Rena Tom Rena Tom

Questions without Answers

A mobile phone, as seen by Apple, and by my four-year-old.

A mobile phone, as seen by Apple, and by my four-year-old.

I’m tired. Actually, physically tired, quite often. I’m heading to a doctor soon to address that – but anyway, when I think about writing something for this blog, I get tired. I love having this as an archive and a resource, but I do stress about what to write about sometimes. Or, I’ll get a brilliant idea and just run out of time, or steam, to explore it fully. It feels like a cop-out, which is strange, considering it’s entirely voluntary, but the fact that I know that *you* are out there somewhere definitely colors my thinking.

So instead of a nice, fully formed essay, today I am going to just post some of the note fragments I keep about things I’d like to talk more about. It’s always in the form of questions. Today I am not ready to answer them. Let’s make this a group activity, okay? Please do chime in, in the comments. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.


How do we develop taste, and how do we communicate it to others? Why must some things in my home be sleek and others rough? At this second, I’m thinking of my craggy collection of handmade ceramic mugs and bowls, and my minimalist slab-device known as iPhone. I can’t do without either, at this point, and each seems to be the pinnacle of design. How do we decide to optimize for certain products and un-optimize for others?

It’s much easier to describe and compare the mass-produced multiple, which also makes it easier to promote and sell. This vacuum has the best suction, the smallest footprint, the lowest energy cost – employing simple, blunt comparable adjectives that create a ranking order purely by choosing to use them. Good, better, best.

The makers of the unique and handmade have a harder time getting their point across because the language must change to suit the circumstance. There are gorgeous descriptive adjectives that can be used, a much larger pool to draw from, but they are also slipperier in meaning.

Is the problem that we are trying to use words to describe touch? Are we giving enough weight to feelings and sensations, or not enough? By this, I mean both emotional states via haptics, nostalgia, and a sort of filling-in-the-gaps that the brain sometimes does when it is searching for something?

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  1. arianek says:

    Hey Rena –

    I have a comment, but actually about the tiredness. Definitely go get checked out, of course. But also… I just wrote this yesterday – more specifically for people who have chronic illness, but I think it’s actually pretty universally applicable to busy and tired people:

    Take care of your most important self!

  2. This is a really interesting topic and one I have been thinking about lately because of my own work. I think a lot of people (myself included) enjoy this balance of the sleek/rustic. I think there is actually a lot to unpack here. I personally have never been happy with choosing either or — I enjoy being surrounded by both. For me the handmade is linked to a different kind of embedded “aura” than something that has been mass produced. Not to say that an object that has been mass produced can never have an “aura” but I think there is something to this embedded history for me. Maybe that is why it’s so difficult to describe? It’s easier to talk about something being better, faster, smaller than it is to describe that it evokes.

    I also think there is a distinction to be made here about handmade objects vs. vintage electronics/ technologies because the language used to describe most technology, when is was new seems to be exactly the same as it was 50+ years ago. We are using the same adjectives to describe different technologies. 

    Ok, I’m rambling. I certainly don’t have any answers but I’m totally down to continue this conversation. But not till you get some rest! 

  3. Hi Rena, I hand make OOAK silver jewelry and I do find it hard to explain to an online customer the value in the process to get a unique finished piece and the emphasis on handmade. Sometimes, I think why am I even bothering to compete, then I smarten up! I remember I love what I do and my jewelry is only getting better! 
    Thanks for your blog! Love all your tips

  4. This post exemplifies why I read this blog like a touchstone. Owning an indie handmade shop is challenging in all the retail biz/sole ownership ways, but describing the business at it’s core is almost impossible. I started the shop because I’m a true geek about handcrafted anything. I gush about the prints we carry, about the hours that went into the poster someone’s buying, about how willing-to-take-risks a jewelry designer is and really, I get the feeling people are like, “OK.” I just keep plugging away with the hope the message’s getting through at least a little bit and with the constant gut-wrenching feeling I could be doing more to promote my shop and the amazing artists whose work fills it. Alas, I have no epiphanies, but am so happy to hear what others might share.

