Unabashedly vibrant. Intensely driven. Honest. Earnest.
In the words of the legendary Neville Brody: “brilliant.”
This is the world of British illustrator and art director Kate Moross—and each of these descriptors is further brought to life by Moross’ own words in this special live episode of Design Matters, and their remarks over the years, as documented here in 22 quotes and quips.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
“My mum recently said to me, ‘Do you remember that time we let you paint your bedroom?’ I was probably about 9 or 10, and she said I could decorate my room however I like. And I bought lime green, magenta, bright blue, bright orange, bright yellow and painted my room a hundred different colors. She’s like, ‘That is exactly the color palette you use now; isn’t it strange that you’ve had it in you for so long?’”
“It’s not the industrial revolution any more. People can learn new techniques or skills on the internet. They don’t have to go to school and they don’t work in factories where they have to do one thing all the time. We work in a world where you can take a project from conception to end and do every single part of it.”
“In 2012 I was sharing a studio space, but while I loved the atmosphere, my peers weren’t very open to projects that sat outside their perception of coolness. In contrast, I love working on a brand that’s not so cool—to me, that’s much more of a challenge.”
“If I wasn’t a designer, I’d probably be a detective. I like solving problems and I like conspiracy theories.”
“I don’t consider myself ‘creative.’ … I’m a teacher’s pet that happens to draw pictures.”
“When I first started out, if projects didn’t go well it used to really affect me—you know that feeling when you get bad news and you feel sick, it’s like torture. That’s completely gone now. I have a thicker skin. That’s what’s better about a studio—if you have bad news you have a team around you. There’s a camaraderie in failure. When something goes wrong we all come together.”
“We have an attitude towards the work that we do. I think our work looks reactive, not necessarily colorful, but bold. We’re not very good at being subtle. Our work will be confident and it will be playful in some way. For us, it’s all about the approach, the brains that are going into the work. We’re not necessarily thinking about what it looks like in the end.”
“I never really plan it, just sit down in front of a blank page and go for it. I have never really been precious about my drawings, I just think of them as sketches and scraps of paper. That way they don’t intimidate me, and I can’t mess them up. That’s a great skill to learn as an illustrator—how to hide your mistakes, and make them into happy accidents.”
“I’ve pushed back against this ‘women in design’ thing—I’m not a woman in design, I’m a designer.”
“I very much don’t conform to what most people think of what a graphic designer would be. First of all, when I started I was very young. I got a lot of backlash online for being young and also probably for being a girl. Now, I identify as being non-binary, so I live in a kind of middle ground between the two master genders. I’m interested in a world from that perspective: looking at design and design interaction through the eyes of different genders.”
“Although I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community and want to represent them in my work, I’ve turned down campaigns when I haven’t agreed with the approach. I don’t want to be part of a rainbow capitalist movement. And although visibility is important to me, I don’t want to be tokenized, fetishised or positioned by someone else.”
“I’d go to a modern art museum sometimes but I tend to not spend too much time walking around galleries and art museums. I prefer supermarkets.”
“Inspiration is a horrible word. It’s not big enough to represent the thousands of visual messages and influences one is bombarded with every day. … For me, it’s things like sweet wrappers, streetwear, shop fronts, packaging, science, theory, television, the internet—all these things are inescapable, and have a subconscious affect on everything I do.”
“Everyone needs to relax. Stop being ‘inspired,’ and just make things, I don’t like to over-intellectualise too much. I just like to get on with it. Make work, and then make some more.”
“For me, it’s not about doing lots of things to be successful. It’s just because I like doing lots of things. There is so much out there to be creative with—whether it’s baking a cake at home or a paid job—I just try to do as many things as I can and call them work. I’d like to be a jack of all trades, master of some. I try and get better—and fail and succeed. It’s good to be scared and mess up sometimes. It’s boring being approved of all the time. Failure and experiments keep people interested in what you’re doing.”
“I always say that I don’t have big ideas, I just have lots of little ones that fill the same amount of time. I much prefer to take things a little bit at a time and change things that way. I think change is lots of small steps, not necessarily always the big things.”
“I never say I would like people to be able pick my work out of a lineup, but I would love it if people saw it all together and know it came from the same place.”
“I’d like to see my style disappear. It sounds weird, but we’re entering a place where a visual style isn’t necessarily the first and foremost thing for being successful. Think of it like a director or a screenwriter. …[I’d rather] just be involved in great projects and have a body of work I’m proud of. Having an immeasurable or intangible style is way more important to me.”
“I try and make it a rule in the studio: Never have another piece of work on your screen while you’re making work. If you have an internal memory of references and things you’ve absorbed over time, they will reknit themselves to a slightly distorted version of that concept or that visual thread. And then it will come out in a different way. And that’s you. That’s how you form your identity as a designer. Don’t ever copy one to one.”
“I don’t believe in selling your soul. I believe very much in commercial creativity. I don’t like the snobbery that surrounds that topic. … That is what design is about. It is about connecting with people and creating something for them, moulding their ideas into a visual. That is what I love about it, and that is why working for a local shop or Google is equally appealing. Both have their individual challenges, pros and cons, but both are design, and that is all that matters to me.”
“There is no balance, life is work and work is life. I do not even attempt to separate the two. Sometimes I can’t remember whether my friends are clients or my clients are friends; it’s all blended together. My social life and my work blend seamlessly. In fact, most of the time, I forget I am even working.”
“I admire brands such as Dyson. Dyson is a word that’s synonymous with innovative products. I want my surname, Moross, to be synonymous with design whether or not I’m retired or I am alive. I want it to continue without me.”
Curtis Fox: The interview was conducted in front of a live audience at the headquarters of Shutterstock in New York City, in September of 2017, and presented by the D&AD Festival. Here's Debbie.
Debbie Millman: Kate, I watched your Design Indaba video. You started by talking about what a shitty year you were having.
