Celebrating design entrepreneurship with Kern & Burn

Jess & Tim lead

[Sami Jensen] Designers Jessica Karle Heltzel and Tim Hoover have been interviewing some of their favorite design entrepreneurs for the past few months, and sharing these interactions on their blog Kern and Burn. Hoping to encourage more young designers to consider entrepreneurship as a career option, the duo plan to turn the interviews into a book.

What began as their MFA thesis project at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) graphic design program quickly became their own entrepreneurial venture. Two days after we interviewed Jess and Tim, their Kickstarter project was funded and continues to receive support. The funds will help Tim and Jess hire an editor to help create a book that captures the energy and excitement of design entrepreneurs, and inspires the design community to Kern and Burn — i.e., perfect the craft and work obsessively hard. We spoke with Jess and Tim about how they met, how Kern and Burn was born, and how the definition of “designer” is shifting.

So the name Kern and Burn seems pretty self-explanatory. But who’s Kern, who’s Burn, and why?
Tim: Jess is the Kern and I’m the Burn. There’s definitely some overlap, but Jess spends more time diving into the details and perfecting things, while I probably do more broad envisioning.

Jess: I like to work my way through design problems, and probably spend way more time than I should refining the small stuff, while Tim works best in bursts of creativity. I can also function in the morning — like a normal person — and Tim loves to work while everyone else is sleeping. Obviously, we’re exaggerating a bit, but we like that we can bring a little bit of our personalities into the name.

We’re curious: What names did you reject?
Tim: “Collective Interest” was one of the first names for the project. We originally intended to dive more heavily into design theory, but then we discovered that our peers didn’t necessarily want to talk about theory; they wanted to talk about how much they love design and how they use design to do things for themselves. We built a website for Collective Interest, but it quickly got to the point where the name sounded too passive for what we were trying to do. We also had “Interpunct” for a while, but that sounded too ’80s punk.

Kern and Burn is not passive. It’s about doing
Jess: Yes, when we started to design around the name Collective Interest, it felt like we were making decisions based on a name that just didn’t fit. But once we landed on Kern and Burn, we realized it captured the way we feel about design, too. It’s definitely more fun and bold. It also emphasizes the tension between the perfection and creativity that can happen with design, and the hustle and the passion it takes to get products out there. We also like that it rhymes!

Tim: When we shared it with our friends, half of them loved it and half of them hated it. We think it’s a good sign when something is a little bit polarizing — because it is memorable. Then we had some friends who couldn’t get Ken Burns out of their heads.

Tell us about your interest in design entrepreneurship?
Tim: When you’re in a design program like ours, you look up to your design director and instructors as your mentors. We wanted to present young designers with multiple perspectives, so they know they don’t have to follow in the footsteps of a single mentor. We want them to understand that they don’t have to work for a firm or look at Pentagram as the holy grail job for a graphic designer. So, we chose to interview people who used graphic design as a means to an end. Although we love Pentagram, we want designers to know they have more options. So, we chose to interview people who used graphic design as a means to an end, and as a means to do more.

Jess interviews Public School.

How did you start the interviews? Did you get a lot of interest right away?
Tim: We first met with Cameron Koczon from Fictive Kin, so we were fortunate to get some of the StudioMates connections right away, and we sat in on one of the CreativeMornings NYC talks. We threw the widest net we could in the beginning and now we’re getting e-mails from people who maybe didn’t respond right away, but have now heard a little bit about it and want to be a part of it. It’s also great because now we’re in a place where people are reaching out to us to submit content or recommend design entrepreneurs that they think are a good fit.

The Kern and Burn inspiration board.

Ben Pieratt, Jessica Hische, Ellen Lupton, Society of Design. These are all people and organizations that you’ve highlighted on the blog. What’s the common thread?
Tim: We’ve been moving back and fourth between four different categories:
1. The designer who is a co-founder of a startup,
2. The designer who follows a passion through side projects,
3. The designer who maybe shifts to start a brand, and uses design to enhance their work like Peter Buchanan-Smith, and
4. Those that champion self-publishing, like Ellen Lupton.

Jess: We thought it was interesting to see how designers use self-publishing as a segue into entrepreneurship. Another way the blog works is by discovery. As you make your way through all of our contributors, you discover different facets of entrepreneurship. Even though we have these four loose categories, we’re trying to make the point that these people or companies can’t be categorized because the definition of designer is shifting. We’re trying to present the various avenues that our contributors have taken and let the readers discover for themselves.

You said the definition of designer is shifting. In what ways do you see this?
Tim: Jessica Hische and Frank Chimero exemplify this shift really well. They are two of our favorite voices, they do self-initiated work, and they have interesting ways of talking about themselves because “designer” doesn’t necessarily fit them. We were excited that we had the privilege to interview them for Kern and Burn. Frank is a great example because when we first learned about him, he called himself an illustrator, then a designer. Then he used Kickstarter to spread his ideas and the design community backed his book. Now he also calls himself a writer.

Jess: He told us in his interview that he’s pivoted so much every 2–3 years in his career, and that’s great because it’s all design, it’s just the form that changes. So it’s less about trying to confine yourself to just one thing and more about being open to change and adapting with what you learn as you go.

Break time for Tim and Jess.

How did the two of you meet?
Jess: We met last year in grad school at MICA, and now we’re second-year thesis students. I have a background in architecture, so I made a drastic switch, but it ended up being the perfect thing. I had been living in L.A. with my fiancé-now-husband, who was also practicing architecture, and I decided to make the switch to graphic design while he continued to pursue architecture. So I came to Baltimore, and that’s when I met Tim.

Tim: For a few years before graduate school, I co-founded The Infantree, a full-service design studio and gallery in Lancaster, Penn., so I have some entrepreneurship in my background. Jess and I also work with Eric R. Mortensen who’s designed some of our logos. I met him four years ago while we were both doing a letterpress internship at Hatch Show Print.

So why a book? Why not an app?
Jess: I’m really interested in self-publishing, and I’m a print designer at heart, so I wanted to find a way to make a book or magazine, but I was struggling with the content. That’s when Tim and I decided to go in on the idea of interviewing designers who were doing really cool work … as a way of creating a resource and hopefully filling a void in design education.

Tim: We also just love books. We are sitting in a room right now that is filled with hundreds of them, and it’s where we spend the little bit of money we do have. We love books as artifacts. When we started this project, we used Andy McMillan’s The Manual as inspiration. The idea of The Manual is to get web designers to think deeper, step away from their work, and read. We like to think about how much design work is available online and how hard it is to think and stay focused at a computer. So we’re hoping that people will keep our book by their bed, put down their iPhone, and get inspired to pursue their passions.

Jessica Karle Heltzel and Tim Hoover are MFA students at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Currently in web form, Kern and Burn is their MFA thesis project, which they will self-publish as a book. View their Kickstarter for more information about the project, or tweet them @kernandburn.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by Millie Rossman on 03.8.12 at 8:02 am

    I don’t remember how I found Kern and Bern on Day 32 with their profile on Christian Helms, but it’s been a must read ever since. I can’t wait for the book!

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