In January 2020, 55 boxes containing screenprinted tote bags were delivered to Yelp. I’d designed and sourced those tote bags, which were destined to become gifts for each of Yelp’s 5000+ employees on their “Yelpiversary.” At 5,500 pieces, this was my largest order, and one of my biggest projects to date. The project came about in the most circuitous way, through relationships I had developed with Yelp’s People Team over the past couple of years.
In 2018, the organizers of the San Francisco chapter of Creative Mornings asked me to give a talk. Creative Mornings is a volunteer-run organization which hosts a free breakfast and a short talk one Friday morning a month. Founded in NYC in 2008, Creative Mornings has expanded to 214 cities in 65 countries. Each month’s theme is the same globally; in June of 2018, the theme was “craft.”
Craft is a subject I know a bit about. I’ve been a professional printmaker since 2008, and in May 2018, my first book, Print, Pattern Sew: Block Printing Basics and Simple Sewing [link] was published by Roost Books. I’m now working on my second book, a collection of oral histories and personal narratives of women of color who engage in textile arts and crafts. For my talk, I chose to speak about craft as the enemy of perfectionism, and talked about all the ways in which craft helped me work through my fear of failure.
In San Francisco, different businesses and organizations take turns providing a venue for the talks. The month I spoke, Yelp hosted the event in its Downtown San Francisco office. I met Uli, one of the directors on Yelp’s People Team, as he managed logistics and set up AV for the event. He mentioned that he’d grown up in Germany, missed the craft markets that took place all over the country around Christmastime, and asked if he could join my Tea Towel of the Month Club, a program I ran in 2018 in which members received a tea towel I’d designed and screenprinted each month.
The holiday party
Soon after, Uli contacted me to run an idea for the company’s holiday party by me. He wanted to create the ambiance of a German Christmas Market, but instead of selling crafts, attendees would get to make their own crafts. Organizing events is not my favorite thing to do – I’d much rather make things! – so I referred him to my friend Marie, who runs Handcraft Studio School, where I teach regularly. I did end up having a block printing booth at the party, which was a hoot – imagine hundreds of 20-something employees dressed to the nines, printing tote bags, and generally making a mess.
The next project
Uli and I kept in touch, and less than a year later he emailed me with a new project: would I be interested in designing the company’s employee gift?
Every Yelp employee around the world receives a gift on their Yelpiversary, the anniversary of their hire date. There is one gift each year, and Yelp partners with a local artist to design it. Uli had a dream of a foldable tote bag, with a custom design by me. The design could include iconography that represented some of their values, but the way I went about it was up to me. This was a large project for me. Not only did I need to create the design, but I also needed to source a manufacturer (because there’s no way I could print and sew 5,000+ bags myself), manage production, and handle import, customs, and delivery. I broke the project down into two stages, creating a statement of work for each phase: design and sourcing, and production and delivery.
After some research online, I was able to find the manufacturer who had created exactly the bag Uli wanted. She provided samples, and I got to work creating the printed design. After some back and forth, I had pricing, bag samples, and a design to present to the Yelp team. They were thrilled with what I’d come up with, and greenlit the next stage, production.
For a number of reasons, the best manufacturer was located abroad, which meant I had to navigate time zones and minor language barriers. One of the great things about language barriers is that it forces both parties to be direct and clear in their communication. The factory owner was a delightful woman who communicated progress regularly, sending me photos of her factory, and of her employees printing and sewing the bags. She clearly takes pride in what her company produces, and that was reflected in both her thoughtful communication, as well as the quality of the finished product.
Once the bags were almost complete, I had to figure out how to deal with freight and customs. I’d worked for a company that designed and produced items abroad for Target in the early 2000s, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with importing goods, but additional tariffs imposed by the current U.S. administration made me wary of handling this myself. I was able to find an excellent customs broker who could also handle delivery to Yelp. He was very clear about timing and fees – I’d heard enough horror stories about hidden fees – which made me slightly less nervous that something would go wrong at the port.
The totes are in!
Everything went smoothly! I’m a naturally anxious person, and combat that by being highly organized and by asking a lot of questions. But I also think that there was so much goodwill behind this project, and I was extremely lucky that I found the right vendors to work with. The bags were delivered to Yelp in mid-January. Yelp invited me back in February to give a lunchtime talk about the project to their employees. And the room I was in? It was the same room where, in 2018, I’d given my Creative Mornings talk, where I’d first met Uli.
One of Yelp’s employees asked me what the biggest lesson of my self-employed life has been, and I responded, “Relationships matter.”
When you work alone, as I do, it’s easy to become isolated. But I’ve learned that the best work, the best opportunities, the best lessons come from the relationships I have with people outside my immediate circles. My advice to artists and designers is always to get out there, to meet people, to nurture their relationships – all of them – because, at the end of the day, these relationships contribute to our success.
Jen Hewett is a printmaker, surface designer, textile artist and teacher. A lifelong Californian, Jen combines her love of loud prints and saturated colors with the textures and light of the California landscapes to create highly-tactile, visually-layered, printed textiles.