Interview with Graphic Designer Kristine Johnson

I recently had the chance to interview Kristine Johnson of Cognition Studio, a Seattle-based design firm that specializes in design and illustration for the Medical Industries. Kristine runs Cognition Studio out of her Seattle home with her husband, David Ehlert — We discussed running a small-business, design, inspiration, passion and nightmare clients!

Kristine Johnson of Cognition Studio

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired or burnt out? Do you have any rituals to help you cope? Resources to get you inspired?

I hate to offer resources because I think these are so individual. My suggestion would be to identify what makes your head spin with ideas and fascinates you, as well as things that are project relevant, and build your own “inspiration library.”

When I am feeling uninspired or burnt out, I always do a few things immediately to help snap me out of it. First thing is take a break from the office/work/deadlines. I typically grab a stack of current magazines (HOW, CommArts, Print, CMYK, etc.) and head out to a cafe for a coffee and some magazine time.

Next I love to explore the library or bookstore. I have this whole “walk of inspiration” that makes me feel good. I walk from my office to downtown to get fresh air, sun and ultimately, out of my head. I go to Paperhaus, Peter Miller Books, Design Within Reach, Alahambra Boutique, and other places that catch my eye to explore and I end at the SAM Art Gallery.

What I love about this “walk of inspiration” is that it saturates me in art, architecture and culture. I typically come back with lots of doodles and ideas filing my head.

As a designer, everything we do needs to be relevant. Relevant to our clients, society and to ourselves. We are society and culture driven artists, so immersing yourself in that vernacular is a sure way to get you fired up all over again.

What drew you to medical illustration? How did you come to studying Graphic Design after graduate school?

My path to medical illustration started in high school. I attended a private college preparatory school in St. Louis and was in the “math/science” track my junior and senior year, taking college credit classes at St. Louis University. I always found learning to be easy and fun,  I also loved art and had a good knack for it. I had an anatomy physiology professor my senior year who took me under his wing and said I should look into the field as it was a way to bridge both science and art.He went as far as taking me to Barnes Hospital for a visit to their “art department” and I was hooked the minute I walked in the room.

I was accepted to every University I applied to (9 of them) and even got a full scholarship to Wesleyan University for engineering as well as into the Air Force Academy, but I opted to attend the University of Illinois because they had an undergraduate and subsequent graduate degree program for medical illustration. I think my parents just about flipped a gasket that I was pursuing an art degree, but they soon realized I was very talented at it and it was an art form that actually made you a regular paycheck.

I fell in love with graphic design during the summer between my first and second year of graduate school. When I took a Cognitive Theory class, we had this 3 hour long discussion on the color red of a coke can sitting on the table – theory of what the brain sees, how it’s translated into an image and how each person sees something different – and as a class we found ourselves discussing not just what we see, but the theory of the color red and what it makes us feel and how each person attaches a different emotion to that color based on their personal history and how, as visual communicators, we need to take all of that into consideration when we build our illustration, design an other communications.

I think I about peed my pants with the thoughts of how to properly communicate something and that just spun into a deep rooted passion for graphic design. I found that I could have a greater impact with my thoughts and theories for each client project through design rather than medical illustration. So, over the years I have delved deeper into the craft of design and do less and less illustration.

If you could go back in time to the first day you started as an independent – What advice would you give yourself?

“Go back to work for someone else!”

I wasn’t ready at the time and had the mindset of an “employee” and not as a “business owner.” It took me a few years to move from having my independent career that was more of a hobby to one that was a serious endeavor. I had to take many business classes and workshops and really grow into a mindset that made me successful… and it’s a daily challenge to keep on top of things!

You work out of your home-office How do you keep your personal and work life separate – or do you?

We do! OK, no we don’t.

Not like other people do who have a traditional job where they “leave it at the office.” We have a dedicated “office” space in the home that is strategically separated from our personal space, this helps create the atmosphere of “coming to the office” in the morning and helps create a fully functioning office throughout the day. The only real thing that bleeds over from our personal space to our office space is our cats. When they come into the office, we affectionately call them the office cats!

This is a daily challenge, but what we strategically did over 5 years ago was to sit down and work out a blueprint plan for a commercial space. We listed what equipment, furniture, storage, supply cabinets, hardware, meeting space, drafting & research area, etc. that we would need to be a fully independent office outside of the home. We really took our time to identify our needs, goals and dreams. We built inspiration boards and sketched it all out. Then, we actually built it – but in our home. Our thinking was that when we were ready to pull the office out of the home, we seamless could. The fantastic side effect has been that we can more readily separate our personal and work life and feel less like we work from home – plus we have our dream space that makes us highly productive and creative!

Now making time for our personal life is something we are still working on.

Have you set up plans for retirement? What do you want to do when you retire?

Yes. We work with a Financial Advisor for the business and are currently working on our “exit strategy” which will lead to retirement. My goals for retirement will be to work until I’m no longer relevant (this industry can be brutal) and then I will teach what I know.

I’m starting an MFA program in the fall of ‘09 which will give me credentials to teach at the University level when I’m ready to retire. I think planning for it now will make it happen when you are ready. I’m getting my MFA now so that I can apply what I learn while I’m still actively working and delve deeper into those theories and learn lessons that I can in turn teach to others later. I think the strongest instructors are those who either still work in the industry or worked until they achieved their goal then moved into teaching.