Kate Moross: Yes.
Debbie: How are you feeling now?
Kate: I think I can imagine that most of the people in this room have had quite shitty years also. Everyone's nodding. Aside from the rest of the world imploding, yeah, I personally had quite a difficult year. In January, I fell over and broke my hand, this hand.
Debbie: The hand you ...
Kate: My right hand, which is my dominant hand. You know, you joke when you use, especially if you draw, like, "LOL, do yo insure your hands, or something?" But it genuinely can impact your career if you can stop using your hands. I have lost quite a bit of ability in my hand.
Debbie: Do you think it'll come back?
Kate: I'm not sure, but thankfully due to digital tools, I'm able to continue doing what I do. If I had to work with manual materials, like actual pens not Wacom pens, I think I would be struggling a lot more. But because you can adjust the way technology responds to your haptic feedback, I've managed to carry on working. I was actually working a huge illustration project right in the middle of that.
Debbie: So you were walking your dogs, and you fell.
Kate: Yeah, I just slipped. I got what is called a boxer's spiral fracture in my fourth metacarpal. It wasn't fun.
Debbie: I tore a ligament in my non-dominant hand about five or six years ago, and it was one of the most excruciating experiences. The first time I had to dress myself, I cried because it's really, really hard to put on Spanx with one hand. Really hard.
Kate: Luckily I don't feel the need for Spanx. I like the more loose-fitting attire.
Kate: But no, it definitely stopped me in my tracks, but I had an operation. In return for my hand therapists immediate work of getting me into a surgeon, because of our healthcare system, various other problems, I was put back by a couple weeks, and it was really distressing, I have designed her a logo for her hand therapy charity. There's a lot of trade in currency.
Debbie: Very enterprising.
Kate: Of course. Just as a thank you, because I was under the knife within 48 hours of the fall. No, it was a lot, but I'm happy to it's ...
Debbie: You're better?
Kate: I'm better. Yeah.
Debbie: And you're having a better year now that we're nearly three-quarters through it?
Kate: Yeah. I also went through a point where I was like, "I don't care about money, or success anymore, I'm just going to do low key stuff." That lasted a few months.
Debbie: Do you think that you were feeling that way because you have money and success?
Kate: Yeah, I'm not going to lie. I have got parts of those things, but often I pendulum between these two things, and I think that's natural to push away something, and then swing back to it.
Kate: We had a year of a lot of philanthropy, and working with organizations, and then we were also doing big corporate work too, and just constantly going between those two things. I enjoy that. I think it's a healthy dynamic to have.
Debbie: You said you like to live your life in the middle.
Debbie: It's a bit of the swinging back and forth between the binaries.
Kate: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.
Debbie: Now you consider yourself non-binary.
Debbie: Have you always felt that way?
Kate: I think so. I think gender is such a hot topic at the moment, for good and for bad, especially in our industry. I think it's come through my experience of meeting more types of people. I learn more about myself as well as about other people. I think I just discovered a whole new world that I didn't really know about, but also identified with.
Debbie: What world is that?
Kate: Well it's the gender non-conforming world, or a world where you can exist and not conform to whatever society says you should conform to, which I think lots of people identify with, whether they consider themselves as a specific gender or not. I just think it's exciting to push back against what you think is the truth, or what you're told is the way, and discover things for yourself.
Kate: I had always done that my whole life, and luckily a space was created for me and my family, and in my education system that I could be who I felt I was, but only as an adult now in my 30 ... I don't even know how old I am. Thirty-one, I think. I've just discovered this other part of myself, and I think visibility is important. That's why I talk about because I found out about what non-binary was through hearing other people talk about it. I'm going to carry on the cliché of that thing. Yeah.
Debbie: What pronouns do you liked to use?
Kate: I use any pronoun, but I use she pronouns because I don't care about pronouns. That's not part of my gender dysphoria or anything. I haven't changed my name, I don't change my pronouns.
Kate: It's other things, like I don't like being classified as a woman. That's the thing that I messaged you about on Twitter. I don't know. Everyone's identity is different, and I think that's why people are confused about it, because it's confusing. But for me, I just like to choose my own adventure, and that happens to be identifying as a queer, non-binary person, with any pronoun, with my name, which is a gendered name. It is an adventure, you know.
Debbie: Yeah. What Kate is referring to is I was trying to promote our talk, and thought it was quite interesting to compare the color palettes of our attire because this is what I always wear, and that's what she always wears. I wrote, "Interesting, a woman that wears all black interviewing a woman that's wear all color. Should be interesting."
Kate: I didn't like it or re-tweet it, so I felt obliged to send you a message, just to say something.
Debbie: Oh, I didn't even notice. Yeah. But no, you're right. There is that assumption that ...
Kate: Yeah, we all make them every day.
Debbie: And I fall into that. I don't present as a gay woman, so most people don't know that I'm a gay woman. Somebody else say something like, "Oh, she doesn't look gay," I'm like, "Hmm."
Kate: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that's a part of it. Only now, as I've gotten older, I feel like I have the vocabulary to talk about it. Not that I didn't feel comfortable talking about it before. If you listened to talks of me talking five or six years ago, I would say like, "Hey, I'm Kate. I'm not really a girl, but I'm not really a boy." I used to say that kind of thing. I always talked about gender, but I didn't really know the lingo.
Kate: Now I think it's fun and exciting, and it's massively a part of my identity and who I am. I'm happy to talk about it, and I'm happy to just tell people straight to their face, explain something that they might ask me a question about. It doesn't bother me in any way.
Debbie: I'm sorry for those assumptions.
Kate: Oh, it's fine. I think in design ... There's another thing that I always quoted on because Angus pulled it out of a talk I did with Marina where, "I'm not a woman in design." I fucking hate that. It's so gross. Its like ...
Debbie: I am a woman in design, and I hate it.
Kate: Yeah. Right. You're a designer. That's your job. I find that so even more problematic, but yeah.
