Spread from Visual Design in Action by Ladislav Sutnar (1961)

Non-newsflash: you know Kickstarter campaigns involve a ton of work, right? Repeat: A T-O-N. Like paper-training a puppy, you’ll need to clear your social calendar for a month and expect to wallow in sweat and excrement for most of that time.

But it’s also inarguable that Kickstarter can fund your design project like nobody’s business—provided you know how to twist the funding spigot on and don’t mind a little attendant struggle to make that happen. We gathered advice from design-minded folks who’ve used Kickstarter to remarkable effect—so much advice, in fact, that we need two posts to share it all. Here’s part one on how to make Kickstarter work for your design project.

Tip #1: You’re not funding a one-off project; you’re building a lasting creative community.

Too many Kickstarter newbies approach the platform with a narrow focus on money alone. Steve Kroeter, the founder of Designers & Books, used Kickstarter recently to raise funds for a facsimile reprint of the out-of-print 1961 classic Visual Design in Action by Ladislav Sutnar. He teamed up with design historian Steven Heller, designer and filmmaker Reto Caduff, and publisher Lars Müller for their Kickstarter launch in April 2015. Measured strictly in dollars and cents, the Sutnar campaign was successful: 185% funded. But Kroeter argues that Kickstarter success should be evaluated in community-building as much as bucks.

“People tend to look at Kickstarter as a way to get money to do a project you want to do,” Kroeter remarks. “What it’s really about is creating a rally around a creative enterprise… and that community wants the chance to be directly connected to the project. If you do it intelligently, it’s not a one-time thing.”

Visual Design in Action by Ladislav Sutnar (1961)
Visual Design in Action by Ladislav Sutnar (1961)

Alex Daly agrees, and as the wunderkind crowdfunder behind Vann Alexandra, she knows whereof she speaks. Success stories to her credit include a reissue of NYCTA Graphic Standards Manual with Pentagram designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth (coincidentally, her boyfriend). Launched in September 2014 to monster success (743% funded), Smyth and Daly followed the project last July with a limited-edition poster incorporating all 468 stations of the NYC Subway—another outsize success, 577% funded. Their most recent project, reissuing the 1975 NASA Standards manual, hit its $158,000 funding goal on day one and is currently trending towards 1400+% by its final day, October 5.

“For crowdfunding campaigns, there must be an audience out there to invest in it,” Daly notes. “We knew there were designers obsessed with The Standards Manual; we knew many people obsess over the New York City subway. There indeed must be a crowd.” That said, the crowd must be willing and able to pay. Daly recalls a campaign she once promoted with a hugely devoted fan base of 12-year-old boys who mostly lacked credit cards, an obstacle for Kickstarter backing.

Limited-edition NYC Subway poster by Hamish Smyth and Alex Daly

Community-building is both an outgrowth of Kickstarter funding and sometimes a pre-condition of its success. The Great Discontent (TGD), a magazine of long-form interviews with creatives, funded their first print edition last winter. TGD cleared its funding goal by just 5% with an “insane” amount of effort, according to co-founders Ryan and Tina Essmaker. “We spent three years building a community of loyal and engaged readers,” Ryan says. “[Our Kickstarter] likely wouldn’t have been funded had we not invested previous years of blood, sweat, and tears into TGD and its community.” (See TGD’s Medium post about Kickstarter for other lessons they learned about successful crowdfunding.)

The Great Discontent: Issue 1
The Great Discontent: Issue 1

Tip #2: Button that Kickstarter page up.

“Amateur hour is over on Kickstarter,” says Hamish Smyth. Your images should be crisp, beautifully lit, plentiful, and well-paced on the page. Your messaging should be clarion-simple and deeply motivating. Your video—and all our experts agree a video is non-negotiable—must be well-produced, succinct, and invigorate your audience.

Your campaign’s premise should be suffused with your enthusiasm and a missionary zeal that invites others to join in. “Limited-edition products do very well,” notes Alex Daly. “Making your product exclusively available on Kickstarter for a limited time creates a sense of urgency.”

Steve Kroeter repurposes a motto from Marie Kondo’s bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. “She advises readers: if an object sparks joy, you keep it. If not, you toss it. [Similarly,] if your video sparks joy, you’ve done a good job.” If not, prepare to get tossed.

Tip #3: Tally all your costs.

Don’t make the bush-league mistake of assuming your only cost will be for printing production fees. In an essay for the forthcoming book, Becoming a Design Entrepreneur by Lita Talarico and Steven Heller, Kroeter details the additional Kickstarter costs you might be overlooking, including:

  • Kickstarter’s 5% funding fee.
  • 3-5% for credit card processing fees via Stripe, plus an extra 1% for bounced credit card fees.
  • Fulfillment and shipping costs (don’t forget: domestic and international costs will differ by a lot).
  • You might need to pay sales tax in certain instances—and
  • Kroeter also recommends a 5% “cushion” for unexpected expenses, like replacing lost shipments.

Tip #4: Choose your funding goal advisedly.

If you don’t meet your funding goal, Kickstarter gives you bupkis—a policy that motivates you to keep the goal modest. At the same time, you don’t want to underestimate to such a degree that you must dig deep into your own pocket to fund the project—exactly what you were trying to avoid by crowdfunding. Kroeter advises calculating your total budget carefully, estimating the likely number of backers you can count on per funding level, then comparing your funding goal with similar successful Kickstarter campaigns. Then check your gut and choose a number.

What if you’re lucky enough to exceed your funding goal—what to do with the extra cash? Hamish Smyth recalls how The Standards Manual blew through its initial funding goal by 11 a.m. of launch day. “After we’d reached our goal, we could just sell more books” and increase the print run, he recalls. “But we could also add features: improve the paper quality, bump to nine spot colors. We used the extra money to make this a better book.”

Tip #5: Don’t get too complicated with your rewards tiers.

We encountered differing schools of thought among our Kickstarter experts on reward tiers. Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed kept it simple: a $3 pledge got you updates while supporting the cause with minimal cash; the next level up simply got you the book. (They added higher tiers later with shipping to various locales included.) Remember: lots of your backers will either simply want the Thing you’re producing, or they’ll come to your campaign with a set dollar amount they’re willing to donate. Juicy rewards may or may not tempt them into spending more.

The campaign run by independent publisher McSweeney’s took a maximalist stance on reward tiers, myriad posters, T-shirts, an exclusive essay by the author of “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole.” The McSweeney’s Kickstarter was more ambitious than a one-off project: their spring 2015 campaign raised capital to remake themselves as a non-profit. According to development director Shannon David, clever reward tiers issued in waves kept media and community interest high, but complicate fulfillment on the back-end.

So now you’re ready to plan your campaign basics. But what will make your launch successful? Check back tomorrow for part two.