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At Home With Kate Titus

Kate Titus is the Senior Art Director for Digital Innovation at Refinery29, one of our favorite places to fall into an internet hole. She lives in downtown New York with her husband (whenever they are taking a break from traveling around the globe.)

Q / Hi Kate! How do you usually start your day? Any routine that gets you up?
A / I’ve never been a morning person, so I really envy people that can get up and utilize that peaceful part of the day. I fantasize about doing yoga in the morning and trading in my coffee for homemade juice, but the closest I’ve gotten to a morning routine as an adult is just giving myself enough time to get ready at a leisurely pace. I have an easy bus commute that takes me from the East Village straight to my office near City Hall, so before hopping on I’ll usually grab a coffee at Ninth Street Espresso. That bus ride is my first zen moment of day (besides people shoving each other for a bus seat). I zone out on my phone and skim my calendar for the day, read the top stories on NYT, and search my feeds for creative inspiration.

Q / Do you have a daily uniform or is there anything you carry with you every day? If so, why is it important to you?
A / I’m a very habitual dresser. When I find something I like, I wear it into the ground. Comfort is key to me, so on the weekends I definitely have a uniform. I actually apologize to my husband sometimes because I literally wear the same 2 outfits every weekend, and just change them up seasonally. Right now it’s a navy blue sweater, which used to be his, that I shrunk in the dryer and fits me perfectly now. I wear that with broken in boyfriend jeans and my white Pumas.

Q / Is there a time of day that you feel most productive? Anything specific that helps keep you focused?
A / Even though I’m not a morning person, I do like to be one of the first people in the office. It’s my 30-60 minutes of calm before the storm, when I can get a lot done without the string of meetings and interruptions. And usually, when all of the day’s stresses are over, I find that I have hyper focus late at night. I recently became obsessed with this ambient sound mixer called A Soft Murmur. I use it nearly every time I’m designing, and definitely when I’m writing. There’s a ton of excitement happening in the R29 offices. It’s not uncommon to have dogs running around, a brass band playing for a company meeting, or a treadmill being wheeled by for a photoshoot. It’s all brilliant and what makes working at Refinery29 such a joy, but sometimes you need to find your happy place. Mine is in a thunderstorm (with just a touch of wind and birds.)

Q / What is your favorite place to work?
A / My home. I have a hard time focusing in public spaces like coffee shops. I like having my own desk, chair, music and favorite snacks at my disposal. On days that I work from home, I truly double my productivity.

Q / How do you try to balance your time?
A / I’m still trying to master this. Sometimes a professional project can make its way into my personal life and I find myself working late into evenings and squeezing a little in on the weekends. It doesn’t happen regularly, but when it does, I burn myself out. I’m trying to be better at drawing clear lines for myself. The work week can be a mad dash, so I have to remember how important it is to turn off my brain and chill out when I have actually have down time.

Q / How do you keep yourself organized with all the projects you have going on?
A / I use Trello for list making, the app Sunrise which aggregates my calendars and serves them up with beautiful, intuitive UI, and tons of shared Google docs and spreadsheets.

“Even though I’m not a morning person, I do like to be one of the first people in the office. It’s my 30-60 minutes of calm before the storm, when I can get a lot done without the string of meetings and interruptions. And usually, when all of the day’s stresses are over, I find that I have hyper focus late at night.”

Q / What is something you are good at? Something you struggle with?
A / I have an eerily good memory. I have memories from before I was even two years old. I can’t say that math is really my thing.

Q / What do you enjoy most about your career? What are the most challenging things about it?
A / I love wearing many hats and working in all different mediums. When I started applying for college, I knew that I loved to draw and paint and take photos, but I really had no idea how I was going to make that into a career. I ended up focusing on Graphic Design because it seemed like a discipline that brought all of those worlds together — and it does. Now that the world has gone digital, we’ve added an endless array of tools to the mix. My job is to bring together design, words, technology, photography, videography and beyond, to create new ways of expressing our brand and telling our stories. And I get to do this with an incredible cast of talent. I’m endlessly inspired by, and learning from, the people I work with every day. The challenge is that creating art (in any form) is something very personal. When it’s something you get paid to do, and paid to do for someone else, it’s quite difficult to leave your emotions at the door. You always want your work to be its very best, but sometimes budgets, opinions, conflicts of interests, and unforeseen circumstances can derail it. My kryptonite is the phrase “it’s good enough.” It’s so hard for me to let go that I almost have a physical reaction to it. I’m still learning to accept that I can lose control of the vision or the final outcome of a project.

Q / How did taking off a year to travel around the world alter your view of time? Of career and work?
A / There are many reasons we decided to take a break from work to travel, but one of the driving forces was the concept of owning our time. We’ve all kind of been programmed to believe that there is a correct order of operations in life — school, work, retire. But my husband and I always questioned why we’re expected to spend some of our greatest years chained to our desks. What’s the point of working so hard if you don’t stop to enjoy the fruits of your labor every once in awhile? There’s nothing more valuable than time. It’s what life is made of and you can never get it back. It goes by really fast when you’re working too hard. But when you’re appreciating it the most, time actually slows down. After years of going at lightning speed, we just needed to stop, appreciate the now, and reclaim our time. We were fortunate enough to have some savings, limited responsibilities (no small humans to raise yet), and we just decided to pull the trigger. Many people ask if we were concerned that we’d hurt our careers by falling off the grid for a year, but we got nothing but support. I’ve never had a single person tell me that our trip was a bad idea. Everyone had admired and respected our decision, including employers. I think it shows confidence, guts and commitment. The time away helped us clear the everyday clutter and stresses from our brains and made us more receptive, informed, and inspired. What I experienced and learned on our travels made me a better person, and therefore, a better employee. I think many modern companies understand this and are coming around to providing more paid time off to their staff. Our culture just works too hard. We all need to reset every once in a while.

