Succeeding as an Artist and Designer: Breaking through Failure

by Atim Annette Oton


For the last 13 years, I have spent time counselling artists and designers about moving the careers to the next level. A good number of them have been emerging and established, but they have common threads when it comes to failure. Carolyn Edlund wrote the best list on how to fail as an artist (I include designers to this too).  I keep it in mind when I counsel artists and designers as it rings so true and really defines what they do to themselves.


  • Believe in the myth of the starving artist

  • Take all of your own portfolio shots (preferably out-of-focus with poor lighting)

  • Write a rambling, vague artist statement that no one can understand so that you appear to be intelligent and unfathomable

  • Wait until the last minute to send in applications

  • Don’t return phone calls

  • Ignore visitors at gallery shows – remain aloof and mysterious!

  • Leave your last blog entry of November, 2008 as your most recent contribution

  • Vastly underprice your work

  • Vastly overprice your work

  • Refuse to volunteer

  • Avoid business or networking events like the plague

  • Don’t take any continuing art or business education classes

  • Neglect to update your website with current work

  • Find excuses why your work won’t sell, and use them often

  • Apologize for your art – say that you are “not really” an artist

  • Who needs marketing?  You’re not a salesperson!

  • Blame others for misunderstanding your work

  • Maintain a messy and disorganized studio

  • Embrace rejection – convince yourself you are a failure

  • Ignore deadlines

  • Procrastinate

  • Give up

  • Source:

If you are an artist or a designer and you do any of these things, there is a reason why you are failing or progressing slowly.


To succeed as an artist or designer and redefine the typical failure model, I often give advice to artists and designers to take on these 3 things that I call Life’s Themes to Success as a way of living and working: Attitude, Going the Long Haul, Networking and Relationships.



Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it. – Raymond Chandler

If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude. – Colin Powell
Most of us start out with a positive attitude and a plan to do our best.- Marilu Henner

Some artists and designers I know have very low self esteem and it shows through the first time I meet them no matter how much they try to hide it. They are either too quiet to sell themselves or just too loud and it makes me realize – the noise means there are not very good at their craft. Attitude defines an artist or designer who is comfortable with themselves, and this is clear by the positive attitude and self-awareness they possess.

The Long Haul

patience (1)

I’m in this for the long haul. I’ve been making music my whole life.  – Lenny Kravitz

My goal is to get another 30 years out of this business, So I need to figure out the fuel to do that. And so far, I think it’s respect and quality and company, not celebrity or box office or stardom. It’s not a sprinter’s approach. It’s more like a long-distance thing. You can stick around a lot longer if you kind of slow play it. – Jason Bateman


I don’t know how many artists and designers think and really believe that success equals fame but I have had so many discussions about this notion with most of them that I counsel. That notion is the starving artist model and does not exist. If you actually know or talk with the “supposedly famous” artist, you will find a successful artist who is working on the Long Haul Model. This artist know fame is fleeting and keeps working harder on everything. He or she never sits on their “fame” and is constantly building on it.

The Long Haul is about process, making or doing good work. It is not a lazy path but a fulfilling one. That artist is always exhibiting new work, developing new ideas and is usually one that galleries or collectors are looking for. They have a stellar work ethic and are very engaged in their work and career. The Long Haul is their plan. They not only have a plan for their career but are open and engaged. They are engaged in their community, either write about art or work in the industry.

Networking and Relationships


Networking is an essential path of building wealth. – Armstrong Williams

Brooklyn is where I primarily developed. I had an opportunity to make records and perform in clubs there, and I started networking with the right people in the right places.  – Busta Rhymes.


People hire designers or buy work from artists who they are referred to or they know. And a way to be in the loop is to network with people. One of the most interesting things I find is that artists and designers have very few friends or colleagues outside their industry. And if they do, it is usually with people who cannot buy their work or hire them.

Another thing I also notice is that some of them do not really have role models and mentors. So, they build careers without looking at what others have done before them or get very little advice. But more importantly, I am finding a lot of artists and designers who have resources (people and contacts) not using them even to find out what is going on in their industry. Networking and relationships are vital to growing a career. They provide navigational paths.

Need more tips, then read: 


2 responses to “Succeeding as an Artist and Designer: Breaking through Failure”

  1. Hi Atim,

    I found you through Linkedin. Someone posted this in one of the graphic design community. Anyway, I just read this and I found this very informative. And so I bookmarked your website and I tweeted this, shared it on my facebook, linkedin, google+. Also, I am following you on Twitter. I need more designers connection. I have a lot of marketing people but I need a few more designers I can connect with and talk more about this issue. And so…

    It is so true that many artists and designers out there are doomed to failure because of their “attitudes”. In this career, you just have to be consistent and determine with your goal. We each live and learn. You can never give up no matter what. If this is what you truly desire, this is the kind of profession you want to keep, you just have to keep yourself up-to-date. Keep taking seminars or webinars or whatever will help you in your profession. Networking relationship is one of the MOST important nowadays in marketing yourself. People don’t just buy things anymore just from anybody. They have to know somebody and TRUST someone. And if that person is YOU they can trust, the better it is.

    Anyhoo, I invite you to promote yourself in my blog:

    I hope we see each other again. Have a great Monday!!


  2. Angela,

    Good to hear from you. And thank you for you feedback.


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