Today we’d like to introduce you to Helen Kim.
Helen, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I went to UCLA Art School, and I remember sitting in my cap and gown during the graduation ceremony with the sinking feeling that I had no marketable skills. I mean, I learned things that were so pivotal to who I am as a creative and I’m grateful for my education. But it’s also a fact that what I learned in school wasn’t going to translate into dollars in my bank account. Thankfully, a friend got me a job at SoCalGas as part of a team that formatted and standardized procedural documents for field employees. One day at a team meeting, my manager asked, “Does anybody know how to draw?” He wanted someone to come up with a logo for team jackets. I raised my hand, designed my first logo and soon found myself creating intranet microsites for various engineering teams. There were a lot of requests for Star Trek-inspired designs!
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
No, I wouldn’t say things have been easy! After SoCalGas, I worked as a web designer for a small start-up that went belly-up. This was the early 2000s when the market was really, really tough, so I had a hard time getting hired anywhere. I thought perhaps this was an opportunity to think outside the box, so I created a graphics-based line of casual innerwear and loungewear called NahNuh. Sounds like an obvious next step after unemployment, no?
I managed to sell my designs online and in some boutiques, and even got myself a rep in a Downtown showroom. This was all really great first-hand experience in creating, establishing and reinforcing a brand. Unfortunately, I lacked business acumen and had to close up shop around 2010. It was a really painful experience and my greatest failure to date, but I wear that as a badge of honor. I think it’s important to acknowledge our failures as failures rather than label them merely as “experiences,” “learning opportunities” or “part of the journey.” Our failures are all of these things, of course. At the same time, a vision or goal was not realized. Lack of experience, shortcomings and/or mistakes had consequences. It’s painful and humbling but it’s immensely important to honestly look at these things and learn from them. It’s also vital to understand that failures are a natural part of life. I went through a grieving process after closing NahNuh. But life continued. The sun still came up the next day. I went outside and no one jeered and laughed. I discovered new hopes and dreams. As a result of processing my failure, I learned to be less fearful of future failures and to make bold choices that are informed by past experiences. Long story short, NahNuh allowed me to transition into full-time brand identity and design work, which I’ve been doing as a freelancer for about 15 years.
We’d love to hear more about your business.
The Think Farm specializes in branding, design and related consultation for local businesses, non-profits and cultural and government organizations. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a diverse host of clients, from real estate agents to museums, from an inventor in the beauty sector to the City of Santa Monica.
I love design but I value empathy and human connection more. I always try to position design to serve empathy and connection, and I think people can really sense that. I want clients to know that I’m on their team. I do my research and figure out the scope of the project as well as the capacity of my client before the development and design process. This way, I know what I provide is going to serve my client, rather than overwhelm them or feel disconnected from their day-to-day. Not all amazing designers are good project managers or sounding boards. My strengths happen to be in project management and consultation in addition to the actual concept development and design, and I love that I have these additional skills that help clients realize their vision in a strategic yet accessible way.
An important lesson I’ve learned over the years is that I can’t be all things to all people. In order to provide quality service, I need to ensure there is good chemistry and aesthetic alignment between myself and the client. This doesn’t mean my client and I have to have the exact same personality or taste or that I just stick to what’s comfortable. It means I “get” them on some significant level that’s going to let me breathe life into their vision authentically. The Think Farm’s intake process helps suss this out. If the initial dialogue shows that we aren’t a good match, I’m comfortable with the fact that they’ll be able to find another designer who is—there are so many great designers with diverse points of view in our city.
What were you like growing up?
I grew up in LA. I was a wide open and excitable kid so my mind was constantly being blown, usually by really banal stuff. My mom once showed me how to make giant flowers out of colorful tissue paper—mind blown. Some kid hacked an uncooked packet of instant ramen into a crunchy snack—mind blown. A friend showed me how you could shrink potato chip bags in the oven—mind blown! It was a great way to be as a kid. I was always trying to figure out ways to incorporate the latest thing that blew my mind into my own experience. I think that’s how I learned to make connections between apparently disparate things and navigate my bicultural life as a Korean American. It’s how I learned to process and make sense of the world, which is basically what creativity is all about.
- Website: thethinkfarm.com
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: thethinkfarm
Helen Kim photo: John Florance / ‘Dreamscapes’ installation photo: Stacy Keck / All other images: The Think Farm