Yr03, Ep20 :: Gabri Joy Kirkendall on Being Bold Enough

Kabri Joy Kirkendall

by This is Design School

On this episode, Gabri Joy Kirkendall, author of Creative Lettering and Beyond and The Joy of Lettering, talks about book publishing in the art world, unexpectedly changing your life course, and being bold in typeface and in person.


Chad:

Garbri Joy Kirkendall, thank you so much for joining us here on This is Design School. We’re really excited to have you today.

Gabri:

I’m really excited to be here.

Jp:

Having you here, one of the things I’m fascinated to hear about is how you got to be where you are today. Because you don’t have exactly the straight route into a design career. So, maybe give us a little highlight of how you got to where you are.

Gabri:

Sure. You’re right. I came to it very untraditionally. I went to PLU between 2005 and 2009. And, I actually studied French and Political Science. So, not a typical degree for someone who ends up being in the design profession. I worked for World Vision at the end of my time at PLU. I was in their Malaria program. And, I was all applied and ready to go to the Linden School of Economics for Public Health for Grad School.

Jp:

Oh, wow.

Gabri:

And then, unfortunately, I got sick. Two months after graduating from PLU I was diagnosed with cancer. So that, understandably, put a lot of my grad school plans on hold. It ended up being about two and a half years of treatments and surgeries that I went through.

After one of my surgeries, I was on bed rest and getting really tired of the same four walls. It had been about a month. I was about ready to crawl out the window on my hands and knees (laughs). My husband saw how crazy I was getting. He remembered how much I had always loved art growing up, so he went down to our local art store and he bought everything he could possibly think of. And, he came home and dumped it on the bed and said, “Here, please don’t go crazy.” (laughs)

So, it all really started with a bid to keep myself sane at that point. I just had real fun with it, though. And, showed my work to family and friends and people in the community and started getting commission requests. I did a bunch of commissions, paintings, murals and things for people around the Tacoma and Puyallup community. And, that was really fun—it was a fun side hustle for me.

I didn’t think it was going to be a serious career. But, someone encouraged me to put my work on Etsy. And, I did. I started getting sales and it was exciting. So, I did Etsy for a couple of years.

My big break really came… It was November 2013. I got this email in my inbox. It said it was from a publisher, an editor at Walter Foster Publishing down in California. I did a happy dance and called my husband and said, “You’re not going to believe what email I just got!” She had started a project wanting to do their first book on hand lettering. They’ve been in the business 94 years now, Walter Foster. So, they’ve done a lot of art books over that time, but they’d never done one on hand lettering, which was exciting. And, she had gone through Etsy searching for artists that she liked to see if they’d be interested in the project. And, she found my work, which is when she contacted me. And, that was how I got my first book contract. (laughs).

So, I did my first book in 2014. It was published in September 2014. And, then did so well with that book, they were testing out the waters as far as hand lettering goes, they hadn’t done it before. So, they did a limited print run, about 5,000 copies at the beginning. And, it went crazy. They sold out a week into the launch. So, they had to order more copies. It actually got a little crazy because that was at the same time as the longshoreman strike. So, we ordered more copies. But, for about a month the copies of the book were sitting in the pier in southern California. They couldn’t get it unloaded. So, I had all of these people contacting me, “I want your book. I can’t find your book.” It became a runaway bestseller. And, it still is today. It’s one of Amazon’s top bestsellers in hand lettering.

Chad:

The title of that was Creative Lettering and Beyond?

Gabri:

Yes.

Chad:

What was the process of writing the book. And, how long did that take? Because, essentially you were approached almost out-of-the-blue from an editor. What’s it like having someone come to you and say, “Hey, do you want to do a book?” Had you thought about doing a book before? Or…

Gabri:

I grew up loving books. And, I always thought in the back of my mind that I’d love to publish a book. I didn’t think it was going to be in art. I’ll be honest with that. It was very crazy and kind of surreal and I think different from what most people’s experiences with publishing is. The majority of the experience is you come up with an idea, you do all of the drafting, you write at least 75% of the book and then you send it to a publisher to see if they’re interested in publishing it. But, in my experience, art publishing is very different. They don’t want you to create the content ahead of time. They just want submission ideas, at least Walter Foster does. And then, they go through the submission ideas, and once you’re through the entire thing and they get your submissions and we plan what’s going to be in the book, then they sign the contract.

