June 23, 2023

Developing Engaging Artwork for Digital Collectibles

What type of imagery does your mind conjure when you consider NFTs? One-note, two-dimensional monkeys? Algorithmically generated rainbow squiggles devoid of human input, or maybe 8-bit Pepes in a vast, open sea of PFP projects without any significant differentiator between them?

Developing Engaging Artwork for Digital Collectibles

Welcome to The Jungle

What type of imagery does your mind conjure when you consider NFTs? One-note, two-dimensional monkeys? Algorithmically generated rainbow squiggles devoid of human input, or maybe 8-bit Pepes in a vast, open sea of PFP projects without any significant differentiator between them? Perhaps you’ve got champagne tastes and spend your digital coin on painstakingly crafted 3D artwork, motion graphic masterpieces or even photography. Whatever your non-fungible poison, and whether you’re an active collector, passive lurker or skeptical rubbernecker manifesting its downfall, this nascent space is defining a core iconography and unique visual language all of its own.

While digital collectibles are certainly stylistically agnostic, many tend to contain cultural threads that weave across the larger market, which is why understanding where we’ve been is crucial to gauge where the artwork is headed. As it’ll be written, the cave wall canvases of this period were adorned with pixelated punks and clip art pet rocks… That was until degens discovered fire and began collecting the likes of Beeple, X-COPY, MDJ (to name a few) and, since then, infinitely more notables of lesser influence and greater talent who are emerging more bloodthirsty in the coliseum every. single. day. 

Monkey business: A selection of notable projects with visual styles that range from primitive primates to aesthetic apes. Pictured: CryptoPunks, CyberKongz, Bored Ape Yacht Club, Hape, Mutant Ape Yacht Club, OnChainMonkey and MFers.

With each new cycle comes major brands wading deeper inwards (with greatly varying degrees of success) and the visual mosaic making up our collective footprint grows more sophisticated by the hour, where the resulting patchwork is an indicator of where we’re ultimately headed, creatively—so pay attention!

Great Art First, But Not Only That

The role of artwork is not to be understated. Seriously. For every lucky swing a project with no artistic merit takes to seemingly leapfrog ahead, skyrocketing to the top of the trending charts, there are enough you’ve never heard of to fill the annals of history—all DOA out the gate—just cadavers wrapped in rugs, clogging up the chain. Things like storytelling, social strategy, community building, paid marketing, marketplace selection, and influencer shills are all separate ingredients in the secret sauce that mustn’t be overlooked, but artwork—the very first thing we often see and the one criteria we always make a snap judgment against—can be the tinder that ignites the flame.

It’s important you get it right.

Good timing, bad artwork? There are a few notable breakouts that defy visual logic, resulting in a FOMO groundswell that lifts them to the top. I wouldn’t count on it for your project, but it has happened and we must never forget.

For example, excellent artwork alone has driven hype on some very noteworthy projects such as Mekaverse, Hape, Clone X, and Invisible Friends (plus many others). Some of these blue chips ultimately failed (in my opinion) or faded because those other ingredients mentioned above weren’t as carefully considered as the artwork was. For many of these short-lived success stories, it’s undeniable that the visual execution catapulted them onto the main stage and captured our collective gaze in the first place. This is incredibly hard to do in such a competitive arena where attention, not crypto, is the absolute currency. It’s a testament to the power of the visual and why you must make serious considerations to even register above the noise.

Pictured: Mekaverse, Hape, CloneX, Invisible Friends. This level of visual execution may seem more commonplace now, but at the time dimension and motion were absolute disruptors. This type of visual heat drew serious attention.

Upend The Usual Playbook

So where do you start? What’s the play? Let’s say you’re a brand with a war chest and a *killer* idea that’s surely going to earn you some serious funny money. Normally, you’d reach out to that bells and whistle agency you retain to make a splash. While those creative operators could surely make something aesthetically pleasing, it would be your first mistake. They are often disconnected from this subculture, one that revolves around the sun at twice the speed of all others. If you blink, you miss it. The meta moves fast. No, you don’t do that, the first move is to familiarize yourself with the terrain, particularly if it’s uncharted in your case. Survey the space, and see what is moving to gauge market sentiment. If you can’t study the culture, or take its pulse, the second move is to engage those that are fluent and can.

Furthermore, if your logo marks aren’t iconic (this is a very short list of actual contenders) and if your brand isn’t already web3 native (even fewer), it’s not enough to just show up with existing brand guidelines like it was during the raucous bull markets of the past. Ditch the expected, be divergent and take a risk. You will likely be rewarded. Let’s consider Autograph, a business with incredible starpower that played it safe, visually speaking. They’ve got access to the GOATs of their respective sports, famed athletes whose likeness sell millions annually, all backed by a board of business luminaries… However it’s simply not enough to move the needle, as evident by the lack of activity and general market sentiment around that particular project. In many ways, this space rewards inventiveness, so be bold in your execution.

Which visual is more compelling? TopShot animates and captures iconic moments while Autograph gives you an…autograph?

Read The Room, Be Collaborative

Yes, your artwork should be unique, but like all art periods of the past, there are certain motifs unique to each movement which mark that moment in time. Look around. You might consider paying homage to what came before in your creative execution because, in order to achieve the kind of success that gets people talking enough for you to go mainstream, you’ll likely have to go through a certain subset of collector and culture first. Self-referential meta hits like nostalgia for many participants in this market and a co-sign from those active inside the space will likely spur further activity for your project, until you reach that critical mass audience you so greatly desire.

Consider Checks VV, a project that’s spark is the self-referential meta. Its playground is the zeitgeist and, at time of publication, sits squarely atop the trending charts. Checks VV mechanics are fascinating and deserve a far deeper dive than this caption, but its success can really be attributed to distilling the culture into an effective visual while engaging the audience and their derivatives at the same time.

An alternative consideration? Experiment integrating with existing web3 projects, building creative within their communities first, engaging with their collectors, or even collaborating with their creators to see what kind of power the network effect of social virality rewards you with. At worst, it doesn’t work out, but there will be acknowledgement of your attempt to not cash-in simply on name and notoriety. Too many brands overestimate the power of their influence outside traditional markets. You are no longer just competing against other publicly traded companies, but now you’re vying for attention against tech savvy, creative children seemingly born with iPhones and an innate understanding of memes and virtual landscapes. Good luck.

Pictured: Gucci finds in-roads with 10KTF, CloneX (Nike) partners with Murakami, Adidas collaborates with BAYC and Wrangler gets spooky with Deadfellaz

Take it from me, a creative of the most modest renown 😬... With a few significant blockchain wins under my belt, I can confidently say that engaging artwork isn’t effortless. It’s a hard-won amalgamation of culture, niche fandom and in many cases IP that likely needs some malleability to make something memorable. It’s a delicate dance, performed in public, on the timeline, where every single statistical figure of your marketing campaign’s success or failure is on full-display. Whatever it is you choose to do, start with great art, upend the usual playbook, read the room and be collaborative. Those core principles will set you on the right path to creating a memorable digital collectible people will want to possess.


Tyler Cohen is the Creative Director at Gigantik. He tries to make things beautiful for a living.

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