Katie Thierjung is a designer, visual artist, and Creative Lady Directory member, living in Orange County, CA. Inspired by color and form, she’s always searching for new ways to create and incorporate visual joy into her everyday life. Her lifestyle brand/shop, The Uncommon Place, features unique accessories that have a bright, mid-century twist.
Tell us about your path to becoming the creative designer behind The Uncommon Place.
Growing up, I always had some sort of creative outlet. I would find any chance to draw during free time and doodle on my homework assignments while in school. Art projects were always my favorite and they really gave me a chance to shine. I appreciated things that were both unique and visually pleasing, and I always knew that my creative brain wouldn’t be able to handle anything having to do with logic or math, no matter how hard I tried.
I never considered art as a “real” option for a career, but deep down I knew that a very strong part of me desperately craved it. With the support of my friends and family, I decided to go all-in and pursue a creative path in college. I went to a community college for 2 years, received an associate’s degree in Fine Art, then transferred to California State University Fullerton where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Visual/Studio Art.
While I was in college, I would spend a lot of my free time on Instagram (pre-algorithm). I was hooked. It was virtual portal that instantly transported me to so many creative people all over the world and I always felt so inspired while scrolling through my feed. My creative urge was sparked. I stopped posting normal everyday photos and I started posting more colorful, styled photos. As time went on, I started trying out different art mediums (like watercolors and calligraphy) and I would post snippets of my work on Instagram along with my other curated photos. My style evolved and developed as the years went by, but I would always wanted to share what I was working on with my community. Eventually I decided to take the next step and sell my work, so I opened up an Etsy shop and started selling enamel pins. One pin design grew to two, then four, and now I sell art prints and other accessories as well. Having the shop has been a lot of fun for me and it has really opened up a lot of opportunities for both myself and my work.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients/customers?
Instagram! My first good clients and customers were the ones who were there with me from the very beginning. They followed my story and stayed with me during the highs and lows, and got to know me as both a human and a creative, which just made our connections more personal. My first big client came along when I was in my first year of college, and they had been following me for a while already. I was making art for myself and sharing it with the world because it was something that I liked. Even though my work wasn’t refined or “professional” by any means then, they chose to take a chance on me because I brought something different and unique to the table. I had no idea what I was doing at the time, but I made sure to stay true to myself and my work, and that’s what made them stay.
My first shop customers were mostly ones who had seen my work on Instagram. I knew that in order to win them over I had to make their overall experience as joyful as possible. So, I used my past retail experience to make sure that all aspects of customer service and branding were covered from start to finish. I designed fun packaging and custom little flat cards that doubled as mini art prints, and I would hand-write a note for every order I received. I became obsessed with the details. For the first year that my shop was open I even sprinkled in some confetti into each package--ha! I really cared about those little details, because those were the details that made a difference in the end. In the end they probably won’t remember the cute stickers I put on the outside of their bubble mailer, but they’ll remember the happiness they experienced when they received their package in the mail and all of the thought that was put into it. It’s those kinds of details and feelings that bring people back for more, and they make all the difference.
Opening a shop is so much more than just creating the designs you sell, do you have tips for balancing tasks and being your most productive?
I like to designate certain tasks for certain days so that I don’t get too overwhelmed, which can happen to me easily if I have a long list of items to cross off. Once or twice a week I pack up orders and take note of my inventory levels. On separate days I focus just solely on making designs or I’ll break up a bunch of small tasks, like writing emails or keeping track of invoices. I wish I could be extremely organized and have a strict calendar with designated time slots and a full itinerary, but I can’t thrive with too much structure. I live day to day and each day is different depending on my mindset. Some days I feel more creative, so on those days I make sure to prioritize designing vs taking care of menial tasks that aren’t top priority. What works best for me is having a list of goals for the current month, then a list of goals/tasks for each week of that month. Then I have a separate post-it note of things to do for each day. I try to fit as many tasks onto that note as possible, and I’m usually able to finish them all in an entire day. Writing down my work to-do list helps me visualize what needs to be done without overwhelming myself, and breaking up tasks and goals into daily, weekly, and monthly sections makes it all feel less intimidating.
What is one thing you can't live without while working on new designs?