Debbie: What do you find problematic about it? The tokenism?
Debbie: The separatism?
Kate: Tokenism, 100%. I'm regularly a token, and I'm told it to my face. It's not something that's kept secret. It's like, "Oh, we invited you because we need more women." I'm like, "Cool." I don't identify with being a woman. I guess I'm even more of a token now. I'm the non-binary token. They're like, "Ooh, our diversity figures," or like, "Here are our gender breakdowns. We have 50/50 and a non-binary person." I don't know.
Debbie: Checking a lot of boxes there.
Kate: Yeah, checking all the boxes. But no, it's definitely the tokenism, and it's patronizing, and it classifies people within a skillset when they shouldn't be being classified. They're just that skillset, that's their profession. We don't say that about other things, so we shouldn't say that at all. We should just let people do their jobs. Yeah.
Debbie: Introducing people as vegans or paleo. It's just not part of the conversation.
Kate: No. Exactly.
Debbie: That's also choice, right?
Kate: Yeah. I understand why it happens, and I get invited to talk at women-only events. I understand the need to have spaces for certain conversations, and that's unfortunately that happens, but I'm definitely an advocate for all genders, and for the equality of all genders, irregardless of the binary.
Debbie: Well let's talk a little bit about your upbringing.
Debbie: It's quite interesting.
Kate: Is it?
Debbie: Yes. There's a lot to discuss. I read that by the time you were five years old, your mother was so exhausted by the constant necessity to keep you entertained, she hired art students to come to the house to distract you.
Kate: This is a true story.
Debbie: Tell us about that.
Kate: My mother is very smart, and she realized that hiring babysitters that just put the TV on was not enough. I don't know how, but she would find young people to babysit me who were interested in art or creative things, and they would come and do various bits and pieces with me.
Debbie: Had you already been interested in doing creative things? I understand that you were making things, what you referred to as sticking junk together and pretending it was something else.
Kate: Yeah. Isn't that what we all do?
Debbie: I used to make perfume.
Kate: Oh wow.
Debbie: I used to go and get rose petals, and talcum powder, and I would squish everything together, and I'd make this weird little paste, and then I'd add water.
Kate: That sounds pretty good.
Debbie: It was really fun, but it was kind of goopy.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah, like wallpaper paste.
Kate: That smelled good.
Kate: Pink smelly wallpaper paste.
Kate: I'm a quite insatiable person. I think I always got through a lot, and always needed a project. I still do. I can't do nothing. I think that's just what my mum picked out, and she's quite a creative person. She's not necessarily a creator, but she was always doing things like that. It's like the classic American Idol thing, "I've been singing since I was a child." I've been drawing. Who didn't fucking draw when they were five? Everyone.
Debbie: But your mother told you that if you wanted to be an artist, you had to draw all the time, and that you must always carry a sketchbook with you. First of all, your mother sounds awesome.
Kate: She is. She is awesome. But I don't draw all the time or carry a sketchbook, and I'm not an artist either, so I guess that makes sense.
Debbie: What do you consider yourself?
Kate: A designer. I definitely don't consider myself an artist. I've always felt a bit ... It was almost like the same as the woman thing. When someone calls you an artist, you're a bit like, "[inaudible 00:13:12]." [inaudible 00:13:13].
Debbie: I always feel like it's pretentious.
Kate: It's very pretentious. But don't get me wrong, I have lots of friends who are artists, and I don't consider them pretentious. But you know, I just don't choose it for myself as something I would call myself.
Debbie: Music is a very big part of your background, your childhood. You grew up listening to and coming up with dance routines for the Spice Girls' Say You'll Be There, and you've written about how it might seem embarrassing to admit that you used to spend your time dancing around to the Spice Girls, and homemade polystyrene platform trainers.
Kate: True story.
Debbie: But that this merchandise product of girl power was hugely influential to you.
Kate: Yeah. I think in that context, I was too late for riot grrrl, and post-punk, and DIY empowered music, so being a child of ... I was born in '86. Being a child of the '90s, the closest we were going to get to that was the Spice Girls, if I'm honest, over in London. Yeah, it was huge. It was my everything for like ...
Debbie: Do you still remember the routine?
Kate: Oh, no. I cannot dance, and I don't ... I was Posh Spice, obviously.
Kate: I got to make the platform ...
Debbie: You were Victoria Beckham, right?
Kate: Yeah. We're so alike. I got to make the platform trainers, but I didn't get to wear them. I was a costume designer, but Vicky B. always wore a black dress. Ew. Just the idea of wearing a black dress in heels right now. We should swap outfits.
Debbie: We should. Yeah, that would be fun.
Kate: I don't know how that would work.
Debbie: Well, I'm not wearing heels, but everything else is a little frilly.
Kate: No, but the black dress is very nice. Yeah.
Debbie: It is a little frilly.
Kate: It's nice.
Debbie: You've said that one of the big moments in your life occurred when you were seven. You went to Jewish summer camp, so did I.
Kate: Oh, wow.
Kate: That's amazing.
Debbie: Happy new year, by the way.
Kate: Oh, nice.
Debbie: Tonight is Rosh Hashanah.
Debbie: We both went to Jewish summer camp at seven years old. How did that impact you? My impact was quite different, I am certain.
Kate: Did you have a bad experience?
Debbie: Not really a bad experience. Just an unusual experience that I doubt was ... We went to summer camp because my mother and father were fighting so much, they wanted us out of the house.
Kate: I think that might have been the same.
Kate: I think everyone wants to get rid of their kids for a period of time, at some point, especially when they have three. I mean, there's three of us. We all went to summer camp.
Kate: I don't know. I felt like we live in our lives, especially as young children, going to school, and a lot of our social activities around school, and even if we do outside of school things, often it's the same ages we associate with, and the same kinds of people maybe. Going to a camp where you're with lots of different types of people, I'll be it, within a cultural group like Jewish kids ...
