October 10, 2010

Design Collaborative Quite Strong: “Creatives of the female variety”

From left: Jennifer Sisson, Victoria Pater, Elaine Chernov, Jana Kinsman and Katherine Walker

I discovered the Chicago-based, woman-powered collective Quite Strong through one of its members: Graphic Designer Katherine Walker. Completing this collaborative are Art Director Elaine Chernov, Illustrator Jana Kinsman, Graphic Designer Victoria Pater and Web Developer Jennifer Sisson.

Together, they amplify one another’s talents and energies to make a diverse range of things. Simply put, they seize creativity. Here they share their thoughts about collaboration, work, inspiration, being a female creative practitioner and rocking it!

Can you please tell a little bit about yourselves? Where are you from? What do you do for a living?

Katherine: Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, I came up to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute. Though my initial interest was in animation, I gravitated towards dots and lines after my first Typography class. I was lucky enough to be plucked up by my professor, Maria Grillo, when I graduated and learned so much from her. I was lucky to be part of the Grillo Group for three plus years. I now work as a designer at VSA Partners where I’m continually overwhelmed by the caliber of work around me everyday. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to work at two fantastic firms with incredibly talented people.

Elaine: I was born in the Soviet Union, grew up in Los Angeles, and have been in Chicago for over two years now. I went to design school in California but then ended up getting really into the conceptual part of advertising, so I went to an advertising school at night. I’ve worked at a variety of design firms, packaging firms, in-house and ad agencies like Y&R. Currently, I’m working at a small full-service ad agency in Chicago with a focus on multicultural advertising. I work there on print and POP for MillerCoors, Bombay Sapphire and other accounts.

Jana: I was born and raised in Wheaton, a suburb of Chicago, and moved to the city when I was 19. I work for Crate and Barrel’s in-house design department where I focus mostly on the Crate and Barrel and CB2 brands. I do mostly signage and corporate collateral but also organize and art direct product photography on occasion. You’ll also find my illustrations in CB2 stores on their Oliver plates and martini glasses.

Victoria: Originally from Michigan, I quit my job and moved to Chicago on a whim in 2009. I’m currently a full-time freelancer focusing on branding and interactive work. I work mostly with startup tech companies. I enjoy typography and collecting shoes in my spare time.

Jennifer: I spent my younger years moving—a lot. Highlights included Plano, Texas and St Charles, Illinois, but I’ve lived in Chicago for eight years now, so it certainly feels like home! I am a full-time freelance web developer. I do mostly front-end web development including XHTML, CSS and JavaScript, as well as implementing content management systems like Wordpress. I also dabble in photography.

What is your statement about being
a “creative of the female variety”?

Elaine: As a collaborative, we just want to promote, empower and encourage female creatives across all commercial careers. We believe that even though sometimes it seems like a boys’ club and you have to scream and kick to be heard, that it’s important for females to be a part of creating the media that is put out into the world. That being said, we say “of the female variety” because we are not here to say that women are better or worse but that they are half the population and deserve to share their creative perspective.

When and how did you arrive at the idea
of “Quite Strong”?

Elaine: We separately had been having conversations during the Fall and Winter of 2009 about getting a studio space for our freelance work, as well as why all the design collaboratives we’ve heard about are almost always exclusively all males. Then, shortly after New Years this year, we all got together for brunch and just decided to go for it. On the way back to the train, we had picked a name, and two weeks later, we had signed a lease. Over the next 6 months, as we worked on the website and our own branding, we developed our voice, the Lust List, and other initiatives to involve the design community here locally and the female design community globally.

As far as “how” we arrived at who we are now: beers, brunches, and we use Google Wave a lot.

Brunch at Lula Café in January where the idea of Quite Strong was born.

Writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called
“Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?”
Where are the Ladies in Design and Development At?

