Quick story: At my last job, I happened upon a rebranding proposal pitched to one of our clients by a Chicago-based branding agency named Knoed.
Hopefully you know this by now, but I’m kind of an art and design nerd. So here I am, at work, flipping through this gorgeous graphic design book created by this awesome company and I’m dumbstruck.
There’s just something in me that lights up when I see people doing incredible creative work. Whenever I run into someone that strikes me like that, I’m nearly compelled to reach out and introduce myself. And that’s exactly what I did–I reached out to Kim Knoll and said if they were ever looking for a copywriter, I’d love to help.
While she didn’t take me up on that specific offer, we did end up reconnecting later when I asked if she would be willing to be interviewed for this blog.
Now, full disclosure, this post is long. But it’s juicy. And inspirational. And I’d love to continue creating pieces like this because THESE are the people that give me life and fuel. They’re the incredible, creative people doing awesome things in the Midwest–something that I personally believe gets overlooked when people think of the heartland.
But enough of my babbling. Without further ado (as they say), please say hello to Kim of Knoed Design…
DESCRIBE YOUR JOURNEY TO THIS POINT.
I went to school for graphic design. I always knew I wanted to be a designer, even in high school. I was in a lot of art programs and my teacher told me to pursue graphic design based on my style and what I liked doing in class. Though, it really wasn’t a hot thing to do at the time.
I’m kind of a planner, so when I went to college, I started working part time as a receptionist at a design firm to try and get a feel for graphic design to make sure it’s what I wanted to be doing. Because you’re going to college for 4-6 years, and I thought to myself, ‘What if I get out and I don’t like any of this?’ Ultimately, I was able to see the behind the scenes, which I really enjoyed, so I pursued it.
I completed college in 6 years and left Chicago as soon as I graduated. I just picked up and moved to Arizona, where I lived and worked as a designer for the first 3 years of my career. I started out as an in-house marketer for a senior citizen fitness program, where I designed tape and CD cassette covers and posters for really bad senior citizen materials. It’s not glamorous whatsoever, though it makes a great story now and I gained a lot of the skills I needed to eventually get a better job.
From there I went to a graphic design studio for about 6 months, where I did quite a bit of boutique client work, which I really enjoyed.
However, I was homesick and wanted to come back to Chicago. So I came back and got a job as a designer at Tom, Dick and Harry Creative Company. Really great people. I would say David Yang completely turned my career around. They were producing really great work, and my book wasn’t the best at the time, but I was really eager to learn and just needed someone to give me a chance and take me under their wing, and he did. I was there for a little under 2 years and we worked our asses off, creating a ton of different things, and my portfolio did a complete 180. I feel like that was a pivotal point in my career; when I started to produce better work. I understood things better. I got more passionate about it.
Those guys were really great. The only reason I left was because advertising just wasn’t my thing and they did more of that then branding and print. And I really wanted to get into a design studio where there was a greater focus on identity work and things like that.
So I left Tom, Dick and Harry and went to a shop called BrainForest, that no longer exists. I was there for about a year, doing print and web for boutique companies. However, you could tell the company wasn’t doing so well. So I left and went to this place called Jones–a really small ad and boutique identity shop–and I worked there as a senior designer for a year. But I could tell they were ready to sell to someone bigger. And at that point, I had experience, felt ready to take on my own clients, and really wanted to work on projects from beginning to end. So that’s when I left to start freelancing.
I’d been working 6 years total when I became a freelancer. And I did that for a year. At the time I was freelancing, my husband Kyle was also freelancing. We were working back to back in the second bedroom of our house, but we each had our own clients. Our own agendas. We were competing for work. It was kind of silly. Then, we started helping each other out. If he was too busy, I would take some of his work and visa versa. We made a really great team, which led us to the realization that we should combine portfolios and start a company together, with one name and clients we both worked on. And that’s when we started Knoed, about 5 years ago.
Eventually we got enough money to rent desks at a co-working space, where we worked for about a year. It was a really great setup and nice baby steps leading up to renting a studio of our own, which we eventually did and are still here 3 years later.
WHAT REALLY DREW YOU BACK TO THE MIDWEST?
