By Kate Marsden
We’re off to the Pennines for our last post of 2018 to meet designer maker Helen Russell. Helen has a well established business selling her gorgeous illustrated homewares, and you may be familiar with her work as she is stocked in shops across the UK. Read on to find out more about Helen including why she doesn’t think in person selling events are for everyone…
I’ll be taking a break from the blog over Christmas and we’ll return on Friday 11 January. Thank you for reading this year and for continuing to support the Just A Card campaign!
Tell us a little about you. What do you do?
My name is Helen Russell and I work out of my studio (called Betty the Wondershed) in the beautiful Pennine hills. I create homeware, surface pattern design and illustration inspired by animal behaviour, outdoor spaces and a desire to help people celebrate and find the fun in everyday life.
What does a typical day involve?
I tend to answer emails and messages between 8.30 and 10am as I really struggle to draw before then. I'll then head into the studio and do the paperwork for orders which I take to my parent's house as they help with the picking and packing. Once the admin stuff is out of the way I'll settle down in the studio for some drawing time or experiment with ideas in clay or wood. Just recently there has been a little bit too much paperwork for my liking, this is something I really want to address in the new year!
Where do you work? What is your studio space like? What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?
My studio is in my garden which after years of long commutes is blissful. Betty is 6m square, so small but perfectly formed. It's a lovely compromise between working at home in the house and having an external studio as I can close the door on everything at the end of the day but if I need to work later I can also keep my eye on things at home. When I'm not working I love to get outside or sit and read a book.
What do you consider to be the main challenges facing designer makers at the moment?
I think we are navigating a very tough time at the moment. Material and event costs have risen quite a lot but the average spend seems to have stayed the same. Many of the shops we sell through are facing difficulties and this impacts on our earnings and also our exposure, without the exposure from shops our websites are just one of many floating around the wonderweb. I think everything is so delicately interlinked. I personally tend to get online sales after people have handled the work so my stockists and events are an essential part of my marketing mix and I hope I reciprocate by referring my customers to outlets local to them. It's not me or them it's us.
What ambitions do you have for your business over the next few years?
I feel like I'm just coming up to a crossroads. I'm so proud of where the business has got to and how it has grown but there are definite areas of it I need to address with the changing economic climate and spending trends. I'd love to do some more licensing work so want to spend some time building up my surface pattern portfolio. I also have a slightly mad business/creative idea swirling around my head which I am trying to decide whether to address or not. It will be interesting to see if that hatches or not!
Do you have any tips for fellow designer makers/small business owners who are reading this and may be just starting out?
Work hard at being professional as well as working hard on your creations. Money is tight whatever arm of the industry you are from. Make purchasing decisions as easy as possible for people by ensuring the information about you and your products is as complete as possible. No one has time to second guess what you are doing. And, be approachable and look like you are interested when people talk to you about your work. If you don't want to interact with people at a trade show or event don't spend your money on it, you're wasting your own time and the customers. If you find it too uncomfortable invest the money into other marketing streams like raising your online presence.
Please share any favourite independent shops/galleries and tell us why you like them.
There are a few shops I have been working with since I first started out. One of the reasons I still work with them is the business relationships that have developed, they are equal and mutually respectful!
Heart Gallery in Hebden Bridge hosts a wide selection of top class jewellery, wall art, textiles and ceramics. The staff that work there are passionate about craft and the service is top notch.
Franny and Filer in Chorlton, Manchester is run by two amazing jewellers who make on the premises. They stock a whole range of jewellery created using many materials and I never fail to find the perfect earrings for my friend!
Theatre Shop situated in the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is perfect for finding really contemporary gifts and design led work. Plus it's just the most fantastic place to sit for a few minutes and watch the world go by
Spiffy is a relatively new shop down in Wales but I love what Paul and Shaun are doing in terms of selling wonderful things and also encouraging people to look after their mental health. The shop has a real community focus; they are definitely not just in it for commercial gain
Maisie & Mac in Cupar and now also Dundee! Fabulous shops, run by a fabulous owner selling a wide range of products from fine art to pocket money giftware.
Had you realised the Just A Card campaign message suggests cards as an example of a small purchase - we're about encouraging all sales as they keep businesses afloat?
I think greetings cards are a great way of opening a conversation and most people can visualise a use for them. I think the campaign is really strong but it needs us as makers to use it as a prop to chat with customers and potential customers to explain the situation further
How important is the Just A Card campaign message to you and your business?
I think the campaign is really important, I know there is so much more I can do with the campaign as a base to help myself and others. I think we need to be careful we don't make people feel uncomfortable if for one reason or another they choose not to buy from an independent, so I think in 2019 I'd like to explore some ideas for bigging up my customers’ involvement in the business when they do buy.
Where did you hear about the campaign and which Social Media platforms do you use most frequently? What do you think people can do to support Just A Card, and how will you be doing so?
Crikey, I've been aware of the campaign for quite a while so I'm not sure where I first came across it. I tend to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for my business, and I think I've had most interaction with the campaign through Twitter. I'm just revamping my website so will have links to the campaign website from there (my website was built before the campaign existed) and I think instead of just having a stockists page on my website I am going to spell out which of my collections are where and I've also been trying to blog about my stockists. My car proudly displays a window sticker.
I'm cutting back on some areas of my work next year as I've perhaps been lacking a bit of focus. I got to wondering whether a big part of the buying independent problem is people being time poor? As much as I hate to say it, if we look closely maybe there are things we can adopt from the dreaded Amazon etc model that can be moulded to suit our needs. I don't think the problem of a quick fix is going to go away anytime soon so maybe we are going to have to get super creative with how we get product to customer. It's a challenge and if there's anything us creatives are good at it's overcoming a challenge!