I will probably travel quite a bit and plan to spend time at Plum Village in France with Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as in India/Tibet on yoga and meditation retreats. I would love to do work for the WHO (World Health Organization) through education and services around the world in third-world countries. Maybe write a book.

Whats your favorite project to date?

I love this project because it was a personal project and exploration in type, image, emotion, story-telling and personal thought. One that challenged me to hone my design sensibility for type-image relationship.

As a graphic designer who specializes in print – what are your thoughts on the growing accessibility and affordability of marketing via web and social media? How (if at all) has this changed your business strategies? How do you see print design evolving in the next 5 years?

This is a great and very relevant question. Seattle Business Magazine dedicated their entire February ‘09 issue to this very topic.

My thoughts echo what most other business are finding out: you have to have a delicate balance of both. Internet marketing is a serious competitor to print ads, and in reality, clients are choosing to spend their money on internet marketing more often, so we better know how to do it for them or they will seek out someone who can. With any new media, there are risks. As a designer and consultant to my clients, it is my responsibility to understand all forms of visual communications that will meet their requirements and provide the most effective ROI. I have always been a proponent that I’m not just a print graphic designer, I’m a partner that helps my client meet their visual needs. Maybe that is because I have a varied educational background and don’t see myself as just a single means to an end, but rather a facilitator. I don’t think internet marketing will affect my business strategy at all.

Really good design is a craft and an art form. Learning to utilize the tools at hand, whether it be woodblock type or Adobe Flash, is just part of our dedication to a craft. As with any industry, we have to understand and know how to use the tools that ultimately get our job done – from hardware, software, technology, theory, etc. Designers who feel they will be lost or become irrelevant because they can’t keep up with the constantly changing technologically driven business world will, ultimately, be lost! We all have to keep our craft at the forefront of our mind and rely on the tools of the trade, what ever they may be!

The graphic design print-based industry will continue to evolve, and probably be influenced by its historic roots and its new cyber counterpart, as it tries to better define itself. Print design that is driven by software and the computer is still a very young artform and for the past 20 or so years, it was like a bad child acting out and finding it’s voice. Now, as business changes on a global scale, and the industry changes on a cyber scale, print designers are quickly evolving to strategists and consultants that bridge the gap between business and client/purchaser through a variety of visual mediums, including print and online advertising.

Designers will have to be smarter, wiser and more educated to keep up with the demands of the industry. Paper medium will have to be smartly and effectively used to garner ROI. Finally the days of mass ugly direct mail and large obese packaging will end. We will have to design with our minds and our hearts with the end result and intent in mind. I see us finally getting out of our selfish teenage years and moving into something more sophisticated and relevant.

How we communicate is going to be less important than what we communicate.

What do you think of Pepsi’s new branding?

I actually really enjoy the new Pepsi logo and I think it speaks to my feelings of the design and business industry current evolution of less is more and meaning what you say. They applied current trends to an outward thinking design theory and it comes across beautifully. Now, I’m sure people will be looking more for an answer of  “it looks like the Obama logo” or “it’s just trendy,” but I think it is deeper rooted than that, and I’m glad to see some of these pulses being tapped and applied to very commercial work that is in front of everyday people.

Our world and industry is changing to something that is deeper, more powerful and thought driven, more emotional less reactive, and I think Pespi is just a great example of where designers need to be putting their heads. The overall design is methodically thought out, sophisticatedly executed, the packaging colors are brilliant, the message is simple and the emotion is powerful. Bravo!

Is there anything you do “for fun” that is still technically “work”?

Letterpress. Teaching. Volunteering. Learning new skills (software, business development, etc.).Rock posters…

What can I say, I’m a sucker for Flatstock, Jeff Kleinsmith, Dusty Summers, The Heads of State and rock poster designs. Getting my hands dirty, the toxic smell of the ink, the crappy paper, the use of found art, cleaning silk screens. It’s all good.

Do you have a nightmare client story?

Of course! Everyone has one.

Mine was a “personal coach” who hired me to rebrand him and develop a marketing campaign. The problem was he just wanted to play designer and have me be production artist. I methodically worked and reworked a logo, colors scheme, brochure and website splash page for him but he was never satisfied because he felt it wasn’t “his idea” and he kept saying to me “well, I can do that! why am I paying you” and then he would turn around and rebuild my designs on his own and then tell me he was dissatisfied with my services. Basically, I struggled to meet his needs and work for the few pennies he was willing to pay me and in the end it all blew up in my face. He got my ideas for free, rebuilt them himself and I got a bad check and a bruised ego. The project and relationship imploded and I learned a very valuable lesson in reading a clients intent and energy towards me from the initial onset of a project and to never get taken advantage of again.

How I think and the ideas I generate are what makes me money. Not my skills to produce them in a software application. This is how I stay a cut above my competition and set myself apart in a sea of creatives. Most importantly, it is what my clients hire me for. This client nightmare experience taught me that valuable lesson.

I only start work when a contract has been signed and a retainer check has been deposited. All of my clients either value me as a partner and trusted resource or paid expert. Either way, I have the confidence to do the job and do it to the best of my ability and never let a client treat me like the hired help again.

For more information on Kristine and Cognition Studio, visit their website at Also, you can follow David Ehlert on Twitter!


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