Katherine: Ladies represent half the design field, but are often underrepresented at conferences, lectures, etc. As women, we do tend to stay in the shadows, but that’s not where we belong. Females bring incredible talent to design (as do men), and this should be recognized just as much. Alissa Walker recently tweeted a hard truth:

Women rock too and should be represented as much. Design organizations should be conscious at their conferences and lectures to ensure their design community is actually being represented.

Ladies in development is a bit of a different issue since they are an obvious minority.

Jennifer: Although I don’t have an answer as to why there are seemingly so few women in development, I think those of us who are working in this space have both an opportunity and a responsibility to change that landscape. We can be role models for the next generation of female technologists; we just have to step it up and make sure people know we’re here! From my perspective, web development involves a combination of creativity, intelligence, and analytical thinking, which are all areas where I believe women can and do excel. Ladies, young and not-so-young alike, you can do it! It’s fun!

Alissa Walker made an excellent point in her article. “We can’t demand diversity in our conferences, in our companies, in our disciplines, unless that small minority is also the strongest voice helping to promote and encourage that diversity.”

What tools do you use to work on your ideas
and make them grow?

Katherine: We work very much like a typical design studio. Generally, we’ll discuss the design problem first, go off on our own and sketch, come back together, show our concepts and have an informal critique. What’s different from the typical design studio is that we are all coming from different perspectives (small firm, big agency, freelance work, etc). These different perspectives truly help the final design product.

At the studio.

Final product. Photo by Ohn Ho.

How does time factor into your creating?

We all work full-time jobs outside of Quite Strong. The QS studio began as a place to work on freelance or personal projects and receive feedback from designers who are also your friends. Though sometimes not easy, Quite Strong is something I want to spend time on, and if your heart is in something, you’ll make time for it. It also helps if your friends are there too.

Jana: It’s been a new, fun challenge to work my upcoming Quite Strong projects in with my current 9–5 schedule, but it helps to have a studio to go work at that feels more like a structured environment, as opposed to my apartment.

Victoria: As a workaholic, the lack of time is nothing new, but the motivation, encouragement, and support I get from the other Quite Strong ladies keeps me going!

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

Katherine: Recently, we became involved with Ag47, an arts mentorship program serving pre-teen and teenage girls in the Chicago, IL neighborhood of Logan Square. They meet regularly to create and share art together—usually with girls who don’t get art in their public schools. We want this organization to get more visibility because they are directly affecting these girls’ lives through creativity. We are in the beginnings of starting a re-brand for them, and being able to help these girls with the skill set we have is truly rewarding. We collected art supply donations for them at our launch party. The women running that organization are so thankful, that just their “thanks” is the most rewarding.

Elaine: Since all of us work in commercial fields, it’s nice to know that we can use Quite Strong to do something positive outside of selling whatever our clients want us to sell that day. Whether it’s promoting women on the Lust List, doing some pro-bono work, or just trying to cultivate and stay involved in the local design community, it’s rewarding that at least some of our time each day is for positive things outside of the capitalist box we all play in each day.

Jana: For me, creating an illustration is totally fun, but the best part is the look on the face or reaction I get from my client.

Jennifer: It’s very rewarding to have a client tell me that their website is easy to use and manage. I just gave a woman who is my mom’s age a tutorial on how to use her site, and she was so excited that she could do it herself! It feels great to empower people to use technology.

Girls of Ag47.

Is there a part of your work that is particularly trying
and how do you deal with it?

In the beginning, occasionally we’ve suffered from the “too many cooks in the kitchen”-effect. To remedy this, we try to define our roles at the start of a project. Each project is different, so we try to assign a person to every roll we think the project requires: a few designers, an account strategist, and someone to do support production work. And of course, Jennifer is always there for the web development. Though too many voices can be trying, it’s also our strength because we truly cover all the bases when approaching a problem.

How do you stay creative? Do you draw? Or keep a journal?

