• 01 Introduction to Design Entrepreneurship

    Designers have realized that they have all of the skills
    necessary to create successful businesses and build careers without clients. Kern and Burn shares their stories.

    02 The Story

    03 Essay I

    You Are Your Portfolio

    by Tim Hoover

    • I love finding new designers whom I admire. When I discover them, I don't just bookmark their websites. I read their blogs, and I look them up everywhere I can. I follow them on Twitter, Dribbble, Svpply, and Instagram. I want to know who they are, not just what they create. I want to know what kinds of things inspire them, what they are reading, and what paths they've taken to get to where they are now. I want to figure out why they make what they make. Sometimes they are inspired because they went to space camp as a kid, or grew up in the punk scene, or had a father who was an illustrator at Hallmark. Honestly, I probably spend as much time looking at designer's lives as their work. Some people might think it's a little creepy, but I think it's an amazing development made possible by technology. I'm a designer, and it's reassuring to remember that my heroes are not super-human. They work really hard. They were once unsure of the next steps in their lives, they listen to music, and they go to movies. They are real people, and technology allows me to feel like I get to know them.


    • I'm not the only one scouting talent. There is a special breed of company in search of talented designers, and they want to get to know us. They are startups—small, passionate companies run by entrepreneurs who are trying to build products to connect our world and make it a better place. These companies finally understand that design is necessary for their success and are offering opportunities to designers that have historically been reserved for partners of firms and design rock stars. They offer good money, company equity, great work environments, and the ability to help shape culture-their own, and culture at large. For years, the design industry has been asking to be utilized for more than our aesthetic decision-making, and startups give designers the chance to use our broad skill sets. These are wonderful jobs, in beautiful cities, with life-changing potential. I promise, they do exist, but how do designers get them?


    • Most designers I know who have jobs with startups are either the founders or have been recruited. They didn't send cover letters, they didn't send email inquiries, and they certainly didn't make cold calls. They created amazing side projects, are interesting people, and were contacted by their employers. I'm sure this is not the case for everyone, but it is a familiar story. In order to be attractive to these companies designers must redefine our portfolios. We must think differently about how we represent ourselves and our work differently than we have in the past. Traditionally, a design portfolio has been a sample of projects that showed our design competency. Accompanied by a well-crafted cover letter and resume, our portfolio represented us to potential employers. It provided proof that we could visually communicate a design brief and that we had work experience. This may still be an effective way to get a job at a design firm or advertising agency—where the traditional client-service model dominates—but those are not the jobs I'm interested in for. Startups are innovating, which often means they are working without design briefs, treading into unknown territories, and making it up as they go along. To attract attention from innovative companies, our portfolios need to show more than our competence; they must demonstrate our willingness to adapt, build something from nothing, and learn as we go along. They must be an example of how we are solving our biggest design problem: our lives.


    • We should consider the financial definition of the word portfolio. In finance, portfolio is a term that denotes a collection of investments. Grafting the finance definition onto design, should help us expand the way we think about our portfolios. A more holistic definition reveals that we are our portfolios. Lucky for us, the internet provides simple tools for us to show potential employers the ways in which we choose to invest our time, our money, and our energy. Our collective online activities now represent us. They are a combination of our work and our lives, our design process and our life experience. Our Twitter feed shares what we think is important. Our Facebook feed shows our relationships. Our Svpply feeds demonstrates our level of taste. Our Rdio feed records our music preferences. Our Instagram feed paints a picture of what we think is beautiful. Our blogs archive our thoughts. Our Dribbble feed tracks our design process. Most of us are already investing energy into these social networks, but it is necessary to consider them part of our holistic portfolios—our online personae.


    • I am a competent designer and a recent graduate of a quality MFA design program, but I graduated undergrad with a below average portfolio. I have seen the benefits of a holistic portfolio in my own career. Employers, and creative partners have taken chances on me because I'm a self-starter, am passionate about things outside of the design field, and have taken risks. My portfolio includes photographs from a 75-mile hike through the Sonoran desert, a failed collaborative project, my personal manifesto, and my Instagram feed. Now, as I search for my dream job, I have placed my side projects at the forefront of my portfolio and the response has been overwhelming. Whether a designer looking for a first job, or a veteran looking for a change, we should make our passions known.


    • For young designers, it is necessary to think about their online persona as complementary to their traditional portfolio. Those straight out of undergrad looking to get their first jobs shouldn't spend their time online hoping that a recruiter discovers them. They still need to prove their competency. If one of their Twitter followers wants to see their abilities, it's imperative that they have a website that makes their work easy to digest. They should probably take the first job that comes along and realize they can get another one in six months. Young designers don't always know what a potential employer is looking for, and they may not even know what they're looking for. It is important to realize that they're competing against tons of designers, and the best way to differentiate themselves is to be honest about who they are and make that known. If they don't know who they are, they should unplug the internet and figure that out before they share themselves with the world. If they do know what they are passionate about, then developing their online persona in addition to a traditional portfolio could help them land a better first job.


    • For confident designers looking for their dream jobs, our online personae allow potential employers to quickly assess our personality, interests, and understand our passions. They will have a context when they are evaluating our work. Willing peers may even suggest us for work that they know would be of interest. For some, it may be tempting to abuse this reality and manipulate our online personas in order to paint an unrealistic picture of ourselves. Unfortunately for the liars out there, the internet is not reality. Our online persona is a representation of who we are. Thinking about our portfolios as a collection of investments is not a golden ticket. It may get us an interview, but we still have to show up—in person. It is in our best interest to be honest about who we are. This gives us the best opportunity to find work that we will love doing with people that we will love working with. If a designer is not a self-starter and they work best when given direction, they don't want a job where they're inventing their job description. If they don't listen to music, then they won't love working for Spotify. If they do get a job because they're creating a false personality online, they're not going to like it. Lying about who they are won't get them the right job for them.


    • I recently had the privilege to speak with Josh Brewer, the Principal Designer at Twitter, and I asked him what it takes for a designer to thrive in the startup environment. Without hesitation, he replied, "You have to be self-motivated. You have to be willing to stretch and take on stuff that you may not normally do. You need to be open and have the ability to learn quickly. The reality is, in the startup world, you're going to be doing ten different things. That's just how it is. That can be taxing, and you have to be vigilant about making sure that you keep a balance, but it makes you a better designer." Designers at startups are expected to do more than make aesthetic decisions. To get a job with a startup, we cannot rely on static images of our work to prove our worth. Our portfolios must be more than shiny representations of final work. They are a collection of our investments, and we should use them to demonstrate our commitment to personal growth. When startups can see our development, it is easier for them to envision how we will help grow their companies. In designing our lives and designing our careers, we must dedicate ourselves to figuring out what we love, and then do it the best that we can. If we strive to follow our passions, we will do better work, and inspire others.


    04 Essay II

    Learn As You Go

    by Jessica Karle Heltzel

    • 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 like—a feeling, tone, or overall message that I want to convey—but 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 part—the 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 Burn—an 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.

      Start Now

      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 about—or even think about—if 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 thing—hopefully 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 myself—the Kern. But I will let myself embrace the unknown. I will hustle and pursue my passions without a path. I will Kern and Burn.


    05 The Exhibition