Well, I met Kyle when I was in my second to last year of college. I went to school with his younger sister who was in the design program with me. He would come up to visit his sister, and since we were friends, we would all be hanging out with these big groups of people. At some point, he noticed me and that’s how we met—through his sister.
I immediately knew he was amazing. And we ended up having a fling for four months–every time he would visit his sister, we’d hang out. Then I’d drive down to Champaign and hang out with him. It got to the point—he didn’t have a car—and we were entering our last year in school and shit was just nuts with our projects and studio time. And we’re thinking, ‘What are we doing? Are we going to take this seriously or not?’ and ultimately we both decided to call it off. We graduated, I moved to Arizona and I didn’t talk to him for 3 or 4 years.
Then, when I was working at that in-house marketing job, I got an email from an old roommate of mine. She said Kyle was trying to find me and forwarded me his email, so I wrote him back. We were both single and started talking over email, and then phone—just catching up and basically getting back together.
I flew home for Christmas, we met up and spent the whole day together. And I knew I really wanted to be with him, but I didn’t want to move back to Chicago just to be with a guy.
So I head back to Arizona, walk up to my apartment and see a big notice on my door saying they’re turning our apartments into condos and my lease, which would end in two months, would not be renewed. That same week, my best friend told me she was moving to Seattle in two weeks. And then the company I was working for—the boutique design firm—ended up going under. Essentially, within a month’s time I didn’t have a place to live, I got let go of my job and my best friend moved. Taking these things as signs I should not be there anymore, I packed up whatever I could fit in my car, drove back to Illinois and moved in with my mom to save some money. I got the job at Tom, Dick and Harry two days after I moved back, then Kyle and I started dating for real. Six months later, Kyle and I bought a house together and three years later we got married.
HAVE TO ASK, HOW’S WORKING WITH THE HUBBY?
In the beginning, it was a little harder because we were both working out of our house and it was tough having your work and home all in one place–we never got a visual separation from the two. And you know how you’re at work too long and you start getting agitated by it? We were feeling that a lot. So as soon as we got desks at the co-working space, it helped create a visual division between work and home. We would get out of our PJs, get dressed and go to place with normal working hours. And when it was time to leave work, we would physically leave it and come home and chill as a couple, which really helped.
Another thing that’s helped is to define very specific roles, so we don’t step on each other’s toes and we can create stuff that we can own. While we’re both designers and do all the work 50/50, Kyle does a lot of new business–he’ll do all the proposals, writing people back about inquiries, billing and bookkeeping. And I do a lot of the scheduling, client management, social media, entering our work into things, or writing students back about questions they have and stuff like that. And then when it comes to design, Kyle manages most of the web design projects and I manage most of the print design. It really helps that he does his thing and I do mine, but we come together for brainstorming or critiquing, things like that.
WHAT CHANGES HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED OWNING YOUR OWN COMPANY?
When we first started out we would take anything we could get. We would do anything. If someone wanted a logo, package, website, we would say yes. But we realized we were constantly creating new relationships and bringing some new designer on board just to do a logo, and then that designer would go away. Plus, it was a lot of work trying to get to know someone and their business. And we were getting really tired of constantly pitching new people. We also realized we would rather build a design identity from scratch, rather than being handed a pre-existing identity.
All of these things led us to focus more on branding because we could form one relationship and get 5-10 projects with that person and do everything; it’s all your vision. We only showed branding work in our portfolio in hopes it would start to attract more people interested in branding and 360 identity work, and it did.
DO YOU LIKE BEING YOUR OWN BOSS? EVER DO YOU MISS THE 9-TO-5?
It’s love/hate. It gets lonely for sure. I’m the kind of person where I need to talk during the day. I can’t sit at my desk all day, but Kyle can. I also miss being able to bullshit with a coworker or go out to lunch, because it’s not something we do. But collaborating? Kyle’s one of the best people I’ve ever collaborated with, so I don’t feel like there’s anything lacking in that. It’s always fun to collaborate in a big group, but I feel like I still get that here—even if its just him and I. It gets a little lonely sometimes.
HAS IT TAUGHT YOU TO TRUST YOUR OWN OPINION MORE, THOUGH?
I got to the point of trusting my opinion right before I started Knoed.
