In March 2023, my application for Art Council’s ‘Develop Your Creative Practice’ grant was rejected. I’d planned to expand my creative skillset for a series of projects celebrating Japan’s relationship with national parks, but with funding no longer on the table, it was up to me to shape the future.
By the end of the year I’d attracted a highly valued mentor, rallied dozens of supporters, built expertise on game design, gained an international news feature, and presented my project to a Japanese millionaire!
Being rejected turned out to be the catalyst for my success, and by sharing my story, I hope you’ll make the most of your rejection too.
Planning for failure
When I began preparing my proposal, I made a promise to myself: “If I fail, I’m doing this project anyway. It’ll just have to be the budget version.” I knew it would make a great addition to my portfolio, I just wouldn’t be paid for my time, and any equipment or resources would have to be covered by company money.
My first big move was investing in an iPad to develop my illustration skills – with the assumption that it would eventually pay for itself. I believed that offering illustration services would enable me to take on a wider variety of projects, and the price tag stung just enough to guarantee my commitment to developing the skill.
Obtaining DYCP funding imposes a number of restrictions on how you spend your time, but that was no longer a concern. With no deadlines or criteria to meet, I considered the new possibilities that could arise from adapting my original plan.
After conducting some initial research into Japan’s national parks, I realised there was an opportunity to make a tangible impact with my work. The parks had the potential to play a significant role in the country’s tourism industry, but their lacklustre identity and promotion resulted in low awareness amongst domestic and international travellers. Armed with these new insights, my project transitioned from exploring people’s relationship with the parks, to building one.
Going with the flow
With clear objectives in mind, I dedicated several months to researching Japan’s national parks in granular detail, and practiced illustration on the side. As my research delved deeper, I unearthed a multitude of problems that I couldn’t ignore. A handful of parks were suffering from overtourism and environmental damage, whilst communities in the less popular parks were struggling to bring in enough money.
I’d set out to develop a brand – Parks & Japan – that would simply promote the country’s 34 national parks, but it was evident I could use my skills for an even greater cause. After identifying the core problems, I iterated my plan once more until I defined my new objectives:
Develop a creative campaign that promotes Japan’s 34 national parks as a network of equally exciting destinations whilst supporting conservation efforts and local communities. I will…
- Treat all parks and their respective attractions as though they are on a level playing field, leveraging the most popular locations to bring awareness to the others.
- Create a series of collectible enamel pins & patches with an attractive design for each park, strengthening the sense of place whilst incentivising visits to all 34 locations.
- Create an illustrated field guide to educate people on the landscapes, wildlife, culture, and communities of each park.
- Sell the above items in an online store whilst seeking wholesale deals with national park visitor centres, souvenir shops, and other appropriate retailers.
- Use a portion of profits to fund conservation efforts and community projects that will have a positive impact on the environment or the livelihoods of the local people.
As Parks & Japan morphed into a project with potential for profit and impact, I began to share more of my research journey on LinkedIn. I connected with many Japanese residents that were passionate about the problem, and a number of tourism specialists were eager to keep tabs on my progress. This online community also contributed valuable on-the-ground insights to my research, which I couldn’t have gained unless I’d embarked on a trip to Japan myself.
With all my Japan-related posting, my network eventually led me to my future mentor. After hearing about my project and observing my capabilities, I had an entrepreneurial genius generously offering to invest his time in my personal and professional development. Thanks to his guidance, I was able to double my productivity, and even navigate a pitch with a Japanese millionaire!
An impulsive detour
Once I’d wrapped up my initial research phase, I moved on to product development. I wanted to avoid creating unnecessary waste, so I began exploring secondary uses for the backing cards that the collectible pins & patches would be mounted on. I realised backing cards could double as trading cards to discourage people from throwing them away, but there was a major flaw with my idea.
I learned that the value of trading cards is affected by their quality, so piercing the card with an enamel pin probably wasn’t going to go down well with customers. I was gutted. I’d become so invested in the idea that I didn’t want to let it go. So, I didn’t. I decided to set aside my illustrated field guide plans, and embark on the development of a trading card game dedicated to cultivating interest in Japan’s national parks.
As I continued to share the twists and turns of my journey, I had a revelation – people love creative solutions to boring problems. The excitement for the products I’m developing increases with each update I share, and I’ve gained many new connections who’ve expressed interest in getting involved with the project.
Creative solutions have a far greater chance of getting people emotionally invested in the parks compared to bland destination marketing, and I’m not the only one who’s realised that. As a result of publishing my progress, I was invited to share my perspective on overtourism in the national parks, and how Parks & Japan aims to tackle it. The interview was featured in Al Jazeera amongst big players in Japan’s tourism industry.
Having never played a trading card game, I knew I’d better learn a thing or two about how they work. What seemed like lighthearted fun turned out to be a complex product category loaded with politics, but that wasn’t enough to scare me off. I’m information-obsessed, so I dived right in.
My research led to a concerning discovery: TCG players aren’t happy. They feel burned out trying to keep up with new releases, frustrated with scalpers driving up prices, and disheartened by their diminishing interest in games they once loved.
As you’ve probably realised by now, I don’t like to hide in the shadows when I know I could help people. My trading card game will serve as a creative marketing solution for the parks, whilst also bringing childlike joy back to the TCG community. The game is called Parklander, and I hope you’ll be hearing more about it very soon.
As I write this in December 2023, the concept for Parklander is taking shape, and the collectible pins & patches are set to be designed in the new year. With support having grown over the course of the project, I’m confident I can successfully fund both products through Kickstarter in 2024. Exciting!
I hope this story will inspire you to embrace rejection, and develop your creative practice on your own terms. Build something you love and share it with the world. You’ll be amazed by the opportunities you create.