Do-Hee Kim is a San Francisco based freelance designer and art director who specializes in creating beautiful, useable, and scalable design solutions for passionate clients. She recently partnered up with Jess Levitz to launch Shoppe Theory, a collaborative design studio specializing in brand identity development and web design for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail brands. We love her commitment to personal projects and can not wait to see what she creates next.
Tell us about your path to becoming a freelance designer and art director.
10 years ago, I could not have predicted I’d be a designer, let alone have my own creative studio. I went to college with law school in mind and never even dreamt of a creative career. Dartmouth didn’t even have a design program! I was a History major and decided to take art classes on a whim to balance my writing and reading-heavy class load. My studio art classes engaged me in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and I think I knew pretty early on that a creative practice was something that was going to be a part of my life from thereon out.
Lore has it that I woke up one morning and told my then boyfriend (now husband), “I’m going to be a designer!” and the rest is history (?) I certainly didn’t know what being a designer meant, but for whatever reason, my 21-year old brain thought it was the right combination of research, and visual and analytical problem solving. I had tinkered around on photoshop for years, and naively thinking that was enough, I put out ads in New Hampshire-Vermont Craigslist to get my first design gigs. I taught myself InDesign, learned Illustrator from my younger brother, read every design book in our college library, and quickly built a semblance of a portfolio. I cringe when I think about my work from those early days, but I gotta say I admire the chutzpah.
After college, I moved to the Bay Area, and after 4 years designing in the start-up scene, I was feeling burnt out and creatively stifled. I knew it was time for a change and and without much of a plan, just decided to give myself a year to try out full-time freelance life, with the back-up plan of going back to a “regular job” if I couldn’t make it work. Little did I know self-employment would not be any easier hahaha, but that year zipped by, and here I am nearly 3 years later, having started a design studio, Shoppe Theory, along the way -- but more on that later.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
As I was planning to leave my full-time job, I updated my long-neglected portfolio to showcase my in-house work along with personal projects. Honestly, I didn’t have that much to show, but I tried to make the most of it and show it in a way that felt “ like me” in the writing and layout, color, and typography choices, which I think helped attract those clients that were a good fit early on. I didn’t do much more than that in terms of trying to get clients.
I’ve always been terrible at marketing myself as a designer, but welcomed opportunities that came my way even if I had no idea what I was doing, and always worked hard to do my best. In some ways, I think my lack of “marketing” has helped me connect with people on a personal level first, which has then led to valuable client relationships and referrals based on respect and trust.
I feel fortunate to have had good clients from early on in my freelance career through referrals and I’m extremely grateful to those few people who took a chance on me early on in my freelance life and continue to connect us to others. Without them, my business would not be where it is today!
TLDR: Do good work with good people. Keep it real. Share your work.
You recently joined forces with Jess Levitz to launch Shoppe Theory, congrats! Can you tell us more about the motivation behind this collaboration?
Last year, Jess and I launched Shoppe Theory, our collaborative design studio specializing in brand identity development and web design for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail brands.
Jess and I met at our last full-time jobs (I actually applied for the position because I specifically wanted to work with Jess!) and learned that we worked really well together. We kept in touch as Jess embarked to pursue her freelance career and worked on a couple of projects together here and there as I continued to work my full-time job.
As I started my freelance career, we started discussing the possibility of working together in a more official capacity. We asked ourselves, what if we could combine our complementary skills/interests in identity design, web design and art direction to offer clients a holistic design experience? We also saw an opportunity to carve out a niche in the design space catering specifically to retail clients, offering not only our creative skills, but also the knowledge and understanding of retail clients’ needs we had gained from working in-house at retail startups. It all seemed to make sense! Plus, Jess and I wanted to create a space apart from our independent design practices where we could bring in collaborators like illustrators, copywriters, photographers and developers, and saw Shoppe Theory as an entity to facilitate such creative collaborations.
What do you love about working within a partnership?
Having another set of eyes and brains to work through a problem. Whether I’m working through a design concept, trying to decide how to respond to a client, or working on a proposal, I often go to Jess for a second opinion. Her input and perspective often get my wheels turning when I’m feeling stuck.
Do you have any advice for handling communication as a partnership that works together from different states? Are there any tools that you use to make this easier?
Communicate openly and often. The time difference and distance has not really been an issue for us thanks to tools like slack which help us feel like we’re in the same office and always within reach. We also check-in via phone every morning as a team with our awesome admin guru, Olivia, to go over our game plans for the day, and share a single email address which helps us stay on the same page with client emails and inquiries.
Have you and Jess put any boundaries in place to separate your working relationship from your friend relationship?