Luckily, as far as design goes, both David (at Tom, Dick and Harry) and Scott Manee (my boss at JONES) taught me how to get out of my head, put it to the side and start over, and just keep doing that. I would get my work done pretty fast and we’d still have a couple days before the presentation. And they’d be like,”That’s great, but what else could it be?” So I’d start over or try to push the idea further. They just drilled that mentality into me.
Now, being on my own, I just automatically keep doing that and I almost feel like there’s a CD (creative director) over me saying, “That’s great, but lets see what else you have,” because I’m so used to hearing that. And I’ll tell Kyle the same thing: “That’s great, but what else do you have?” So we’re always pushing each other and then we’ll narrow it down to the best ideas from that pile.
In our position, we just have to trust what we’ve done. But, we’re also at a point in our careers where we can [trust what we’ve done] because we’ve been doing it for 12 years now and the more you do graphic design–practice graphic design–the better and faster you get and the more ideas you have. At least, that’s how it is for us.
Design is less of a struggle that it used to be. And it used to be a struggle, but then, if you keep doing it over and over, you get better and you get there.
WHAT’S IT LIKE WORKING IN CHICAGO? HOW’S THE GRAPHIC DESIGN COMMUNITY?
There was nothing out in Arizona. There were no good [design] firms. No good work. It was just a ton of corporations who needed in-house designers. There was no community for artists or designers, which was one of the reasons I left. But I think here [in Chicago], there’s a huge community. I have a lot of friends who own their own studios or work at some of the big ones.
As far as getting work, I feel like there’s more than enough to go around. We get inquiries all the time that we say no to because it’s not a good fit for us, so that work goes to someone else. Luckily we don’t have a problem getting work, and I think it’s because we’ve been doing this long enough that we’ve made a lot of connections, our website is out there and our clients come back, which leads to a lot of repeat work.
One of the negatives I’ve noticed, however, is that you seem to hear about the same creatives over and over again. I don’t know why, but it seems as if there’s 20-30 people that I hear their name in a lot of exhibitions and things like that. There are so many great people doing great work and they’re not being recognized, and I wish there was more of an opportunity to uncover those people instead of recognizing the same people over and over again.
But that said, there is Creative Mornings…
YES, SO YOU HOST CREATIVE MORNINGS FOR CHICAGO. HOW DID THAT START?
Swiss Miss launched Creative Mornings out in NY in about 2008. She was just doing it for Studiomates (her co-working space/office) to bring someone in and inspire the office and her team. Eventually more and more people wanted to attend, and she started getting venues to host these speakers so that more people could attend. Then someone from Studiomates moved—to Sweden or Stockholm—and wanted to bring it out there. So he requested a guidebook and that’s when she put the whole thing together. And that was the 2nd chapter, now there are over 130 chapters worldwide.
Chicago was #5 and started back in 2011, when Mig Reyes (a designer at Basecamp) applied to start the chapter. He ran it for a year and a half, but wanted to teach at Starter League and didn’t have the time to balance both. Kyle and I happened to be speaking at Creative Mornings in 2012 and he asked us at the end of 2012 if we wanted to take it over. And me, being the planner I am, was stoked about the opportunity. We officially took over Creative Mornings in February of 2013 and we’ve been doing it ever since–over 3 years now.
Because Knoed is just the two of us, Creative Mornings is a nice way to get out and just talk with people; get in the inboxes of some really great people and get a peek inside their minds. And I really love the vibe Creative Mornings gives off. I like that it’s free. I love seeing all the people there every month. I like that there’s no catch. You just kind of go and get inspired. And I was a huge fan of it before we were speakers at it—we would just go and sit in the audience–so it was a no brainer to keep it going.
One of my favorite parts is in the morning, I say, “Okay everyone, we’re going to started in 5 minutes and in those 5 minutes I want you to turn to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself,” and you can hear the room go from this silent buzzing to this big boom, as everyone turns around and the chatter goes way up. And every month that makes my heart skip a beat.
In the beginning, when Mig hosted, there were a lot of designers that would attend and speak. It was almost strictly for designers. So, naturally, it drew that crowd. But about two years ago, Creative Mornings HQ came out with themes for every month to better unite all the chapters. And once we started getting those, it pushed us to start thinking ‘Who would be good for this theme?’ and look outside of the graphic design community.
