Designer, Illustrator, Author Adam J. Kurtz on Life as a Creative Entrepreneur

The Now Creative Group team spent a weekend in NYC and had the pleasure of meeting up with designer/illustrator/author/Canadian-Brooklynite Adam J. Kurtz. We were ejected from our original meeting place cafe, so we relocated into the streets of Williamsburg and had a great chat about design, copy cats, and getting sh*t done. You can watch the video version here.

Daniel: So we’re outside of a random place on the streets because we got kicked out of our cafe, unfortunately, but Adam is still with us — he didn’t leave.

Adam: I think it’s for the best, ‘cause the natural light is really good for my skin.

Andrew: (Off-camera) You look great, Adam. 

Adam: Thank you. No filters needed.

Daniel: It’s a relevant scenario because we were talking about where you actually like to do your work. You have all these options in New York, obviously cafes, they’re not the greatest place, but where do you love to work?

Adam:  Yeah, I guess if I were to work at a cafe, it would not be at Black Brick on Bedford and South 2nd, a cafe that I will never go to again, I guess. That’s fine. I usually work from home;  I have a home office, a separate studio setup, where I’m doing my design work in sort of a controlled, quiet space. I can’t– also, who does design work on a laptop anyway? That’s not really, not ideal at all. So yeah, generally I’m working from home. The only times that I’ll work from somewhere else– Usually I’ll work in a diner, and that’s just because, like, unlimited coffee refills, a tuna melt, and you know, when I do need to do illustration or when I need to do a lot of writing and not be distracted, that’s where I’ll go out. But, in general, cafes are, I think noisy and everyone’s just trying to be seen working. It’s like, ‘I don’t need to prove it.’

Daniel: So, when it comes to balancing your workload– because you have your own products, you have your own brand and social media to maintain, and then there’s doing the work itself, which is making new products and branding. How do you balance promo, fulfilling orders, all that type of stuff,? And if you have any type of advice for other creatives that are trying to market themselves, and actually do the work.

Adam: Sure. I think the balance is different for everyone, and it depends on what you’re doing and what kind of person you are– and I don’t mean that in a good or bad way. I just mean, you know, you understand how your brain compartmentalizes things. So, for me I have sort of a structure down where I’m packing orders usually in the morning, so that when  I go out, you know, I walk past the post office; like, that’s just logical to me. When I have a ton of work, I know that I have to block out days and be doing writing or doing illustration, or cleaning up just a shit ton of scans. Sometimes I leave that for the very last; my least favourite part. But it’s sort of, yeah, it’s up to you to find that balance and it isn’t easy but it gets easier. And it helps when you are your own boss and you’re your own brand, because everything I do is in service of not just my company, but really directly me, and it’s like my narcissism pushes me forward. It’s not that hard to do it when my name’s on it. It feels so much better than previous jobs that I’ve had.

Daniel: On that note, do you ever hire out help or have a team, or any freelancers that do work with you?

Adam: You know, for the most part, it’s still me, and I keep things pretty small-scale intentionally, because I don’t love to hire out work, I don’t love to let go of things. But I definitely have a few people who regularly help me when I have really big orders or when I have to product packaging, when I’m fulfilling a ton of stuff. I have this annual calendar project that is very big now and takes a lot of effort. But in terms of design, I’m more likely to turn down client work than I am to accept it and then spread that work out. Like a traditional studio, you would take on the work and then have different people doing different parts of it. But for me, I’m usually just like, ‘No, no thank you. Thanks for reaching out; no thanks.’

Daniel: Do you get requests for projects that are not really your thing, not really your style? What’s your favourite type of project to take on?

