Above the Fold: Kelly Custer, Industrial Designer
In Above the Fold, we spotlight individual members of Coroflot's vibrant creative community. The idea is to take you behind the scenes and inside the minds of talented Coroflot members who we think are doing exceptional work. Coroflot was created by designers, for designers, and Above the Fold is the place where we can talk to creatives about work that we not only love, but think you'll love too!
Kelly Custer first caught the attention of the Coroflot team with a project simply titled 'Sketchbook'. The project was a collection of daily sketches that the Knoxville, TN-based Industrial Designer described as "an effort to develop [her] skills and ultimately, effectively communicate [her] ideas." We were blown away by the mastery of techniques displayed in Kelly's sketching and, based on the huge response from the rest of the Coroflot community, Kelly was clearly successful in her goal to grow her skills by sketching every day.
Between her daily sketches and the rest of her portfolio, it's obvious Kelly is an Industrial Designer who is passionate and dedicated to her craft. She has won a handful of design awards, and for close to three years she has presided over her own design studio called Knack, which takes on freelance jobs for a variety of clients. Between her intricately detailed sketches and the fact that she has taken her design career into her own hands with Knack, we knew it would be interesting to talk with Kelly about her inspiration, process, and more.
Was there a specific moment in life where you realized you wanted to pursue a creative path?
Kelly Custer: My aunt ran a sign shop out of her basement. I remember hanging out down there with free reign of her enormous collection of AD markers, rolls of vinyl, and walls covered in artwork. I was in awe that my "playroom" was her office. I knew from then on that I wanted to pursue a creative path.
Who are your design heroes?
I find inspiration in so many great designers every day, but the ones I call heroes are the ones who have changed my outlook on life.
My second grade teacher, Mrs. Haworth proudly placed tools, like saws and drills, in our little hands and encouraged us to work as a team, make mistakes and BUILD. Looking back, that was so empowering to me as a child.
My CCS instructor, Tom Roney is an encyclopedia of vehicle and product knowledge. He seems to understand the workings of any mechanism you can question him on and because of that, his designs are strong. He stressed to me that in order to be a great designer, you must understand how things work. Thanks to him, I am always on the pursuit to dissect and learn.
My mom has never once led me to believe that I could not become successful with a creative career. Instead, she provided me with the resources, support, and inspiration to do what I love.
Can you share some details about your most recent project?
I'm in the midst of designing a KTM branded standup jet ski concept. Standup jet skiing is a dying sport because of its learning curve, emissions regulations, and price of entry. So, I've set out to design a machine that will solve these problems, while introducing the strong KTM brand to watersports.
Walk us through some of your process for creating.
I begin every design project with research to make sure I fully understand the design brief, the user, and the brand identity. From my findings, I make a list of features that the design must satisfy.
With the goal of solving for the features on my list, I'll loosely sketch out all of my ideas. Variety is key at this stage, so I remind myself to keep a wide range of ideas - mild to wild.
I then use this deck of ideation sketches to spur discussion with the client or my colleagues to drive both new and refined ideas. In the next round, both the ideas and the sketch fidelity get tightened up to better communicate each concept.
This iterative process repeats until a strong final concept arises.
The product development process can be very organic. So, the faster you can flush out ideas with sketches, mockups, and discussion, the sooner questions will be answered and design solutions will be found.
One of the projects you have on Coroflot that particularly stands out is your sketchbook, where you show a series of sketches you have completed daily. When did you start doing a sketch every day, and how do you think this helps you as a designer?
I started doing a sketch a day, midway through 2016 because I had reached a point where I was so reliant on digital sketching that I felt I was lacking efficiency and confidence in my concept generation. Always looking for ways to improve, I decided to set aside a little bit of time each day to hand sketch an idea. The benefits have been HUGE. Not only have I gained the confidence and efficiency I was after, but sharing my work has granted me access to an awesome community of designers. We critique each other's work and push one another to keep improving. I have learned so much through the process. I just wish I had started sooner.
It seems like for the last couple of years you have been freelancing through your own company, Knack. Are there advantages you have found to taking this approach to your career as opposed to working for a firm or large company?
Most definitely! The freelance lifestyle can be nerve-wracking at times, but the advantages are enormous, to me. Freelancing forced me out of my comfort zone and placed a focus on personal growth as a designer. Freelancing under Knack has introduced me to a wide variety of extremely talented professionals and their unique specialties. I have built relationships, explored diverse industries, pushed myself to new heights, and filled my portfolio with projects that I am very passionate about.
What is your favorite project that you've completed (professional or personal) and why?
A few years back, I rebuilt my 1973 Honda CL350. At one point, the entire bike laid in pieces on my studio apartment floor. Through a lot of busy nights, I stripped, repainted, and reassembled each part until I had a running bike again.
This project stands out to me because it was unlike anything I had ever done before. The hands-on nature of the work gave me a great understanding of a motorcycle's mechanical parts. I learned how to reach out for help and rely on the support of a handful of great people. The rebuild taught me the value of knowing the ins and outs of a product and its environment.
What tools (physical or digital) do you find yourself using repeatedly?
Sharpies and Photoshop. I choose Sharpies for ideation sketching, because they are bold and force me to lay down lines with confidence. Photoshop will execute anything I can dream of sketching or rendering digitally.
Is there any work out there that you've come across recently that you've really loved?
I really admire Filip Chaeder's work. He presents his sketch concepts digitally, in an ultra-clean and thoughtful manner. His ideas pop off the page with his use of dynamic perspectives, compelling compositions, and a punchy rendering style. What I love the most is that his sketch pages give you a sneak peek into his thought process.
Do you have a ritual for getting in work/design mode (music you listen to, certain exercise, food you eat) aka a productivity tip?
My secret weapon is a shower. Some days I'll hit a point where I feel mentally strained. A shower is my reset button that gives me a chance to unwind and reassess my goals for the day. It is only a quick escape, but almost every time I leave with fresh ideas and a clearer outlook on where I should focus my energy.
Outside of your professional life, do you have any other creative outlets or hobbies?
I recently picked up mountain biking and dirt biking. Both push me out of my comfort zone, while giving me a great workout. I become so focused on the challenge of riding, that it clears my mind and spurs new inspiration.
If you're stuck on a desert island and can only bring three (design) tools, what are they?
Paper, a Sharpie, and my circle template...that's practical, right?
Do you have any tips for getting the most out of your Coroflot portfolio?
Don't convince yourself that your work isn't ready to upload. Share early and often to give yourself the most opportunity to grow.