The Story of Penguin and a Brief-ish History of my Business (Part Two)

Last week, in part one, I started at the very beginning of Penguin’s story and covered the start of my business story. If you haven’t read it already, please pop on over and have a read, otherwise, this part won’t make much sense. I left it on a huge cliff hanger, in this part two you’ll find out what happened next?

To recap, at the end of my previous post, I was newly self-employed, I had decided to re-design the Penguin desk calendar for 2017 and was determined to make it work.

Creating the 2017 desk calendars and a mini creative crisis

When it came to creating the desk calendar for 2017, I had all of the illustration ideas down on paper and I knew they were already popular with my friends and family. I remember my Uncle asking if and when I was creating another version of the Penguin calendar. However, this didn’t stop the mini creative crisis that followed.

Do I continue with the watercolour style that I had started with a couple of years before? I had loved lettering up until this point and should I include my lettering in with the Penguins? How can I combine the two? Will they be good enough? Will they sell? I had found scanning watercolours really tricky to get the colours right, if I was going to sell these and make it the start of my business, it had to be perfect. I loved creating vector illustrations and this was where my comfort zone was, was that enough? How could I push it further? I compared myself a little bit too much to strangers on the internet. This was the start of my dream, I had jumped right into the deep end with starting this business, I wanted to make it work, I needed to make it work! It was still a bit of a shock that I was now working for myself, and a lot was going on personally too but I was determined to make this work!

In the end, after much deliberation, I created the first “official” Penguin calendar using vector illustrations and I sent it to print. For some bizarre reason, it didn’t occur to me that I could print the calendar pages as A7 leaflets, and so that first run of calendars were printed as flat A3 sheets and I cut each and every page out with a ruler and scalpel. I printed 40 copies of that original calendar, with 13 pages for each including a front cover, it was a lot of cutting by hand! Realising that I could print the pages as A7 “leaflets” saved me a lot of time and saved my hands because, after a while, that was painful!

January page of 2017 penguin calendar sitting on a miniature easel, styled in front of a plant and pencil pot.

The unexpected success of Christmas 2017 and many (many) trips to the Post Office

I reopened my Etsy shop and on 17th October 2016, announced on social media (now on my “business” Instagram account) that the Penguin Calendar was available to buy in my shop alongside a minimal hand-lettered version. As time went on, the popularity of the Penguin version especially, completely shocked me! I remember feeling a lot of imposter syndrome, in awe of their popularity, waiting for someone to find me out or to complain about them. But no one did! Everyone was over the moon with them.

I sold 134 of those Penguin desk calendars for 2017 and that was just on Etsy. It continues to be one of my best selling items each year.

More Creative Crises

After the success of the 2017 Penguin Calendar, I didn’t quite know what to work on next. I faced a bit of an internal crisis, wondering what I “should” be doing, reacting to what I thought customers might want and feeling a little lost. A lot had happened in 2016, and to process all of that, I created a series of colourful floral paintings, which were really intricate and cathartic to create. These I made into a collection of note cards, which are still in my shop today.

Rainbow coloured floral watercolour painted greeting card styled with pens and paints

My very first card designs from 2011 had been painted dots, with little funny faces and legs drawn onto them. Did I want to continue painting my designs? (But ahh the scanning!) After designing our own Wedding Stationery, which I loved doing, I wanted to help other couples by creating their wedding stationery for them, so I created a few wedding stationery collections, which would act as samples. I loved lettering, I loved vector illustration, I enjoyed painting, and working on wedding stationery, how does this all fit together? I hadn’t studied illustration previously, I had worked as a graphic designer/art worker (working on very corporate financial & healthcare brochures etc) as my job for 6 years previously. I thought that carrying on with the Penguin illustrations wasn’t “serious” enough to be part of my job and I wasn’t an illustrator, what right did I have “pretending” that I was? It has been a long process of working it all out and is still an on-going process.

All the while, I’d listed all of my older card designs on Etsy and sold a few of those. What if the Penguin calendar was a one-off fluke and I’d never make or sell anything ever again?

Penguin takes over

It wasn’t until September 2017, after working on those wedding stationery collections, setting up my own website and a few other creative experiments to see what I really enjoyed doing vs. what my customers liked, that I used one of my favourite designs from the upcoming 2018 Penguin calendar as inspiration to create my first enamel pin badge.

Photo of a hand holding a penguin enamel pin. The pin design shows a cute penguin holding a pink heart garland.

Those original pin badges have continued to be another best-seller since I launched them in 2017 and looking back through my Instagram feed, Penguin has been a regular feature throughout my product ranges and social media posts since then.

It took a while and a lot of thinking, trying different things and more thinking, but I realised that people really liked the little Penguin character and I really enjoyed creating products featuring him!

Penguin has featured on a selection of notepads, more pin badges, 2018, 2019 and 2020 desk calendars, wall planners, stickers, postcards, a selection of greeting cards, wrapping paper, a cushion, birthday cards and Christmas cards. This has also included two successful Kickstarter campaigns and a lovely collaboration, which featured in a magazine no less…but now I’m just showing off! There are a lot more plans for him to be featured on more things in the future.

I still love lettering and illustration and they remain big parts of my work, I’ve also had the pleasure of working on the wedding stationery for a few lovely couples, branding projects and a lot of work for corporate clients over the 3 years that I’ve worked for myself. It hasn’t all revolved around Penguin (although, I’m sure he’d tell you differently!)

Lost along the way

It wasn’t until I created a comic strip featuring the little characters who sit on my desk a couple of weeks ago, that I realised I’d really missed the storytelling side. I had almost forgotten how and why it all started in the first place. So I’m going to try and share a few more stories of Penguin as time goes on and embrace doing what I enjoy rather than what I think I “should” be doing.

I hope to continue to be completely flexible with my business though, sometimes floral illustrations, sometimes lettering, sometimes wedding stationery, sometimes corporate brochure design or artwork, and sometimes cute Penguins on a notepad or greeting card, depending on the bright ideas that I have.

So that’s it! That’s the very long answer to why I chose Penguins to feature so heavily on my products (or rather how they chose me!) and I hope you’ve found this little insight into my business interesting.

I hope to make blogging a more regular thing this year, do you have any unanswered questions that I might be able to answer on the blog? As you can see, a small question like “Why do you draw so many Penguins?” has been translated into two whole blog posts, so any question large or small and I’ll see what I can do, just let me know in the comments. 

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