Adam: I think my favourite type of project varies, and it’s usually like, ‘What am I interested in, and what do I feel like making?’ I do get offers, or requests to do, like, ‘Will you build me a website?’ I don’t like coding, and now that I don’t have to do it, I just don’t. You know, I studied design, and I can build out, like a product catalogue, I can do pitch decks; I used to build decks for an ad agency for like, a year and a half. But now that I don’t have to, I’d rather not. But I do find that people are really surprised when I’m turning over client work– you know, I’m doing this fun illustrative style where people are like, ‘Oh, he barely knows what he’s doing,’ and then I send them a beautifully formatted inDesign deck with page numbers and stuff, and people are sort of like, ‘What? How– Who did this?’ I consider myself a graphic designer, and even my most simple, handwritten work is a combination of text and image; I mean, that’s what design is.

Heather: What would you advise a young designer to do when they’re establishing themselves and they’re young in their career, and they don’t want people to write them off because they don’t look super professional, but at the same time they want to stay true to who they are?

Adam: There are so many graphic designers out there that, finding your unique voice, or your sort of spin on things is, I think, really important, because when it comes down to hiring someone for work, you’re looking for someone who speaks to you, the client, as a person, and wants to find that connection. Someone who you can communicate with, where ideas are communicated easily and people are on the same page.So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being yourself and keeping it a little weird, but I do think there’s something to be said for presentation. Where, if your work is sort of off-kilter, and kooky, and a little edgy, and then your portfolio is that, and your site is that, and your resume is, like, hilarious, at a certain point, people are not sure that you can sit down and get it done. I’m all for, like, stoner art, but if you seem like you’re just high all the time, that might not help you get gigs.

So, really finding the balance where you get to be yourself, but you’re using your professional tools, using the things that you’ve learned and the things that you know, just to strike that right balance of ‘I’m fun, but I get shit done.’

Daniel: I also wanted to ask you about the number of similar products, or similar style that has emerged. Obviously you’ve found people that have ripped off your stuff. How does that feel to you personally? Is it super offensive, are you happy that it’s getting seen? What’s your thought on that as a creative?
Adam:
You know, I don’t own handwriting, and there are so many people who have come before me who do similar work, so I’m not upset necessarily at work that seems like mine, and for a long time I didn’t actually believe that anyone was looking at my work. In the last two years it’s become much more obvious that I directly inspire some other people which, one; is weird; and two: is frustrating, when someone I know has followed me on Instagram for five years all of a sudden is releasing products and personal work that looks exactly like mine. There are even cases where I’ve been involved in previous iterations of work that go on to take new life.

But at the end of the day, I’m just really happy when anyone can do what they like and make money from it, and maybe even make a full living from it, so I try to put my pride aside and just be like, ‘Oh, someone else is making rent, that’s great. More power to everyone.’ 

Daniel: How have thing changed from becoming published with Penguin? Will you continue in that direction? And, do you still consider yourself an independent creative?  

Adam: Yeah, I think publishing several books with Penguin is not separate from being an independent creative. So, I have and editor that I work with, which has been really great for my process, because sometimes when you’re doing everything yourself, you don’t have as many outside voices steering you in the right direction. 

I’ve learned a lot, I just wrapped up my third book with penguin that will be out at the end of this year, it’s sort of a departure for me. That said, even my most simple looking work is very detailed and laid out; even with Penguin, when I turned in full InDesign package production files they’re like, ‘Oh!’ (truck engine rumbling loudly) we’re outside, this is very authentic. They’re still a little bit surprised. So I don’t know if I will only do my own thing for years to come.

I have thought about going back to advertising, taking what I’ve learned personally and it past jobs and sort of, like, landing in a strategy roll. I also love consulting with small business, or online, tech-related businesses where humanity and tech intersect, because I think there are a lot of really genius people out there building products that, I think sort of miss the mark in terms of actual engagement and use. So, I don’t know exactly what’s next, but I think that working with Penguin, working with Abrams, working with Urban Outfitters, working with Fishs Eddy has all been really helpful and productive, and an important part of my own growth, even in the sort of independent phase of my career.

Adam’s latest book, Pick Me Up, is available here.

Watch the video of this interview on Now Creative Group’s YouTube channel, embedded below.