    • arianek says:

      Yes! This ^ Chrissy is how I’ve been feeling trying to publicize my artwork. 

      People were all gushing and so excited and complimentary about it while I was working on it… But when I put it up for sale (on Etsy) and told my big heartwarming story about how this particular project had come to be, there was an initial response which quickly turned to crickets.

      I was thinking about what the heck was going on… It eventually came to me that I think people are just so saturated with pretty things and inspiring things every day online. I’m guessing that as much as they want that two second boost of clicking “like” or leaving a positive comment, they are probably doing that 100 times a day, and their REAL take the next step enthusiasm level is much lower.

      I guess that’s why people write e-news and use “market funnels” and all that – because you have to keep hammering it home and almost manipulating people into caring more than just an “ok” or clicking the like button.

      The solution? That I haven’t come up with yet…

      • I think Rena’s questions above point to what Chris Anderson pegged The Long Tail (of value). Pinpointing value beyond “It’s cute! See?” and then expressing that seems to be, at the very least, an essential start to the conversation about what it is you bring to the table – how your work is different, how it benefits the the user in a new way, what problems it solves (that’s always my toughest hurdle), how it’s value lasts, etc. I think it’s why we try to brand, why we keep working on our visual online presentation, why we keep looking for more information that will help us see where it is we fit in. 

        Rena’s right that communicating the idea of art/design/craft is so much more complicated and underfunded and involved than communicating the idea of the why of Drano – that’s why they still simply use the see-through drainpipe. On the other hand, when you pick apart the marketing for something like Drano, you see dollars upon dollars spent on placement, you see a great logo, simple name, singular purpose.  Not saying we should (or even have the ability to) emulate mass marketing, but looking at its elements, might help us understand better how we can market art as a product.

        I think you’ve hit on one challenge, for sure, how to break through the wall. There’s a ton of info out there.  Using Etsy as an example, in 2005, there were so few sellers, the standouts stood out. They also had a “star” system so items with the most likes rose to the top. On the other hand, hardly anyone I knew cared about Etsy – not my editor bosses, very few of my friends – there was less competition, but also so much less exposure. Now Etsy’s huge and completely saturated.  For the buyer, finding the best solution to a problem’s sometimes overwhelming – scrolling through thousands of knit scarves to find the right one becomes more of a chore than a shopping trip. For makers, it’s tough to stand out. You often get a second of buyers’ attentions – getting on Treasuries, appealing to bloggers like I Am The Lab, posting to idea boards like Pinterest – these all help, but they’re still places in a sea of places.

        It’s overwhelming, but I think the only solution is to keep working at promotion, keep thinking about your craft as a product, keep knocking on doors, keep asking for what you want, keep making your community larger (this is probably the most valuable exercise) – keep not giving up.

        I was lucky enough to see Rena talk at last summer’s WMCFest along with a slew of other designers. (Videos of the talks are available here: My takeaway from the event was that it’s not easy for anyone, not Rena, not your favorite maker, not you. Nothing worth having is easy to get. From this long missive I’ve written, it’s obvious I’m not any closer to solving the communication puzzle, but I’m so thankful to know there’s other people thinking about and sharing their ideas on the same questions. Without community, I think I would give up.

        • Rena Tom says:

          there are so many factors to consider when trying to sell your work but the biggest one, the most neglected one, is the “you” part. what is your style? we aren’t all natural salespeople, we aren’t all comfortable with the choices and compromises we have to make, with our relationship with money, our relationship with our own egos. “buy from me and not somebody else” is so fundamental and yet not the only message that is correct (whatever that means) when one is selling work. or is it?

          i struggle with this so much that 1) i don’t do retail anymore and 2) i study all of these things, all my fears, in an attempt to find answers. i’m trying to find peace of mind – i’m not there yet, but i’m not ignoring the realities of what i am capable of.

          thanks for the great discussion.

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