Kadie Smith

BFA, Graphic Design 2013
Dallas, TX

What are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work? I’ve been so fascinated lately with color psychology and the importance of introspection to the branding process, especially since I usually work with small business owners. I don’t think many of my clients know initially how much of their personal philosophy and values they pour into their business model, but when it comes out in the early phases of the branding process it always is this huge lightbulb moment and takes the project to a whole new personal level. When I am able to get to that point with a client, it’s such a rewarding experience and goes so much further than design and that’s what I truly love. To be able to really listen to what they are trying to communicate and find a creative way to tell that story visually. My goal is to make my client feel both empowered and confident standing behind their brand and learning to how to sustain it. I’ve started requiring my clients to let me test their product or experience their service prior to designing their brand for them because it allows me to see where the real story is and also where the missing links are that need help. It’s all about experience - the client experience, the design experience, and the process of storytelling. 

“I think success is getting to a place where you can do something that you love everyday, that’s respected by your peers, and gives you room to live your life.”

Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking? At the anniversary of my first year as a business owner, I decided to reinvest in my company and attend a business retreat called Staff Retreat Co. (also one of my clients from the year before and I wanted to experience it leading into his branding process) - the retreat is designed as a 36 hour one-on-one business analysis and strategy with 12 months of coaching. At the time, I was just barely making ends meet freelancing and couldn’t figure out what the disconnect was. My following was growing, I had several successful projects, but I just couldn’t successfully raise my prices and get to a point where I was able to be specific in who my clients were. Taking this course completely changed my perspective as a freelancer to that of a business owner. In the year since, I have never once referred to myself as a freelancer and as a result, my business grew way faster and bigger than I could have hoped and I was able to confidently approach bigger clients as a professional in my field. 
      I think it’s been so crucial to think this way, because it affects the way you interact with clients. A shift happens when you aren’t just looking for whatever work they are able to throw your way, and you start taking on clients who are hiring you based on your services. It sounds like a really small difference but it makes a HUGE impact. Changing my mindset and becoming interested not only in my craft, but also as a strategic business owner has given me a little bit of breathing room and improved my ability to think creatively for my clients.

What project or design problem have you faced (in the past or recently) that seemed to be a “failure” but was perhaps an extremely valuable learning experience? Oh man, retainers. They are (or were) the death of me. Last fall, I thought I had hit the jackpot by signing on to a few retainers that would be guaranteed income while I grew the branding side of my business and every single one of them resulted in a bad experience. I have a hard time setting boundaries in my business, and the people pleaser in me made more promises than were humanly possible to keep. You have to be very careful in those situations to clearly outline expectations as many clients think that means you are available 24/7 and can work magic. I remember specifically taking a much needed week off for my birthday a few months in and was in the car heading in to Yellowstone (totally burned out) and had a client freak out that she couldn’t change a font selection and spent 2 hours trying to find WiFi in a McDonalds and feeling both unprofessional and resentful of the position I was in. Needless to say, that was the last month of offering retainer services and then, unexpectedly, the branding took off simultaneously and I didn’t need the “back up plan” after all. Making decisions out of fear is never a good sign, and as a result I had offered a watered down version of what I knew I was capable of. Lesson: follow your instincts and don’t settle for good enough!


While you were in school at Auburn, do you remember a specific graphic design project that challenged you the most? Well, to be honest almost every branding project at Auburn has directly led me to doing that in my career. Senior project was for sure, and obviously, the most challenging as it required me to both create a sustainable and believable business and then try to design for it objectively. I think it was very challenging because I began to feel too close to the client I was creating and had a hard time thinking objectively and strategically. (I’ve never been in that kind of situation in the real world!!) But, on the flip side, it’s really helped me to understand what my client is thinking about during the branding process and to think ahead about potential miscommunication or obstacles before they happen. It’s made me empathetic to how difficult it can be to make decisions when you are too close and there seem to be endless options. I would encourage seniors who are struggling with this to read How-to Style Your Brand by Fiona Humberstone during the process. It’s written from the client’s perspective and I read it during my most recent company rebrand to try to find a balance between introspection, strategy, goal-setting, and designing.

How would you define success? Do you think you’ve found it yet? I think success is getting to a place where you can do something that you love everyday, that’s respected by your peers, and gives you room to live your life. I do think I’ve reached it, although I have many goals for the future. I wake up every morning excited about every project I’m working on, daily challenged to continue to learn more, and empowered by learning how to be a smart business owner. I still struggle with balancing work with a personal life, but I’ve gotten a studio with 2 talented web designers in an old historic home that helps me to establish office hours, I take a week off every other month to go on vacation, I went to Africa for 5 weeks last fall and it was life changing, and many of my new clients are in crazy cool industries that allow me to experience things I would never otherwise get the opportunity to. I think success will change for me over time, but at 25 this is what it looks like for me.

You seem to have developed your own successful design business. Did you learn the skills to running your own business from working at previous design firms? (Expand upon this and your background if possible). Ugh, no. I made the huge, but ultimately great, decision to take the first design job I was offered and it was a complete nightmare. The company had incredibly unethical business practices, I was told time and again that I would never be able to do the things I talked about, and I felt bored and frustrated every single day. I started taking on freelance work because I got to the point of worrying that I would abandon design completely and it saved my career! A way out presented itself and I jumped at the opportunity (with no savings which I wouldn’t recommend) and worked my tail off to make it happen. I think hating that experience so much was the fire to make my business happen. A year later that business went under due to client lawsuits, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t going under with them. I did learn that even agencies fake it till they make it (some more than others) and that they are made up of people just like me. I learned that processes and streamlining are the way to increase profit margin and save time and that project management is definitely a full time job. The two girls I studio with actually had amazing firm experience prior to starting their own business and have taught me a lot about tax breaks, business structure, and managing client expectations. I continue to invest in that field of the industry through design organizations and consider it healthy competition. BUT for the most part, I learned how to run a business by researching it on the fly. I would encourage ALL designers to take a business course because you never know when you’ll need it. And when all else fails, Google it.

