Mission-Driven Design with Illustrator Extraordinaire Kate Bingaman-Burt

Graphic designer and illustrator Kate Bingaman-Burt shares how she turned a once-dreaded task into an incredibly meaningful and successful creative practice.


Anastasia dyakovskaya

Author

Kate Bingaman-Burt is a creative living in Portland, Oregon, where she’s Associate Professor of Graphic Design at PSU, runs her own print and workshop space, and creates illustrations and experiences for her personal practice as well as a range of clients – among them Airbnb, Chipotle, Etsy, Target, and beyond.

In light of Earth Day, we were interested to learn more about Obsessive Consumption – a project about the many things we buy that’s seen many phases and forms since its start back in 2006. Over a decade later, Kate’s still plugging away, devoted to her daily drawing practice and a concept that inadvertently skyrocketed her into the stuff of illustration legend.

Here, in an exclusive chat with Setka, she shares the journey that brought her into the design spotlight, and the combination of inspiration and discipline that started it all.

Obsessive Consumption

One of my very first jobs was as a designer and sales associate at a gift company in Omaha, Nebraska. They’d send me all around the country to different trade shows, and I became really fascinated and shocked by the rapid rate of consumer trends and how much waste was being generated by all of these trade shows, just watching people be really driven by their odd desires for stuff. So I started filling up notebooks with projects that I would want to do if I didn’t have to sit in exhibition halls all day long – coming from this sense of awe at our amount of waste and how we’re just completely controlled by trends and the desire to buy things.

Then there was my first year at grad school, which began right after 9/11. And one of the main directives from our government was that we should remain “open for business.” We were essentially told – at a time when the United States was feeling very scared and confused by what had just happened – that the best thing to do for our country was to keep spending money and keep shopping.

Drawing turned into this really meditative time to reflect and think about what I was doing and how I was spending

An artist is born

I was shocked that this was the response, and it was really impactful for me at that stage of my life and trying to figure out what it meant to make work and be a graphic designer. I first started working on these ideas as a photo-based project in 2002, photo-documenting everything that I purchased. I created a website where I uploaded and shared and rated and ranked it all, and then people would send me stories about their favorite objects and purchases and what they bought that day. It turned into this really fun, early internet art project – a space where people could share their obsessions and their stories about the objects in their lives.

That’s when I started turning inward regarding our obsession with things, and I did a lot of intense photo studies of yard sales and thrift stores and just consumerism in general over the course of two years, going and hanging out at malls and interviewing people and photographing people. I was really interested in what people were buying and why.

It’s so important to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Be conscious of what it is that you’re consuming and saying, of how you treat people, and of how you spend your time

Turning to illustration

Another big part of this project for me was finding myself to be $25,000 in credit card debt – a combination of school and just being in my mid-to-late 20s and not really understanding or taking responsibility for spending. I decided to be draw all of my credit card statements until they were paid off, and that’s the project that really got me into illustrating and drawing in the first place. I picked drawing because I actually really hated drawing at the time, so that way of working was meant to be a point of punishment – sort of like writing, “I will not talk in class” on a chalkboard over and over again in school when you were little. But that practice turned into this time to reflect and think about what I was doing and how I was spending. And that meditative process of drawing is what I fell in love with.

Artwork drives awareness

The biggest takeaway from all of the work that I’ve done is that I think it’s really easy for people to not be actively engaged in their own lives. And I find that a lot of the observational drawing projects that I do really cause me to become an active participant in my own story. I think, especially now, it’s so easy to just be numbed by the world around you. But it’s so important to be awake and to be paying attention to what’s going on – just being conscious of what it is that you’re consuming and saying, conscious about how you treat people, and conscious about how you spend your time.

Brands need to invest in community

When brands invest in people, the audience that they’re trying to reach can sincerely see that the company wants to engage with creators, and that they’re invested in making a good product – even when it comes to their illustrations. Working with illustrators and designers feels more real, more authentic, and more invested in the community you’re trying to build. And I think that those are all good things that brands would like to be affiliated and associated with these days.

Hired hand

Kate talks client work

I do a lot of hand lettering and illustrated infographics, as well as a lot of pretty detailed object drawings, line drawings, things like that. Almost all of my freelance work starts with pen and paper, but then I vectorize everything and then build it up from there. I don’t really do anything too digitally intense with my personal work, but my client work is always all vector because a lot of the time those materials also get applied to animation — and it’s a lot easier for animators to work with vector files.

HR

To celebrate the opening of the Portland Airbnb office, I was contacted to create a simple, one-page infographic illustration that highlights the positive impacts that the office — and Airbnb in general — have on the city of Portland. This was used across social, and then it was also presented to then-mayor of Portland.

eCommerce

I’ve done a couple of large-scale projects with Etsy, one being where I came in for their fifth anniversary party and drew people’s favorite Etsy purchases for a big mural in their office. I came back a couple years later for another event and updated it. They also had me do an on-site installation for a party they threw at a conference, where I decorated the venue with all of my illustrations and drawings. 

Branded Content

I did a big page for The California Sunday Magazine a year or so ago where they basically wanted me to do a full-page illustration of the most favorite objects I have at home [in collaboration with Nest, the smart home temperature control system]. They hired me to do a project I would have normally done on my own, which also made sense for the client they were working with.

Editorial

I just finished a project for Rachael Ray Everyday, where they had me do a bunch of portraits of all these famous female chefs, along with a giant timeline. There, I was a hired hand and working my style. That was a situation where I was telling their story, with a very clear idea of what they wanted – 10 portraits of these really rad chefs, along with an infographic of how they’re all interconnected and the different restaurants they’ve worked at – with the opportunity to get lost in the type and design.

Advice to illustrators

I think it’s really important to figure out a set of guides for you to follow because if you’re going to do a repetitive project, it’s more impactful to do it consistently. The daily drawing project that I’ve done is just a little bit every single day, and it’s all done in black and white, on the same paper, in the same pen, talking about the same kind of content.

When you focus on something intensely, it gives you more freedom to explore. And when you set smaller goals for yourself, they’re more attainable and they’re more achievable, and that gives you the motivation you need to keep doing that task or project. You gain momentum and satisfaction from seeing how the little things add up to a lot.

What’s next

The thing I’m most excited right now is my business, Outlet. That’s really the umbrella for all of my non-client work at this point. And it’s also the physical business where I’m able to have workshops and a couple employees who help people print. It’s just been a really wonderful community space that I feel pretty proud to be running at this point in my life. I’m looking forward to seeing what more we can do with the space and how we can help amplify voices and ideas from people that want to be making prints and publications and and all that good stuff.


Download “Women in Design: Superheroes, Legends and Rising Stars” for more insights from Kate and other design leaders like Ellen Lupton and Debbie Millman.

Let us know what you think – and who we might have missed – @SetkaEditor on Twitter and Instagram!