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Interview with Crystal Hodges

In the face of a global pandemic, conferences have gone virtual. Professionals make connections over Zoom. Doesn’t it seem like the word ‘pivot’ has been used more in the last four months than any other time in human history? Not counting the Friends episode where Ross moves his couch with the help of Chandler & Rachel. (Video if you are wondering what the heck I am talking about)

SEA’s annual conference just took place in February, but it feels so long ago! Cushing had the pleasure of hosting up-and-coming creatives on a Friday evening for a panel. Conversation included some wonderfully creative and quite frankly, awesome people. One of the participants was Crystal Hodges.

Putting together my “to-do” list for the coming week on a Sunday evening, it occurred to me I had forgotten a conversation. Crystal shared insights on starting a business and the interview was sitting on my computer drive. Better late than never: Excited to share lasting insights from a creative moving ideas forward. Not only an inspiration to emerging creatives, she has so many insights into starting a business and successfully building a brand. Prior to the SEA panel we discussed experiences that shaped Crystal’s career. Now here they are.

Can you share a little on your background, where did you grow up and go to school? I was born in Philly and grew up in Wildwood, IL from age 11 on. I waited tables since I was 14 or 15 (Dog n' Suds, Denny's, Bakers Square, Pick Me Up Cafe, Nookies, the now closed Gourmand...) the industry gave me a strong sense of urgency and instilled a true value for teamwork in me.

I did that through high school, college, and during the start-up of my own practice. I think it's important to know the realities of starting your own business and where the money comes from. It can take a while for things to get off the ground and sometimes you need to moonlight to pay your rent.

I graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Interior Architecture. After working in retail design for a bit, I went to an intensive one-year Masters program called Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability at the Blekinge Institute of Technology. The latter program was in Sweden. Being there informed my design aesthetic and taught me how interconnected our world is. The program had people from all over the world, from different professional fields, coming together to discuss sustainability - how can it possibly be achieved? This really opened my eyes to culture, humanity, and the gravity of climate change.

All of those things brought me to where I am today. I first I opened a design studio called INDO with a friend, and when we decided to part ways I founded AllKinds, my current multi-disciplinary practice where we are striving to figure out how to integrate the creation of positive social change and environmental impact in our process.

Tell us a little about your agency and what you specialize in. We are a multi-disciplinary design and fabrication studio that uses all kinds of materials, technologies and techniques to create custom art installations for brands, movements, events and interiors. We work with corporations, organizations, art consultants, branding agencies and architecture firms to transform spaces into meaningful moments that create connections between brands and their people. We do this with a conscious effort to divert from the waste stream.

When did you realize you wanted to work in the arts/design/creative world?

When I was in high school, I really loved Biology and Student Government. I 100% thought I was going to study Biology and be super involved in school. Before I decided on a school I nooked myself in my bedroom and painted murals, made drawings, painted my bedroom walls and taped hundreds of starburst wrappers onto my closet door in what I thought was a cool pattern in my spare time.

I enjoyed art class but was super intimidated by the art students as they were so talented. So, I still went on to try to study Biology at Marquette University for a year. That school and program wasn't for me and having those memories of locking myself in my bedroom, and knowing that I liked public spaces and architecture, I moved on to Columbia College Chicago. It was in that program that I found a love for large scale concepting, forms and I knew I had found something to sink into. My sculpture teacher told me my sculptures were too emotional, so I stopped doing that, but I loved ceramics.

After working at the retail design firm, I wanted so badly to be on the management team (I was in my early 20's). I had a lot of opinions, I liked organizing things, I wanted to learn more and couldn't help the feeling that I wanted to do MORE. I was too stubborn, had too many questions and had too much energy to wait it out, so that's when I started INDO with a friend on the side.

So, I never had a 'realization' that I wanted to be in the world I'm in. Looking back, I took some risks and tried new things, and then I was honest with myself about what worked, what didn't, who I was and what I wanted... and I ended up here. And I LOVE IT.

How did working at an agency shape your view on collaborating with a team and other creatives? It was so eye opening. One of the biggest things I learned from my past jobs is that people are human - whether you are an intern, Sr. Designer or the owner - you don't know everything, you have self-doubt and feelings just like everyone else. Overtime I felt more and more comfortable sharing my opinion, offering to help or being a pro-active brainstormer even when having a smaller role on a team. No matter your role you are on a team for a reason so being involved and present is extremely important. Your collaborators need your presence.

Learning how to communicate on a team and having a solid process was also amazing intel. If communication is messy, things take longer, and mistakes are made. At AllKinds we are constantly working on buttoning up our process.

One thing I really disliked about Architecture was how disconnected it felt. I never understood why plans were drawn up without any input from the carpenter, plumber, electrician... the amount of plan changes because an architect is not any of these things is incredible.

We work quite a bit with the Architecture industry and we always welcome architects to reach out when they have ideas or space for an art element, so we can share anything that would be helpful later to not have any change orders. Perhaps it's blocking in the wall, a steel plate in the ceiling, or trying to configure the studs so we can get our art into the wall easier later... having that early and easy communication allows us to be a better partner for our clients.

What are some tips you have for generating new creative ideas?

  • Keep your eyes open and look all around you. Inspiration is everywhere.

  • Is that too much? Set some constraints for yourself.

  • Still not sure? Find some inspiration imagery you love and admire: critique it, what would you do differently? What would make it better? Start building there.

Top 3 pieces of advice for the entrepreneur firm BEFORE they start a design firm?

Starting a business happens long before you get your business license or put together a business plan (which I never did btw), so I appreciate this question.

80% of small businesses fail in the first year. I started my business when I had nothing to lose. now, 12 years later, I have a lot to lose - I'm co-supporting our family of 4, I have 7 employees I admire, AND a vibrant studio I love. I'm 100% accountable for keeping this ship on track and building it up further. Looking back, advice I would have given myself would be:

Advice 1: Don't compare yourself to others. Usually, from the outside, everyone else and every other business looks like they have everything figured out. Trust that they are working just as hard as you are, and they are probably looking at you wondering the same thing. And if they aren't working just as hard as you maybe they have different financial support and you shouldn't be comparing yourself to them anyway.

Advice 2: Ask questions, even ones that you think are obvious and you should know the answer to, even if you are scared to ask it. Chances are other people needed the clarification too. Also, ask the person or business you are jealous of from Advice 1 to have coffee and pick their brain. Quell your insecurity and make a friend.

Advice 3: Seeds take a long time to bloom. I might have sent a proposal a year ago that just got approved or met a new company that I've been answering random questions for a couple years before they became a client. I'm cool with that, because those efforts created solid relationships that eventually took root and bloomed.

How do you manage client expectations prior to the start of a project (for example do you have a set number of design revisions that are included with a project?

We out line everything we are doing for a project in the proposal including the quantity of revisions, quantity of samples, how many design options they will be provided, the design/fabrication/installation timeline, the budget (which we break out by prototype, design, fabrication, installation and materials - and we explain each section individually), the payment terms, and we even have a 'Client Expectations' section to outline what is expected from the client to have a successful project. We do our BEST to be clear and to communicate problems we foresee coming up as well as solutions for them. Sometimes things slip through the cracks when we do not set expectations properly and we take responsibility for that, always.

Thank you to Crystal for these insights and tips! Please visit their website and explore their work.

Guest Blogger:

Jon Davis is in the marketing department at Cushing. They work with businesses and creative professionals throughout Illinois and around the county. Check out work they produce, including wall graphics and window signage.

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