On the last Tuesday of every month, I feature a fellow type lover from the Richmond, VA area.
Joe Akers and his wife Coleen are the dynamic duo behind PaperFreckles, a local company specializing in playful, one-of-a-kind greeting cards (among other products) that you won't find anywhere else. I picked Joe's brain to learn more about the business side of stationery and to see what it's like to run a business with your significant other.
SARAH BARTON: How did you get into lettering?
JOE AKERS: I was always someone interested in my own handwriting. There was a time when I was younger that I sat down and said, “I’m going to change the way I write,” and I wrote things in all these different styles until I found one I liked, which ended up being a sort of mix of my father’s print and a bit of architectural all-caps. Now, it’s my “regular” handwriting style. Aside from that, I didn’t do a lot of hand lettering after that but I have always drawn and in that regard, I drew letters and words as part of some of the things I was creating. In 2013 my company, PaperFreckles, launched our first line of greeting cards at the National Stationery Show. The cards were nice, but they didn’t have a lot of personality to them. You could even say they were a little boring. But we noticed a number of companies doing lettering in one form or another which I thought was a lot of fun. Our time at the National Stationery Show was not a huge success and as we licked our wounds and discussed our next steps, we decided to let our personality shine with our products and try to avoid doing what we thought the public would want. We decided to do more natural illustrations and incorporate my weird sense of humor which would require a lot of text. We didn’t want to use standard “off the shelf” fonts so I told my wife Coleen, “I can do that lettering thing all day long!” So that’s what I did: I started doing my own lettering for the products we were creating and I’ve slowly been developing my skills from there.
SB: How exactly did PaperFreckles get started? And what’s the story behind the name?
JA: PaperFreckles originally started when Coleen began hand-making cards. Her mom called her “Freckles” when she was little and Coleen liked the idea of her cards being like freckles in that no two were alike — her cards were in essence "paper freckles." She began by using store bought embellishments, stamps, etc. and then I actually began doing some illustrations for her that she would add to her cards here and there. I remember we had a little booth at the 17th Street Farmers Market one weekend years ago and made more than we have at some recent shows! Anyway, during that same time I was running my own design business Brainchild Collective with a partner that created logos, branding, websites and photography. A friend asked us if we could do her wedding invitations which we agreed to, then a cousin asked, and then their friend and pretty soon we were doing quite a few wedding invitations. We realized that “Brainchild Collective” didn’t sound terribly matrimonial but “PaperFreckles” did. So we started doing all our custom invitation work under Coleen’s business name and we didn’t start back up on greeting cards until several years later, at which time we slowly phased out the invitation work.
SB: Is it easy or crazy to run a business together as a married couple?
JA: Working alongside anyone has its challenges and I think there can be another layer to that if that person is your significant other. In the beginning I think there was a little uphill climb to understand that when a debate came up, it wasn’t "husband and wife” discussing the issue it was “business partner to business partner.” However, I think we are both comfortably situated in our roles and what our responsibilities are at this point. I wouldn’t say I’m for or against working with your loved one, it’s just something you have to try and see how it works!
SB: I saw that you used to be a chef. Do you think any of your culinary skills can be applied to the lettering you do now?
JA: I think to a degree, my time as a chef was just an extension of my core passion, which is to learn how to do things and create — to make. I was also the drummer in a ska band from high school to my college years and I was passionate about writing songs and creating the compositions we played. I’ve always been someone who would take something apart to see how it worked. But I also think that working in the culinary world reinforced my work ethic: the notion that to accomplish something in a short amount of time, you have to keep your head down and do the work. But also, attention to detail, flexibility and creativity are skills that I still apply to my work today.
SB: Can you walk us through your process step-by-step?
JA: For our PaperFreckles products, I will typically sit down and write. Pen to paper. The same as a novelist or comedian would do and spill ideas onto the page. The next step is to review some of the ideas with Coleen. She’s my sounding board, so I read them aloud to her and if I get a laugh or a big smile and a “That’s a good one, I like it,” it moves on to the next step. I always start with a thumbnail of the concept so I can see a more concentrated version of the idea and work out shapes and balance for the composition. Next, I begin rough sketches of the piece at full size that I refine until I have a tight pencil sketch. I then use a lightbox and ink a new version by tracing the pencil sketch. From there, I scan the inked piece at a very high resolution black and white image. The high resolution allows me more control over details I need to clean up, etc. and it also allows me more options for sizing the piece. Next, I open the artwork in Photoshop to isolate the line art and do any cleanup that needs to be done and after that, the colors and shading are added. (The process in Photoshop is a bit more detailed than that but that’s a whole other post!)
SB: Many of your products are pretty snarky. Were you ever worried that that would turn away sales?