Debbie: Was it orthodox, conservative, or reform?
Kate: No, it was liberal, which like ...
Kate: Okay, liberal is not recognized as Judaism by other Jewish sectors, but for me it wasn't really ... I learned how to play the guitar, we did wide games, and puzzles. It was just an opportunity to find another part of your identity that I don't think you get within academic structures, in a very visceral and expressive way, where you can just meet loads of kids who are older and younger, and you do a lot of leadership. That's, I think, really fundamental, like learning how to lead and teach when you're 14, or 12, and you are responsible for seven year olds, or whatever. I feel like that was a really valuable experience.
Debbie: I was really struck by a story. I believe you wrote about it in your book, Make Your Own Luck, about you at one point sitting on a toilet and looking at your hands.
Debbie: I love that story.
Kate: Do you have the same story?
Debbie: I have a different story, but a similar story, I think.
Kate: Yeah, so for the room, because that sounds really strange, I will clarify.
Debbie: And for our listeners.
Kate: Yes, and for everyone at home who's like, "What the hell is going on?"
Kate: I'm assuming other people had the same feeling, because it's very philosophical feeling, I think. When I used to go for a pee, and I'd sit down, and it was usually in between extensive hours of playing with dolls' house, or Barbies, or something. I would sit there, and I'd look at my hands, and I would go, "I can do or be anything I want." It was this really existential moment where I realized I was in control of my own body, and it was so exciting. It was like an out-of-body experience, but as a young child.
Kate: That was fucking trippy, and it was so cool because I would be like, "I'm going to leave the bathroom, and I'm going to play with my toys." That was as far as I would get, but still just that feeling of knowing yourself, and that excitement of what your potential is, is something that I wish everyone could feel all the time. Obviously, that gets pushed away and squashed as you get older, but I still feel like it's there somewhere in the back of my mind. I treasure it. It's a very valuable feeling to have, for sure.
Debbie: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Kate: That's the toilet hand story.
Debbie: It's a good story.
Kate: It is. Did anyone else ever have ... Yeah. That feeling. Who? Every day? Yes.
Debbie: You do? Wow.
Kate: It's epic.
Debbie: I've been hoping to get back to that feeling. I had one time in the summer between second and third grade.
Kate: Take some drugs. Yeah.
Debbie: I was walking. It was the end of the summer, so it was August, and the light was changing, and it was getting light earlier. I realized I was going into third grade.
Debbie: I felt proud of myself.
Kate: That's so great.
Debbie: I've never felt that way before about anything since, as powerfully as I did that moment.
Kate: Yeah. I think it's a very innocent feeling because it's not based on other peoples' judgment. It's very personal.
Kate: It's great to have connected with it once, or twice, or sometime in your life because I think then you know what it is, and you can maybe recognize it again.
Debbie: It was pure.
Kate: Yeah, it's pure. Exactly. Yeah. It's almost emotional just talking about it. Yeah.
Debbie: I mean, to feel that way about yourself just because of something you're experiencing in your life is really a gift, I think.
Kate: Yeah, like just playing with your dolls' house. I used to because we didn't have Christmas. My dolls' house had Christmas, so that was how I dealt ... You know in every crime show when they deal with kids who were involved in crime, they use a dolls' house to help people deal with it. It's genuinely how I dealt with my entire childhood through my dolls' house.
Kate: We didn't have Christmas, and obviously everyone else at school had Christmas, so I was very upset that I didn't get hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of presents every Christmas. I used to have Christmas for the dolls, and I used to wrap presents in sweet chocolate wrappers, and they would have them in their tree.
Kate: My mum has this story. She has two stories about Christianity that she tells me. It was one when I came down and I said, "Why didn't we have Christmas and everyone else has Christmas?" She was like, "because we're Jewish honey, and that's what we believe." I was quiet inside, and it went away. That's when I decided that my dolls would have Christmas instead, and that was how I deal with that.
Kate: The other one was when we went to a wedding, and the priest was saying, "Lord Jesus Christ." I asked my mom why he was swearing. Yeah. because growing up in a Jewish household, you know nothing. So, when someone says, "Jesus Christ," that's when they stub their toe or something.
Debbie: I didn't understand the notion of Santa.
Kate: Because it's ridiculous.
Debbie: But when I was little ... We had some people come over that were not Jewish during Christmas time, and they were staying with us. I thought that, "Because these Christian people were staying in our house, Santa might come."
Kate: That's great. Did he?
Debbie: I remember laying in my bed, listening.
Kate: That's so cute.
Debbie: Listening for the reindeer steps on my roof thinking, "Santa might come. Santa might come."
Kate: That's so cute. I love that.
Kate: It's always good ... I think growing up, living a slightly different life to the other people in my community definitely gave me a different perspective.
Kate: I think it's always healthy to have other perspectives. But I definitely missed out on those gifts.
Debbie: Well, you've written about how school was an incredibly formative time for you, and that your art teachers introduced you to Apple computers when you were 12, and that they would order the latest design software, and you'd be the first to use it.
Kate: I think order might be a bit of a stretch. I think they illegally downloaded the latest software and gave it to me.
Kate: Like under the table is a DVD of Dreamweaver, slipped under the table.
Kate: Yeah, I was really lucky to have an amazing art department at school which wasn't focused purely on paint and clay. Digital was very much a part of my design education.
Debbie: But you were the designer of the school magazine.
Debbie: You illustrated the cover of the yearbook.
Debbie: You decorated the sets for the school plays and volunteered to do the bubble writing on school posters.
Kate: I didn't have a lot of friends.
Debbie: But that sounds pretty analog actually.
Kate: Yeah, so it was quite analog because it was relatively analog. We could scan images and adjust them in Photoshop, and use [inaudible 00:24:12]. But everything was black and white with a spot color maybe. Yeah, I feel awful for being so retro about everything.
