Aaron Johnson - Lensbaby Interview portrait

Aaron Johnson has been publishing the web’s favorite photo-themed cartoon, “What the Duck?” since 2006. Over the years his sarcastic humor and lovable characters have attracted a loyal following along with book deals and merchandise sales.
He was kind enough to tell us how he got started and share some tips for creative success.

Getting Started – When and why did you start publishing?

Aaron: I started What the Duck on July 19th, 2006. It was meant as a lark. I wanted to create the world’s most niche and dry comic strip imaginable. The original idea was to create a comic strip that only 3 or 4 people would find funny. Thankfully, I failed.

What The Duck - Magician

Who encouraged you to draw and publish your cartoons?

I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil. I was fortunate to have very supportive parents who never told me the astronomical odds of becoming a published cartoonist.

Staying Motivated – Who has inspired you to keep going?

Within days of posting the first strips – my inbox was flooded with emails from new fans encouraging me to keep it going. As an artist, the greatest reward is having “fans” of your work. I told myself “as long as people are reading it, I’ll keep writing it.”

Your work is based on frustrations that many photographers share – do you find inspiration in your own frustrations as a photographer or do you base your material on fellow photographers’ experiences?

The inspiration for the strips comes from many places – some personal. But really the strip is based off of shared experiences that many creative professionals can relate to. I know the strip hits a little too close to home for some, but I hope readers can find some solace knowing that they are not the only ones who deal with these issues. There’s a short white duck going through the same things.

I don’t get to have a whole lot of in-person interaction with the fans – so hearing from the fans online, merch sales, and social media are my gauges to confirm that people are still reading it.

Growing – How do you build an audience and attract new viewers?

First, do what you love to do and try not to worry if it will draw an audience. If I would have set out to create a popular photo-centric comic strip, I probably would have failed miserably. Instead I created the comic strip that I wanted to read.

You have a successful Facebook fan page (congrats on getting so many fans!) and are on twitter. Has that helped you build an audience?

It’s funny because I came to FB and Twitter kicking and screaming. Five years ago when I started the strip, the internet was a different place and I felt like I could interact with the fans (adequately) through the site. But as time went on, social networking became more mainstream. I don’t know if social networking has added to the WTD audience, but it’s where a lot of the fans are now and to stay relevant – you have to go with the flow.

What The Duck - Facebook Status Update

How else (online or in person) do you attract new viewers?

I’ve always been pretty liberal with the copyright usage and the sharing of the strip. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. I also never flat-out turn down any new opportunities. Always keep an open mind and be flexible. 

Advice for Others – Every photographer (almost!) wants an audience to see their work – do you have any recommendations as to how they should go about acquiring said audience?

Make your work accessible. Keep your work consistent. Make your audience feel like they are a part of the process. Develop a relationship with your fans. When an audience cares for you and your work, they will want to help and spread the word.

What The Duck has a very consistent look and voice – is that your intention?

I’m a stickler for branding. People come to WTD knowing what to expect. I like to think of it as building a level of trust with the audience through consistency. If you’re not there for them (the audience) and not providing them with the “product” they came for, they will eventually lose interest and leave.

Nostalgia time! Tell us about your first camera.

It was a 110; I saved up along time to buy it. My body of 110 work consisted of pictures of my toys, pictures of fast-food signs, and a photo of a horse’s butt that looked like the top of Mr.T’s head. Once I found out how much of a money pit it was (film, developing, batteries, etc.) I retired from photography until digital cameras were readily available 17 years later.

What The Duck - Look Smarter