One Minute With…
Kern and Burn
Hey Jess & Tim, thanks for taking time to chat with One Minute With. Tell us a little bit about yourselves and your work.
We both recently graduated from MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) from the Graphic Design MFA program.
Jess: My background is in interior architecture. I decided to make the switch to graphic design when I was realized I loved to spend more time branding projects then drawing architectural details. I think I made the right decision :) I tend to bring a lot of the structured thinking, planning, organizing, emailing etc. to the team (probably a nod to my architecture background) and why I’m the most definitely the “Kern.”
Tim: I’ve always made things and hopefully always will. I received a fine arts degree in undergrad and then ran a small design firm and gallery in Lancaster, PA with two partners called The Infantree. I left there to come to graduate school, and I’m really proud of how the partners have grown the business since my departure. I like to think about design as my way of providing opportunities for others. I like drawing, and getting things done while others are sleeping. I guess I’m the “Burn.”
Walk us through a typical day in the lives of Tim Hoover and Jessica Karle Heltzel.
We’re currently working on the Kern and Burn book while simultaneously job-hunting, running The People’s Pennant, and freelancing — just because we graduated doesn’t mean the work stopped! There’s probably no typical day for us. Grad school (and life shortly after) is probably the craziest, lack-of-routine lifestyle you can get. Our norm is us hustling to get a million things done each day while throwing in a slice of pizza and a beer here and there.
With Kern & Burn, you set yourself the challenge of 100 articles on design entrepreneurship, in 100 days. Whilst you obviously completed this impressive feat, was it harder or easier than you had envisaged it to be? If you had to do it all over again, how would you do it differently?
It was SO much harder! When we first started the blog it was more of an internal document for us, just a way to be disciplined and post all of our research. When it started to pick up an audience we found our posts going from 200 words to 800+ words a day. We love that people were reading everyday but that just made us want to make each post better than the previous one — which meant more writing, better editing, and more interviews. It took a solid 2-3 hours a day to do each post, which on top of the rest of our work was kind of crazy. But the success of the 100 days allowed us to Kickstart the book and for that we are grateful. It made the hard work of keeping up the blog all worth it.
We timed the 100th day to land on our final exhibition opening. We were trying to write posts and install a grid of 100 images on no sleep. That was craziness. Looking back we’d probably build in a few days of padding!
We’re excited to get the blog up and running again—we have some new interviews to share that we’re excited about.
Kern and Burn is your thesis project for your Graphic Design MFAs in MICA. In an industry that changes so rapidly, how important do you think a formal education in design is?
Jess: Because I switched fields I think getting a Masters degree has been very important to the path that I’m going to take next. I’m going to steal a bit of what we wrote about on Day 45 where we asked ourselves this same question. Here’s what we said:
Getting a Masters degree is inarguably beneficial for a number of reasons. You get a chance to step back from your career and take a risk, a financial one of course, but also one that asks you to redefine yourself. You are given time to discover what you love to do, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and freedom to fail. There are also the practical benefits.
With graduate school comes a group of talented peers and faculty, both of which continually push you toward improvement. You connect with mentors daily and are exposed to a network of creatives, and all-around smart people, who are there for you to use in the best way possible—to learn from and hopefully teach some things to in return. Ultimately, you emerge (we hope) as a more well-rounded designer and person.
That being said, formal education is by no means a requirement to be successful in this industry. There are plenty of opportunities for self-motivated people to learn on their own outside of school walls. Online platforms like General Assembly and Codeacademy offer a range of great courses to learn from. Also, just starting side-projects has taught me so much about what it means to run a business and what it takes to work collaboratively.
Tim: A talented community is essential, but I believe you can find that outside of a formal education. For me, without a formal education, I may never have realized what I love doing, or even known that this type of work existed. One of our goals with Kern and Burn was to extend the types of conversations we were having with our peers at MICA to an audience that may not have the same privilege. I am very grateful for the opportunity I’ve had. I’m less grateful for the debt, but it definitely keeps me hungry and working hard. I think its important to be uncomfortable—and my debt definitely makes me uncomfortable :)
In 100 days of blogging, you must have heard dozens of designers’ stories and insights. What do you think the most valuable lesson you learnt was, and whose story did you find the most inspirational?
Jess: That’s a tough one! Here are just a few of the lessons that we’ve heard over and over again:
There are no rules.
Everyone is making it up as they go.
You can fail.
You can create opportunities for others.
You can learn as you go.
You can do what you love.
Tim: You can design your own career. I’ve always felt this way deep down, but its encouraging to hear the stories of real people who made it up as they went. The internet has really changed our profession and we can create our own momentum.
Tad Carpenter quoted one of his mentors Gordon MacKenzie, and told us, “The only way to be original is by knowing yourself.” It’s tough to be ourselves when it may look like the industry is rewarding similar styles, perspectives, or experiences. But I completely agree with Gordon, the easiest and best way to differentiate ourselves is to be ourselves. Jess and I tried to show diverse perspectives on Kern and Burn.
You’re currently working on the Kickstarter-funded Kern & Burn book, as well as having co-founded The People’s Pennant. What is it about real, tangible products that you so evidently love? Do you think it’s important to keep alive these traditions of yesteryear, rather than have everything be digitalised these days?
Stepping back from the computer to make something real — something you can touch and smell — proves to be harder and harder these days as we’re so used to staring at pixels all day. It’s just fun to get your hands dirty. I love doing press-checks to watch the ink disperse over the rolls and I love watching the pennants come off the drying rack. I think it’s pretty satisfying to hold a finished product in your hand after months of it only existing on screen. I can’t wait for that to happen with the Kern and Burn book!
It’s important if only because it forces you to think about design differently. You can’t do the same things in print that you can do on the web and ink on felt is different than ink on paper. Designing tangible objects is a welcome challenge.
Tim: It’s hard to hold seven books at a time then browse seven tabs in our browser. Multi-tasking is way over-rated.
If, in some Freaky Friday-like situation, you could live the lives of another design duo for a day, who would it be, and why?
We’ve had the privilege of watching Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton do amazing things, and balance their lifestyles, and family. We have a lot of respect for them. It’s hard to say who would be who, but we’d be happy being as talented and as wonderful as either of them. They are however married. Jess is married. Tim is not.
Maybe the dudes from Mythbusters — but Tim’s beard is way better than Jess’.
What design tools could you not live without?
Jess: PaperMate Sharpwriter #2 Pencils. Hands-down the best pencils. I love them so much that I wrote a piece about them that you can read here.
Other than that pretty much the standard: Adobe Creative Suite (although I kind of hate Photoshop …but Tim disagrees), Field Notes notebooks (unruled), and a pica ruler.
Tim: Talented peers and my thinking couch.
And finally, what tips would you give to anybody who is looking to get started in design?
Jess: Do side projects, things that you really love. When you’re working on projects that you love it brings out the best, most uninhibited design. You don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself!
Tim: Ask questions, but don’t listen to the answers. Be curious. Be serious about learning technical skills, but be playful in your approach. Work towards a balance of thinking and making—make to think, and think to make—think with your hands, make with your mind.
Thanks Jess & Tim!
Many thanks to Jess & Tim for taking some time out of their busy schedules to talk to One Minute With. I really enjoyed chatting to them, and hopefully you enjoyed reading it!
Why not check out Kern and Burn, and follow Jess & Tim on Twitter. Similarly, follow Jess & Tim on Dribbble.