I've always been hesitant to start. It must be the perfectionist at work in my mind. I want a plan. I crave an outline, a hint of what is to come. I desire structure to guide my work, whether my work is a list, a set of goals, or scaffolding with which to guide my thoughts. I'm one of those people who will just struggle through a design problem and work through concepts and iterations before landing on something I'm happy with. Ideas don't come easily to me. They have to gestate, grow, and develop before I can think about the big picture. I often have a vision for what I want a project to look likea feeling, tone, or overall message that I want to conveybut I can't say how I will craft those feelings or state the message. When I write, I often write the last paragraph first, and it's the middle that's the hard partthe path to get to the end.
It was no different when it came time to decide what I would do for my graduate-school thesis project. For months, I went back and forth on ideas. I met various designers and mentors to get their thoughts. I picked everyone's brain for input (in an attempt to inform my own thinking), and had countless hours of discussions with my classmates. In many ways, my own indecision and lack of passion for my initial ideas shaped my decision to collaborate on a thesis. My friend Tim and I work together often, we hash out ideas, and we play off our differences. He, too, was searching for a direction on a project, and we spent many weeks trying to figure out exactly what it was that we wanted to do. I wanted to talk to designers. I wanted to gain perspectives. I wanted to write a book. I was missing the links between the three. I had the end but not the story. Tim wanted to start a business. He wanted to build a resource for designers to learn about business. He wanted to capture the excitement of today's shift toward entrepreneurship. Tim said, "Let's do it." I said, "Let's see how they did it."
So we launched Kern and Burnan online blog and book (in progress) about design entrepreneurship. We met and talked with designers about their lives, their decisions, and their aspirations. We asked them about their failures and successes. We asked them about their hustle and the passion to do what they loved. We posted interviews, essays, and inspirations on our blog, the 100 Days of Design Entrepreneurship.
We asked designers to share their stories with us, and in doing so, we gathered perspectives to encourage others to think about how they too can design a life for themselves. We challenged our peers (and ourselves) to learn from others, believe in themselves, and think about their lives as a design problem.
Throughout the process of running the 100 Days, I learned so much from just talking to people. It was a constant challenge to craft pieces of writing that I hoped would do justice to the insightful and thoughtful commentary that we received. Beyond the rigors of publishing a daily blog with posts upwards of 500 words a day, conducting and managing interviews, schedules, and timelines, I had to contend with the rigors of collaboration. Tim and I work very differently. I focus on details, and he sees the big picture. I refine and edit, and he is more likely to publish before the writing is ready. We both work hard and are passionate about what we do. I am the Kern, and Tim is the Burn.
In the past six months, I launched two businesses with Tim: Kern and Burn; and The People's Pennant, in collaboration with our friend Eric R. Mortensen. I just ran a crash course in Business 101, in real-time, with zero business experience. I had a major learning curve to overcome, but I have a great team and, luckily, some amazing people to learn from.
For Kern and Burn, I interviewed over 50 designers. I learned about building businesses and crafting worlds around them. I met with Peter Buchanan-Smith and talked about just starting and believing in a product. I met with Christian Helms and talked about taking risks and trusting yourself. I talked to Frank Chimero about how he has allowed his interests to shift his work. I learned from those in the self-publishing and startup worlds. I watched design talks, read essays, and went to events. Through all of these experiences, I've seen an optimistic call to action for designers to continue to learn, inquire about our profession, and allow our personal stories to infuse our work.
Here are a few of the moments and conversations that have most changed me. They have changed the way that I think, the way that I work, and, as the shift comes from school to work, the way that I approach figuring out what I want to do.
I met with Peter Buchanan-Smith in the fall of 2011 to get his advice on my project. I wanted to stumble on a good idea. I wanted to know how he went from painting an axe to building an entire world around Best Made Company. He told me to just start. He said, "I had a few axes sitting in my studio and decided to just paint them. I never had the idea to start my own company until I did that one action. That step." He told me to think big about what I wanted to accomplish and not to worry about fantasies being too big, because they can always be scaled back. He said, "Don't worry aboutor even think aboutif other people are doing something similar to what you're thinking. Just start working, because you need something to work toward, something that is exciting and big."