Since the start of those themes, we’ve had architects, tattooists, toymakers, obviously graphic designers, murals, street artists, photographer, filmmakers…all kinds of people.
Right now the audience seems very mixed–it’s designers, photographers, a lot of creative directors. And then we have people like knitters; people in the textile artists. We have people that are in college all the way up to age 55 who come. And then you have people who aren’t professionally creative at all, but have creativity in them and attend to get that part out. Really, it’s all different lives and ages now.
HOW DOES LIVING IN CHICAGO (OR THE MIDWEST) INSPIRE YOU?
I think what I love about Chicago is that there’s such a utilitarian, hardworking, rugged work ethic here. And I think it shows in a lot of the visuals. Just going downtown you see a lot of the old, hand-painted brick walls from businesses that no longer exist. And it’s all weathered. That whole feeling is in a lot of design in our community, and in a lot of things that inspire us.
There’s this whole movement to go back to hand-painted signs, and every designer is having their logo or mural put up on a brick wall now and it’s kind of like the new Chicago; the new old.
We [at Knoed] have a very minimal, almost European aesthetic, but then we like texture. We always apply some sort of texture to whatever it is we’re working on. And I think those textures are inspired by being here–seeing things that aren’t pristine; are a little worn and have some authenticity to them. For me, when I look at a design book, I can tell–without even looking where the designer is from–what’s generally done in the Midwest versus the East versus the West. Because I think we totally have a style here, or at least a look.
FAVORITE PLACES TO GET INSPIRED?
I just like going to a park and lying down on a blanket and staring at the sky. I know it sounds really cheesy, but it really helps me clear my head. I’m an outdoor person, so being outside is just a great feeling for me–not in the winter, because its freezing, but when it’s warmer. A lot of ideas come to me when I’m outside–when I’m at a park or walking my dog. When you’re on autopilot, it allows you to think about whatever you’re working on; it’s in the back of your head. A lot of my ideas come out that way.
I know for Kyle, his ideas come out in the shower. We even have a waterproof notepad in the shower for him to jot ideas down on.
There isn’t necessarily a specific place, but we try to do these things we call “Mental Health Days” and go to the MCA or gallery—somewhere with artwork or sign work—to get inspired.
WHAT DOES YOUR STANDARD-ISH DAY TO DAY LOOK LIKE?
We get into work around 10am. Usually on Mondays we’ll have a status meeting, where we’ll go over what each person is working on and the plan for the week. Then, I usually have to go through emails from 10 to noon–I have a lot of emails to go through. Same with Creative Mornings–I try to get that stuff done by noon.
From noon till about 6 or 7pm, I just do design work and client management kind of stuff.
I’m sure Kyle’s day probably looks different than that, but we’re pretty much at our desks all day, working. And if we’re not at our desks, we’re out at a meeting, learning about someone’s project or presenting our work. But for the most part we’re here.
HOW DO YOU BREAK FROM THE SCREEN?
When I’m in brainstorming mode, I sketch in my sketchbook. Even if I’m brainstorming a website design, I like to sketch out ideas before I go to a computer. And there’s a couple things that we do that are hand-drawn, so I’m doing that too. But for the most part it’s sketches, or I’ll sit at the worktable just brainstorming.
HOW DO YOU BREAK AWAY FROM WORK WHEN YOU GO HOME?
Work never turns off. We’ll be out at dinner on a Saturday night, and it’s really romantic, and then the conversation will turn to improving our process. It doesn’t ever turn off and we’re okay with that, because we really love what we do. And when it’s your business, all you want to do is work on it and make it better. And its just him and I; it’s all up to us. When we leave the office, it feels good and we can go home and chill out, but there’s so many times where we have to talk about work even if we aren’t at work.
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS? DO YOU WANT A TEAM OF 5 SOMEDAY?
We’ve intentionally stayed small. We really like this niche that we’re in. We’re bigger than freelancers, but smaller than a Firebelly. We’re the ones who talk to and do the work for our clients, and there’s not too many places out there like that, so I think there’s something that makes us different in that way. And we still like doing the design work.
