An initial step toward launching your own creative endeavor is to learn from the triumphs and blunders of accomplished innovators. Kern and Burn, an online and print publication by Tim Hoover and Jessica Karlet Heltzel, focuses on this aspect. Their book, Kern and Burn: Conversations with Design Entrepreneurs, taps into the perspectives of 30 designers who evolved their passions into their own successes and took risks to get there. It’s a great read for fellow designers looking to start their own entrepreneurial profession.
The "Kern and Burn: Conversations with Design Entrepreneurs" book
Our head honcho, Jen Bilik, is featured in the book. In her chapter, “Value Your Audience,” she gives insight into why she started Knock Knock, alongside the risks and failures she ultimately learned and gained from along the way.
Jen's chapter: "Value Your Audience."
A closer look.
Other creatives interviewed include Kate Bingaman Burt, Elliot Jay Stocks, and Peter Buchanan-Smith. Buy the Kern and Burn book here.
Jen will also be on the Kern and Burn: A Conversation with Design Entrepreneurs panel at the Head, Heart, Hand: AIGA Design Conference in Minneapolis this Friday, October 11. If you’re attending the conference, be sure to check below for more details on the panel. And if you’ll be in the Minneapolis area, you can still register here.
AIGA Panel: Kern and Burn: A Conversation with Design Entrepreneurs
When: Friday, Oct. 11 from 11:30 a.m. – 12:45 p.m.
Where: Auditorium Room 1
In this session: Jessica Karle Heltzel, Tim Hoover, Jen Bilik, Jake Nickel, Matt Stevens
If you’re unable to attend, “Follow” the conversation on Twitter, using the hashtag #HHH2013.
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1. Did you always want to be an illustrator? How did you get your start? Before attending art school in Germany, I already drew a lot. But I think the illustration class was the turning point. In this course, we were taught how to get rid of our mannerisms and to find a way to approach the heart of an object without using effects. This simple style is something I developed when spending a guest semester at another art school in Germany. While I was there, one of our assignments was to make an illustrated book, which was something else entirely compared to the random drawings I created before, as it had to be a coherent style.
2. You create your own fonts by hand. What are your favorite fonts right now (either created by you or by someone else)? I think I’d like to make a distinction here between typefaces and hand lettering. Hand lettering is done for one specific use only, whereas typefaces have to work in all sorts of environments. They are more of a tool. I’ve worked in typefaces as well when I created a titling version of Clarendon for my art school thesis and also the new typeface for an energy drink as a commission.
A piece created by Bjoern for a London office.
Hand lettering is where illustration and type design meet, and that’s what I find so exciting about it.
3. What are your hobbies outside of illustrating and design? Reading, collecting antiquities (from cutlery to furniture—here in England it’s not as difficult as in Germany), traveling, refurbishing vintage bicycles, and playing piano.
Meet the founders of Hat-trick Design: Jim Sutherland (left) and Gareth Howat (right). (Photo courtesy of Hat-trick.)
In spring 2011, designers Jim Sutherland and Gareth Howat gaped at the city of Cape Town from a helicopter tens of thousands of feet above South Africa’s mountainous coastline. The Hat-trick Design duo was in town for the annual Design Indaba Conference, and traveled from their UK studio to participate as speakers. During that helo ride, they met a fellow Indaba conference speaker and attendee—our head honcho, Jen Bilik—and like propellers, the creative sparks flew.
We teamed up with the award-winning design firm for our new book, Phobophobia, a grownup picture book that invites readers into a visual guessing game with clever images and typography. And since this is the first time we’ve ever partnered outside the US, our cup doubly runneth over with excitement!
Though we can imagine how very long their to-do lists are, the Hat-trick guys carved out some time to let us pick their mind.
A day at the Hat-trick studio. Jim and Gareth founded Hat-trick in 2001, and since then, the design firm has grown into a staff of thirteen.
1. Did you always want to be a designer? How did you get started?
Jim: I studied math and physics at school, but always liked drawing. I went to art school to do illustration, but when I got there, everyone was better at drawing than me. I looked around and saw people doing design, and it looked easier.
Gareth: Originally, I wanted to be an architect. I got a place at university to do the course, but changed my mind at the last minute. It’s a seven-year course and the big thing is it takes so long to actually see any real work appearing, so I decided to do a foundation course, which led me to graphics in the end.
2. How did your collaboration come about? And where does the name “Hat-trick” come from?
Jim: Originally, three of us set it up, hence the name. We had all worked together at another London company after leaving college.