I left the meeting energized to start making, but still unsure what to make. Peter said, "Just get to work. Stop meeting with people like me."
Well, I didn't stop talking to people. In fact, I started talking to more people, and talking to people inspired me to finally make something I am passionate about. Peter inspired me to listen to the stories of those who have done what I aspire to do. I could take their advice or do the exact opposite. Either way, I let his words drive me to one thing: action.
Ask for what you need.
Designer, restaurateur, and textile-maker, Christian Helms exemplifies the designer who has taken his passions and turned them into successful businesses. I wanted to know how he went from designer to restaurant-owner, while still maintaining a collaborative studio. We met over beers at his restaurant Frank in Austin, Texas. He said, "I think there has been this collective turn in the consciousness of designers. We realized that we start these businesses for clients, these businesses go on to be successful, and we think, 'Why aren't we starting these businesses?'"
He didn't know a lot about how to start these businesses, but he had mentors like James Victore and John Bielenberg who encouraged him. On how to ask for help along the way, Christian said, "Buy your heroes beer." He really means you should ask for advice, and don't be afraid to admit that you don't know what you are doing.
I think Kern and Burn for me has always been about asking advice, simply because I don't know what I want. I just want to learn and grow, and for me, reaching out to people to hear their perspectives was one way to inform my own.
Be Willing To Change
Frank Chimero has defined himself as a designer. He was, previously, an illustrator, and he has become, with the release of his first book The Shape of Design, a writer. I asked him what he thinks about the shifting definition of a designer and how he approaches his work. He said, "I think it's okay for people to pivot with their work. If I look at my career, I've changed what I've done every two or three years. It's all design. The form just changes." Frank cites philosophy, anthropology, and history as interests that are important to him, and I asked him how these disciplines influenced his practice.
He said, "I think philosophy, anthropology, and history are important, design or no. These are the lenses we use to understand ourselves and our world. It's how we think about what makes the good life so good. That's not a designer's problem. That's a human problem."
Frank's example reinforced the idea that change is good and interests outside of design are essential. To stay inspired and curious, I have to always keep moving forward. I also realized that thinking about design problems as human problems makes me more empathetic to the reasons why I make, and who I am making things for. It made me want to solve bigger problems and connect emotionally with the people on the other end. I can build things, learn from my mistakes, glean morsels of insight from my experiences, and move on to the next thinghopefully a little wiser.
Kern and Burn
I still have no idea what I'm doing. There is no right way to do anything. There is no prescribed life path, where the middle chapters of the book are written and all I have to do is skip to the end. Getting there is what is important. The journey is where I have learned to start making, to ask for guidance, and to change myself for the better.
I'm new to this whole design thing. I worked for an interior architecture studio and had some idea what graphic design could be, but I could never have imagined just how exciting it would be. I feel that I'm truly part of a community. I was welcomed into a group of amazing peers within the graduate-school community and now, with Kern and Burn and The People's Pennant, into the design community at large.
I think the best part of building these businesses and talking and working with people whom I respect and admire is that they have all been where I am now. They started from scratch, learned as they went, and waited to see what would happen. Peter built a business around a product he believes in, because he painted an axe, and realized an opportunity. Christian is passionate about design and hot dogs, so he started a restaurant and built a brand. He asked for help along the way. Frank has many interests, and he pivots among them so that he can continue to pursue meaningful work. They all let themselves change in the process. I have changed in this process.
I wouldn't say that I'm a writer, but I wrote and edited over 70,000 words. I wouldn't say that I'm a publisher, but I'm writing and self-publishing a book. I wouldn't say I am an entrepreneur, but I started two businesses. I am excited by the shifting definition of myself. I am excited by what interests me and what scares me. I'm excited by the opportunities available to me. I can work for a start-up, I can start my own studio, or I can work continue to pursue my side projects. I can do anything I want.
I won't give up on the detail-oriented, planning, list-making side of myselfthe Kern. But I will let myself embrace the unknown. I will hustle and pursue my passions without a path. I will Kern and Burn.