Behind the Scenes with the “Original Design Gangsta”

I rarely have time to work on personal projects. Any freelancers reading this will know that time not spent on actual project work is spent on busy work: invoicing, thank yous, studio clean up (which we know never really happens) and, most important, self-promotion. The bulk of my ‘free’ time is spent cold-calling new potential clients, sending out e-mails, updating my work blog, submitting news to websites, and making sure my current clients don’t forget that I’m still alive.  But I’m not alone. Thousands of other designers and illustrators are doing exactly the same thing, day in and day out.

So, how does one really stand out in the crowd? For me, the personal project I never had time for became the self-promotional piece that separated me from the pack.

The Original Design Gangsta (ODG) viral video started out as a joke between myself and, well, myself. I had a rare spell of downtime at the end of a busy week and found myself driving back from my local bookstore rapping the words, ‘design gangsta’ over and over to a beat in my head.

When I got home, I decided to finally open GarageBand on my Mac and see what all the fuss was about. Within an hour, I wrote the entire song, throwing in rhymes about the design profession that I thought only designers would appreciate. At the time, I was just having fun (an important detail I will return to later in this story).

By bedtime, I had recorded an mp3 and thought nothing more of it.

In the morning, I e-mailed the song to about 30 designer friends for laughs.  The response was overwhelming. Phone calls and e-mails came in immediately telling me that the song was a classic. I soon realized that the appeal came from the inside jokes all crammed into one song. I looked online and found there was no design-related humor like it.

A light bulb went on and I decided to make the ODG video into a real self-promo piece.

This didn’t actually happen for five more months, though. I originally envisioned the ODG piece as a live action video, filmed in various urban settings. But that proved too complex and frustrating, so instead, I had my lovely wife take some quick photos of me, which I assembled in Flash. I put together a crude animation, added the original mp3 soundtrack and posted it on YouTube.

One week later, the video had received 25,000 hits. Two weeks later, 50,000. By the end of the month, the video had reached 100,000 hits, had been posted on over 300 websites, had drawn the ire of one well-respected designer (Armin Vit) and the admiration of another (Steven Heller), and had sparked a debate about design humor.  Hits to my portfolio site were so heavy that my ISP notified me that I was exceeding my bandwidth.

ODG opened doors to numerous new editorial clients, a National Geographic book proposal and several logo projects. Almost a year after its launch, The ODG store sells enough merchandise each month to pay for my membership and my e-mail newsletter; self promotion paying for self promotion?—how nice!

Most important, though, the repeated exposure gave me something new: recognition and leverage. I was no longer anonymous.  All of a sudden, when I called new potential clients and told them my name, they would instantly say something like, ‘ODG!’ or ‘Oh, the rapping guy!’

Lessons I Learned From The “Original Design Gangsta” Video
• If you’re having fun making your self-promo piece, people will have fun looking at it. The ODG video started as a fun personal distraction and became my most successful piece of self-promotion.
• Humor might very well increase your chances of success—people like to smile and they will pass along something that brightens their day. The news these days is a bit bleak—make people laugh and they will remember you!
• You can brag without coming off like an egomaniac, especially if you stick your big bald head on a tiny body and rap. And remember, self promotion is kind of like bragging anyway.
• Take advantage of social networking sites, blogs, forums, etc. to generate the most response to your website or promo.
• If you are planning on doing some kind of video or clip, keep it short and sweet—ODG was originally about 4.5 minutes. After studying my own online video-viewing habits, I realized that I would never watch (or forward to a colleague) a YouTube clip that was longer than 3.5 minutes, so I trimmed it accordingly.
• Positive and negative attention can both work in your favor by directing more people to your work.  Designer Armin Vit wrote a negative piece about the video that sparked a discussion about design humor. But whether people loved or hated the video, they were still stopping by my website and viewing it in droves. This increased my visibility in the marketplace.
• Take risks with self promotion—part of the reason the ODG video went viral is because it was the only animated rap video about design out there! There are certainly many other ‘firsts’ that are ready for the taking by any designer or illustrator who thinks a bit differently.
• Follow up a successful piece as soon as possible. I immediately got on the phone and sent e-mails once ODG started to make waves. I landed many jobs because the video was fresh in their minds.