Jp:

So, does this mean that you have a third one coming out anytime soon?

Gabri:

So, I’ve already published my third.

Jp:

Oh!

Gabri:

This last year in October, I published my third book, The Joy of Lettering. And, that’s the one I co-wrote with Jaclyn Escalara.

Jp:

Oh, right. Okay, so that’s the one I know you from.

Gabri:

Yes!

Jp:

I didn’t know you had a second one. Okay. I’m sorry.

Gabri:

Yes, I have three, currently.

Jp:

What?!

Gabri:

So, I’m right now in the process of still promoting my third book. It’s doing really great. They’re actually re-releasing a new version in a couple of months where it actually comes with a workbook and pens and everything as a set. Which is exciting.

It’s been published in six languages. Mandarin Chinese is the one that surprised me cause it’s character based, and all of my hand lettering is in English with Mandarin text. But, hey whatever floats your boat. Right?

Jp:

(laughs)

Gabri:

So, that’s been fun. I currently have a few submissions for new books in to my publisher. But, I’m not going to be doing anything about that for about the next six months, just because I want to continue promoting my current book.

Chad:

I am curious about the mental transition from being on one track. You kind of had a setup and, it seems like you had a very strong direction of what you were going to do. And then, obviously life happens. I mean there was a lot of life change happening.

Gabri:

Yes.

Chad:

But, there’s a big change in, you know, direction especially at such a pivotal point. It’s a lot.

“You can’t expect that your life is going to be exactly as you had it before, but you can choose to make the most of what you have.”

 

Gabri:

Yeah, no it is. Whenever you have a really big change in your life that’s unexpected you do go through a bit of the grieving process. Over that, and just trying to find what I like to call “the new normal.” You can’t expect that your life is going to be exactly as you had it before, but you can choose to make the most of what you have. For me, the creative aspect of design wasn’t a hard transition for me. In French and Political Science, you have to use a lot more creativity than a lot of people give them credit for. You really have to think multi-dimensional and see things from all different aspects to be successful, especially if you’re translating. You have to be really creative and think on your feet, and be able to change how you’re seeing something at the drop of a hat. So, as far as that goes, I’ve been able to put that to good use in design. Being able to see different parts of a project. I think I might even have an easier time than some of the artists I talk to starting over and throwing things out if it’s not working. I think I don’t get as emotionally attached to something if it doesn’t feel right to me.

Chad:

I found one of your favorite quotes online. It was, “It’s not a competition. I hope we all make it.”

Gabri:

Yes.

Chad:

Why is that your favorite quote?

Gabri:

It’s one of my favorite quotes because I think we gain so much more and get farther working together than we do separately. I’ve met a lot of people, especially when I was studying politics, where it was a competition. It was. And, while the drive to succeed is something that is excellent to have, the drive to succeed at somebody else’s expense can be harmful because you cheat yourself out of opportunities that you otherwise would have. Most of the opportunities I’ve gotten over the years are ones that I’ve gotten because I’ve made friends with people, and networks, and done collaborations. You know, a rising tide lifts all boats.

I think one of the most important things, is that a creative person to not feel threatened by somebody else’s success. That, just because somebody else has done something great doesn’t mean that you can’t. And, instead of seeing it as something like, “Oh gosh, that person just landed this awesome gig and really wish I was doing that. And, I shouldn’t share my secrets with them because, you know, I want the gig next time,” think, “Well, this is a great opportunity to learn. Let me pick her brain. How did she get that gig? How did she, you know, get in this magazine or that magazine?”