“Design is such a flexible skill to have and there are a billion different ways you can utilize it. Don’t compare yourself to everyone else in your class, because then you’ll miss your moment to do something different and shine!”

Is there a difference between working in design with women or with men? Have you ever been treated differently because you are female? I have had really great, and really terrible, experiences with both. Men - a lot easier to be blunt and honest. I have the easiest time negotiating payment and setting clear milestone deliveries. However, the worst client I ever had was also a man and 3 months into a retainer project I had yet to have an invoice paid and was met with a long email saying that I was a poor designer and that I was lucky for them to have the opportunity to review my work but it would not be paid for. Initial reaction? Totally embarrassed because design is personal. Actual reaction? A firm email stating that I am a professional and do not do spec work for praise along with a clear reminder that late invoices would be met with penalties and fees. As a business owner party-of-one, no one is going to stand up for you so you have to stand up for yourself, especially when there’s a gender difference! Women - a lot more organized (sorry, men!) I have found that my female clients are easier to onboard to my process, they enjoy checking items off of a list and brainstorming new ideas collaboratively. The problem? Having a hard time making decisions, so I often limit the choices when I see that tendency.


Do you believe that it is harder for women to become successful in the design field? From my experience, it is easier for a woman to create a successful independent design studio than it is to be taken seriously in a firm. There is a “Mad Men” element to agency life that men consider their ideas to be pure gold and the women are there to carry it out. I often felt very underutilized because of the hierarchy of agency life. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t coming from an entitled Millennial,  I truly felt that I was not being taught in a way that would set me up to effectively contribute to my agency down the road. The problem with hierarchy is that all (100%) of the pressure is put on the top dog. Often he is responsible for concepts, managing his underlings, designing the biggest components, as well as encouraged to foster learning and growth among the entry level designers. One person cannot be a lead designer, manager, idea producer, and mentor full time without begin Superman and I understand that now. A lot of creative men can be arrogant and stubborn (backed by a lot of passion) and that’s a roller coaster that isn’t fun for anyone. I have found that a calm resolve and consistency is a louder voice and that boundaries are the key to any healthy creative relationship, especially in the work place. In order to be taken seriously, you have to take yourself seriously. So dress nicely, show up on time, produce your best work and learn how to talk about it, and at the end of the day you’ll be the one they come to for advice. I once had a *male* photographer ask what gave me the credibility at 25 to go into a business and tell them I knew how to tell their story better than they did. For half a second my face went completely red and I started to doubt if after all I was a total lie. And then I looked him straight in the eye and said my credibility came from every time my advice has worked. So never, ever, undersell yourself. You just went through a tough, competitive design program that is respected in the professional world. So own it! Don’t back down from opportunities because you don’t think you’re ready or that you have to pay some kind of due. Walk bravely into the world with all of the tools and the internet as your sidekick and establish yourself confidently as someone who’s eye and creative input matters (even if in your head that statement is coming out a little shaky and unsure.) I promise, experience is the greatest lesson and you’ll always regret having not started sooner. So why not start now?

Are there any rules or habits that help you do your job or run your business more efficiently? Yes, I write down everything. Literally, everything because I can’t remember it all. I’ve always thought of myself as a free spirit with a knack for organization, but now realize that my own secret to a balanced life is creating a lot of routine and structure in my business so that I can be fun and spontaneous in my personal life! And that looks like set working hours, a clear client process so that I can communicate expectations confidently, and a fairly consistent work environment so that I can focus. And in the off hours? Absolutely whatever. Africa, a ski week in Colorado, a last minute trip to camp in Montana. The sky is the limit! (just as long as I am back in the office by Monday)

Would you recommend some resources that young designers might find useful?
How-to Style Your Brand by Fiona Humberstone
Elle & Co blog (for small business owners)
Creative Mornings - great networking!
Rowan Made blog
Entrepreneur Magazine (more for inspiration than anything else)
Staff Retreat Co!!!! 110%

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were in school? How to budget for a business / taxes! / copywriting for web / how to create a design process from an internal and client point of view / email etiquette & canned responses / social media / everything about Squarespace (let’s be honest, most independent designers use this for clients and there are still so many options for customizing that I’m constantly learning)

What should a young designer avoid doing when applying for jobs in the design field? Saying yes to everything - do your homework and ask questions. Try to meet as many people you would be working with as you can. Ask to see their most recent projects and ask about the process. Ask them if they will be investing in your career by sending you to conferences or comping you for a membership to a design organization. Meet your direct supervisor!!!! Also, don’t just go to your favorite brands and try to work with them directly. There are a lot of amazing small firms that do work for really cool clients. Find out who their clients are and who they are going after. A well informed decision is the best decision!
      And for those on the fence about branching out on their own, pay attention in your current job or class to the things you wish you were doing for your client/project. When you are able, try to work those things into your current situation and if that is impossible, begin to make a plan for how that service could turn into a true business. Design is such a flexible skill to have and there a billion different ways you can utilize it. Don’t compare yourself to everyone else in your class, because then you’ll miss your moment to do something different and shine! There’s room for everyone in this industry and enough work to go around!

Designer responded to questions in 2016 via email.