Katherine: I keep a sketchbook, well more like a bunch of yellow Legal Pads. Yellow Legal pads were the first surfaces I used to doodle on when I was young (my father, being an attorney, had them laying around everywhere), and they are what I gravitate to now. I also have drawers full of printed pieces I’ve collected along the way. If I’m stuck on something, looking through these is always helpful. I also can’t underestimate the inspiration design collection books.

Elaine: I do draw and keep a sketchbook and look at blogs and read books, but I found that the best way to stay inspired is to step out of the design world. There have been countless times where I’ve been able to draw inspiration for an ad or a script from just living life. I think it’s really important to be a human first and a designer second (or third or fourth) in order to be able to relate to other humans through your work.

Jana: Just put a pen to paper; keep doodling. Fall in love, get your heart broken, ride your bike, try new adventures and things that get you out of your routine. Stay up on trends and stupid Internet memes. Understand what makes people smile and laugh. Meet new people. Experience new things even if you think you won’t like it. One time, I went to an “experimental noise” show, and even though I knew I wouldn’t like it, I distracted myself by drawing and they ended up being pretty great.

Victoria: I’m not huge into sketching (because I suck at it), but I do keep an ’inspiration blog’ where I post projects, patterns, and products that are smart, well-designed, and make me think. I really think that’s the key for me—just keep looking at stuff. You never know what’s going to make an idea or concept click.

Jennifer: Having personal projects outside of my daily 9–5 helps me play around with the latest technologies before I implement them on client sites. I’d also have to agree with Elaine, that getting away from the computer is a necessary part of my process. Some of my most creative solutions to problems hit me while I’m cooking, camping, or just taking a long walk.

Window Installation. Winter at the Whistler during the day. Photo by Nathan Keay.

Window Installation. Winter at the Whistler during the night. Photo by Chris Gallevo.

Jana Kinsman doodle.

What are some of your influences and sources of inspiration?

Katherine: Maria Grillo was an enormous inspiration for me. Not only a designer, she’s a talented artist. You should ask to see her drawing and paintings.

I’m also continually blown away by the work coming out of Plural Design and 3st here in Chicago.

Elaine: There’s an easy answer to this! Please see the Lust List!

Jennifer: I know we are a lady-centered group, but some of my most important influences are my male colleagues. Fresh out of college, my friend Walker Hamilton introduced me to some very important tools I’d need to be a web developer, and he has continued to offer his support throughout my career. At my first job, Steven Walker taught me how to correctly craft CSS, how to leverage JavaScript, and which nerdy podcasts to listen to in order to stay on top of my game. These days, Jim Benton is encouraging me to learn Ruby on Rails and opening my eyes to the importance of giving back to the community by building open source tools. These men have pushed me to be better and smarter, and I hope that I can pay that forward!

Victoria: The Internet!

Jana: Most of my current sources of inspiration are drawn from the culture around me and the things mentioned in my “staying creative” answer. Style-wise, I am influenced by all sorts of weird sources; I cant say for certain. Usually I draw something and see something somewhere in a similar style and think “okay, keep going this way”.

Some of my early influences were the imagination and playfulness of Hayao Miyazaki. He seems to just do what feels right and makes him smile, and that’s what I strive for. Jay Ryan and his work also gave me a big boost when I was just graduating high-school. I was one of the lucky kids who got to interview him, and it was such a refreshing experience to talk to someone who simply told me “I love my job”. I remember thinking “I want that”. I still really love how his style is so uncompromisingly him. People seek it out. As a pre-college artsy nobody, I liked the idea of people liking my work because it was MY work, not because I could mimic something well. I think that’s what terrified me about being a “professional illustrator”. I was worried I’d have to draw stuff I hated and come to resent my career choice. So getting to sit with a chill guy doing what he loves in a really cool studio in Chicago totally inspired me. And people rocking similar paths still do to this day.

Signage for New York City Department of Education. Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Bodoni Calendar by Victoria.

Fast from the Hog Y’all! Painting by Elaine.

How did you find the space for your studio?