Kate: But yeah, I had a bit of trouble at school because I had a teacher who told me to sit down and give other people a chance.
Debbie: Now you reported that person to the headmistress.
Kate: Yeah, I did.
Debbie: And then they got ...
Kate: I think he got in trouble.
Debbie: Now that wasn't Mr. Hunter.
Kate: No. Mr. Hunter's ...
Debbie: All right, we'll talk about that.
Kate: Oh my gosh. She's done her research. That was someone else who will not be named.
Debbie: Okay, so he got in trouble for doing that. But Mr. Hunter from South Hampstead High School was really important to you.
Kate: Yeah. I think it's important for people to have positive experiences in education, and the impact of that is huge to peoples' futures, obviously. He was just an art teacher that realized I had some enthusiasm. I built my end of year project in Flash, and it was a interactive essay. He just really knew that I was into it, and I used to spend all my time learning. We've stayed in touch.
Debbie: Oh, he must be so proud.
Kate: Yeah. I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe he was glad to see the back of me. I must have been a really annoying student.
Debbie: You say that you were a geek when you were in school. Now what does that mean?
Kate: I say I was a swot, which is different to a geek.
Debbie: What's a swot?
Kate: A swot is someone that sucks up to the teacher.
Debbie: Oh. You were the teacher's pet.
Kate: I was a teacher's pet. A geek is someone that knows things and in-depth knowledge about stuff. I'm not like that at all. I don't know much in ...
Kate: I had another teacher at university who told me something which I now do the opposite of.
Debbie: Which was?
Kate: He said depth not span. It was a pretentious art school. Which is great advice, but I also always like to do the opposite of ... I think about the opposite of other people. I was like, "Why can't I do span? What's wrong with being a generalist?"
Debbie: Yeah, I was told I had to pick one thing.
Kate: Pick one thing.
Debbie: And I couldn't do that.
Kate: I hate that advice. I think it can be really damaging to people in helping them decide on what they want by telling them they have to decide what they want. So yeah.
Debbie: But you said you've not book smart, that you're more of a practical learner.
Debbie: But it seems like you're able to teach yourself things through books.
Kate: Yeah. I wouldn't necessarily say books exclusively, but through asking questions and seeking out answers.
Debbie: Now you first thought you would be an illustrator. You then very quickly broadened your reach when you realized you didn't just have to pick one.
Kate: Yeah, I fell into illustration.
Debbie: How? How does one fall into illustration?
Kate: By drawing pictures. That's a really annoying answer, but that's the truth. I just drew pictures for trade. For a ticket to a show, because I was into the music scene in the UK, or in exchange for something small. I don't know, it was a currency I used to negotiate my community and my peers. I would draw peoples' portraits, and they would then tag me on their Myspace pages. It was all very social mediary, but early, early days. Yeah.
Debbie: You were doing quite a lot of freelance in college. In your book, Make Your Own Luck, you offered this advice, and I think this is great advice just in general for life. You say, "Complete your coursework as best you can. If you can add extra outcomes to a project, do it, even if it is not required. If you're asked to design a poster, do a series. If the brief is to develop a brand identity, sketch out a website and a set of stationary to compliment your work." Do you practice this as well in your life now?
Kate: I think it's a bit out of date.
Kate: Yeah. Well just like ...
Debbie: I mean, just over delivering.
Kate: I just mean in those deliverables. That's the problem with books, they don't age. I talk about sketching out some stationary. Really, who cares about stationary? I mean, lots of designers.
Debbie: I love that you can ask and answer your same questions.
Kate: Yeah, because everyone's thinking it. Like, yeah, I've definitely designed a letterhead. How many of those have actually been printed? Most of the time a mock up.
Debbie: But it's over delivering, that sense of doing more than you're asked.
Kate: Always over delivering.
Kate: Yeah, it can give you a huge advantage, let's say. You have to have make good judgment on how much you do. But it's part of our business model to do that, and that can be a problem sometimes because the client can expect more than what they ask for every time, and sometimes the resources are not necessarily there.
Debbie: Then it could be hard to sustain that.
Kate: Yeah, and it can be. But I think in the right places with the right judgment, it can set you apart from someone else who will do literally the bare minimum. I even had a meeting today with a client who would like, "When we ask you to do something, you do it, and then you do more. And then when we ask other people to do something, say for the same pitch or brief, they'll do just what is required, and no more, and maybe even less than what is required."
Debbie: Why do you think they do that? I mean, I've never understood that. I'm always over delivering, I'm always trying to do more. Mostly not because I want to over deliver, but mostly because I just don't ever think it's enough, or I'm enough, or it's good enough.
Kate: I think it's because so many people can get involved with something that there isn't anyone who is given authorship, or ownership of a project so that people don't care anymore. I think caring and authorship, and ownership are so important in design that if you take that power away from someone, whether it's a colleague, like somebody I employ, or a collaborator, or something, they will do as little as they can to get through because they don't care because you've taken away their powers if you like.
Kate: That's a big part of it, I think. It's a problem in our industry designed by jury, or whatever, when you don't have that relationship with the work, or with the client, or with the process, so you just don't give, and you don't care, and therefore you'll do the thing you're asked to do because that's the contract, and then nothing else.
Debbie: Then generally very little happens after that.
Kate: Yeah, and people become very out of love with what they do, which is a big problem, I think.
Debbie: In 2006, you made your first zine titled Draw Together. You made 30 copies and gave them out. The first 10 came with a badge. You apparently had a badge machine.
Kate: I still have it.
Debbie: You were actually thinking about starting a badge making company.
Kate: Such DIY dreams. I just wanted to be in a punk band, and I wasn't. Yeah, I always had weird ... I bought a lot of technology in my time thinking it will turn into something, and it never has.
Debbie: Badge machines are critical though.
