I spent yesterday sprawled across my backyard deck. A picture book dummy on my lap, a glass of lemonade tinkling in the sun at my elbow, and my brother’s golden retriever, Duke across my feet. It was heaven. This morning I woke to an inch of snow smattered across the lawn, each delicate tulip cup, I’ve been waiting to unfurl, overflowing with powder. If the specific is truly universal, you’ll relate this IRL metaphor to your creative journey too.
I left my life in New York tech with the hope of making picture books. It's all I have EVER wanted to do. When I arrived in my new studio with that singular goal - I was shocked to find myself more than a little lost. Where to begin?? I went on a hunch and took the long way, but here's what I would have done immediately if it had occurred to me - I would have discovered my ideal user.
When you design anything in the tech world, whether it's an app, website, or video game, your team will first sit down and create an ideal user. Waxing poetic on your future deliverable, you dream up your dream client. You decide how old they are, their interests, income bracket, how they spend their time, what they like to wear, who their friends are, the whole gamut. Then you'll google search a picture of them, (something like "Emo Seattle Musician") print it out, slap it up on every visible surface, and pull a NEVER ENDING STORY by giving them a name. You don't need to shout that name into the eye of a hurricane, but in my experience, it does help. That ideal user becomes your holy grail, everything you dooooooo, you do for them - Brian Adams style.
My ideal user is five years old. All she wants is a puppy and some new crayons. Her life's dream is to color ALL day, EVERY day. She spends more time in the ocean than on dry land. She is nearly always barefoot, except on Sundays when her mother begs her to wear the beautiful, understated silk dresses her grandmother sends from Korea. Instead, she opts for scratchy golden taffeta, multiple petticoats, and elbow-length gloves. If you are going to get dressed up, you may as well feel dressy, she figures. Her parents are struggling dreamers, but she has the richest childhood. On many mornings, as the Sun is waking up, her dad gets her out of bed for a walk on the beach. They collect shells and bits of sea glass. They talk about making their own stained glass window someday. Her favorite food group is Otterpops. She believes in mermaids. She cries when the boys in the park chase the pigeons. What did the pigeons ever do to them!??! She is constantly on the lookout for friends. Even though she has the best companions in her brother and sister, she is yet to know it. She forever wants her mom to read her LITTLE BEAR, especially BIRTHDAY SOUP. She loves books and dogs, and the sea best of all.
I am, of course, describing baby me. Here she is. Amber. I love her so.
Last year, after six years of struggling through my creative process, I framed four photographs of my ideal user on a hunch. I placed those photos in strategic spots in my studio.
Before realizing who I was making books for I left myself undecipherable bread crumb notes, often scavenged by birds. I'd walk in circles, looking for my path. Now I am simply following the glittery pebbles that catch the Sun.
I know what baby Amber wants. I guarantee that if you set out on your ideal user journey, you'll stumble onto the path your child artist wants you on too.
Since putting those pictures up, I've swapped season tickets to an indie film fest for an annual pass to the aquarium. Sometimes while swimming laps, I'll stop, grab my nose, and try to beat my summersault record. Sitting at a bar with friends, I'll order a dry Shirley Temple with extra cherries. This Easter, I bought a bag of jelly beans, plucked out all the orange and yellow ones, put them in plastic eggs, and stuck them around the house. I threw the disgusting remaining jelly beans out with the trash. Yes, from the outside it would appear that I'm losing it - but from the inside looking out, I am stepping into my own.
In the Fall of 2021, after six months of diligently following the glitter rocks on my path, Iunlocked a new level of creating in my brain.I found that my ideal user knew how drawing all day should feel. I'd forgotten. I discovered that the computer I thought was helping me was actually standing in the way of that delicious "please bring me a yellow crayon!" feeling. I went back to traditional media with a vengeance. Like the play-dough/cereal villages I once built for my plastic Care Bears, I gave myself cart-blanche to truly mix media. That means that I now combine ink and Elmer's glue, use hot pink regularly, and buy new supplies just because they "feel sparkly."
I left ideas I'd been begging to evolve - ideas my adult self had spent years fostering, behind. I now realize they felt hard to make that whole time because they were wrong for my ideal user. Six months later, I am poised to sell three books soon; one is about dogs, another is about the ocean, and the third is about the love of a special pet, kindness, and chosen family. I know my ideal user would LOVE them, and they're my favorite things I've ever made too.
I've left behind a butt-in-chair approach that felt "right" to my corporate-trained muscles, and I am opting instead for a butt poolside, butt in hammock, butt in front of a roaring fire. My ideal user is teaching me so much, but most of it has very little to do with picture books. It is about gratitude. That child version of me was thankful for every fluffy dandelion, soft kiss on her forehead, and dazzling star that twinkled on the water's surface.
This winter, I realized I needed to honor those sunrise walks I grew up taking with my dad. I added a "thank you walk" to my routine. Since the goal is not exercise (what child-self would brand a fun romp in the woods as "exercise??!"), I stop at the slightest thing that delights my soul. I am constantly gifted with ideas and insights while I put one foot in front of the other. This week I witnessed a lazy, fuzzy bumblebee tumble out of a tulip, played chicken with a wild turkey who refused to step off the sidewalk, and caught snowflakes on my tongue.
When we moved to Utah, we bought a home against a mountain. I wanted it desperately because it was surrounded by Quaking Aspens. As a girl, I'd summered with my grandmother here. We would delight in our mountain drives, giggling at the way the Aspens laughed with their leaves. For years now, on one wintery spring night, I go to bed, safe in the knowledge that there aren't even buds on our Aspens. The following day, they've burst alive with full-grown leaves. I thought this was a 12-hour process. THIS year I caught the tiniest green buds and watched as they became the smallest baby leaves on our branches over four days. I know why I saw them. I was LOOKING for them. My ideal user would have caught them year one. She is my superpower.
I do not know anything about your ideal user. THEY might like kicking things, or using a stick to dig in the earth. Once you find them, like me, you may still have what you expect to be a springy day in the studio suddenly covered by a blanket of freezing snow. On those days. You’ll do something else. On those days, you'll put the supplies away and hit your nearby indoor pool, or pack a picnic for the aviary. You'll buy a middle-grade novel and curl up with a fluffy blanket. You'll look for the signs. You’ll find them too.