers are able to secure book contracts for future work based on how effectively they do this. Apparel is similar in that designers become acquired by larger firms. The way that big companies grow is by buying smaller ones -and contrary to what you might think, it could be the best thing to ever happen to you. They’re not buying your designs or company per se (and they’re usually happy to allow you to continue to run it), they’re buying access to customers in your market niche. If you haven’t created consumer demand for your products, you have nothing to interest anyone who you hope will give you money.

Still, writing and designing aren’t perfect analogies; royalties being one example. Few authors earn a royalty, only the big names. That’s because authors must “earn through” the advance before they’re due royalties. Earning through means to have sold enough books to cover the advance because “advance” is short for “advance on royalties”. In this light, you might understand how a newbie who thinks they can get royalties for a sketch is a laughingstock -if only because the effort and labor disparity between a book and an article of clothing is in no way comparable.  The market also speaks and sees the relative value -namely, the market knows a sketch isn’t worth the same as a book that took years and a great deal of skill to write.

In other ways  you’re luckier than writers because the means of production is within your hands; you can sew stuff yourself but you can’t print your own book unless you buy a printing press and learn the printing trade.

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16 Comments on "How designing is like writing"

Seth M-G
4 years 1 month ago

Just to point out something that should be obvious; you *can* publish quite readily by yourself, given the internet. All you really need is a computer, internet connection, and the ability to figure out how to upload to a torrent site (assuming that you don’t want to actually make any money on the publication…). The vast majority of fan fic falls in this category. I know that there are musicians that work the same way; they have their own studio, do their own composition, performance, production and mixing, and then upload for free just because they like making music.

I suppose that you could liken this to a designer that does custom one-off creations for individuals just because they want to. I’ve done that more than a few times. It costs me money, but right now apparel creation is an expensive hobby that’s paid for by my Real Job.

4 years 1 month ago

I deliberately avoided comparisons to self publishing (which I know well) because some people think that becoming a designer is akin to mechanisms comparative of traditional publishing. As my full time job is encouraging people “to keep going”, I thought it worth the effort of explaining why the traditional publishing model will not work so they’re better off trying more fruitful strategies.

In real life, producing a line is closer to self publishing and always has been; therein lies more useful and pragmatic encouragement. I couldn’t write about the alternative (becoming a designer the way some writers can get published) even if I wanted to because I’ve never known anyone or known of anyone (in 30 years) who has become a designer with the equivalent of the traditional publishing model. Accordingly, I think it more useful to encourage proven methods (aka the self publishing model of apparel manufacturing) to generate the greatest good than it is to lose credibility by pandering to the few who want a magic wand. Besides, most of the latter don’t want to spend money or time on training to make it happen because they’re not really serious.

Let’s say that theoretically it could happen, that one starts out with the idea of becoming a designer akin to the process of the traditional publishing model. The prospect would need to acquire skills (designing is so much more than drawing a sketch) in the same way a writer needs to have writing skills, to be considered. But right there you’d lose over 90% of the designer hopefuls because they want the short cut, the big red EASY button. They’re looking for the magic wand precisely because they don’t want to do the work (most in this category are not yet 18). Among the few left over who do take it seriously, through the process of training, they learn there is no such equivalent to traditional publishing for designers so the problem solves itself. In short, my point was that producing a line has traditionally followed the self publishing model and that it really is the only viable option which was why I avoided the discussion of self publishing as a comparative.

4 years 1 month ago

Being both a designer and a writer I enjoyed the comparison. I write for several industry magazine and my brother is a publisher in an unrelated field. More times than I can count editors suggested that I pen a book, yet my brother described the road blocks ahead. In 1999 I self published Digitizing 101 – The Basics of digitizing for embroidery. I cannot tell you enough how this 300 page project has benefited both myself and the industry.

The publication isn’t perfect, it hasn’t made the best sellers list and I don’t have talk show interviews calling my office to schedule interviews. The book has accomplish what I set out to do. Therefore, I am glad I did it even against the tide waters that suggest you can’t or shouldn’t. Sometime if you follow all the rules created by a system, important pieces of art are never seen.

The context I gained from Kathleen’s piece wasn’t to compare Ralph Lauren to J. K. Rowling. I took away advice the creator of any product could use to bring their product to market. There are a zillion great voices out there trying to break into the music market. YouTube and American Idol have found a way to see more of them without actually getting an appointment with an agent. is another way small designers are able to break through the usual “system.”

There is an established way of doing anything, it’s those who think big and dream big that will find a way. While they are dreaming it’s best to encourage them to have the strength and energy to keep going, than to show them how their idea will never work.

I hope to have Digitizing 201 done by the end of summer. It’s going to be much better than 101 is. That’s a feat I wasn’t sure I would be able to achieve. I like the Nike slogan, “Just Do It!”

4 years 1 month ago

Kathleen, thanks for your perspective on this. I’m not at all confident that a side career in authorship is waiting in the wings, but I’m sure that other designers would appreciate knowing the legitimacy of an approach of this kind.

I apologize that I’m not familiar with your tutorials. I’ve taught sewing for many years, and the centered zipper method I use is common to the RTW industry, so I’m not surprised it’s the same as yours, though I am sure that your writing style and illustrations are much better!

4 years 1 month ago

Laura, as Kathleen said financially it is hard to really benefit from a book.
As I mentioned one of the persons I know is a professional writer/ journalist he has several books an the market at the moment and as far as I know two of them are doing well enough that they make a remarkable part of his income. And of course he gets offers for articles to write because he is the author of this and that book and so his status as a “specialist” is confirmed that was.

For the other two it’s a nice add on to their main occupation, but not something you could life on. (Though one of the books closed a gap on the German market for sewing books for home sewers. There was no book about that any more in German and older editions of the last book about that from the 1990s sold sometimes for 70 EUR at ebay. So I should ask him how it does when I next see him. This book is not out for so long yet.)

I think if you really want to make money from it then it”s less the book sale but that you can “sell” yourself better. Like when you give classes you can charge more and so on.