Kate: I know. Look how trendy they are now. No, I think I just liked making things, and designing things. A lot of the time, tools I bought were so that I could design more, and it was a really backwards way of trying to be a designer, like trying to provide a service that meant I could design.
Kate: But yeah, I did, I made some badges. We whip it out for peoples' birthdays, and make badges with their face on and stuff, which can be quite cute. It's not gone to waste, the badge machine.
Debbie: I'd actually love to come to your studio and see that.
Kate: Oh yeah, please come.
Kate: We'll all wear a badge with your face on it.
Kate: I guarantee you.
Debbie: Back in 2007, during your second year in college, you won the big Cadbury's Dairy Milk campaign. How did that happen? I mean, this was a huge thing, a huge billboard, a huge identity, one of the biggest brands in the world.
Kate: I don't really know. Sometimes when a job comes along and I'm like, "Where is this job come from?"
Debbie: But you were in college.
Kate: Yeah, I was 21 maybe. I had been drawings, and had my work in a few magazines, and I'd done some editorial. I was just putting my work out there all the time. I had a website. I probably had a couple websites. An art buyer contacted me. I was actually in New York. I was walking down Spring, and I had a BlackBerry. I was a baller. I was walking down Spring, and I remember getting an email on my BlackBerry, which is insane because it was so long ago, but I wanted to be that guy, you know. I just remember getting it, and reading it, and being like, "Whoa, this could be cool."
Kate: I didn't know about the process that you go through to get a job with a big ad agency or anything. I remember just sending some photos from my phone of drawings I did at the airport. It was so shonky. I don't know how I got the job, but in the end, the art buyer from Fallon, he came to my student apartment.
Debbie: Was it a dorm?
Kate: No, it wasn't a dorm.
Debbie: Could you imagine?
Kate: But still. I had a studio in my house. I'd turn one of my rooms into a study, and it was fully operational. Yeah, he came. He explained everything, and I got the job. I learned how to use Illustrator properly and learned about Pantone color. I threw myself into a very deep chocolate pool of money, and contracts. It was scary. But I really enjoyed it. It's what set me on my way, but all over the UK.
Debbie: I read that the icing on the cake for you was when a massive billboard with your design was erected right outside the university.
Kate: Again, I didn't have many friends.
Debbie: But you said it was a bit grotesque.
Kate: It was.
Debbie: But at least your professors started to take you more seriously. Why didn't your professors take you seriously?
Kate: Because at art school we were taught that commercial design is not design. Everything you do should be with a purpose, image making is bad.
Debbie: Is that still taught?
Kate: I don't know, is it still taught? Maybe, maybe not, don't know. I feel like in my education, it might be changing. But the teachers didn't really understand what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be. I think they felt like they'd like to push people in a more fine art direction. That really wasn't for me.
Debbie: You were paid 30,000 pounds for that job.
Debbie: You used that money to launch a vinyl only record label.
Debbie: Isomorph Records. What made you decide to do that with all that money?
Kate: Well firstly, I'm sure it's the same here, but when you get paid large amounts of money, you have to give a lot of it back to the government.
Kate: What better to do than invest that money, so lose it all basically by starting a record label.
Kate: I really wanted to be a designer, so I was like, "How do I be a designer when everyone thinks I'm an illustrator?" It's still a problem.
Kate: Yeah. I still am my biography from 10 years ago. I will get introduced as Kate Moross that designed a poster for Cadbury and did a collection for Topshop in 2006. Literally, that is still how I'm identified in articles and stuff online. I've tried to fight really hard for being a generalist, or multi-disciplinary person because that's really who I am. I love design, I love film making, I love animation, I love illustration, but I'm not just one thing. That's why I think my school weren't really feeling what I was up to at the time.
Debbie: You created five records with five artists over five years, and this required way more than design skills. You had to learn about manufacturing, distribution. With each release, you collaborated really closely with the artist in order to create a really definitive representation of their sound. In 2008, you were named number 18 in the New Music Express' future 50 innovators driving music forward.
Kate: Yeah, number 18. No, it was funny because I was on the shoot because a band that I had signed to the label were number 10 or something. I was just there, and the photo of me in the magazine is me holding a belt because I was just helping them the styling on the shoot. They just took a photo of me and then shoved me in the magazine.
Kate: Yeah, I really wanted to design records. That's something I wanted to do. No one was hiring me to do that, so I hired myself essentially. That was why I created the label. I still forget that it happened.
Debbie: Well you closed it up.
Debbie: Why did you close it up?
Kate: I don't know if you know how much you know about the music industry, but it's essentially a black hole for money, and time, and enthusiasm.
Debbie: So the 30,000 pounds just went into that black hole.
Kate: Yeah, I wouldn't say I burned it in a pile exclusively on just creating vinyl, but I started getting paid to do that kind of work, which is what I had set myself up to do.
Debbie: So you just invested it in yourself.
Kate: Yeah. I invested in exactly that. I invested in myself, and music that I cared about. I learned a lot in those five years about how important it is to have relationships with musicians that you're working with, and maybe some relationships are better than others, but really understanding your client intimately and almost like as a friend, how important and valuable that can be towards design. I learned a lot during that process.
Debbie: You then got this big project from Topshop. At that point, suddenly everyone wanted a piece of you.
Kate: A tiny bit.
Debbie: You were featured in glossy magazines, design magazines, newspapers. I read that you felt at that point that your reputation was running away from you.
Kate: Yeah, again it was like I feel that in the media, you can be stuck in a moment in time. I felt a little bit like that. I was just a kid. I didn't really know what I wanted to be or do. I know this sounds very privileged because I was obviously having an element of success, but at the same time, I didn't really want to be that person, so I stepped back.
Debbie: You had come to New York for a while.
Kate: Yeah, I came to New York. I skipped my graduation, I came to New York here for three months and just kept my head down.
