I know some amazing women. Maybe I’m biased, but when I think of all the ladies who have graced my life, many of them are the most inspiring, beautiful people I can think of. These women are courageous, funny, and smart. They’re also kind and humble too. Which is why I decided to start a series of posts that feature them, beginning with the brilliant, bright light that is Juliana Tyson Kissick of Good Juju Ink.
We met years ago over coffee when Juliana was considering joining the stationery industry and wanted to know more about the ins and outs. Five hours later, we left that meet up as good friends, pouring out our creative hearts and sharing everything from our life stories to our hopes for expressing ourselves in the future. Since that first moment of friendship, Juliana awed me with her unstoppable joie de vivre, her talents in a multitude of creative industries, and her magnetic personality. It was a pleasure to see her start her own greeting card company which has grown into a well-known name and a stationery line on the up and up. I’ve watched as Good Juju Ink grew from a handful of cards to the wonderful stationery collection it is today, and it is in due to this absolutely electric woman who is the creative sparkle behind it all.
I had the pleasure of asking Juliana questions about her work on Good Juju, what keeps her inspired, and how she meets the challenge of having a husband for a business partner. Check out all her answers below!
As a life-long paper aficionado, I know the obsession for stationery can go back a long time. Tell me about your love of stationery, where it originates from, and what letter-writing means to you now?
I distinctly remember having a little white Easter basket in my bedroom when I was growing up, and I would fill it with all the cards that I received over the course of each year. No one told me to do this—and I began doing it at a very young age (maybe as early as five or six). I have wonderful memories of pulling that little basket off of my bookshelf and re-reading cards from family members and friends. It was kind of like my first real conscious act of self care! My mom traveled a lot for work (and often worked very late hours), so phone calls were difficult and writing letters was a great way to stay connected when she was gone. I was also an only child, and anytime I could scoop up a pen-pal on a family vacation, I did so (sometimes even giving myself exotic nom do plumes in the process…LOL). I admired my mother’s beautiful personalized stationery that she always kept stocked in her office. The letterhead sheets were engraved on the most sumptuous ecru card-stock—to this day she uses that same stationery whenever she writes me. I think I must have always associated adulthood with having fabulous stationery on hand — OH! And my mom also had this accordion folder filled to the brim with greeting cards that she kept at home. Should someone in the family need it, there was always a card for any occasion waiting in that folder. I actually have a very specific memory sitting under my mom’s desk in her home office, sifting through that accordion folder, giggling to myself, reading each and every card she had in there. To this day, letter-writing and card-giving maintain the most giggly, magical, and poignant place in my life. Maybe I’m not sitting under my mother’s desk perusing her card stash, but I am certainly that person who stands in front of card walls in stationery stores for hours, reading and laughing and cooing over designs that speak to me—designs that make me want to reach out to someone and tell them I’m aware of what they’re going through in their life. I also think that because of our heavy reliance on digital communication, letter-writing has acquired even more of a ceremony and holiness in my life. The act of choosing just the right card, sitting down, putting pen to paper, addressing and stamping, and walking to a mailbox is certainly one of the most mindful and intentional acts of love I can think of in this day and age…this is, of course, exactly the reason I decided to start a stationery company. I wanted all the excuses to sit down and write!
Your style has evolved dramatically since you started Good Juju Ink, but you’ve managed to keep the same wonderful sense of humor. How has your taste changed over time, and how do you utilize different materials and mediums to make your work the best it can be?