Gareth: Choosing a name was one of the hardest things we’ve done. It took us longer to come up with the name than anything else.
3. This question is a two-parter. Your work spans such an array of sectors—from designing Olympic-themed stamps for the Royal Mail to crafting the ad campaign for Action on Hearing Loss, so:
a. Where does your design inspiration come from and how do you apply it to all the different stuff you work on?
The silver cupboards of discussion. The Hat-trick team stick their designs on these cabinets every six months to spurr their creative process and talk through any problems that arise. (Photo courtesy of Hat-trick.)
Jim: We are really keen to work on all different types of projects across all sectors. It keeps us fresh and is much more interesting. I get inspired by so many things around me—books, films, exhibitions, anything really. From Jacques Tati and Tom Waits to Bruno Munari and Alan Fletcher, etc.
Gareth: Like fashion designer Paul Smith says, “Inspiration can come from anywhere.” There is so much work out there now and it’s so easily available. One idea is to have your own “filter” to pick out the work you like and use it to spark new ideas.
b. Do you have any special organizational routines to keep the creativity flowing—or simply to help retain sanity?
Jim: We work a lot together. We put all the ideas on a big metal wall and discuss them, since the best ideas come from talking the problem over. We also put aside an afternoon every week to do research and experimentation. This is where “Phobophobia” came from originally. I constantly scribble notes and lists of ideas in notebooks.
Gareth: No, that’s why we are actually insane. In reality, we are quite an organised company so that we work pretty quickly. But we don’t follow any really rigid ways of doing things, it just comes from experience.
Phobias get the design treatment in Phobophobia.
3. What sparked the idea for Phobophobia?
Jim and Gareth: We had been working on several projects that were word and language based. Once we started finding out these amazing words for phobias we started visualising them and bringing them to life.
4. Do you have any fears or phobias you’d like to share with us?
Jim: As the introduction of Phobophobia states, I’m scared of lots of things. Mainly spiders, but also cows and dancing. I think it’s fascinating what fears we hold inside.
Gareth: Being bored, and spiders, I really hate spiders. There is something inherently evil about them.
5. What are your hobbies outside of designing?
Random objects we've fallen in love with inside the Hat-trick Studio: 1. This should be the standard caution sign.; 2. Your typical mannequin torso and legs.; 3. Hat-trick's array of projects.
Jim: I love designing and don’t really treat it as a job. I spend a lot of my spare time thinking of new projects I could be doing. It’s not a proper job.
Gareth: Tennis, running, and outdoor stuff. We spend so much time at work, so it’s good to be active and not indoors.
6. As you know, there are numerous phrases in the US language that mean something completely different in Britain. What’s your favorite American slang word or phrase, and what’s the equivalent in British vernacular? Or, if you don’t have a favorite, what American phrase irks you the most and why?
Jim: I want to find out more about the difference between American and English spellings. For instance, why does ‘color’ have no ‘u’? Who decided to do that?
Gareth: It has to be “pants”—that really makes me laugh every time I hear it in the States.
Hat-trick's view from their studio in London Bridge. We are jealous. Seethingly jealous. (Photo courtesy of Hat-trick.)
7. What’s your favorite Knock Knock product and why?
Jim: I love the Clump-o-Lumps. It’s a genius idea and I am very happy we have some.
Wow, guys. You really know how to make us jealous.
It was tough sifting through all the entries and choosing just one winner for our Coolest Place to Work contest. However, upon reviewing all of them, we momentarily decided to start a Knock Knock work-exchange program, like a job swap for the day, so we could meet all the great minds and personalities at your companies. Although, workflow would be zilch, so that idea was instantly stomped on.
Still, it wouldn’t be right to leave the runners-up entries underemphasized. So before we announce the contest winner, check out these guys out:
1. PointRoll, based in King of Prussia, Pa. Tessa’s entry had us jotting down notes and ideas for future pranks, which is a forte at her office:
“My co-workers made sure I knew their thoughts on my laugh sounding like that of a guinea pig. In fact, when I laugh, that would say, ‘There is the GPL (guinea pig laugh).’ So, to drive their point home, while on vacation, they covered my desk to look like a guinea pig cage! Complete with wood chips, paper cut-outs of guinea pigs, a wheel and a mini-water bottle! They were even kind enough to put the wood chips on garbage bags for easy clean up! I was able to make it four full hours working at this desk before the wood scent became too overwhelming. Ha!”
Tessa from PointRoll's desk. It played victim to some serious office pranking. (Also, kudos for that Dwight Schrute bobblehead!)