Kate: It's very easy to get caught up in ... Social climbing isn't the right word, but seeing yourself in a way that's unhealthy, if that's the best way of putting it. As a 20 year old person, I felt myself getting away from myself. I didn't want to be that person. It was a really strange time. People were even offering me TV presenting jobs. It was just weird, it wasn't real, it wasn't about design, and it was about something else, and that something else I felt uncomfortable with so I pushed away from it.
Debbie: That's pretty remarkable. I spend a lot of time talking to people about what they want with their lives, and what they think they want, and I ask a lot of kids what they want to be when they grow up. I'm endlessly fascinated by peoples' hopes, and a lot of people now say, "Famous."
Kate: Yeah, I always said as a kid, "I don't want to be famous, I want to be well known." I guess that's what I continued to live by, is fame is nothing. It's not real. Being well known for what you do is different, and I just felt like that ... I was nowhere near being famous, by any means.
Debbie: Well, you were certainly quite successful at a very young age, in a very, very hard industry.
Kate: I was in a flash in a moment of time that people ... I was everywhere, and people can also be like, "Ugh, gross. I don't want to see that anymore." Also, that was scary. But yeah, that was my choice. Then I came back and ever since, I've lived ... I mean, you wouldn't believe it, but I have lived under the radar in my loud clothes and voice.
Debbie: Talk about working with One Direction.
Kate: Oh, dear. Yeah, that was an amazing project. I was ...
Debbie: Did you really paint the stage by yourself because it was the wrong color blue? Please share this.
Kate: It was yellow, and the lines didn't match up. Yes, I did paint it myself.
Kate: Lee Lodge, who is a legend. He's a creative director, creative producer, team maker, he works in TV and music. He called my agent and said that he was looking for someone to work with the boys on a tour. I met with their management, and I eventually ... I was actually here in New York on a trip, and they flew me over to Houston. I went and saw the existing tour and developed a creative relationship with the band and the managers. They literally just let me do whatever I wanted.
Kate: I'm not going to say no to that opportunity to express myself on a level that is unimaginable, with a really fun and great team of people. I got to fly all over the world and have some amazing times, including painting the stage, because one half of the stage was made in the U.S., and the other half was made in the UK, and they ...
Kate: Don't ask. It just was.
Debbie: I was reading this and I'm like, "How did that happened?"
Kate: Yeah, they flew them both there to Australia. The first show was in Sydney, and they built it all out. Then when it was down, I was like, this is an inch out, and it was someone had measured from the wrong point or whatever it was. But I was just on the stage. It was black on the stage, no lights, because we were in an outdoor stadium, and I had a little light. Niall comes past, he's like, "All right, Kate." I'm like, "Yeah, just painting the stage on my own. One o'clock in the morning."
Debbie: And he didn't offer to help?
Kate: He did. He did offer to help. Of course, I didn't take it. He was just like, "Yeah, can I give you a hand?" Yeah, yeah.
Debbie: I'm good. I'm good.
Kate: No, I'm all right. I'm good, I'm good. I'm good, I'm just keep going. No, they're lovely. It was a great experience and I learned so much. I got to do something I thought I'd never do. I worked on one of the biggest tours in the world, so I loved every minute of it.
Debbie: You've worked quite extensively with Jessie Ware.
Kate: Yeah. Jessie was my first pop star that I worked with, and she was amazing. I met her in a café, which I actually then rebranded that café, weirdly, a few years later. Things come around in circles. Yeah, she said to me, "I want to look like an expensive box of chocolates. That's what I want my brand to be." I was like, "You are the best client ever because you actually know what you want." Then we worked on her first album together.
Kate: Sadly, even if you developed a good friendship with an artist, you can't guarantee if you can continue working with them. I didn't work on the second or third record, but we're still friends.
Debbie: Even though you misspelled her name in the presentation.
Kate: Yeah, always check. It still happens. because obvious a huge proportion of my team are dyslexic, so there are typos flying all over the place, like the client like, "We have done it again." Since then, I did not learn my lesson. But now we check the artist name is spelled correctly when we send presentations out.
Debbie: Last year you did two extraordinary projects. You worked on the MTV Music Video Awards, and you also did an extraordinary installation for Refinery29.
Debbie: That was beautiful.
Kate: Oh, thank you. Yeah, the VMAs were here in Midtown at Madison Square Garden, and that was also an enormous contract for me and my studio. I flew my whole studio here.
Debbie: I know.
Kate: Yeah, I did all the broadcast design, which is a new area that work a lot, and I really enjoy. It was really good fun. Then Refinery29 project, they had quite a specific idea of what they wanted to create. We collaborated a little bi, but in a way, it was really their vision, and I brought my part to it.
Debbie: Well you did 29 rooms. Can you tell people what ...
Kate: I didn't do all of them.
Debbie: Oh, you did one of them?
Kate: Thankfully I just did one.
Debbie: Well with you, I would have expected you built that house.
Kate: I know, why didn't they ask me to do all of them? I would have totally risen to the occasion.
Kate: No, I just did one. But it was the Pride room, which is obviously something that's important to me. I think it was one of the most Instagrammed rooms in the event.
Debbie: Now after all of this extraordinary work that you've been doing for the last 10 years, you've stated that you don't conform to what most people think of what a graphic designer should be. What do you think most people think a graphic designer should be?
Kate: I don't want to say that because I'm then saying what I think is ...
Debbie: The prisoner's dilemma.
Kate: Yeah. Exactly. But ...
Debbie: Why don't you think you conform? Aside from non-conformity in presentation.
Kate: Yeah, apart from that. Yeah, I don't know. I feel like there is a stereotype of what a designer is, or how they should work. I don't mean it in terms of my style, my creative output. I mean in terms of my approach, in terms of how I talk to my clients, in terms of how I approach or how I express my opinion. I feel like there is this idea that designers are the authority, or they feel like they know better than anyone else.