And, a lot of the opportunities I’ve had are because I’ve asked those questions and people have been kind enough to me to answer honestly, and not hold it back from me because they’re worried I’m going to take something from them. And, I just, I love that. Because, if you get an opportunity and you share it, I also think it’s more fun that way. I mean, with Jaclyn, when I asked her to do the book with me, you know, I could have done that book on my own. But, it was so much more fun to do it with somebody and have someone to bounce ideas off of. I don’t think you can ever have too much creativity.

Jp:

Do you have people coming to you now that are either learning as a hobby, or something that they want to get into as a career, or that they are students and they wanting to do this as part of their capstone project, senior project, career path?

Gabri:

I do. Yeah. And, that’s one of the most exciting things for me is being able to interact with those people. You know, I have a lot of people online that have contacted me. I’ll have almost daily Instagram conversations. I’ve gotten questions from, “What software do you use to digitize?” to, “I’m looking to publish a book, and I’m looking to know what format I should work in before sending it to a publisher.” Those make me excited. It’s really fun. Because I was non-traditionally self educated, I place a high value on sharing that information. Because, really that community and that network I made is what was my education. So, being able to pass that…

Jp:

We can only really all be so lucky, right?

Gabri:

Yeah. I think that’s what we would all love to have. I can’t say it’s not probably all that realistic for most people. I mean, when I worked at WorldVision, I loved what I did, I felt very fulfilled. But, of course there were things that I liked doing more than others. But, I do feel very blessed to have this career opportunity that really allows me to do something that genuinely really does make me happy. And, going back to how my degrees here at PLU helped or hindered in far as transitioning into design. I think PLU really specifically helped. Because, despite the fact that I was a Political Science and French major, they really stressed vocation, and they really stressed having a greater purpose not just within your degree, but as a community and how you can interact with your community. That has had a huge impact on me and how I’ve developed my career after that. And, believing that it was possible to get where I am through networking, through self exploration. Yeah. That’s been a huge legacy for me. I think that’s more important than the degrees I got was that spirit and that lesson from PLU.

Jp:

Do you have any questions for us?

Gabri:

Yeah, if you want some questions, I’ve got some questions.

Jp:

Sure.

Gabri:

How do you, both as design professionals that have gone through school, feel about people like me coming into the design without having a BFA and things like that. And, doing the sort of projects that I’ve done.

Chad:

Well, I can speak to that. Art and design is a continuum. One one side you have Fine Art, and on the other side you have very applied Design. And, there’s a large continuum on that. And, there are different levels of formal education on all aspects of that spectrum. So, you know it’s a lot of what you do and how you do it more than what your background is. But, with that being said, as someone who has had a lot of education, it is something that I value in myself and that I really appreciate. And, going through that experience has changed my perspective and I believe there are certain things that I couldn’t have learned without that formal education. But, that’s me. And, I understand that.

Gabri:

Like every experience is a little different?

Chad:

Mmhmm.

Gabri:

I’m just curious. Because I’ve had, unfortunately in the dark corners of the internet, I have seen some conversations where I have seen people with formal degrees say, “Well, only the people with formal degrees should be designing.” I do know a few things. At least I don’t use Comic Sans.

All:

(laugh)

Gabri:

I can’t claim to know everything. But, I’ve definitely come across a few people that, especially with my untraditional success at getting published, some people have had a hard time with that. Because I don’t have a traditional education.

Chad:

My view of formal education is, depending on what you want to do, it can be extremely liberating and extremely great. But, it can also be extremely debilitating. (laughs) If that makes sense.

Gabri:

Yeah.

Chad:

It’s really hard. Because… Design as a discipline is extremely regimented. And, especially if you have… everywhere I’ve been educated in Design has had a Swiss lineage in Design education. Which, I think in grad school, I really came about the realization of how oppressive that is, in a way (laughs). There are certain things that it can limit you, in a way, or become so narrow in a way that it can become hard to break out of. And, that can be very beneficial in some ways and really limiting in some ways. So, had you studied Design formally in undergrad or whatever, you know, would you have ever gotten that book deal?

Gabri:

I might not have. Yeah.

