Agnieszka Gasparska: Kiss Me I’m Polish
by Kate Andrews | September 22, 2009
Agnieszka Gasparska at her KMIP storefront HQ
(Photo: Andrea Brizzi – www.andreabrizzi.com)
Agnieszka Gasparska is the Creative Director and founder of design firm Kiss Me I’m Polish. Her clients include GOOD, Thrillist, Refinery29, Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame and many others that you have heard of. She is speaking at AIGA’s MAKE / THINK conference in Memphis this October on the topic of Art Direction on the web.
I approached Agnieszka after seeing that she designed the Deitch site, a gallery of which I’m a fan. A few email exchanges and chats later and I’ve met a sincere, smart and accomplished designer with good ideas and the creativity and savvy to sell them. Out of her East Village storefront studio in New York she has built an impressive client list, but she is really just getting started as a firm so it is exciting to imagine what is still to come. Our exchanges follow:
NoD: What gig was a turning point for you as a professional designer?
Agnieszka Gasparska: Coming out of school [ at Cooper Union ] and starting out at a place like Funny Garbage (where I stayed for 5 years) taught me invaluable things about working as a designer in the real world. I could have never started my own business without that sort of professional experience. But at the same time, I feel that my career would never have taken the trajectory it has if it wasn’t for the freelance opportunities I had during that time, which were ultimately the reason I decided to strike out on my own. My collaborations with Fischerspooner for example, allowed me to experiment and explore my design sensibilities in ways that the responsibilities of my full-time job did not. That sort of openness and creativity is still something I strive for in the work we do at the studio today. Now that my own independent endeavors have matured into yet another full-time job, I really try to remember how it started.
NoD: You are speaking on the topic of Art Direction on the Web at the MAKE /THINK AIGA design conference in Memphis in October. How is Art Direction on the Web different than art direction off the web?
Agnieszka: In many ways, they are the same – I really believe that a smart designer should be able to jump across medium lines pretty comfortably, as long as the core differences between the design problems are part of the creative process. One of the key things that distinguishes art direction on the web from that in print, is that online you wind up with a lot of moving parts that you cannot fully control. It’s a living, breathing thing and most of the dynamically-published content cannot be fully art-directed every time it is released. So you wind up focusing most of the creative effort on designing a great container that carries this content. And while it is this container that embodies a lot of the design identity of the site itself, it is also important for it to not overpower the actual content, but compliment it. That balance is very important in web design.
Design something too generic and your website completely lacks a voice and personality and all of the content suffers from the side effects of that too. Design something too overbearing and pushy from a design perspective and you wind up bullying the message and the information aside.
NoD: You are originally from Poland and, as we discussed, you and your family moved to Queens, NYC two years before the Solidarity candidate won the election. In other words, you and your family fled Communist Poland. Having lived there until you were 11 years old, do you feel that life there has influenced your design aesthetic?
Agnieszka: What I always notice while I’m there is the striking juxtaposition between the rigid and the decorative. In so many instances you will see something very cold and structured not only co-existing but being complemented by something very warm and hand-made. I think that has had a strong impact on my aesthetic and is probably visible in most of my work.
NoD: Care to share any other details of your upbringing and family life? Did anyone in your family work in a creative field?
Agnieszka: I do think there is some sort of a creative vein in my family, but we also have had a lot of engineers and scientists as well. My mom is a structural engineer and my dad, while he really wanted to study art when he was young, ultimately went into architecture as it was deemed more practical by his parents. So in that sense I feel like the tendency for problem-solving – be it visual or mathematical – is a pretty strong element of my own personal foundation.
NoD: What design work are you most proud of?
Agnieszka: That’s like asking a parent who their favorite child is! The projects that stick out in my mind are those where I surprised myself. As a designer, you are constantly being asked to leave your comfort zone – which is especially true when you run your own studio. And that is where a lot of stress and anxiety comes from. So when you feel that you have not only met the challenge but that something magical happened in the process and you exceeded your own expectations, that’s the best feeling.
NoD: Problem-solving has been a recurring theme in our exchanges. In reference to both your upbringing and to your studies at Cooper Union you seem to note a passion for problem solving that is as strong as your passion for design. Any examples of those moments when your problem-solving urge was as satisfied as your design urge? Moment’s where it all seemed to come together.
Agnieszka: Well…two examples come to mind. While working on the GOOD.is website redesign, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to display the various blog posts in the main body of the content-heavy landing pages. We really wanted a way that one could scan down the page and be able to quickly distinguish between posts based on the amount of discussion they sparked or by the amount of votes they received. Over several sketches emerged the idea of the colorful tab stickers that sit atop each post module indicating the number of comments and/or GOOD marks a post has received.
The concept for these was that they would also grow in width depending on the value so that posts with more response would have wider stickers than those with just a handful, hence making browsing down a page even easier. (Similarly for posts highlighting upcoming events, a green sticker would display the number of RSVP’d guests, and for posts touting a project with a call for entries, a yellow sticker would indicate the number of entries.) Unfortunately, this dynamic change in sticker size has not yet been implemented on the live site, but I hope that it still will be, cause it was one of my favorite details.
NoD: Love this. Nice visual solution to communicate the energy of the site. And the Goodmark concept is great. Similar to the Facebook thumbs-up “like”. Smart to allow people in social media the option to just raise their hand to share their opinion rather than make them metaphorically stand up in class and talk.
There was one other design solution you offered to share.