2. Kiwi Creative, based in Cleveland, Ohio. This marketing and design studio caught our eye with their spunky ‘tude and high-energy. And it just so happens their CEO is also named Jen and goes by “head honcho and creative genius.” Fancy that! Other reasons why they’re on this list:
“Our clients also appreciate our quirkiness—it’s not uncommon for them to stop by our studio bearing candy and beer at 9:17 a.m. Yum-mo! The Kiwi fun continues outside of the office, too. Our junior designer, Jamie, was hypnotized at our last trade show and we’ve been known to do a shot (or two) at corporate events with open bars. That’s why our fans around town say, ‘It’s not a celebration until the Kiwi gals are in the house!’ (Yes, that’s an actual quote from Twitter.)”
The fun gals of Kiwi Creative.
3. STN Channel 2, University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn. Rachel, who in fact was a past Friend of the Month, submitted her student-run news station and wrote, “We put together a great, professional-looking show all by ourselves every week, and we’re only students!” And we totally believe you and think you all deserve high-fives. We also enjoyed reading a sample of the random conversations heard daily in the newsroom (e.g, “Facebook is like breathing—you don’t check it, you die.”) It reminded us of our own daily conversations that may or may not make our crew sound completely ridiculous.
The young minds behind Univeristy of Hartford's STN Channel 2. You all are very silly, and you make us very proud.
Now, the winner! Congratulations, Chartreuse of Lakewood, Ohio!
Sara from Chartreuse shared more about her company: 1. Lunch is always an event at Chartreuse!; 2. Charity rides to work on her cool vintage bicycle.; 3. Group latte run and wellness outing on our bikes.; 4. Sara, Charity and Michelle hanging out before a party in Le Petit Parc (a functional outdoor and entertaining space behind their studio).
Chartreuse is a graphic design studio that seems to have the picturesque lifestyle that we wish we could manage here in Venice, Calif. “From the chandelier hanging in the bathroom to group latte runs on bicycles, we infuse a playful attitude in everything we do. Outside in Le Petit Parc, we use our patio to eat lunch al fresco, host happy hour gatherings for friends, and our annual Art in the Parc event, now in it’s fourth year, featuring local Cleveland artists. No day is the same, but each day is always filled with surprise, style, friendship and fun.” . . .Seriously? You ladies live in what seems to be a hip, CW dramedy, and we are teeming with envy. You all deserve the Knock Knock prize pack!
Thanks again to those who entered. And make sure to keep your eye out for more Knock Knock contests and giveaways!
Black and white, upper left picture, left to right: Mel Gasmen, our genius digital and marketing coordinator; me; Sara Hartman, our savvy ecommmerce manager; Trish Abbot, the indispensable VP of brand development. Color picture: Jim Papscoe, our president, joins us, looking oddly like one of the Village People.
I write this month’s Head Honcho Hello from my Times Square hotel room on a break from one of the three tradeshows for which Knock Knock mounts its own booth, the Spring New York International Gift Fair (NYIGF). I must say that at this point in my career it is more fun to write about tradeshows in a hotel bed than it is to actually be at the tradeshows. I have become somewhat internally infamous for flying all the way to New York, showing up at the Javits Center, and, after walking the aisles to ogle the landscape of the marketplace, somewhat antsily announcing that I have work to do at the hotel. It’s a far cry from when I had to manage setup and staff the booth myself all day, every day, then break down the whole caboodle.
The true pleasure of the tradeshows is seeing the Knock Knock brand writ large, all in one sweep, much as an artist much appreciate seeing his/her work all up at once for an exhibition. It gives me a bird’s-eye view of what we’ve done, past and present, all at once, and an opportunity to suss out the larger patterns that will govern what we do in the future. Despite my (permanent) tradeshow fatigue, I almost always leave the shows feeling enthused and inspired. And it’s also a great opportunity to spend some fantastic social time with the team—last night we all tied one(s) on at the gift industry’s AIDS charity, Gift for Life, which has a gala event on the first Sunday of each January NYIGF. I seem to recall having performed some embarrassing dancing. And there were photos (see top right).
Each time I enter the Javits Center, however, my first thought is, “Oh my god, there is so much stuff in the world. Do we need this stuff? Why are we making more stuff? I make stuff. I am part of the world stuff machine.” From ceramic dogs to creepy dolls to cloyingly scented unctions to aprons with insightful proclamations like “Danger! Men Cooking!” one can instantly understand why the United States has a trade deficit with China and why the American storage industry is thriving. But then I spend some time in our booth and get the luxury of fielding compliments on, stories about, and laughter in response to our work, and I feel a little better about what we do. I mean, I actually feel great about what we do—proud and great—but amid a sea of stuff-stuff-stuff it’s hard not to feel like part of some problem or another.
