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Interview by Noah Davis (@noahedavis). A freelance writer living in Brooklyn, Davis has written for The Wall Street Journal, New York, and Sports Illustrated.
Agnieszka Gasparska runs a design shop, not a nail salon. But occasionally people get confused. "They think it's called Kiss Me I'm Polish (as in nail polish)," the Warsaw-born founder of Kiss Me I'm Polish says with a laugh. (She laughs a lot. She has a wonderful laugh.)
Gasparska opened her studio in 2003 after a stint with Funny Garbage and has slowly, methodically expanded ever since. KMIP remains still a small shop, but they work with bigtime clients including The Museum of Modern Art, The Atlantic, and Good.is, where Gasparska and her team helped fuel the reniassance of infographics.
In her studio space just off Sixth Ave, Gasparska spoke with Complex about combining beauty and brains in design, being a geek, and why sometimes it's nice to sit back and answer emails.
You call yourself a strategy and design firm. Why do you include strategy as part of the mission statement?
We are all visual people, and we respond to cues that we don't even know we respond to.
Strategy is an interesting word that can mean a lot of different things. We use it because where we shine is when we're given room to explore and infuse the project with a vision and not just execute someone else's. I think design very often is a strongly visual practice, but it has to come from a very good backbone. I like to stay that beauty and brains is what were about. You can have beauty, but without a brain – and a great personality – it only goes so far. A lot of our clients want a deeper meaning to communicate their mission.
A lot of times you're conveying information as well.
Yes, but that's just because we are geeks. [Laughs] That's where the brains part comes in. We've been doing a lot of infographics over the past few years. It started with our collaboration with GOOD. We worked with them on the redesign of their website and that led to other projects. They played a huge role in igniting the renaissance of the infographic, and everyone got onboard after that. It's amazing. I feel like other folks – including the New York Times – were doing good work before that, but somehow GOOD made it more fun and cool. From there, we started doing more and more work like that. It's been a really fascinating phenomenon because it can sometimes be super dry information. We just did a spread in the new issue of The Atlantic that's all about the economy and how Americans spend their money. Not the sexiest set of data but we had fun with it.
I saw that.
It doesn't get drier than financial spreadsheets [Laughs]. But at the same time, I firmly believe that design is supposed to make you feel something. I don't quite know what The Atlantic infographic makes me feel [laughs], but we are all visual people and we respond to cues that we don't even know we respond to. Color choices. Composition. Spacing. As designers, we are able to use those things to our advantage to make visual communication work better, be more effective on a deeper level, and be more fun. Fun is not to be underestimated. It's a very key ingredient to life.
How much actual design do you get to do?
It depends on the day. I design a lot, and that just makes for very long workdays. [Laughs] There are definitely days where I spend less than 50% of my time designing. There are days when I spend a lot more time designing. Those are mostly weekends. [Laughs] Nothing else has to get managed on those days. My hours have gotten much, much better lately, but the ups and downs of growing pains are sometimes tough to predict as the studio is expanding. I enjoy the other side of the work. I became a business owner or entrepreneur accidentally. I didn't set out to do that. I set out to be an independent graphic designer, to do my own thing, and I realized that meant I had to do all these other things. I've really enjoyed learning how to be a project manager, how to delegate, how to work with clients, how to manage other people (including clients), how to run the business side of things. I think I get bored easily, so I like variety in my day – so even if I did get to design all the time, I think there would still be days when I would whole-heartedly enjoy sending emails or doing paperwork.
It's a good problem to have, to be growing.
Yeah, but at the same time, I am not interested in growing too much too fast. It's been an organic and natural process. It's evolving over time. That feels good.
What is your design process on work like The Atlantic piece?