A year or two ago, we had one employee for about a year, but it turned us into managers, where we were trying to bring in work to keep that designer busy. And Kyle was starting to jump on more of the biz side of things than the design side, so then it was up to me and that other designer. And Kyle and I work so well together, but with that additional designer, things started changing, and not in a way that we wanted them to change. So we ended up having to let that person go because we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were doing a good job of what we were doing, but we weren’t happy. So we just had to make that call.
I think we would probably grow, but we’re just not ready for that. And whenever we do, we have to make that commitment that we’re going to step back from the design. Because as soon as we start hiring, we’re going to have to be the managers of everything.
But I do think at some point we’ll get there because we’ll be burned out.
WHAT KIND OF LEGACY DO YOU HOPE TO LEAVE?
I would hope my legacy would be inspiring people to be true to themselves, with what they want in their career or life, and having the courage to go get it. That’s why I love CreativeMornings so much, and why I put so much of myself into organizing these events. Sometimes all it takes is to hear someone speak to something you’re struggling with or be inspired by another person’s journey, to put a fork in your road and choose a different path…one that leads to changing you and your life forever. I believe staying true to who you are—no matter what anyone expects of you—is the only way to experience true happiness.
ANY ADVICE FOR SOMEONE LOOKING TO BE A DESIGNER?
I talk to a lot of students through Creative Mornings and Knoed and I’ve noticed there’s almost this feeling of entitlement. Young designers think they can just graduate, get a job and be put in a vice president position at the age of 23. And I just want to say: be prepared to be at the bottom of the totem pole and stay there for a few years. Work on really shitty projects and work your way up the ladder. It takes a lot of work and a lot of patience, but you have to put in that time if you want to go somewhere.
A lot of people are eager to get the best title or the best job right away, but if you did that, what do you have to look forward to? You’re going to be working for 4o years, till your 60? 65? So if you get that title in your 20s, then what? I guess you could start a company and go that route too, but there’s nothing wrong starting out as an in-house designer working on senior citizen materials. It doesn’t mean that’s shaping or dictating who you are as a designer. You can always start over. I had a great portfolio coming out of college and a terrible portfolio after two years of this profession. But you can keep working on things on the side, get into a great job and then you can throw all that shitty work out and start over.
Keep going after what you want. You’ll get there, but you have to put that time and effort into it. And have patience.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE A YOUNGER YOU?
For my younger self, I would tell myself…that’s hard. I think it’s very similar. Because I was one of those people who felt entitled. I would go to interviews and think I was the shit like, “Isn’t this work great?” and expect a job. I had a really hard time and my ego got bruised, but I think it was a really good thing.
It’s hard when you’re in school and your professors are telling you you’re good, then you win a scholarship and an award at this show–it’s really hard to keep your ego in check. But then you get out into the real world and it’s not like that at all. There are so many great people doing great things out there and you’re just one in a million. So you have be a little more humble.
I would say I should’ve been more humble then I was.
DO YOU THINK YOU’RE CREATIVELY SATISFIED?
I think so. I feel really fortunate. I’m really happy with the kind of work we [Kyle and I] get. And we put our heart into everything we do, but we work a lot of hours to get things to where they are.
I feel really fulfilled, and this is by far the best job I’ve ever had. And the longest. I also have things to look back on and compare it to. That older adult fitness program, I could be working on stuff like that. But when I stop and I think about being able to work on Tru Studio or Hannas Bretzel, it’s so great. And it’s people we love working with, work that we love doing and businesses we love supporting. I feel great about all of that. I only hope that we can keep working on that kind of stuff because there are always people out there who are better than you, and could take that client out from under you. So we just feel happy with where we are now and hope it keeps up.
BUBBLER OR WATER FOUNTAIN?
THIN CRUST OR DEEP DISH?
That’s a toss up. I’m going to say thin crust.
STOP LIGHT OR TRAFFIC LIGHT?
WHERE CAN WE FIND YOU?
Thank you so much for letting me interview you Kim! And side note, sorry it took me so long to get this published, but super happy I finally did. To all you readers: please comment with any further questions or anything this interview sparked. I’d love to know! // P.S. This interview has been edited for clarity & time. // P.P.S. All the beautiful images were pulled from Knoed.com.