Our Spring line on display. A busy booth is a happy booth.
On these New York trips, two to three times per year (May for the National Stationery Show and August for the Fall NYIGF), I always tack on a bunch of other meetings: desksides with editors for PR, in which I visit them at their office with a bag of new products and do a little dog-and-pony-show about them, pitching for future inclusion; various consultancies; and time with retailers, reps, and buyers. Even though I used to live in New York City and have lots of friends and some family here, Manhattan has become a work destination as I’ve made shorter and shorter trips to get in and out as fast as I possibly can, leaving less time for personal get-togethers. This is a mistake. I miss my New York people, and I miss slurping down the marrow of the city! But I suppose if I were to make a longer trip to accommodate personal recreation, it would probably be prudent to do it for the May show. Weather-wise, August and January pretty much suck.
The breakout bestseller. Because isn't love about filling in the blanks anyway?
I am inordinately proud of the Spring 2013 list, especially its amazing array of books. Our What I Love About You journal is flying off the shelves, a breakout hit. It was inspired by a handmade book I made years ago for my aunt Sue on the occasion of her fiftieth birthday, recounting, one per page, fifty things I loved about her, as well as by a book that our editor Kate’s boyfriend made for her. You fill it in yourself for a loved one—just in time for (ugh) Valentine’s Day. I am sad to report that two copies have been stolen from our booth display at the show so far—who are these people with no morals, and why don’t they behave? We have a whole new party line, including balloons, samples of which are flying high in the booth thanks to a sweet little helium tank we’re keeping in the booth closet. Apparently they have to be repumped every morning. I particularly love these wine tags. Also making enthusiastic inroads are our guest books, for dinner parties and bathrooms. The bathroom one is, I think, so terribly clever, and I just love the way the graphic design came out. Finally, we have two little books that aren’t yet on the website, probably because they haven’t hit the warehouse: 100 Reasons to Panic About Getting Married and 100 Reasons to Panic About Having a Baby. These morsels are perfectly giftable, sweetly illustrated, and wryfully on-point. The team really outdid themselves this season.
The Bathroom Guestbook provides you the opportunity to leave desirable evidence of your trip to their commode. Not the undesirable kind.
Okay—now I’m off to meet a fellow entrepreneur, a generous fix-up from another entrepreneur who thinks we’d hit it off, at her wine and cupcake bar, Sweet Revenge, in the West Village. Then I get to have dinner with my cousin. Tomorrow is part consultancy, part tradeshow walking, then I have the honor of being interviewed by the inimitable Debbie Millman for her podcast, Design Matters. Wednesday is an all-day marketing consultancy, then back on Thursday. Of course, all of this will be over by the time you’ve read this, on Friday, February 1. But we can always reminisce together, no?
The second sign welcoming people into the party. The first posed the question, "OMFG, has it been 10 years already?"
Do you, any of you, have social anxiety? That weird thing that makes you dread something that’s supposed to be a great time, even though you know intellectually you’ll probably have fun and forget about yourself once the shindig actually starts? The perverse instinct to cancel and run and hide with some ice cream and TV even though everybody thinks you’re outgoing?
That’s what I had going into the ten-year-anniversary party. Not to mention that it was a hell of a lot of work to put on. As someone who’s never planned a wedding (bridesmaid five times, though, thank you very much), I really had no idea. It’s a party. In a space. With people and food and drinks and decorations. What, Trish? What’s that you say? You think we need a party planner? Pshaw.
Trish was right. (She usually is.) It was such a big project that, as the day approached, I was not only dreading it irrationally and agoraphobically, I and the party team quite understandably couldn’t wait for the post-work relief that would set in once the heavy lifting was over.
But you know what?
IT WAS A MAGICAL NIGHT.
Social anxiety be gone. Work be worth it. People be incredible. Evening be beautiful. Triumph be palpable. Party be rock star.
Trish, Craig, me, and Jim—festive captains of the ship!
In general, gratitude—at least the self-help modality version of it—bugs the shit out of me. “Blessings,” people say. “In gratitude.” Yeah? I mock your Prius bull-hockey with my namaste hands. So imagine my surprise when I noticed myself feeling GRATEFUL. Tear-in-the-eye grateful. Non-mocking-namaste-hands grateful. Therapist-would-be-proud-of-me grateful. Pocket-full-of-sixpence grateful.
