Many, many moons ago,—almost five months, an eternity in blogging terms— I was writing about how great it was to design a custom cake for a customer, instead of just copying someone else’s design. Well, after my regular-job-induced hiatus, I’m about to tell you how my last (which happened to be my first) experience went, what to avoid, and what to do.
To my surprise, my bride was very open to my suggestion of designing a cake for her and her soon-to-be husband. It was the first time a paying customer didn’t come to me with a precise idea or a photo of what they wanted. She just asked me for two things. She wanted all-white, and classic. She hinted she loved peonies and told me that she had a bride and groom topper she would use. Then she asked for me to give her several options of sketches. This first experience allowed me to reflect on several things I did wrong.
Avoid my mistakes.
- Not asking for more specifics. I found myself in a complete blank with such generic instructions. Of course, as a cake artist, I have many, many ideas of what I find classy and elegant, but what is classic for a bride may be tacky, dated, too modern or simply ugly for another one.
- Not putting a limit on the number of sketches I would make. The five sketches you see on the above image where not all the ones I did. Since I had little direction, I sketched, and sketched, and sketched, with hopes that she would like at least one of them.
- Giving too much information. My bride really liked the horizontal fondant pleats and buttons design on the bottom right. But she was very inquisitive about how I would be able to achieve the pleats and hide the seams, and I explained. Aargh.
- Emailing the sketches before the meeting. You’re basically giving away free works of art and possibly designs for other cake decorators to copy. Just no!
Do it right.
- Ask your customer to be very detailed with what they want. You may do this via email or in a short meeting. Ask for colors, types of flowers they like, and maybe something personal to incorporate. Also, ask them to give you an example of what they like, and very importantly, what they definitely do not. If they are going to use a topper, make sure you know what it looks like and how big it is. By coincidence, the topper I sketched was very similar to what the bride had, but if it had been something else, like a running groom or Mickey and Minnie topper, it just might not have meshed well with the design at all.
- Limit yourself to preferably one to two sketches. I thought better about it and only showed my customer three of my, ahem, seven sketches. This was a good decision and it will be for you, too. If you give too many options, there’s a bigger chance that your customer will get confused and that your consultation meeting goes for way too long. It’s easier for you too, since you won’t spend hours on end sketching like I did or be wasteful with your ideas. Also, of the three sketches I did, my customer then asked for me to make another one with elements from each of the three. That’s a lot of sketching for a free consultation and tasting!
- Don’t give away too much information. This is not meant to be sketchy (no pun intended). I knew my customer was not a cake designer herself, but giving information about my decorating problem-solving techniques was TMI. Customers come to you because of your expertise and many times after seeing your previous work, so you just need to assure them it will look spectacular!
- Make clear that the design may vary slightly. Although we make our best effort to give the customer what they want, often us cake designers find ourselves needing to make some minor adjustments for practical reasons, specially if we haven’t made a technique before and find out something doesn’t work.
- Keep your sketches to yourself. These are your works of art. Make a portfolio. Chances are your customer will have just one cake at their event, so why give away several copies of your hard work? Show your sketches at your final consultation and, after the customer decides just what they want, prepare a last one just for them. You may even personalize it to make it special. Write their name, wedding date and add some embellishments here and there. Also, make clear it’s still copyright protected, just in case they don’t end with you as their cake designer.
- A last one: Pixelmator is your best friend. I did all these pencil-resembling sketches in my trusty Pixelmator app on my iPad (available on Mac, too, but I like drawing directly with my finger). It has a bit of a learning curve, but is easier than other drawing apps. What’s great is that you can work in layers, so if you mess up you can just delete that part of the drawing, and if you are going to repeat an element of a cake in another design, you can just duplicate that part and keep designing. Just a tip: always work with a transparent background until you are done, and then add a background.
If you’ve been reading me since the beginning, it’s no secret that I’m a self-described struggling cake artist, partly because I still have just a hobby relationship with caking. Well, in tone with that, I didn’t end up doing any of these beautiful cakes I sketched, as the customer went with someone else. But it was still a good learning experience for me and my intention is that you find this practical, as well. So I “motiblogate” you to go on the creative adventure of designing custom cakes and keeping it cool in the process.