Chad:

You know, who knows? Right? If you were going in and doing that every day in an office, would you have the same drive to do those explorations on your own at home?

Gabri:

Yeah.

Chad:

You know, things like that. It changes a lot of things. And, it’s a lot of variables. For me, it’s appreciating everybody for what they do.

Gabri:

Because how many cool things, like when I worked with Jaclyn, that was one of my best experiences was, she did have that Design background, that formal training. But, I think, for someone who isn’t formally trained, it can be a little easier to experiment or think outside of the box.

Chad:

Right.

Gabri:

And, we had a lot of fun together. I didn’t feel like she was only giving me things that I didn’t feel like we weren’t exchanging. I wish that all creatives could do that in a giant room. You know, that we could all share that stuff because we’re bigger together than we are separately.

Jp:

Mmhmm. My answer to your question reminds me of a colleague that I went to grad school with. I was just looking her up right now to see if I remember her name correctly. Her name is Maya Wright. She was amazing in the MFA program. I feel that she just did loops around all of us that had a Design background. She came in as a, I want to say, a French major.

Gabri:

Yeah, us French majors are awesome.

Jp:

She had something different. And, I think that was the first kind of choice was for me to say that, “Wait a second. I don’t need to have the path that goes from A to B to C to D to Z. It can zig zag around as long as we’re all kind of curious about it.” And, Maya had such and amazing curiosity. And for me, especially now teaching Design, that my students in the upper level classes are there to be designers, are there to make a career out of it. But, the 100 level classes, the 200 level classes, those students, or even students that are in a club, or are doing a project and are trying to make a poster and they come to ask me that question about typeface or about layout or what have you, those are the students that will probably use design in a much more meaningful way for longer periods, because they’re curious.

“Anybody can learn to do as long as they’re willing to be open. Open to possibilities and different things they may not have been expecting.”

 

Gabri:

I think personally, you know, it’s a big combination. It’s PLU. It’s how I was raised. It’s, you know, something about who I am; personality. The biggest thing I would say as far as my creativity and my curiosity is because I grew up overseas. Anybody can learn to do as long as they’re willing to be open. Open to possibilities and different things they may not have been expecting. You can cultivate that. And, I think it’s a choice. It’s not just some feeling you have, I think it’s a choice you make whether conscious or unconsciously. Every time you sit down at your computer. Every time you look through Instagram. Every time you interact with other creatives you can choose to be in the mind space that you’re open and interested and curious about other things and interested in the same where they can be taken by you.

I have a question for you, Jp.

Jp:

Oh yeah? Sure. Go ahead.

Gabri:

How do you feel about, in certain elements of the hand-lettering community, because we’re drafting letters and not typefaces and things like that, how do you feel about hand lettering breaking some of the typography rules that designers usually use?

Jp:

Oh. You’re talking about the rigidity of the computer versus the fluidity of the hand?

Gabri:

Yes.

Jp:

Mmm. That’s an interesting one. So, my personal opinion is that it drives me nuts. For it to look perfect, I hate when it doesn’t. But, I kind of like when it does look imperfect.

Gabri:

Sure.

Jp:

On the professional side, I think that you can’t have symmetry in design. The human eye is looking to be asymmetrical. The human eye wants things to just be slightly off in order to see that it’s a part of the natural world. And, in that case, what hand lettering provides is an opportunity for us to see the uniqueness that you have from the hand doing it’s own thing that might not be the correct R, that might not be the correct tangent joint. It might be something that’s just slightly off. But, it makes it more personal. And, a lot of times…

It’s funny that as I’m saying this I’m starting to thing aloud, I’m starting to think about all of the comments I’ve made to students over the years. And, one of the comments that I often say is that if you cannot find the right typeface draw it yourself. Do not give me that Brush Script typeface is you’re looking to do hand lettering. I tell them, “Get a pen out and hand letter. Just do it on your own. You’ll be more satisfied with your own hand writing than you will be with some generic typeface that is trying to harshly mimic what your’e trying to do.