Because of this, right now, for one time and one time only, I’m going to do what I’d vowed never to do—make a gratitude list. The kind that Oprah says will make me a better person if I do it every day. But that’s not why I’m doing it—I’m doing it because I really, truly, and uncharacteristically want to count my and Knock Knock’s blessings. And I’m going to make it eleven just for the hell of it, and because ten years is actually sort of eleven years when you count them on your hands.
A kick-ass ten-year-anniversary party that truly felt culminative and triumphant and symbolic, filled with Knock Knockers past and present (and who knows, maybe future?), trusted and relied-upon vendors and consultants, friends of Knock Knock (shout out to August Friend of the month, Ariana, who came and surprised us from San Bernardino and made my night!), friends of Knock Knockers, up-and-coming young product designers and their creations, neighbors, and even a very small smattering of (other people’s) family. A party that looked as good as it felt, that went off flawlessly, that included mixed drinks called the High Five and the Pep Talk, that offered cheeses with unpronounceable names from local shepherds served by delightful individuals in orange silk bowties. A party filled with art and music. A party at which all attendees actually looked like they wanted to be there.
The first Knock Knock catalog, the first Knock Knock product (pre–Knock Knock), and lots of gorgeous cheese.
An amazing Knock Knock team. Really and truly and unforgettably. A more dedicated, skilled, hard-working team you will not find—because we get shit DONE. Shout-outs here to Jim and Craig and Trish, who manage the whole enterprise with me; Mia and Miguel and Aimée in design; Patricia in product development; Shane and Will in production; Erin and Jamie and Kate and Dayna in editorial; Melanie in marketing and Sara in web; Elyse and Chelsea in manufacturing; Gil and Paul in ops and customer service; Jazzlyn and Lena and Paul in customer service; Travis and Lonnie in sales; and Odi in accounting. And all of our sales reps all around the country. And our distributors all around the world. And our PR agency and lawyers and IT consultants and accounting firms. But not Jesus. I’m sorry. I’m just not going to be thanking Jesus here.
Getting to make creative, fun, interesting stuff we believe in. Yes, there are the craven marketplace bestsellers like all the WTF products, all of which seem to sell no matter how little creativity we put into them, but we work at a company where we brainstorm about reasons to have sex, write books about drunken toasting, and design snow globes. Right? Right? And a creative corollary here: I’m grateful for a workplace in which we can swear and talk about untoward things and not have to dress up.
Having people buy creative, fun, interesting stuff we believe in. Oh, you retailers and buyers and friends, how wonderful are you to allow us to do what we do? If you didn’t buy it, we wouldn’t be able to keep making it. If you didn’t interact with us on social media and in stores and at tradeshows, we would feel alone and blue. You get it, we get it, let’s get it together! We’ve got it together, friends, you and Knock Knock. And might I just add that I am also thankful for 2012 being one of the best sales years we’ve ever had, with incredible opportunities popping up left and right. It’ll all combine to be our most profitable year, too, and if you’ve been following the year-by-year history of Knock Knock on this blog (see postscript below), you know how important that is for us!
Just as the party was starting. A few great Knock Knockers in this one: Chelsea, Will, Sara, Jim, me, Craig, Trish, and possibly a couple others I can't make out. Doesn't everybody look great in their Saturday best?
Offices we love in a place we love. We are so fortunate to be in the Electric Avenue Studios, with our perch recently expanded into four units from three. It’s a creative, light-filled, open space within walking distance to great lunch places and even the beach (though nobody seems to go from work) in the land of eternal sunshine and the neighborhood of cool breezes, a place where we can walk and bike and generally flout the Los Angeles cars-only reputation.
The fact that we made it ten years. Wow. Ten years. Lots of businesses don’t make it to five. When I started Knock Knock, a couple people in my life told me they first thought, “Well, that stuff is great, but what other things can they do?” Each time we brought out a new list, they thought, “Okay, surely they’ve exhausted the ideas now.” The fact that we made a ten-year-perservering company out of consistently innovative and fresh creativity—with major mistakes and missteps and disasters and meltdowns and injuries and teaching “opportunities” along the way—is something to be grateful for, no doubt about it.
Other smart people. Early on, I determined that I wanted Knock Knock to function in part as a think tank in the following manner: really smart people coming together to grapple with and debate about interesting challenges and issues (one of the definitions of an interesting problem is one you haven’t had before). I like smart people. I like learning from others. I like it when other smart people constantly spur you to bring your A-game. I like it when there are people around you who are better at what they do than you are. Done, and done!