Jess and I were co-workers before we were friends, so I think the boundaries between our professional and personal lives were there from beginning. Having said this, when you work together for years and run a business together, the line between work and life is almost nonexistent haha, but I think we both try to maintain a little bit of separation to create a business/life that is meaningful and sustainable for us and our families.
We try to keep our communications on our slack channel, and chat primarily during work days and work hours. We encourage each other to sign off early when we can and respect each other’s (rare) vacation days. Over the last few months, we’ve also been working on being more clear, objective, and assertive with one another when wearing the business-partner hat, especially as we’ve brought on a third team member, to maintain a healthy and productive studio practice.
At the end of the day, our relationship is like any other relationship - a work in progress. Our friendship and partnership has and will continue to take many forms through the years, and I’m confident that our shared values along with our respect for one another will guide us through whatever is to come.
We so admire how you make time for personal projects. Can you share a bit about your motivation to be personally creative, what you're working on now, or what you're looking forward to working on, and how you make time for this practice?
Curiosity fuels my personal projects. Perhaps it’s because a lot of what I know about design is self taught, but I see personal projects as a way to learn and challenge myself.
Three years ago, I embarked on and completed (!) a 100-day project titled “100 Days of Fonts” where I designed, coded, and published a vignette featuring free google font pairings every day for 100 days. At that time, I was working in-house and wanted to learn more about web typography, experiment with different visual styles, and improve my knowledge of HTML/CSS -- skills I wasn’t getting from my day job. When I started the project, I thought maybe 5 people would see it total. I was blown away by its reach and was so encouraged by the response to the project. It was hard work and I vowed to never do a 100-day project again haha, but 3 years later, I’ve decided it’s time to take my relationship with typography and color to the next level and am currently building on that project - stay tuned!
Making time for personal projects is a whole ‘nother story. I DO NOT have that part figured out hahaha. Running a business can be all-consuming, and it’s so hard to carve out time for your own work. But if I’ve learned anything it’s that: If you really want to accomplish something, set a goal, create a plan, and find people who will hold you accountable! (Even if it involves public shaming.)
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
People think the freelance life is all about flexibility, but I stick to a pretty “traditional” work day as I’ve found that structure works well for me.
Every morning, I get into the studio by 9AM and make a to-do list for the day. I’ve been surprised by how an analog to-do list keeps me much more focused than my Asana to-do list. There’s something about writing out daily tasks makes them feel so much more manageable than a never-ending to-do list, and physically checking them off reduces my stress and anxiety, which in turn increases my productivity. I also try not to schedule more than two meetings or calls a day to maximize work time and energy devoted to design.
Oh, and I delete Instagram from my phone on days I really need to get things done! A gal’s gotta do, what a gal’s gotta do.
How about tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
Don’t be afraid to ask how others do things. Ask. Observe. Learn. And create a system that works for you. The creative community is filled with generous people!
I personally use Freshbooks for invoices, Hellosign for contracts, Cushion for revenue tracking & projections, Quickbooks Self-Employeed for accounting, and Basecamp for client project management.
Diversity in the creative world is something we think about often. We heard you're ruminating on a project that celebrates diversity. Can you tell us more about that?
Over the last few years, I’ve received a lot of inquiries from young or aspiring designers about how to forge a career path in design. 9 times out of 10, the aspiring designer happens to be an Asian American woman. Why this is the case, I can’t say for sure, but it’s made me think a lot about ethnic and racial representation in the design community.
While ethnicity and race are just a sliver of one’s identity, I know there is power in seeing others who look like you thriving in a career you want for yourself. I know there is courage to be found in hearing “success stories” by those you identify with in an industry where you feel like a minority. At least, that’s what I’ve experienced as a female, Korean-American / Asian American freelance designer.
Jumping off of my personal experiences and interests, I’ve wanted to start a personal project to document stories and portraits of Asian American female creatives, featuring stories and people I not only want to know now, but also wish I had known when first contemplating a creative career. At the same time, I know identity is complex and want to avoid pigeon-holing people based on their racial or ethnic identity, which I’m not sure a project like this can avoid doing completely (?) But if I’m being honest with myself, I think I’m overthinking it all, coming up with excuses that hold me back, and just need a kick in the butt to start somewhere and see where it leads.
Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?
Books: How to Think Like A Great Graphic Designer by Debbie Millman, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Podcasts: Ear Hustle and Death, Sex & Money
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Willingness to learn
If we left anything out that you'd love to speak to please share here:
Don’t underestimate the power of a strong support network. If you’re thinking about venturing out on your own, put in the effort to find your people who will not only be there for you when times are tough, but will also hold you accountable to achieve your goals and truly celebrate your successes. The freelance life is not an easy one, but the ride is so much smoother and sweeter together.