Agnieszka: Yes. When we were hired to design the interactive kiosks for the Nesuhi Ertegun Hall of Fame, the central attraction of the Hall of Fame space were these beautiful videos commemorating each of the Hall of Fame artists (created by OPEN). Each video was created to play on a custom screen – made up of 2 x 6 individual monitors. The grid these monitors established was something that OPEN used as a core design element and framework in their videos – they didn’t fight it or try and pretend it wasn’t there, instead, the individual panels are an integral part of each animation.
When we begun the design process of the kiosks, we wanted to create something that would truly complement the videos since the kiosks were meant to offer supplementary content to visitors to the space.
Since the grid the monitors made in physical life was not something that was an issue on a computer screen, we initially explored a variety of options for how the screens could look and behave. The playing field was wide open. However, we kept coming back to that grid and ultimately wound up intentionally breaking up the screen into compartments reminiscent of the videos, which proved the ideal framework for the complex information each artist screen was going to display. Instead of treating it as an obstacle, the compartments gave us a natural way to not only compliment the look & feel of the videos but also architect a visual structure that could play a broad amount of visual elements.
The point? That setting up rules can be a good thing. Something that may seem like a hurdle can also be a great jumping-off point.
NoD: That’s very interesting. I think this is related to your comment regarding the objective in web design of “creating a great container.” That’s resonating with me. Have you ever designed a great container for a client and they did not share your vision. Or, phrased differently, any nightmare clients you can share. You can change the names of course.
Agnieszka: A nightmare client is someone who comes to you for your experience and expertise but cannot actually let go because they feel they can do it better themselves. But we’ve been pretty lucky to have avoided any major horror shows. Those client situations that have turned into less than ideal scenarios tend to be minor in the grand scheme of things – your typical woes like scope creep or poor communication skills or overbearing and unreasonable expectations are also true for anyone in any line of work. Those types of issues are problematic everywhere.
NoD: So true.
Conversely, who are your dream clients?
Agnieszka: The best experiences are ones that involve taking a chance and a leap of faith – on both sides. A client who sees your potential, believes in it and lets you run with it, leaving the playing field open for ideas. And you as the designer, being challenged – with the bar being set just high enough, so the experience will make you try new things and take your game to the next level. Having that sort of openness makes some great things happen, and inevitably the project may take on other forms that you were not even aware of when you started.
NoD: At Kiss Me I’m Polish, do you have full-time staff or do you assemble teams based upon the projects you land?
Agnieszka: It’s a little of both actually. We have a core staff of designers who work in the office, but we also build on our team for certain projects, be it due to the size of the job or because it requires some particular supporting expertise. Over the years, we’ve established many relationships with other small firms and freelancers so when we need more hands on deck, or hands with skills that our core team doesn’t have, we have a network of partners we can call on.
NoD: Can you tell me about the KMIP studio space? Can we show some photos?!
Kiss Me I’m Polish storefront studio in the East Village, New York City
(Photo: Andrea Brizzi – www.andreabrizzi.com)
Agnieszka: Our headquarters is located in an old storefront in the East Village. The space used to be a jewelry store and before that I believe that someone lived here. There was actually a shower in the back room under the sleeping loft (which we now use for storage).
I love being in a storefront. We get a lot of nice sunlight, and don’t have to take an elevator to get in and out. But we do keep the windows frosted so as to keep the walk-in traffic to a minimum or else we wouldn’t get any work done.
I guess if things ever do get tight, we can always sell Polish delicacies here without having to rebrand. 😉
NoD: A lot of agencies specialize in some vertical or niche market. Other than your back-up plan for selling Polish delicacies, it appears that perhaps database driven content management sites that leave the client the ability to self-manage might be a trend for KMIP. So, hmmm, where is my question…ok…do you have a reputation of expertise that meets a specific type of client’s needs? OR, what are your ideal clients?
Agnieszka: A large part of our client work is in fact web-based, but a significant part of the reason I founded the studio is to be able to keep the definition of what we do pretty fluid. That’s still something that’s very important to me, hence we never shy away from new opportunities or jobs of the variety that may not already be in our portfolio. Having versatility not only keeps all of your muscles working but it also develops the strength of your team.
That said, yes, a large part of our current and recent projects has focused on the visual design of large, dynamic websites, but the reason we took these on was because the core problem to solve was a design problem.
NoD: Agreed. Technology follows the design, not the other way around, otherwise the inmates are running the asylum.
Where do you find design inspiration Agnieszka?
Agnieszka: Hmmm…. Honestly, anywhere and everywhere. It really depends what I’m looking for on a given day. Sometimes it will be some obscure candy wrapper or place mat I picked up somewhere. (I have boxes and boxes of crap I’ve gathered over the years). But sometimes it’s as simple as doing a Google image search for something pretty simple, and you get a wealth of images that get your wheels turning.
NoD: Do you have any personal creative projects that you’d like to share?
Agnieszka: Unfortunately at this particular moment a lot of my personal projects are made up of scribbled ideas and to-do lists in my sketchbook. But I am actually putting a yard sale together – that’s a project! I’ve never had one before and I’m very excited at the prospect of sorting through and de-cluttering all of my stuff. I have a lot of collections of silly things that I hope to make something more organized of someday, so it will be nice to do a little Fall weeding and have some more room.
NoD: What are some of your collections?
Agnieszka: Oh, I’ve got a slight case of pack-rat-itis actually.
It can be anything from vintage calculators or things with hearts on them, to security envelopes or chopstick wrappers. I also recently inherited my grandfather’s collection of old keys. I think the common thread is that all of those things inspire me visually in some way.
Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.