Katherine: Shortly after we decided to start a collaborative over brunch at Lula Café, we contacted a real estate agent and went space hunting. On our first trip out, we fell in love with a small studio with bright green walls. The space is technically a studio apartment with adjoining full bathroom and kitchen. It’s the perfect size for us now.

Inside the studio.

What makes your studio a collaborative space?

Katherine: Our studio in Logan Square serves as a place to get feedback and inspiration on a current project or get respite from said project.

Elaine: We have an open space and are always hanging out and inviting others to come join us. Also, we stock beer in the fridge.

Jana: So many times it’s served as an alternative to holding a meeting at a coffee shop. The atmosphere is casual, fun, and people legitimately like being there, whether part of Quite Strong or not.

Jana’s doodle.

Elaine’s Feist poster.

Why do you love Chicago?

Katherine: Chicago has a thriving, welcoming and unpretentious design community. Everyone is approachable here, no matter how Internet famous they are.

Chicago is like one big block party with good food, good beer and good friends. There’s always a new experience to have if you seek it out. Oh, and the summers are phenomenal.

Elaine: I really can’t say enough about the awesome inhabitants of this city. Unlike LA (where I grew up) or New York, there’s a Midwestern charm about nearly everyone you meet. I knew no one when I moved here several years ago, and somehow I was the common link between all the Quite Strong ladies. That says volumes about how friendly and kind people are in Chicago. And it helps that it’s quite beautiful.

Jana: I grew up here, so I don’t know anything different, but it’s been my opinion that the midwest is generally a nice place to live and work. I think the people here understand what a balanced live/work mindset ought to be. We know when to work hard, but we know when to sit back with a cold brew and watch traffic go by on our porches. I think it has to do with the fact that we face a harsh winter and a harsh summer—always trying to find balance and happiness. It keeps you on your toes.

Victoria: As KK said, the design community is thriving and welcoming — this makes it super easy to be a geek and have a good time. There is an abundance of pizza, tacos, and beer in almost every neighborhood. Being in a city that borders beautiful Lake Michigan is also a huge perk!

Jennifer: I love that Chicago truly is a city of neighborhoods. Each one has its own unique history, architecture, and flavor. And I have to echo what everyone else has already mentioned—we are lucky to live in such a friendly city.

What’s your advice to people who aspire to start
and own a creative collaborative like yours?

Katherine: Just start. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions because then you’ll be waiting forever. Be flexible. Be open.

Elaine: I agree. The hardest part is making the decision. Just like any seemingly big decision in your life (moving across the country, changing jobs, changing boyfriends), it is always the idea of it that sounds scariest. Once you commit to doing it, everything falls into place.

Victoria: Don’t take anything personal. Everyone has a different opinion and the only way you’re all going to get along is if you approach collaborative decisions with that mindset.

Jennifer: Start small(ish). We were careful to rent a space that wouldn’t blow any of our budgets. Our “operating costs” are fairly low, and that is awesome because money shouldn’t be a point of contention when there are websites to build, logos to design, and snacks to be consumed amongst friends!

What does collaboration mean to you
and what are some examples?

Victoria: Collaboration is the sharing of ideas.

Collaboration means an organization that provides support, visibility, and awareness surrounding crimes against the LGBTQIA community can get a new identity and website in just three weeks. Out for Justice team member at the Chicago Pride Parade in June 2010. Project by Katherine and Jennifer.

Out for Justice team member at the Chicago Pride Parade in June 2010.

SmartEQ app design by Elaine and Victoria.

Elaine and Katherine at Hamilton WoodType Museum planning a collaborative poster.

Lockup. First pass of ink.

Victoria on press.

How can people contact you for a collaboration?

Anyone interested in collaborating with us should feel free to send us an email! You can also follow our hijinx on Twitter: @quite_strong.

Friend Jim Benton sporting a Quite Strong tattoo at our Launch Party.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews