Our next installment of Behind the Stationery take us to Columbus, Ohio to visit Yao Cheng’s design studio. She’s not only the owner and watercolor artist, but also the calligrapher and graphic designer of all things Yao Cheng Design! Over time, Yao has found that designing for custom clients versus her product line requires different creative processes and dives into how she approaches each of them. With a new baby and a growing team, she navigates through the changes in her business and talks about the reality of coming back to work after maternity leave. Here’s Yao! —Megan Soh
From Yao: Looking back, it’s been a very interesting journey of what I thought my business was going to be and what it has become. When I first left my full-time corporate design job to start my own venture in 2012, I thought my business was going to revolve around my interpretation of hand-painted Pysanky eggs. At the same time, I was playing around the idea of art prints and greeting cards because I really loved painting watercolor more than anything else. As I was figuring all of this out, I applied for my first craft show. It was at that show that I had everything displayed and it became very clear to me what people were gravitating towards. Customers felt more connected to my art prints and cards because it’s a natural interpretation of my paintings. After that show, I shifted my focus into the direction of art prints and stationery.
Our business is unique in both the style of watercolor that I create and also in the way that it is structured. We offer giclée art prints, greeting cards, wedding stationery (custom, pre-designed, and calligraphy services!), and gift wrap in addition to our line of textile products. We also have an exciting collaboration with Chronicle Books in which you can find my watercolor designs on a line of notebooks, notecards and the latest One Line a Day journal!
Photo by Chancey Charm
It wasn’t until 2013 that I really dove into the world of wedding stationery. The Style Me Pretty post of a styled autumn wedding featuring some of my first wedding invitations was really the beginning of our wedding business. As a creative, I love being able to touch and hold things in my hands. The tactile quality makes me feel like I have a tangible connection to something real. Whenever I’m designing wedding invitations, I try to replicate this feeling. I think of wedding invitations as more than just a piece of paper, they are small pieces of artwork that really captures a special moment in a couples life and all the memories of that day!
Photo by Lily Dent for the Metropreneur
Everyone knows that as a small business, you wear many different hats. That is certainly true with us! We are a very small team at the moment as I am very careful about how fast we grow. Because I have a little one, my days are limited to an 8-hour day. We plan out our next week’s calendar the Friday before, so when I come in in the morning, I have a pretty concise agenda of what needs to be done. Still, I am known to be overly ambitious with my tasks, so I almost never finish all of my tasks for that day! I could be spending the morning answering emails or questions from my team, then jumping on calls with clients or new manufacturers, or even doing a styled shoot for an upcoming newsletter. In a week, I try to carve out an afternoon or a full day to paint, but I wish I had more time devoted to painting!
I spend 70-80% of my time running the business, but it’s my dream to flip that so I am able to spend that amount of time painting new work. Don’t get me wrong — I am fascinated by the business side of things because I think learning about strategy, planning, pricing, bookkeeping, etc is all empowering. I think it’s crucial, as the owner, to understand the basics of all the facets of the business before delegating it to others. However, I recognize my strength is in painting, so that’s where I’d like to focus my time on one day.
Photo by Lily Dent for the Metropreneur
Our design studio is located in downtown Columbus, Ohio. It’s a space that I am very proud of because it is almost exactly how I’ve envisioned my dream space! We are in a very unique building that is zoned both commercially and residentially. This gave us the opportunity to have our own kitchen and bathroom, offering us the privacy that I knew I’d need in order to focus on the day-to-day! My favorite feature about this space is the large windows that bring in so much natural light, which is great for painting. Half the space is an open loft, and that’s where we spend most of our time. I love that this studio inhabits every step of the design process from painting the original artwork to designing the final product or design. I even had a custom table made by a talented local carpenter so that it would be large enough for us to host our workshops, creative meet-ups, and other events!
My design process for wedding stationery is different from how I approach our product line in that I include sketches during the process. For custom bespoke work, I have an initial chat with the client to get a feel of the style and colors that they are looking for. Once I have some visuals to work from, I start sketching with a black pen different layout options of what I think would work. This is actually the most involved part of the design process because I am fully designing out multiple versions of the invitation suite so that all of the layouts and wording are in place before I move into painting. Once we have the layout and color palette approved, I will start painting and adding color in the pieces. It’s sort of magical to see something black and white come to life in watercolor! Designing wedding invitations requires this type of process because I want to make sure our bride can get a visual understanding through every step.
We really value working closely with our brides through every step of the process! Having planned my own wedding, I know how special and important this day is to each person. One of our most unique custom wedding pieces is my custom maps because the couple gets to highlight what they love about and around the place that they are getting married. I really enjoy creating each one of them because they are more illustration-based and different from the rest of my work. I also create the calligraphy script, making our invitations a complete package. Everything feels cohesive because I can match the calligraphy style to the feel of the entire suite. I think addressing envelopes might be my favorite part of wedding stationery, actually! It’s mindless and a different translation of my love for the free-flowing, fluidity of watercolor.
However, outside of our wedding work, I take a different approach. First of all, I skip the sketching in black and white phase because I find it much more liberating and challenging to work when I am not really sure of where I am going. My work is very connected to the idea of intuition and improvisation. I like to respond and be in the moment with my paintings, and often find that this is where I find happy surprises! Watercolor, as a medium, lends itself very well to my approach of painting because of how quickly it dries. This allows me to paint fast, usually within an hour or two, and move on to the next idea. I am usually painting 3 different things at once because of this. I love this way of “sketch painting” because it takes away the expectation that this artwork will be the masterpiece. I am free to explore new ideas, expound on them or move on to another and not feel too attached. So in the end, I might make 3-4 painted versions of the final design. Once a piece is finished, we will scan them into the computer and then minimally edit it in Photoshop.
One of my business struggles of this year has been ramping back up to speed from taking almost 6 months off for maternity leave. I am so grateful that we were able to keep everything running while I was gone, but I would have never expected the kind of challenges I’ve faced coming back. Having turned down many projects and going months without creating new work, I do feel like I “fell behind” in some ways. I have found the panic of feeling like we might not be relevant at any moment to be a common experience for small business owners! Still, it was a fear that became very real as my overhead increased with a studio space and payroll to run every month.
Another daily struggle is learning how to be a good boss. Managing employees is not something I learned in art school, and it is definitely unique to each business. I’ve also had to learn not to allow my creative “monkey” brain to get side-tracked with all of the ideas that I think of in a day. This is definitely something I’ve recently learned and happens when you expand to more than just yourself. When it was just me, I didn’t have to plan my calendar out for the year — every product release happened when I had the time to get to it. After all, it was just me, so if it meant working longer days, I could do that. But now, strategies have to be made and clients are committed to far in advance because there are other people involved now. I can no longer just throw a curve ball last minute and think we can stay on schedule with everything else!
The way my business is structured really reflects the person that I am. I am never satisfied with doing one thing, and I think my strongest work comes from doing multiple projects at once and allowing my ideas for each to bounce off of one another. I truly believe in the work that I do and see so many avenues that my watercolors can go, so it makes sense for me to have every product or project culminate in watercolor, but take on lives of their own.
Photos by Christa Kimble Photography except where noted.
Want to be featured in the Behind the Stationery column? Reach out to Megan at megan [at] ohsobeautifulpaper [dot] com for more details.