In the very early months of Good Juju Ink, I was still teaching myself the art of illustration. I was a classically trained painter who spent years copying the ‘masters’ in stuffy classrooms across California, but I’d never ventured into the world of illustration or graphic design — which felt like a very modern and ever-evolving genre departure. Once I decided that greeting cards and stationery were the perfect way for me to marry my love of art with my love of writing, I decided to use Pinterest as a means of teaching myself about the world of graphic illustration. Mind you, this was in the early days of Pinterest, before it became the oversaturated source for all things wedding inspo. Pinterest’s search function allowed me to dive deep into all of these new stylistic genres I’d never seen before in traditional ‘fine art’ studios. I learned about Behance, and how to follow different artist’s portfolios. That being said, while I was absorbing so many different digital and non digital styles, I’d still never opened a single piece of Adobe software in my entire life. And while I was staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning, pinning illustration after illustration, when it came to actually honing a style of my own, I was ALL over the place. I literally didn’t even know how to get my drawings inside the computer. HA! Can you imagine my printer’s face when I asked him “How do I physically get this drawing of an elephant butt INSIDE my computer screen????”. Ah yes. Good times.
Anyway, our company’s first year at the National Stationery Show was a great example of how my initial illustrative style choices were not a fit for current industry standards. In fact, I think we only had five or six wholesale orders from that entire show. For cost purposes, I’d flat printed all of my drawings the first year. I drew all of my illustrations with graphite pencils, and I also experimented with a collage style of cut-out imagery to give the designs a more vintage and children’s book-type feel. The humor and the heart were there, but the style and the technical graphic design skills were not. To this day, I want to claw my eyes out when I look at my first card designs. But you know what, that’s what it’s like to commit to something and GROW. Ryan and Marina (my business partners) were convinced that presenting at the National Stationery Show before we were ready would be a very important learning experience for all of us, despite how embarrassing it might be.
I learned very quickly that if I wanted to be competitive in the stationery industry, I needed to have letterpress and foil-stamped designs. My brand was not edgy or sassy or cartoony enough for just flat printing. I was aiming for a higher price point aesthetic, and I needed to learn how to utilize the more expensive printing processes that would get my products to where I wanted them to be. I also spent hours upon hours upon hours investigating the work of other stationery designers. I introduced myself on social media, I followed blogs, I took online classes, I got an Adobe tutor. And, finally, I bought an iPad and decided to take the plunge and learn how to transition from old school artist to new school designer. I can honestly say that while I’ll probably always think I can do better, design better, I’m really proud of the stylistic growth of my products. Our use of paper color and texture and foil and pressing techniques all contribute to the emotionality of my drawings. There is so much visual adventure to be had in the world of designing paper, and I’m grateful that my team ultimately agreed to take a risk in letting me learn these more expensive methods of manufacturing.
You’re a talented artist across the spectrum, from dance and writing to acting and illustration. How have these other forms of expression affected your creative work, and how does that work express who you are?
Even when I was dancing and acting full-time, the most important component of performance for me was always narrative—am I telling the most authentic story I can tell. My dance company was actually a narrative-based dance theatre company; we wanted dance to serve as this universal language by which we could tell the world’s stories without the barriers of dialect. And acting was a way to put myself in other people’s shoes, a way to really imagine what it is like to live inside the circumstances of another human being. Acting and dance taught me compassion on a level that I think few have had the opportunity to experience. When you have to embody other—physically embody other—your entire worldview expands. I swear, I think acting changes the way your brain functions. The news isn’t just the news, statistics are real people going through real things, and they could be any one of us at any given moment. That acute understanding of human connectedness is, I’m sure, what gave me such a tremendous foundation upon which to build a stationery company whose entire goal is to bring people together through a type of universal illuminated imagery.
Could you share a little bit of your design process and how you go from an idea to a finished product?
I guess it makes sense that if Pinterest played such a huge part of my initial foray into the world of illustration that it would end up playing a role in how I organize my creative process. I have Pinterest boards for all of my themed desktop collections, and then I have a separate board for animals and wildlife that inspire me for greeting card designs and a board for packaging inspiration, and then I have a general illustration board that I add to regularly throughout the year. I am still that person that gets struck with ideas while walking down the street, or in the shower, or chatting over coffee—and Pinterest allows for me to keep all of these various inspiration categories organized. I feel like this makes me sound desperately basic and vanilla, but it’s entirely honest.