Now, there’s some great typeface fonts that are out there that are well worth it and should be paid for to get them. But, sometimes… I had this student this past year who just graduated. And, two years ago we were doing this little design retreat and showing portfolios. My students wanted to see what my work looked like, so I showed them. And, then we decided, you know, let’s just do this little round robin. Show me what you’re doing. And, I started asking that question after they showed their portfolio, “So, what do you want to do with this? Where are you going to go with this?” And, the person that was her turn, great portfolio. It was what you would expect for a Sophomore, she was moving forward. So, I asked her, “What do you want to do with this?” And, she said, “I don’t want to do anything with this. I actually want to hand letter.” I’m like, “So, why aren’t you doing hand lettering projects?” And, she said, “I don’t know.”

So, I challenged her. I have two blackboards, one in my office and one in my classroom. And, I said to her, “I want you come in everyday and I want you to write something. Just get some practice. Just do it. It doesn’t need to be anything for a project, anything for a class. Put it onto Instagram just so you have an accountability of it, and you have documentation so you can see in a year from now, this is the way I started off and here is where I am now.”

Gabri:

That is such a cool… I love hearing stories like that. It also reminds me of something I tell students when I talk to them. That, even if your work isn’t perfect, share it anyway.

“Even if your work isn’t perfect, share it anyway.”

 

Jp:

Yes.

Gabri:

You know, that’s something that I tell people. I say, “You tell yourself, ‘Oh, well I’m not where I want to be so I’m not going to put it on Instagram until I’m where I want to be.’” Share it anyways. Even if you think it sucks, share it. One of the things is because you can see that progression, you can see yourself getting better. But, other people can see that, too. And, the same way that our eyes look for asymmetry, I think our human intellect also looks for humanness and evolution and genuine experience. I have a lot of people who are like, you know, “I only want to put something online if it looks perfect.” And, I say, “You’re going to get better responses, you’re going to get more people interested in you if they see you. Not some perfect, ready to roll of the presses, work. They’re going to see you and your evolution and your working. You know, if I go back to what I know I had in my Etsy shop when that editor found me, I don’t think I’d publish any of it today. I look at it and I go, “Wow, I can’t believe I did that. Look how bad I was back then (laughs).” But, I didn’t know that at the time. And, it wasn’t bad at the time because I was in a different part of my evolution.

I think sometimes it’s about embracing the part of your evolution that you’re in currently and being bold enough to say, “Or, you know, like me, you might get a book deal.” That right there is enough of a reason to put yourself out there. I think that is my biggest advice to students that are graduating is that, you know, put everything out there. Obviously, pay attention to quality and make sure you’re doing the best you can. But, it’s going to be so much better for you if you have a large body of work to look at and look at the evolution. There are so many cool opportunities you could get from that.

Jp:

That’s a great line right there. Just put it out there. To be bold enough — I think that’s what I wrote down. Be bold enough.

Gabri:

Yes. Being bold is really important. I’ve done a lot of things that were definitely scary, at the time, for me. I have cold called news editors and emailed national television shows and contacted magazines. And, done all sorts of things that I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but gosh darnit I’m just going to try and see where I get.” And, one of the things I’ve figured out is that you don’t have to know exactly how to do something as long as you’re open and personable and willing to say, “Okay, I’m just trying this out.”

One of the gals that I follow religiously is Joy Cho. She has said on her blog, she has said for people who have asked, “How did you get in with Target?” She says, “I cold called them.” She was just a designer doing work in California and she was like, “Why not? I want to do a Target collection.” So, she cold called Target headquarters. And, you know, I remember sitting there reading that and thinking, “There’s got to be something more to it than that. Some formal interview process or some hoop you have to jump through. And, you know, a lot of times I think the opportunities we get come down to how bold we are.

“A lot of times I think the opportunities we get come down to how bold we are.”

 

Jp:

Be bold.

Gabri:

Yes, in typeface and in person.

All:

(laugh)

Jp:

Well, we’re at the end of our time with you. Thank you so much.

Gabri:

Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on. I was very honored to be a guest.

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