Kati Forner is a Los Angeles based designer, with over 10 years of experience in print, digital, and production. After studying classical design and form at Arizona State University, Kati began her professional career in Chicago working with several design agencies. Three years ago, Kati brought her studio to Los Angeles where she is currently accepting new design opportunities.
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance designer.
I started in college, studying Graphic Design at Arizona State. The program director was originally from Basel School of Design, so the curriculum was focused more on traditional design principles and less on learning the actual software needed for design execution. This principle-based structure played a huge role in me finding my design voice, and not always relying on the computer to find visual solutions.
A couple weeks after graduation I packed up, moved to Chicago, and began working at larger agencies with mostly stale corporate clients. It took me about 6 years to realize that wasn't for me. Between that and the rough Chicago winters, I made the decision to move to Los Angeles, where I wanted to work with smaller studios. I spent my first few years at a couple different shops. When you do not have the luxury of support staff, like say at a big agency, everyone has to wear many hats. That is honestly where I learned a lot about the business side of running a studio.
To be completely transparent, I had a bad experience with one studio that honestly pushed me to want to start my own thing. I didn't have a set plan, but I knew I could not carry on with the way things were. So, I took the leap completely unprepared. I was terrified. But, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made and I wish I would have done it sooner. However, my experience with large and small studios was crucial to getting me to where I am at now.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
With the quick decision to go out on my own, and with no plan in place, I had zero clients lined up. Not the smartest move, but it forced me to hustle. I reached out to businesses I wanted to design for and started putting my work out into the world, sharing on Behance and Instagram (something I had never done before). I gradually began to build up my portfolio with the few projects I was taking in, and those started to attract other like-minded clients.
I also consciously made the time to photograph and art direct every finished project, working on photoshoots with my partner, TJ Tambellini. I think this played a huge role in attracting new, interesting clients.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
I try to stick to a schedule throughout the week. As a personal rule I try to take all meetings between 9:00-11:00, and then I can focus on concepting and design until I stop for the day. But having that uninterrupted design time is crucial to my personal process.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
Definitely work/life balance. I truly love and am passionate about what I do. Because of that, I have a hard time taking breaks and saying no. For the first year or so I worked almost every weekend and 10-13 hour days. Not the greatest for my mental health, and it started to affect not only my work but my personal relationships as well. I'm still working on this, but I have learned the importance of, and am getting better at, setting boundaries and taking breaks. Obtaining more of that balance is a big goal of mine in 2018.
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
Coming from the 9 to 5 world, the flexible freelance work schedule is obviously a perk. But as I mentioned before, in the beginning I felt like I was more strict with my schedule than if I was working at an agency. Over the last few months I’ve learned to embrace my situation more and allow myself more flexibility.
I also love the ability to choose the projects I'm passionate about and truly excited to bring to life, something I wasn’t able to do at first. Being able to work with more creative, artisanal brands has been so refreshing, especially thinking back to my more corporate agency days.
In addition, I am lucky enough to work with a majority of women business owners. Being able to play a small part in bringing their vision to life has been a super rewarding part of going out on my own.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
When you take on jobs that you are passionate about the final work shows. Then our portfolio resonates with other similar like-minded clients.
I also mentioned this before, but art directed photoshoots of finished collateral is an important investment. I know there are great mockups out there... but it makes for a much stronger presentation when you show the identity the way that you’ve intended it to be seen. Whether it's detail shots of the textured paper, or a custom sticker you created to seal an envelope, you made all of those decisions for a reason and when potential clients see these details it makes them want something equally as thoughtful. Working with you becomes even more appealing to them.
Tell us about the biggest creative risk you’ve taken in your career and what you learned from it.
So far, taking the leap to start my own studio. I'm overly cautious in life so risk-taking doesn't come easy to me. However, I am planning to make some exciting changes this year so stay tuned!
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
I use Harvest to keep track of my invoices, payments, and expenses. It's super useful and connects to Quickbooks seamlessly. I use Asana for scheduling and project management. I have also recently brought on a Producer to assist with larger projects so I can focus more on design and less on the project admin tasks.
How do you whet your creative appetite?
Stepping away from the computer and looking for inspiration outside of graphic design always works for me. To be able to understand what makes good composition and harmony not only in graphic design but also in architecture, interior design, music, cinema, photography, etc., makes for a well-rounded creative in my opinion.
In addition, my partner is a photographer and musician with great taste (if I do say so myself :-)) so he is always exposing me to new and interesting things that I most likely would not find on my own.
And not to sound too cliche but travel is the absolute best thing to stir up creativity. In general, exposing myself to different and new perspectives always inspires.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
I know this is something that I still need to work on. However, setting boundaries and passing on projects I'm not passionate about has been working for me. In the beginning I basically took on every project that came my way and worked crazy hours in order to meet unrealistic deadlines. Burnout quickly set in; it's impossible to be creative and produce your best work when you're mentally exhausted. I made some changes last year including taking on fewer projects at a time, trying to work as little as possible during the weekends and keeping that time for myself. This has helped a ton.
Any special projects you are looking forward to?
I am working with a super amazing actress/model who is creating an equally as incredible lifestyle brand and I'm also working on the branding for a few fashion and beauty brands that I'm excited to share soon!
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Crazy strong work ethic.
Passion for what you do.
Having a point of view.