Once I feel sufficiently ‘inspired’, I then “map out” or “sketch out” design concepts on various art boards in my Adobe Draw app on my iPad Pro. Then, if the concepts are for a desktop collection, I pitch each product category to the leadership team and get approval for the physical manufacturing first. For instance, I can’t just say “Hey y’all, I really want to make coasters and cloth bound journals this year—here are my design ideas!”. We as a team have to research the product unit economics and purchasing trends in the industry before I’m given the green light to pitch the actual designs that will then go on these products. The designs for the products take further rounds of team approval (the leadership team being myself, Ryan and Marina). Once the product categories AND designs are approved, we can send files to our desktop manufacturer overseas. I should include that there is quite a bit of back and forth when it comes to figuring out the resources that are available to use through our various printers and manufacturers for desktop. Figuring out if we can source the right shade of gold spirals for our hardback notebooks, for instance, can sometimes take months—and don’t even get me started on the intricacies of international anti-dumping laws.
When it comes to greeting cards, the process is a lot simpler. Marina is the timeline master of our company, and she sets our launch goals for every season. If we’re looking a little lacking in our wedding and engagement card category, she’ll assign me a certain number of wedding and engagement designs to complete in a certain period of time before our next launch. Since most of my cards are inspired by wildlife, I’ll look through my saved wildlife Pinterest board, and I’ll then begin my “mapping out” process in Adobe Draw. I’ve found that the team responds better to my card ideas when they’re a little more fleshed out as opposed to when they are roughly sketched. So when it comes to creating greeting card concepts, I’ll often complete the designs first and then pitch them to the team for final approval before sending everything to our California printers. Obviously, it’s never fun when the team doesn’t like a design that I’ve worked hard on or that I think is hilarious or super poignant. But I never regret having the trusted feedback of my team. It’s very, very rare that I don’t ultimately agree with their thoughtful feedback, even if it’s disappointing at first.
How do you stay inspired when you’re in a crunch and producing work for an upcoming show?
This is a great question. Powering through deadline crunches while also staying inspired enough to really love the work you’re creating is HARD. Ideally, as designers and makers, we want to be obsessed with every single piece we make and feel like we’ve been a giant ball of inspired, creative passion the entire time we’ve been designing. But the reality is that even the most veteran designers all get punched in the butt by the time management monster. And what I’ve learned over the years is that you can NOT start second-guessing yourself once you are knee deep in production for a show. I used to think that if I just overanalyzed everything and only slept for 3 hours a night, I’d never have a design/product that flopped because I would have thought about each and every individual piece SO MUCH they’d all be destined for success. What a joke. You need sleep. You need personal balance and distance from your work even when you are gearing up for a huge show that requires so many different types of product design. You need to accept that you will have products that flop—in every single collection you will have products that don’t sell. And they could be gorgeous. They could be very well received by the design community. But they won’t sell. And this has nothing to do with how much time you spent on actually designing these products. I have learned that sometimes my best-selling work comes when I’m not over-thinking a design. This is so helpful to remember when I have 24 hours left before I have to submit an entire collection to one of our printers, and I have six more elements to finish…I breathe. I trust the process. I trust that I have good instincts. And I trust that there will always be big hitters and flops in every collection, and I just need to move forward.
I think this is such an important question to ask creatives because we never swing from branch to branch. There’s usually quiet time here and there where you’re recovering from an intense project, waiting for inspiration, or hoping for a big partnership, so what do you do to get you through the rough patches when things are slow?
The design world is so therapeutic for me that even when I’m in the “space between” projects, or experiencing creative roadblocks in my work, I’ll make sure to pick up a swatch book of textiles, or stop by some interior design showrooms here in SF, or go to an open house on the weekend just to see how they’ve staged their spaces, or visit an antiques flea market, or research the folk art of a part of the world I’ve never been to before. Truth be told, when I’m not immediately working on something (which is getting more and more rare as we grow our company!), I still love going to stationery stores/book stores/gift stores and watching what people pick up. I love seeing what touches people enough that they want to bring it into their lives or gift it to a loved one. I love watching people’s bodily responses to things and, as a fellow consumer, I love seeing the work of other artists on the market and how buyers have chosen to display these many creative voices in their stores. It’s so healing for me to constantly bathe myself in creative worlds and see what kinds of emotional design stories are bubbling up through products.