The amazing AmDC new product design show, Fun / Functional. Such beautiful and witty designs, along with many of their beautiful and witty designers!
Knowing how to do this thing we call business. It was so terrifying when I/we had no idea what we were doing or how to do it. Now I’m reasonably seasoned and not a bad businesswoman. For the most part, I truly know how to run Knock Knock, and I know how to do the critical thinking work to figure out the things I don’t yet know. And we’re big enough and functional enough to attract and compensate other people who know what they’re doing, people who’ve had prior experience doing things (vs. reinventing the wheel over and over again), people who can say things like “There might be a better way to do this” or “Let’s create a system or process for that” or “Jen, you’re full of shit.”
Having the financial support we needed. We got help for about seven years, which culminated in our becoming debt-free in 2012. Knock Knock’s financial history is unique. It’s one of the areas in which we had an extremely lucky break, and we were able to get to where we are today without many of the financial struggles other growing companies have faced. Sometimes people feel that if others get help financially, what they’re doing isn’t worthwhile. It’s probably an envy thing, and to be sure, it isn’t fair whose endeavors get supported by easy money and whose don’t. But when you and the team work really, really goddamned hard to do something innovative that succeeds in the marketplace year after year (not easy to do, let me tell you), does the fact that you’ve had a couple legs up discount what you’ve done? I don’t think so.
A return to a reasonable work-life balance. This is partly personal and partly across the company. That first six years of ninety-hour weeks and untold stress and chaos took a TOLL on me. I still haven’t gotten back to certain pre–Knock Knock standards of life and self (though of course in so many other areas, I’ve greatly surpassed where I was before Knock Knock), but at least there’s the possibility of doing it, and I’m working on it (why, oh why does life require so much work on oneself? it’s exhausting! will it ever end?). It’s also across the company. Knock Knock is so much more orderly and sane than it was in the early years, with most people working normal hours most of the time and knowing what they’re supposed to be doing when. (Yes, this last creative development season, the one that just ended, Spring 2013, was an anachronistic killer, but it’s now over, thank god.)
Unending excitement at the prospect of new opportunities and the future. We have compiled a team that does not prefer complacency and status quo—in fact, people who drift in that direction don’t end up doing well at Knock Knock. But for those who love stimulation like I do? People who are easily bored and like to tackle new endeavors? People who are curious about almost everything and don’t say things like “That’s not my job”? It’s the best! On a strategy level, our planning is well into 2014. We’re thinking about things we’ve never thought about before, on scales that would previously have been nothing more than unachievable fantasy. This shit is FUN!
The smiling faces I saw as I gave the speech for the evening. I think I kept it short enough!
So. I end my gratitude list by saying thank you. Thank you to everybody who’s made this ten years possible. Thank you to everybody who’s survived difficult times with and for us and has the scars to prove it. Thank you to everybody who’s celebrated with us, near us, or on us. Because you must know—for a pessimistic, self-flagellating curmudgeon like me to feel so lucky even for a moment is no small thing.
See you at the twenty-year-anniversary party!
P.S. Even though the postscript is dead, I do feel it’s important to let you know that I am aware I only got up to 2007 in my year-by-year narration of Knock Knock’s history. That’s six posts out of the eleven required, a majority. I do still plan to finish this project, and who knows, maybe I’ll make a book out of it, and it will come with a CD of music to slit your wrists by—like Mazzy Star. And a book isn’t too far off—it turns out that the median length for all books is 64,000 words, and I’ve already written (not including this post) 29,138. Because, as we’ve said from the very beginning, why use fewer words when you could use more?
We’re psyched to introduce you to a handful of remarkable designers whose items will be featured during our tenth-anniversary party and “Fun & Functional” event with the American Design Club on November 10. We laud their work and can’t wait to see their stuff on display.
Thomas Im founded Mimot Studio in 2010, aiming to create items for consumers that “highlight good design, quality and affordability.” Hear hear! Also, Im’s studio is based in Los Angeles, which means they receive extra cool points for being our semi-neighbors.
Meet Thomas Im of Mimot Studio!
1. How did you get started as a product designer? Did you always want to be in this field?
It really happened by accident. After graduating with a degree in Psychology, I needed a job and was offered a position as a graphic designer. This was my first taste of design as a career. While working as a graphic designer, I was introduced to industrial design (product design). I immediately knew that I must pursue this field. So, I went back to school for industrial design. I’ve been designing product ever since.
