How to Stand Out as a Creative

It seems that more and more people are entering the creative fields. On the surface, this is a great thing. It means new perspectives, new ideas, and more opportunities for collaboration. But it also means that to survive as a successful, independent, creative professional, you must become more adept at standing out. So what does that involve? We spoke to professional photographer Dan Milnor to find out.

1. Do I need to take risks?

Being creative and working in a field that is viewed by the general public as being both completely artistic and somewhat fringe, is the perfect opportunity to take creative chances.  Breakthrough moments come when chances are taken. Normally, these chances come about after extensive experimentation or even frustration. But what is great art without risk? If you look at pioneers of the creative fields, most were shaped by walking away from what was safe or comfortable.

2. Should I be worried about failing?

No, embrace failure. It’s been said many times by many different people, “If you aren’t failing on a regular basis then you simply aren’t trying hard enough.” I am a true believer in this. In baseball, if you hit .300 you are considered a genius, all the while failing the majority of the time. The same thing applies to creative work. As a photographer, for example, the vast majority of images you make won’t work. You ARE going to fail, so instead of attempting to hide this, embrace it. Heck, celebrate it. High-level people in the creative fields, whether they be editors, agents, art buyers, etc. they know everyone fails. It’s how you deal with failure that will set you apart.

“If you aren’t failing on a regular basis then you simply aren’t trying hard enough.”

3. Where does history fit in? 

You need to know your history and reference it.  This is such an essential part of working in any creative field. An expression you will hear all the time is “Well, everything has already been done.” This isn’t true, but even if it was, it doesn’t mean you can’t do something that has already been done. But to do so, you need to know your history, and how you are going to ADD to the creative conversation.

People in positions of power in the creative world tend to know their history. So when you sit down and show your work, thinking you have done something original, and they say “Oh, this reminds me of so-and-so,” it’s critical that you’re able to respond, “Thank you, I’m aware of so-and-so and their work, and I’m building on what they have already done by doing such-and-such.” Responding, “Oh, I’ve never heard of that person,” will usually end the conversation, and your chances, quickly.

4. How influenced should I be by the work of others? 

Once you know your history, and where your work fits in, then forget about everything and everyone else and listen to your inner voice. These days, it’s very easy to spend copious amounts of time online looking at an endless amount of work. There is an upside to this and it’s an important part of getting to know your industry, but at some point, you are going to be left with decisions to make, and that inner voice will be key. You can’t connect with your inner voice, or vision, if you are caught up in the noise of the modern, creative world. Trends are fleeting, things go viral, but when the noise dies down the only thing remaining is what is true to your creative heart.

5. Should I just work more than everyone else to get recognized?

Work smarter, not harder. We live in an “always on” culture, but this is a short-term play while your career is a long-term strategy. You must unplug. You must take time away from whatever it is you are attempting to do, or whoever you are attempting to be. After taking a year to “do nothing,” Einstein came up with three of the most important scientific breakthroughs in human history. Need I say more? A long-term strategy often requires the ability to take in and digest long-form content, something that can be incredibly difficult if your brain has become rewired by a frantic or exhaustive work style. A career in the creative fields is a marathon, not a sprint.

6. What are your thoughts on collaboration? 

I know my limits. I have zero design background, I don’t like social media, and when I write, I need an editor. So instead of hiding from these facts, or attempting to create a smokescreen, I embrace these shortcomings via creative collaboration. It took me far too long to understand how important, entertaining, and educational it would be to collaborate with other, oftentimes more talented, fellow creatives. Collaboration is like opening a door into another world. It brings a wider audience, more diversity, and is even a great way to see your own work in a new light. Over the past five years, I’ve done numerous collaborations, all of which have resulted in the best projects I’ve ever done. It’s that simple, and that wonderful.

7. Should I share everything I’m doing?

Ah, no. Speak when you have something to say. Social media is all the rage and can be an incredibly important tool, but it can also be an annoying pest. Most people in positions of power don’t have time to wade through a barrage of nonstop posts. If you look at things like Instagram, one of the rapidly rising genres is curated content. What this means is people need help to digest the volume of what’s out there, so by going to ONE account, they will see only curated work. I think this is a good indication of how you should use these platforms.

When you limit your conversation and post only when you have something to say, it indicates to high-level industry folks that they should pay attention. One of the best photographers in human history, will at times, seemingly disappear for up to ten years, but when you finally see his name once again, you KNOW he’s emerging because he has something very relevant, timely, and important to say. He is strategically, not relentlessly, asking for our attention. You should do the same.

8. Do I need to be more well-rounded?

Absolutely. Be more than a creative. Personally, I don’t think it’s enough to be just a creative. I think the world has changed too dramatically, but oddly enough, I think this is a good thing. You need to be far more than a creative to craft a real career. You need to know more, do more, and understand more. Politics, sport, literature, art, adventure, culture, international relations, etc. Being a well-rounded human being is so important now. There are a lot of people who can make good work, so what else is going to separate you from the pack? Clients will size you up in meetings or portfolio reviews, and sometimes they aren’t spending much time looking at your work. Once they know you are competent with your skills, they will want to know who you are beyond your portfolio. Are you a good conversationalist? Would you be good at dealing with clients? Can you talk about something outside of your genre?

9. Should I give away my work to get a foot in the door?

Don’t sell yourself short. If you are a creative, the general public considers you an artist. They do. And artists have tremendous liberty, so take advantage. Not everyone can do what you do, so you need to charge accordingly. You might be an artist, but you are also a business. Selling yourself short can negatively impact you for years down the line. Clients, the good ones, actually respect you more when you stand up for yourself. Be confident, not cocky, refine your business chops, and stand up for your work.

10. What is the single most important thing I can do to stand out? 

MAKE ORIGINAL WORK. I saved this point to the very end but I could have easily ONLY included this one point. This is critical. Making original work is what gives you value. If you are making something that hundreds of other creatives can make, then what is the value of your work? For me, one of the most important signs of being a successful creative is when someone can see your work and say, “I know who made that.”  Your work should be like your fingerprint, unique. If a client can ONLY get a specific kind of work from one person, then that work will hold value. Now, here is the disclaimer. Learning how to make original work can take years, but that’s okay. This is normal. This is what it takes. You will make mistakes. You will make derivative work. But if you stay with it long enough I’ll bet you make a breakthrough and discover who you truly are. Making original work is the ULTIMATE way of standing out, and something to be truly proud of.

Thanks, Dan for such an inspiring set of answers!

How will you stand out? Start carving your creative path today.

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