It was a very collaborative process. There was a set of Excel spreadsheets that The Atlantic came to us with. Stephen J. Rose, the economist they were working with, is pretty amazing and doing some amazing research at Georgetown – it was fascinating data, but there was a lot of it that we had to figure out how to articulate. We ended up doing a few preliminary sketches to show them some of the things we wanted to play with using some of the key data points they had highlighted for us, and then we had many conversations after that which eventually led to the final design. It's usually a very collaborative process. At the same time, in the beginning we did some creative explorations and showed the client some of the things we wanted to play with. We give our clients a lot of room in the relationship to share their thoughts and their ideas but at the same time we know where we want them to go. Luckily, it usually ends up going that way. I've learned to never show a client something you hate because that is going to be the thing they want to do. Always. [Laughs]
You're not an economist, so how much of designing was figuring out what the hell Rose and The Atlantic were talking about?
It probably happened in the shower, as a lot of good ideas do.
Sometimes that's the case. This isn't the first economy-related project we've done, but I actually really like that part of the process – I get to learn something. One of the other projects we're working on is a college-level sociology textbook written by Dalton Conley. It's one of the most amazing projects we've been able to work on because we are doing the entire design of the book - front, back, inside – everything, plus an entire suite of hand-drawn animations for every chapter – an amazing collaboration with the author, the publisher and our team. So much fun.
Is it fair to say that one of the reasons you stay pretty small is that you hire freelancers when you need them?
Definitely. It's always worked very well for us. And it's become more accepted by clients in the last few years as well. When I started my practice, I feel like this new model was just starting to emerge. Now, no one has big concerns about it at all. You can be completely transparent about your size, and clients are less freaked out. I think the process is so much more direct and personal when you're working with small firms, and people really love that.
Do you have too much work?
We do say no to projects, yes. But sometimes if a great project comes along and we are already strapped for resources, we just can't say no. We have to figure out a way to make it work. I feel extremely, extremely lucky that we're in the place where we can say no and that we can decide if something is a good fit for us or not.
In the past when I was learning the ropes of how to run this business thing, I think I felt obligated to not let things go. Somebody would present me this opportunity and even if it didn't feel right, I didn't want to say no because I felt like I should be growing the business. But over time, I learned that if you're pouring that much energy and that much heart into what you're doing, you can't do it for the wrong people or the wrong project. It burns you out, doesn't lead to good work, and not only keeps you from doing the things you really care deeply about, but also keeps the client from having someone to work with whose heart is really in the project. It takes a bit of a leap of faith, but I've never been proven wrong. Still, learning to say no was one of the hardest lessons I've learned.
A lot of our work is by referral. The clients that we've been happy working with are so great and the projects have been so great that they multiply and bring people who are like-minded our way. I saw Michael Beirut from Pentagram give a talk once and he said you really have to be careful when picking your clients because bad clients will only breed more bad clients. I really believe that. [Laughs] Our good clients have been breeding and bringing more great clients our way.
Where did you get the name?
[Laughs] Honestly, I don't remember the actual moment where it happened. It probably happened in the shower, as a lot of good ideas do.
Do you have a drawing board in your shower?
No, but for some reason, the bathroom in the morning is the place where I get the most clarity. My first job when I got out of school was at a place called Funny Garbage, which was a digital agency here in New York. Right then, I realized that the name was key. It was memorable, funny and everybody always commented on it. While I was working there, there came a point when I wanted to have a site that showcased the freelance work I was doing at the time with various musicians, designers, and artists. At first, I wanted to have a URL that was my first name or my first and last name. AgnieszkaGasparska.com. Ha! I mean really?! No one in their right mind would ever type that the right way. It would have been Google suicide. Thankfully, Agnieszka.com was not available either, and I figured my first and last name would be too much.
I started thinking about other things, and at some point I just thought, 'What about Kiss Me I'm Polish?' I looked it up and it was available, so I snatched it. I've now trademarked it. [Laughs] And it works. From time to time I wonder if it's too silly or too cute, and honestly there are probably some clients that have hesitated in contacting us because of the name. But at the same time, because of how we approach our work, how much heart and personality we put into our projects, and because we believe in fun, I feel like it's actually a really great client filter. If somebody thinks they are too serious to appreciate it, then they are probably not the right fit for us. We've actually had some very serious, corporate, stuffy clients contact us, and they loved it. It's different. And easy to remember.