Hold Yourself Accountable to Create Every Day - 10 Questions with Illustrator and Designer Karen Kurycki
Karen Kurycki is an illustrator and designer widely known for her distinct style of watercolor designs. Kurycki's Instagram account is a beautifully curated tiled display of her work, which includes animated videos that profess her love for dips and sauces, lively patterns, and marketing materials that she has designed for her clients - all of which are extremely pleasing to view. Kurycki utilizes a color palette that reflects a mood that is light, vibrant, and fun; and this is carried throughout her body of work.
Kurycki is an artist that garners attention not just because she creates tremendous work but also because she appears to be a tremendous person. She conducts herself in a manner that, dare I say, leads one to believe that she has discovered a better way of living, or at least working. As a freelance illustrator and designer, Kurycki produces memorable work for an impressive roster of local, national, and international clients. In the process, however, she never seems to compromise her artistic credibility and maintains a balance between taking herself seriously, but not too seriously.
Kurycki grew up in Rochester, New York and went to college at Kent State University in Ohio. She moved to Jacksonville in 2004, and the city has since served as her adopted home. What's important to note is that Kurycki doesn't just passively live in Jacksonville, she actively engages with it. Kurycki uses her skills as a designer and illustrator for the betterment of the public by working with organizations and causes that are aligned with her personal vision and values. Furthermore, Kurycki takes a hands on approach to cultivating a strong design scene in Jacksonville by being involved with AIGA Jacksonville, a professional organization for design whose members practice graphic design, typography, interaction design, and branding and identity, as well as Discover Design, a mentoring program for high school students that she played an instrumental role in starting. Kurycki also served on the board for The Elements, MOSH's young professionals group, until Fall 2016.
Kurycki works from her studio at CoRK Arts District. You can purchase prints by Kurycki locally at Wolf & Cub and during CoRK's Open Studio tours. Her work can also be found in Target and online through DENY Designs. You can see more of Kurycki's work through her account on Dribbble, a site that serves as a show and tell for designers.
10 Questions with Karen Kurycki
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
It depends on the project really.
If I'm working on a personal project, whether it's design or illustration, I usually like to do minimal prep work and dive right into the creative process then learn and tweak things as I go along. I've found that if I overthink personal projects at the beginning I'll just never start them and that's really bad!
If it's a project for a client, especially a branding or design project, I will meet with the client to learn everything I can about their product or service, their market, their audience, and their competition so I can really understand how and where I can help them and then offer suggestions for their brand or re-brand. If it's an illustration assignment, I will try to come up with as many options as I can and then narrow it down to the top three concepts, which I will then present to the client.
All of my work usually starts with taking as many notes as I can, making word association lists, and thumbnail sketches to really flesh out the concepts. Once I've nailed down the concepts I want to pursue, I will develop the final sketches. Then I will either jump into creating with watercolor, collage, or move to the computer to finalize the design.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
What I've learned about myself is that I'm happiest when I'm making a lot of work every day.
I know if I start to feel down or not like myself it's because I haven't picked up a paintbrush in a couple of days. I've learned that in the design world it's important to never stop learning and teaching yourself new things. There are new discoveries and developments within our industry every day. I feel it's important to stay on top of new technology and ways of approaching a project or working with clients.
I've also learned, and this one is hard for me, that instead of stressing out it's important to enjoy and appreciate the down times when client work is slow. Because eventually it picks back up and you get slammed and have no time to think straight.
How do you define success in what you do?
I consider it a huge win if a client excels because of the work I've created. That's what motivates me to keep doing what I love to do.
The times I feel the most successful is when the pressure is on - when I have a really short deadline with a massive amount of work to do and I finish it in time and I'm happy with the finished product. There really is no greater adrenaline rush than that, even if it is 5:00 in the morning!
I'm really hard on myself to continue to get better. So, no matter what I've accomplished in the past it doesn't really matter. What matters is what I'm working on in the present and what I want to accomplish in the next 5, 10, or 30 years.
I think it's important to see your career, or your life for that matter, as a journey that never ends and you never "arrive." You keep chugging along and there are peaks and valleys along the way. You may see it as a sprint to the top of a mountain and that you're set once you hit the peak of success, retirement, or whatever it may be. I think it's definitely NOT like that. You’ve got to keep pushing yourself. Certainly celebrate small successes, but then get back to work so you can create something bigger and better the next time around.
Did you have any trepidations about walking away from a steady paycheck when you made the decision to quit working for someone and set out on your own? If you did, how did you not let your fear speak louder than your creativity or ambitions?
I just knew it was time when I went independent six years. I had been getting a lot of freelance projects while working full-time. This resulted in getting very little sleep for well over a year. I decided to save all of the money I made freelancing for one year so that when I went solo I would have a financial cushion to fall back on if necessary.
I think anyone who chooses to go solo after having a steady paycheck for seven or eight years is scared. You'd be silly not to be. But, with enough preparation and by having a couple of clients under my belt, I felt somewhat confident to take the leap. The freedom of having my own schedule and my own clients balanced out the fear of not having a steady paycheck.
How did you develop your color palette and what led to you animating your watercolors?
I had some amazing professors at Kent. One in particular, Jerry Kalback, really encouraged me to pursue watercolor. I've loved the medium ever since.
In college we started with a very limited palette. Over the years that has definitely grown. I've always been attracted to bright, vibrant colors. For me, it's the brighter the better really. I think that people who aren't super familiar with watercolor as a medium just think of it as washed out, transparent, overlapping colors. I try to use it in a different way with bold, bright, saturated hues.