Kate: I don't, and I never want to feel like I'm that person, and I never want to encourage people to think they know better than everyone else. I'm more of a listener and a collaborator than I am an ... I like to take away all pedestals, and the smoke and the mirrors out of this industry, and make it much more real, and just about people making things together.
Debbie: You're in a position now where you can pick the projects that you want to work on versus what you feel obliged to do. Have you always been that way?
Kate: I think so. I think I've never felt obliged. Occasionally, only because I'm a goody two shoes, do I do things because I don't want to let somebody down, or I feel like if I got introduced to somebody, that I should do this work because it'd be polite. That's my biggest problem, really, is just being a bit too British about things. Being like, "Oh, absolutely. I'd love to help you. How can I ..." You know.
Debbie: Meanwhile you're thinking, "What have I done?"
Kate: Yeah. I do that a lot, but sometimes that can put me in bad places, but sometimes it can be really fun too.
Kate: We are really lucky as a team. I mean, I've talked a little bit about myself because I'm here, but so much of everything that I do and have done for the last four and a half, five years since I started the studio has been with a group of people.
Debbie: How many people do you have?
Kate: Twelve now.
Debbie: That's a big staff.
Debbie: That's a lot of payroll.
Kate: Yeah. It's grown quite quickly in the last six months.
Debbie: Do you feel that you're able to keep the Kate Moross type culture that you're ...
Kate: Oh yeah, it's growing all the time. What's so exciting is that people are contributing.
Kate: I had an internship from Hyper Island. Two students came from Hyper in Sweden. They actually invited me to talk at their school, so I went to Sweden and I did some workshops there. Then I got on so well with them that I invited them to come and do some time with us in London, and they came. They worked with me for three months, and then I couldn't let them go, so they basically just joined the team.
Kate: But during that process, they wrote a PDF about their experience for their teachers. When I was reading it, it said, "It would be really nice if we had a coffee break in the afternoon, because it can get a bit intense." In Sweden, you have fika, where you relax, and talk, and let go for a minute. We now have fika at work. We've brought it into our life. Every day at 4:30, we have a 20 minute to half an hour moment where everyone just steps away and has a minute to relax, I guess.
Debbie: That's wonderful.
Debbie: You were asked about what kind of advice you would give to young people starting out, and this is what you say, "It would be, don't listen to the man, but take this point onboard. Talk to your peers and take them just as seriously as your teachers, and most importantly, don't be afraid of approaching people and offering your services. You won't get any work waiting around for the phone to ring. It's about making that phone call yourself."
Kate: Oh, yeah. That's still true.
Debbie: I tell this to all my students. I have students in the audience. They're nodding their heads vigorously. If you want something, you have to ask, you have to try to take it and make it for yourself.
Kate: That's why I called the book that awful title.
Debbie: Make Your Own Luck. Why do you think it's an awful title?
Kate: because it's the name of about 5,000 other self-help books. It's not a very original name. It doesn't really ...
Debbie: But it is a really original book because it is so straightforward.
Kate: Thank you.
Debbie: You say what you mean, you mean what you say. Everything you say has a purpose. It's all about really being good in the world.
Kate: Yeah. I really think that in a very capitalist patriarchal world that we're in, even more so than any other time, that you have to listen to your inner voice, and not just listen to what you're told. You need to seek information around you, not just listening to what someone's telling you from up there. That's so important.
Kate: That's why I wanted to write the book because so many people reached out to me for advice, and it's hard to tell everyone everything. That's why you write books, right? To tell people things, a lot of people the same thing at once. It's really simple. Yeah, that's why I wrote the book. Then I had to put work in it for it to sell. If it was just words, I don't think I would have got a book deal, but yeah.
Debbie: I understand that one of your ambitions for the future is to make an action movie.
Kate: I think that has sailed, unfortunately.
Debbie: You don't want to do that anymore?
Kate: No, I'm over live action. Maybe like a cartoon action movie. I don't know, I really just wanted to cast Bruce Willis in something so we could hang out. That's the truth.
Kate: I don't know, I love action movies. I guess that was a flash in the pa ... I have a lot of those.
Debbie: Flash in the pan.
Debbie: What are your current ambitions for the future?
Kate: I'm trying to further my studio, and I'm trying to do that whilst focusing on well-being, and making sure that people have what they need. Then I'm also really just getting stuck into all of the issues that we have in our industry and trying to change them. I'm sure everyone here understands what those problems are. It's systemic across many, many industries and structures. In a small way, I'm just trying to do what I can in the way that I can do it. A lot of that is just by doing and talking about it, like being at places like this.
Debbie: My last question is a pretty simple one. What would you like to be better at?
Debbie: Fair enough.
Kate: I know that's not grammatically correct, is it? I'd like to be more ...
Debbie: Sounds good to me.
Kate: I'd like to be more patient. I'm very impatient, and I don't think that's a very good trait. It's got me far, but I wouldn't say it's a ... I would say it's quite an annoying thing to be, impatient.
Debbie: It sounds to me that you were probably born that way.
Kate: Yes. In the words of Lady Gaga.
Debbie: Always good to end with a Lady Gaga quote. I don't know about you, but you can't really top that.
Kate: I think what I've realized is that it's important to be your true authentic self, and sometimes it takes people longer to get there than others, but grab onto it and ride it because you ain't got any other self to be other than who you really are. I did not listen to all those people who said to me, "You couldn't be a gender non-conforming weirdo with a shaved head and tattoos and make it in an industry." Whatever something somebody said to me that I couldn't do, I just was like, "Blah, don't care."
Kate: I don't necessarily think that everyone has the facilities to block that out, so I like to try and come to things like this and talk to people to make them realize that they can. Or talk to them and be like high fiving them because they did one of those two things.
Debbie: Thank you so much for being on Design Matters. It has just been extraordinary to talk with you.
Kate: Thanks for having me.
Debbie: Thank you, everybody. Thank you, Shutterstock. Thank you to the D&AD Festival for having us here today.