And from a non-design angle, I’ll also watch a bajillion hours of planet earth with Ryan so I can continue to learn about the natural world and all the different ways creatures interact with each other! Truthfully, I kind of do this all the time no matter what…
Running a small business with your husband is an incredible feat, but I’m sure, having worked with my own husband, it’s not always sunshine and roses. What are the challenges you deal with when working with someone close to you? How do you balance your different skills and personalities, while keeping your personal life separate?
You know, people ask me this question a lot, and I truly love talking about working with Ryan because I’m just so dang proud of how we’ve been able to evolve as life partners while also evolving as professional partners. And while it’s definitely not all sunshine and roses, I believe very strongly that whatever comes up in professional arguments is bound to surface in personal miscommunications as well. I think people are fooling themselves if they think that work and personal life are two worlds that should never and don’t ever cross in marriage. Being able to calmly and productively listen to your partner, especially when you strongly disagree with their point of view, and then move forward with a reasonable compromise is something you have to get really, really good at in business if you want things to go anywhere. And our marriage has only benefited from our ability to get better at this invaluable skill. In the beginning, both Ryan and I would get so emotionally bruised if the other didn’t like or approve of something we did. If Ryan didn’t like a drawing I made, I’d cry. I couldn’t help it, I wanted him to adore every single thing I created from its first iteration. And Ryan would be so defensive if I thought any of his strategic ideas were not on brand with where I felt the company needed to go. He, too, wanted me to be proud of all that he was bringing to the table.
Now, I know and trust that Ryan thinks I’m a bomb ass artist, and whatever critiques he has I know and trust are being communicated to make the work the best it can be. He’s not an artist, which is great. His feedback is usually so helpful to me because he’s coming from a very pure, uninfluenced angle that doesn’t care about design theory or color trend—he’s coming from a place of “did this move me”. Ryan has also gotten SO much more comfortable getting strategic feedback and feeling like it’s not a direct hit to his personal value on the team. And I also think he’s seen how utterly invaluable his mind and presence are within our company dynamic. When you trust that your partner thinks you’re awesome and smart, when you really truly trust that, you can get through so many kinds of differences. Feeling the respect of your partner in business and in marriage is absolutely vital to the success of that relationship. Defining what respect means for both parties is so key. We also have a kick-ass business partner named Marina, whom we call our sister wife, and she will tell you she’s the reason we’re still married hahaha. It never hurts to have some third party mediation every once in a while!!
Marrying image and word is very hard, but your whimsical illustrations really make me feel the message, and I know others must feel the same way. What piece of work are you the proudest of and why?
I can’t tell you how much that means to me. I believe that poignantly marrying image with language is at the core of my life’s work, and it makes me feel so affirmed and motivated to keep going when I hear that the message is, in fact, deeply impacting people.
A few years ago I designed a card called “Single Parent Seahorse”. The image on the card is of an adult seashore whose child is coiled around their tale. The expression on the parent’s face is one of onward determination. The child is looking up at its parent with a hopeful trust. The text reads: “Single Parent. Double Strength”. My dad is a single father (and, actually, it’s the male seahorse that carries the baby—hence why I chose that particular creature for this design). Watching him raise my significantly younger half-sister has been one of the greatest joys of my life, and I started to become increasingly frustrated that I could not find a good single parent card on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Paper Source decided to pick up this card last year — and I’ll never forget the email we received from a woman who said she’d stumbled across our card at one of the Paper Source locations, and how she felt indescribably seen and empowered. She was raised by a single mother and she herself was now a single mother. She said she finally felt like her life’s circumstances were being celebrated. That card sold out all over US and Canada. And I’m still so very, very proud of that design. It’s my dad’s favorite card. No surprises there!