2. Name of Fun & Functional product featured: Suspenders Tote
3. What’s the story behind your idea? What really inspired you to create it?
I wanted to create a leather and canvas tote. The idea was to create a visually fun product. In this case, the leather straps we designed seemed similar to suspender straps. The suspenders became the inspiration for this tote. We completed the look by designing simple shirt graphics to complement the “suspender” straps. Functionally, the tote can be tied and looped like all bags produced by Mimot Studio.
4. What was the hardest or most challenging part of designing this product? Any creative bumps in the road you dealt with?
A taste of Mimot Studio's Suspender Tote.
The challenge of this product was creating graphics that would balance with the functional nature of the product. I did not want the visual component of this product to overpower the utility of the bag. In the end, we kept the graphics simple and this allows for all visual interpretations of the product.
5. How do you organize your work process to balance fun and functionality in your own daily grind? Any tips you’d like to relay to fans of Knock Knock?
When I am not working, I like to go on small field trips. They can be to flea markets, fabric districts, factories, museums, etc. In general, I’m not looking for anything in particular. I am just looking to clear my head and gain fresh perspective.
Tip to FOKKers: Give yourself ample opportunities to think outside the box, which I’m sure most of you do already. Keep on doing what you do.
This year marks our tenth anniversary (as if you didn’t already know). And while we’re reveling in our milestones from the past decade, we’re also starting to look outward. What in the hell does that mean? Our head honcho Jen wrote it best: “Over the last decade, it’s been all we could do to get our own stuff done, to create all our cards and products and books in-house. We’ve barely looked up. Right now, however, Knock Knock is at the disruptive inflection point of a synergistic paradigm shift. We’re making a change not just to look up, but to look out.”
And we are, friends, on all fronts—including the “Twitter-sphere.” (Please forgive us for using “Twitter-sphere” in an actual sentence.)
So Twitter users, you’ve seen our current Twitter background, yes? Well, we’re ready to give it a face-lift. And we want you to design it. Yes, we’re pointing right at you, friend.
Redesign our Twitter background, and you could win a 10-Year Anniversary Prize Pack (seen below).
We’ll pick one winner and update our background with his or her design, alongside sending the winner a 10-Year Anniversary Prize Package—an exclusive tenth anniversary canvas tote bag filled with our top-selling products.
Design a new Twitter background for us, and you could win all of this. Yes, all of this.
When I first started to look around tradeshows and see Knock Knock’s influence, sometimes a little too transparently, I was able pretty quickly to calm myself with the knowledge that imitation was one indication we were successful. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel hotheaded and indignant that other creators couldn’t find their own voices, and if so, they shouldn’t be playing the game, but instead the recognition that I was witnessing the inevitable and in the larger picture this meant we were doing things right.
Sometimes aspiring entrepreneurs or product designers come to me and say “I have a great idea for a product.” After asking me to sign an NDA and squinting with cagy suspicion, they allow that it’s an idea for a card. Or a pad. Or a sticky note. My response? God help you if you only have one idea. In the world of creative product, your longevity and success are based on your ability to come out with good ideas over and over and over again, and the produced good ideas are the winners among many, not a sole strike of momentary genius. When I see our, or another company’s, influence running too rampant, I know that we’ve played out that theme and it’s time to move on.
All of us more experienced and perhaps not insane gift-and-specialty companies (the industry term for us) know that we’re playing in the same sandbox. There are only so many things you can do with paper and ephemera and cloth and plastic. When I’m at a tradeshow and I see that file folders are coming up, and we have a great idea for file folders, I’m aware that it’s not appropriate to do it if only one company is doing it, but if I see a few doing it, and Knock Knock can bring something to the form that isn’t about competition but about what we want to create, then we make file folders. Great minds are constantly thinking alike, and honestly, there are a number of things we’ve thought of that we haven’t produced because someone else did it before us and we don’t want to be perceived as followers or copycats. Creativity is our stock in trade.
From Robynne Raye, founder and principle of Modern Dog: “On September 12th, 2011, I received an email from a designer working at another design firm who said he saw our dogs on a product being sold through a major retailer. At first, I was skeptical: I had to see the actual item to make sure for myself. A few days later, as I waited for a flight to take me to an AIGA event in Nebraska, I was sent the image that contained what the person thought was our dogs on my iPhone. Even though the image was tiny, I immediately recognized my best friend's Dalmatian Rudy, my business partner's whippet Rosie, my client's poodle Albert, and my own cairn terrier pup Conan. I also thought I recognized other dogs so I ordered the shirt online. When I returned from my Nebraska trip, the shirt was waiting for me at my office. The hangtag on the shirt was also part of an advertising campaign for a movie. We believe that all 27 t-shirt dog images came from our poster art book (Modern Dog: 20 Years of Poster Art).”
