It’s a common complaint among creatives and people passionate about their craft: The business of running a business is harder than it seems. From startup companies and small firms to side projects and self-publishing ventures, design entrepreneurs are diverse, and their experiences are invaluable to those eager to pursue a similar path.
Jessica Karle Heltzel and Tim Hoover—the duo behind the creative entity Kern and Burn—wanted to know more about people who make a living doing what they love. What began as a collaborative thesis project for Maryland Institute College of Art became an examination of the state of design. Their 100 Days of Design Entrepreneurship blog gave birth to the subsequent book Kern and Burn: Conversations with Design Entrepreneurs. Through these two ventures built from in-depth discussions with self-made business owners, Heltzel and Hoover learned a lot worth sharing.
What exactly is Kern and Burn? Where did this term come from?
JKH: Design entrepreneurship is a balance between craft and vision, between details and scale. ‘Kern and Burn’ emphasizes the tension between the perfection and creativity that can happen with design, and the hustle and the passion it takes to get products out there. It’s the perfect metaphor to capture the creative spirit of today’s entrepreneurs.
We have different skills, priorities, work methods and stress levels, but those differences work in our favor because they force us to challenge one another. I love working out the details and nuances of a design problem, and I spend way more time than I should refining the small stuff. I obsess over one or two pixels—I’m definitely the ‘Kern.’
TH: I love systematic thinking and playing with processes as much as I love playing with formal aesthetics. I am the ‘Burn’ because I don’t care as much about the details. The best part about Kern and Burn is that we’re both
self-aware. We understand that the best outcomes happen when our abilities challenge, and ultimately complement, each other’s.
How did the blog become a book?
TH: We wanted to present insights about the lives of 30 designers who had created their own careers and who had very different approaches and definitions of success. We hope that when people read the book, they don’t try to emulate one of the designers but realize that they should work hard to build a career that’s right for them. It’s truly an exciting time to be a designer. If you love print design, you can self-publish and make that passion a viable reality without the constraints of publishers. A side project can blow up overnight and introduce you to wonderful people, prospective clients or future collaborators.
What were some things you learned when interviewing design entrepreneurs?
TH: We learned so much, but there are a few themes that resonate throughout. The biggest one might be the willingness to learn as you go. From successful illustrators to founders of multimillion-dollar companies, everyone told us that, at some point, they were scared, felt underqualified and had no idea what they were doing. Regardless of those doubts, they weren’t afraid to try and fail. And try again.
The value of side projects is another huge thread in the book. We don’t necessarily recommend quitting your job, but we do recommend working on side projects. We’ve met many people in the last two years whose side projects have drastically changed their careers. They all surprised themselves when they jumped in without knowing the outcome and took a risk.
Was there anything about these designers that surprised you?
JKH: I was, and continue to be, blown away by the generosity of the design community. Interviewing people you admire and respect can be intimidating, but if I learned anything, it’s simply to ask. The interviews in our book were our way of asking for advice—for ourselves and for our readers. Most of the time, people—and designers, especially—are super nice. Ask them for wisdom or to go out for beers. Meet people and start projects. So many projects are the result of one person asking another person for advice.
What business tips did you take to heart?
TH: When you solve a problem for yourself, the worst-case scenario is that you’ve made your own life richer and better. The best-case scenario is that you’ve solved a problem for millions of people’s benefit. Designers look at the world and think about how they can make it better or more beautiful or more convenient. They’re observant. If something in your own life could be better or done differently than the status quo, solve it through design.
[To further our own endeavors, we’ll] dive in and identify the constraints. Sometimes you can redefine the limitations by asking better questions, and sometimes giving in to the obstacles is what drives good work. Look for opportunity in everything, and remember that design is about people. I think we do our best work when we’re a little bit terrified and a little bit in over our head. I think Jess and I will continue to define problems for ourselves that seem a little bit too big for us. We’ll dream big, be kind and remember that everyone else is scared, too.