Your greeting cards and products are some of the most socially conscious I’ve seen on the market, and I know you are constantly donating profits to charities that mean a lot to you. What causes speak to your heart, and how do you walk the line between being passionately outspoken and professionally savvy?
Oh this is such a good question. I’m constantly struggling to find the right balance of outspokenness and upholding professional boundaries in my branding (and even in our company culture). Our company’s tag line is “spreading good juju one illustration at a time” — and while we are certainly a team of intersectional liberal feminists (and yes, Ryan absolutely considers himself a feminist), I also recognize that the narrative of kindness needs to be what people experience from our work first, not the narrative of politics (don’t even get me started on how the concept of kindness has been politicized in recent years, we don’t have time for that in this interview!). I so admire people like Emily McDowell for beautifully harmonizing her political and social passion with the voice of her company’s products. But I wanted to create socially conscious products that I could, in theory, also sell to children. I don’t use any swear words in my products or in our branding/social media posting. This is surprising if you know me, as I’m quite the salty sailor in my personal life. But, again, I wanted the work of Good Juju Ink to ultimately have a timelessness and a tenderness that could appeal to all ages. I wanted to create products that got to the heart of acceptance and compassion and open-mindedness and intersectionality and a respect for nature without the polarizing linguistics of their corresponding politicized categories. But honestly, sometimes the latter is unavoidable. Given the horrors of the current presidential administration and the overall political climate in America, our company’s passion surrounding conservation, women’s rights, racial justice, and protecting the LGBT community is bound to be perceived as divisive, even if we think we are doing it in a way that surpasses politics and draws upon our universal connectedness. I’m still learning, still figuring this one out.
What would you tell other people who are interested in getting into the stationery industry?
While I believe so sincerely that the stationery industry is one of the kindest, most supportive, inspired, and loving industries on the face of the planet—it is HARD WORK to make your entire life’s income revolve around products whose price point is $2.50 wholesale. This business is full of awesome people and awesome work, but it is still one hell of a hustle. You have to absolutely adore building your business just as much as you adore creating your products. To just adore the product is not enough. To just love to design is not enough. I realize this is exactly the reason I left the entertainment industry; while I loved performance I absolutely haaaated the business of entertainment. And if you are going to make a living at anything artistically, you must ultimately have a love affair with the business side of things, too. If you are not up for the challenge of tackling things like inventory management and fulfillment solutions and sourcing manufacturers—owning and operating your own stationery business is not going to be a fit. That being said, there are plenty of ways to participate in this industry without actually building your own company, and I encourage paper enthusiasts to explore all the many different and beautiful professional opportunities in this truly unique and empowering world of illustrative art.
Quick Fire Questions:
San Francisco or Los Angeles?
Journals or Notepads?
Salads or Smoothies?
Smoothies—the naughty kind that try to disguise themselves as healthy but are, in fact, just total and utter carb fests (smoothies came to mind first, BUT I must say the Super Foods salad from Mendocino Farms is my JAM right now…also, my dad’s homemade Caesar Salad is legit crack)
Fall — best. season. ever. Gimme all da cute coats and boots and autumnal yummies
Little Women and literally anything by Shel Silverstein
Exercise of choice?
DANCE!!! (all genres)
Self-care for you is….
Napping without guilt, journaling, write thank you notes, mani-pedis, actually making it to synagogue for High Holy Days services so I don’t have to lie to my 96-year-old grandmother, making exercise a joyful priority and not a body-shaming obligation, going to a club and getting really sweaty while dancing my balls off with close girlfriends, literal AND metaphorical Netflix and chill with my husband, jaunting through a forest. (rereading old cards!!)
Motto of your life?
“The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Muriel Rukeyser + “The purpose of life is to enjoy it.” — someone wise AF
Thank you so much, Juliana for sharing all your creative insight, and we cannot wait to see all that is ahead for you and Good Juju Ink!