But then there are the actual copycats. The ones who, due either to lack of conscience (not too long about I read this book on psychopaths, AKA sociopaths, who, according to the book and this This American Life episode, are especially prevalent among CEOs; also, here’s a TED Talk about it) or complete and utter denial, can’t help themselves from stealing intellectual property. I find out about these copycats primarily from customers and other supporters (thank you!) who email us to say, “Is this yours?” One was a company I saw while walking around one of the gift shows, and it was so bald-faced that I was shocked they’d had the gall to obtain a booth. They had barely changed our wording. I plotted with a sympathetic retailer to check it out: she went into the booth, looked around, and said, “Is this Knock Knock?” The woman in the booth replied with a smug smile, “Oh, no. Our stuff is much more sophisticated than theirs.”
In the last couple years, the copycats have gone international. A small company in Argentina whose mission statement celebrates their creativity basically put our pads and sticky notes on a color xerox machine and then got very mainstream press on them! A not-so-small publisher in Germany asked to license our product when we nabbed them for their color xerox infraction. Are you kidding me? I’m going to do business with you? This is your reward for ripping us off? The current challenge in Australia is with a known knocker-offer, a very large company that has already lost similar lawsuits, which makes me think their CEO certainly must be a sociopath, because he clearly knows exactly what he and his company are doing and doesn’t care. I’m sure you won’t be surprised that one of my least favorite activities is pursuing these infringements with our attorneys and that my very least favorite check to sign is the one for these legal fees. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars a year, and that’s even with assiduously avoiding litigation.
People often ask us who our competitors are. You may think this is disingenuous, but I don’t feel we have competitors. Instead, I believe we have peers. Since we don’t create generic commodity items, our products don’t have exact equivalents. Retailers and buyer want our sensibility. Other companies that have similar sensibilities may be competing with us for open-to-buy dollars (the term for the budget a buyer or retailer has for a certain product category and season) or space on a particular display table, but it’s our job to put out such good stuff that we’re happy with their choices to fly Knock Knock.
Big chain retailers have over time been building their in-house product development and design teams. We create customized product programs for many of these retailers, and one of the things they tell us is it’s difficult to knock off Knock Knock because of our conceptual underpinning and emphasis on language. They just can’t get it right. Of course they don’t state it exactly like that, but it’s the gist.
One of the many products on which Modern Dog’s imagery was reproduced.
Not too long ago, I heard a sad story about the design company that does a lot of work for one of our favorite peer companies, Blue Q. How can you not respect and love Blue Q’s work? How can you not frequently kick yourself because they came up with something great that you didn’t? This design company, Modern Dog, does fantabulous work, much of which you’ve seen without knowing it was them. I recently became aware of a challenge that Modern Dog is having. A creation of theirs that is especially near and dear to their hearts was knocked off very broadly and very profitably by more than one multinational corporation. These corporations know that small companies don’t have the resources to fight back (because to do so is much more than the many tens of thousands of dollars Knock Knock has been spending) so they stall until their opponents go broke.
Modern Dog believes, as I do, that “Copyright law should protect everyone, not just those who can afford to litigate” and “Copyright only works if you are willing and able to protect it.” Would you believe also that as a trademark owner, you are legally obligated to fight to protect your trademark, and that if you do not fight each and every instance of known infringement, you have a much weaker case down the road, making it sometimes dangerous to back down whether or not you can afford to go on? Modern Dog, “like a lot of small businesses” doesn’t “operate with a reserve account for emergencies. And it’s not possible to apply for a lawsuit loan.” So they’re fundraising, something they were reluctant to do until friends pushed them to do so. Knock Knock has donated, and I think all folks who believe that this kind of creative theft and bullying is wrong should do so as well.
Modern Dog has chosen to sell the house in which they’ve had their offices for almost twenty years in order to fund the lawsuit and bring down overhead. Knock Knock so identifies with its home and surroundings, and I’m such a nester myself, to me that is one of the ultimate sacrifices. I think it’s critical that we make it less easy for anyone to steal others’ creative work, but especially the Goliaths who pick on the Davids—and Davids without slingshots at that, because slingshots are cheap but lawyers are costly. So I urge you—donate to Modern Dog, and keep your eyes and ears open for companies and people who are willing to steal creativity in order to compensate for their own laziness or inadequacies, and report them to the entities that put the hard work in to unleash something new and brilliant upon the world. Because we have a right to defend ourselves.