A warm beverage (usually tea), a nice music playlist, and natural light! That’s three things, but they all help set me up for creative success. I have my studio desk underneath a window and I can’t recommend it enough. There’s something so refreshing and joyful about having a bright work environment. I also like to start the workday feeling inspired and ready to create, so I’ll either update my online mood board or listen to a new podcast or try to rearrange my desk. If that doesn’t help, then a change of environment usually does the trick.
At the end of 2018 you said, “In order to grow as an artist I had to make a few changes, including how much time I spent on Instagram.” Can you tell us more about the changes you made and what you learned from them?
I think this is common for a lot of artists and designers, but by the end of each year I usually get creative burnout. The stress of multiple deadlines combined with there being less light in the winter really gets to me. When I get stressed or feel uninspired, I usually turn towards Instagram to help respark that hunger to create. It started to get to the point where I was on Instagram a lot more than usual, I wasn’t feeling inspired, and I fell down the comparison rabbit hole. My mental health was at an all-time low and my anxiety was at an all-time high. It got to the point where I was questioning my career path and I even thought about closing my shop. So, I took a break from Instagram to allow myself the time to heal at my own pace and focus on my mental health.
It’s so easy to go online, look at a perfectly styled photo, and automatically compare it to your unstyled life behind the scenes. But most of social media is just comprised of highlight reels. A teeny tiny edited window into someone else’s life for a brief moment. I’ve learned to allow myself to take creative breaks and to not be so attached to Instagram. Don’t get me wrong--I still love it! I just spend less time on it, especially on days when my anxiety is present. It’s all about balance and knowing your limits.
What has been your greatest struggle as a creative business owner so far?
Taxes. They are the WORST.
If you could give one piece of advice to illustrators/graphic designers thinking of opening their own shop, what would it be?
Having great customer service is almost just as important as what you’re selling. A lot of products can sell themselves, but in order to have customers come back you need to make a great impression. Write thank you notes by hand. Show them that you really do care. Answer emails professionally and be ready to happily solve any problems that arise.
Can you tell us anything about what's in store for your new website?
My website just launched recently! I started building it about a year ago, but stopped working on it because I kept changing my branding and the overall direction that I wanted the site to go in. I initially thought it was just going to be a standard site for my portfolio, but it’s going to be so much more than that. I made my site so that it can easily be adjusted if I wanted to change anything, and I love having something that can evolve with me over time as I create. I created a blog on it as well, and that’s going to be a special place where I share fun things like desktop wallpapers, new projects, and even current things that are inspiring me. I don’t want to be known as just a small shop, I like the idea of having a multi-faceted website that highlights the different creative abilities that I have to offer.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
For years I did all my bookkeeping, taxes, etc and it was the worst. It is my absolute least favorite part about being a creative and owning a small business. If you have the ability to hire an accountant, do it.
What is one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Learn to say yes but don’t be afraid to say no. When I was first starting out, I said yes to every project/collaboration/freelance opportunity that came my way. A lot of the work I did was unpaid. I gained experience, but I didn’t know my worth yet. Don’t be afraid to do some work for free if you’re learning from it, but know when to draw the line when you’re being taken advantage of. It’s also very hard to make a living off of free products (like socks or lip balm), so it’s okay to say no to an opportunity if it won’t help you pay the bills. Asking for compensation was something I struggled with in the beginning, but learning how to properly ask for it really showed clients that I was serious about my work and that I was a professional. If someone is making money off of your hard work then you should be too, right?
Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?
I have ALWAYS wanted to paint a mural! It’s been on my creative bucket list forever. I’m actually partnering with an awesome company and we have plans for a mural but no location yet. I’m based in Southern California, so we’re looking to do a mural somewhere in Orange County, Los Angeles, or Palm Springs. So if you own a shop or a building, or know someone who does, send me an email or a message on Instagram!
Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?
I’m just starting to discover the world of podcasts! I’m a little late to the game. I’m currently listening to The Modern Creative podcast and I love it!
I’m in the middle of reading Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee. I highly recommend it.
Ingrid Fetell Lee also has this Ted Talk about where joy finds and how to find it.
The greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Imagination, Passion, Adaptability, Courage