JA: Maybe a little at first, but remember — our first line of cards were super safe and we didn’t get many sales at all! So, we knew going in that the new products wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve had a significant number of store owners tell me that they love our cards but they didn’t think their customers would appreciate them as much as they did. My personal experience has been that they would be surprised how many folks I thought were going to turn their nose up at our stuff only to burst out laughing and buy up a bunch!
SB: PaperFreckles products are sold in stores across the U.S. and even internationally. Did you approach retailers or did they discover you?
JA: It’s a little bit of both but a lot of the other. I do a ton of approaching retailers, it’s just the nature of the beast in this industry. We haven’t had a lot of success with sale reps since they have their own agendas and sometimes you fit into them and sometimes you don’t. You, the business owner are the one person who is fully invested in your success, so it makes sense to do the work yourself but it can be very taxing. For every store that says “yes” there were 10 others that said “no” and that can be a kick in the pants. The thing to understand is that it never hurts to ask and that not everyone will be a good fit.
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SB: What is your favorite product that you sell and why?
JA: I love our line of greeting cards. Sure, there are best-sellers and ones that have not done as well as we’d hoped. But I do like the idea that this is something you choose to give someone in person. It’s something you picked out and said, “This is PERFECT for them!” and it creates a connection, or strengthens one even more because the recipient knows you cared enough. You thought of them and what you chose for them means you really GET them as a human being. I think that’s pretty great.
SB: Do you ever freelance for clients or make anything other than what we see in your store online?
JA: I do! I still do some freelance logo design here and there. I also love watercolor so I create original artwork I sell and I do commissioned work with the watercolors as well.
SB: If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ (websites, books, coaches) you’d recommend for lettering, what would you include and why?
JA: I’m not sure I have any one firm list of resources. I tend to skim over things and pull what seems important to me. But, I think places like Skillshare are good resources for various calligraphy, typography and lettering classes. Studio Two Three here in Richmond has numerous lettering and calligraphy classes available (one of which is taught by yours truly) and there are various books and artists to refer to here and there.
There are two things I try to emphasize in the class I teach though, and those are that:
- Lettering is NOT just the pretty script work you see plastered all over Pinterest.
- YOUR hand lettering style can have just as much personality and style as the next person's. If you look at popular lettering artists like Jessica Hische and compare her work to Mary Kate McDevitt, you see two starkly different styles and they’re both wonderful.
SB: Where do you get inspiration for your work?
JA: I love Instagram because of how visual it is, of course. Because I follow a few lettering and calligraphy artists, the discovery section is a great place to see new work I wasn’t aware of as Instagram tends to serve up a lot of posts that they think you might enjoy. Seeing old and new signage is always a great way to get layout ideas. They help you understand how to balance your composition and draw focus. The other thing I love to do is to take online classes or classes in person with other lettering artists to learn new techniques I hadn’t thought of.
SB: What do you love most about being a creative in Richmond, Virginia?
JA: I’ve made some great friends here in Richmond that are inspirations in their own right. I started out as fans of their work and now I can also count as friends. That’s a special thing, I think. Aside from that, I love that there is so much energy generated from everyone and their creativity. There’s constant motivation to learn more and improve your skills.
SB: Who are some fellow Richmonders that inspire you? Non-Richmonders?
JA: I was a huge fan of Clara Cline of The Wild Wander before we met and became friends. We don’t have sleep-overs or go fishing together, but we are buddies now which I’m privileged to say. Her work is so much fun and the balance of her compositions are beautiful and seem pretty effortless which I hate her immensely for. She is also freaking hilarious which you only get glimpses of in some of her artwork. The funny is strong with that one. (NOTE FROM SB: Check out my RVA Q+A with Clara Cline!)
Carrie Walters of Blunt Objects, Carrie, Ink, and Paper Rose I’m proud to say is another buddy of mine who does amazing work. She has about 400 businesses and I think the official stats are that she starts an average of 2.3 every 12 minutes and all of them are great. She is a tremendously accomplished graphic designer who has a wonderful knack for color and composition — which I hate her for, too. And you really should see the work she does at Paper Rose with handmade paper flowers. I get to see everything she’s working on before most people and each new piece is more amazing than the next. She is also another hilarious goofball that keeps me chuckling 24/7.
Kimberly Munn of Maple & Belmont in Norfolk, Virginia does lovely lettering work with all her projects and has a lovely way with composition, too. For my watercolor inspiration, David Sheirer of the Northern Va/MD area has the kind of control and relaxed feel in his work that I aspire to. It’s just as much of a pleasure to look at the brush strokes and layering he does as it is to enjoy each piece as a whole.
SB: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the next few months?
JA: I think you’ll probably see some larger print type lettering pieces from me that will be available locally and online, and more watercolors as well. Possibly some new card designs from PaperFreckles. And I’m the co-host of the Over The River Maker’s Mart series with Christophile Konstas of Perk! in Bon Air and we have more of those events on the way in the new year.
SB: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
247 + 37= 284 Ok, that’s all…