The animation stuff I've wanted to do for a while now. I did a ton of that in college, but never really got into animating my own watercolors. I've actually collaborated with several agencies in town on animation projects where I would create the watercolors and they would animate it — Tigerlily Media, Dripsblack, and 5iveCanons to name a few. I wanted to teach myself how to do it, so I've been working on it more and more within my current 100 Day project, When I Dip, You Dip, We Dip. It's very beginner level right now, but eventually I'd like to re-teach myself Adobe After Effects so I can get better and faster at it.
What is the 100 Day Project and how have you benefited from it creatively?
The 100 Day Project was an exercise that Michael Bierut (super-famous design partner at Pentagram in New York) started for the graduate graphic design students he was teaching at the Yale School of Art. In the class/workshop, he had his students pick a design operation they'd be able to do once a day for 100 days straight and record it in some way during those 100 days, whether it's something like drawing hands for 100 days, painting 100 patterns, or writing 100 poems based on different colors. You can read more about it in an essay written by Michael himself.
The 100 Day Project is meant to push you to do something that you really didn't think or know you could do for 100 days. When you complete the project you look back and see how much you've accomplished in those 100 days - stuff that you wouldn't have accomplished otherwise.
Since Bierut's days of using it as a workshop for his classes, the project has blown up internationally. Every year in April it launches across the world on the same day, so that if you search the hashtag #the100dayproject on Instagram you can see everyone else doing a 100 Day Project at the same time.
The "100 Days of Dips" project is actually my second 100 Day Project. My first 100 Day project was one in which I collaborated with my CoRK studiomate, Summer Wood last year, called "100 Days of LGBcuTIes," to highlight 100 people who were in support of and were fighting for the passage of a fully inclusive Human Rights Ordinance in Jacksonville, which was finally passed in February of this year. Our goal for the project was to highlight individuals we saw working for a more inclusive and safer Jacksonville — faith leaders, activists, policy makers, youth, case managers, creatives, teachers, politicians, and business owners—people from all walks of life who inspire us and, by their own example, make Jacksonville a better place to live and work.
I've benefited so much from doing these projects. It pushes me out of my comfort zone to do things that I'm not used to doing. The one I'm currently doing has pushed me to get better at photography, animation, cooking, and watercolor — four things that I've been wanting to improve upon for a while.
I'm on Day 56 and really loving the process. I also love looking back and seeing what I've accomplished over the past two months - things that I never would have created had it not been for this project pushing me to do so.
I encourage anyone and everyone to do their own 100 Day Project, it's a great way to hold yourself accountable to create EVERY day.
What have you gained from becoming involved with causes that you are passionate about and what would you say to inspire other creatives to act similarly?
I've volunteered in some form or another all of my life, so it makes sense that it would carry over into my career/adult life. I've also gained so much from working and collaborating with other organizations, especially the startup non-profits I've worked on in the past, like Rethreaded or The Jax Young Voters Coalition. I encourage other designers to try and find ways to give back to organizations they are passionate about.
A lot of times, when an organization is just starting out they don't realize how much of an impact good design can have on people paying attention to their message. You can have the greatest cause in the world, but if there's nothing about your marketing that makes you stand out, people will look right past all of the good you are doing in the community. It's so important to find a good designer who can guide you and your organization's brand in the right direction and help you convey your message.
I think it's also important for those organizations to budget money for design and marketing. "Pro bono" doesn't mean "for free." It actually means "for good." I think it's important for organizations to realize that and set aside money to pay designers for what they do. Even if it's a non-profit, design and marketing should be factored into an organization's fundraising budget.
I think it's vital for designers to be compensated for the work they do, or else they'll get burnt out very quickly. I typically do work for non-profits at a discounted rate. I learned through experience that you can overextend yourself helping others so much that you don’t have time to support yourself financially and emotionally. As much as I wish I could help all the amazing causes in our city, I learned I have to be really selective with whom I can give my time to throughout the year.
I think it's also extremely important to volunteer with a professional organization, if there is one in your field. I have been part of the AIGA Jacksonville chapter (the professional association for design) since 2004. I've gained so much from that experience, both in making connections within the design field here as well as taking leadership positions on the board — from being the design for social good coordinator when we started a high school mentoring program, to president of the organization where I was managing a board of 20+ people.
Those experiences have been so important in my growth as a designer and as a person.
In examining your client roster, what is the breakdown between local and non-local and do you have any strategies or recommendations on how an artist or creative can grow larger than their area code?
My mix of projects and clients really depends on the year. Sometimes I have more local clients and sometimes its a variation of local and national/international.
My biggest piece of advice on gaining clients outside of Jacksonville is to make as much work as possible and don't be afraid to post it/share it with the world on networks that everyone is using like Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Behance, and Dribbble. People from all over the world are a part of those networks so you never know where your next project may come from.
Do you set goals for yourself and if you do how do you hold yourself accountable for those goals?
I do set goals for myself, but I feel like I could always be better. Handwritten to-do lists certainly help. There's something so satisfying about crossing things off the list by hand!
What would you like to see in Jacksonville as an effort to grow the city's creative economy?
To be honest, Jacksonville can be a tough town to find clients who understand the true value of design and marketing and the enormous impact it can have on their business. I've actually found it much harder to find clients here than in other cities. Companies often see design as an afterthought as opposed to something that should be integral in every step they make.
Design isn't just about how things look. It's about communicating how and why things work. Whether it's a company, an organization, or even in government, a designer should have a seat at the table in the decision-making process because design can have such a major impact on every decision made.
I'd recommend that all organizations seriously look at how they want to continue to grow and start to put design at the forefront. It truly separates your product, service, and message from the rest. The money you invest in design pays back tenfold.