Q / What would you say was the most important thing you discovered in your travels?
A / How few material things you need to truly make you happy. I try to remind myself of that every day. But most importantly, empathy and perspective.

Q / Is there anything you will never take seriously in terms of your work?
A / Myself. Staying light-hearted, open, collaborative and humble is the key to success.

Q / Something that’s very important to you?
A / Working hard + being nice to people.

“My job is to bring together design, words, technology, photography, videography and beyond, to create new ways of expressing our brand and telling our stories. And I get to do this with an incredible cast of talent. I’m endlessly inspired by, and learning from, the people I work with every day.”

Q / Where do you go to be quiet and think?
A / Into my thunderstorm.

Q / How does your home and environment influence the kind and quality of work you produce?
A / Like most people, my home is where I’m the most comfortable. I also work best in places that are really clean. That’s so weird, but I can’t get started and stay focused on a project in a messy environment. Needless to say, our apartment is pretty tidy. It’s like a clean slate for my neurotic brain.

Q / Did you work on any projects during the year you were traveling?
A / We did a handful of small projects, like tinkering with a logo for a friend’s company. At the beginning of the trip, we thought we’d create a blog documenting our travel photos and stories as we went. But because we’re professional designers, we found ourselves spending way too much time in front of our laptops trying to keep it up and make it beautiful. I’m glad it never got off the ground, because we would have obsessed over it. I truly thought I was going to have all of this down time while we traveled to come up with hundreds of business ideas and ways to take over the world, but instead, we were just wrapped up in our new environments and in the moment. Exactly as it should have been. Our goal was to stay off the computer as much as possible.

Q / Where did you grow up and what led you to your current home. How would you say these places shaped your perception of work?
A / I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. It was very much a suburban, Midwestern upbringing (mini-malls and cornfields) but we were close enough to the city that we could hop on a Metra train and be downtown in 45 minutes. Growing up I always felt like a bit of city girl because of our proximity, but it wasn’t until I went to study in London, in college, that I got my first real taste of living in a major metropolis. I went into the whole thing a little over confident. This was going to be a piece of cake – I mean, hello, I was from the suburbs of Chicago! But once I arrived in London, in a new culture, all by myself, without a guide, without a friend, I was surprisingly spun upside down. I had to learn the ins and outs of the city, the slang, and how to navigate very quickly. So in a sense, I grew up in London. It made me more independent than ever and turned me into a true city dweller. My schooling there was also very independently driven. I remember nagging my teacher more for details on project requirements. He basically said, do you want it to be good? Do you want it to be good enough to put into your portfolio? Then make that happen. After graduating college, I lived in Chicago for nearly 4 years. I worked for a small design studio and then for myself as a freelancer. I was really eager to get more work in the fashion industry and I knew that New York was the place to be. It’s where I learned a whole new version of city living — the congestion, the garbage, the constant hustle. But also, how closely a location can be tied to your drive to succeed. New Yorkers are their own breed. They raise the bar. So many different kinds of people, with all different kinds of goals — moving along to the same beat, the same energy of the city, with the same level of ambition. Everyone seems to care so deeply about what they do. It makes you work even harder, strive to earn and keep your place in this city of dreamers.

Q / What is your first memory of work? Of success? Of failure?
A / Oddly, I have very vivid memory of being chosen to be the narrator of the Christmas concert in 2nd grade. I was really fearless about it and quite pleased with myself. I took gymnastics classes in grade school and I remember thinking I was pretty good, but couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t advance to the elite squad like the rest of my friends, until I saw a video myself doing a floor routine. My lanky arms and legs were flying everywhere — elbows and knee bent. I realized that my Olive Oyl frame was not cut out for gymnastics and hung up my hat.

“New Yorkers are their own breed. They raise the bar. So many different kinds of people, with all different kinds of goals — moving along to the same beat, the same energy of the city, with the same level of ambition. Everyone seems to care so deeply about what they do. It makes you work even harder, strive to earn and keep your place in this city of dreamers.”

Q / Do you keep any collections? If so, how do they influence you creatively?
A / I used to hold on to a lot more, but New York helps you streamline your possessions. We only have two closets. Enough said. We do have a nice little collection of treasures from our travels. I’ll always keep that going.

Q / How would you define beauty and what part does it play in your work?
A / To me, beauty is authenticity. I try to be authentic in every walk of my life — as an individual, co-worker and designer.

Q / Does social media factor into your work at all? Is there anything you find problematic about it?
A / I have a strong love/hate relationship with social media. I’ve had my finger on the eject button of so many platforms lately. I’m seduced by the idea of existing solely in real life again. Social media is a double-edged sword. It’s amazing how much it has affected the younger generations. I feel like they don’t even know how to converse in person anymore. All communication is done through the internet, in a consequence free environment. It’s why bullying has skyrocketed in recent years. I’m appalled at the comments and insults people hurl at each other on this digital stage. There’s no tact, no accountability. On top of that, I think social media breeds narcissism and comparison. And as it’s been said, comparison is the thief of joy. People craft idealistic versions of their lives and others latch onto this voyeurism — worshipping these individuals who have “perfect” hair, bodies, clothing and homes. To me, that’s poison. It forces one individual to compare their own life to something unattainable, and usually highly choreographed, and it feeds the narcissism of another individual. On the flip side, social media is the single greatest advancement in connectivity and discovery. As a creative, I gravitate to image-driven platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. Pinterest is my daily creative brain food — feeding me graphic design, UX, interior design, fashion, etc. and I’ve discovered so many talents, so many artists through Instagram rabbit holes. Don’t get me wrong, I do follow the lifestyles of many people on Instagram, but only if there’s a level of authenticity. So yeah, I try not to be too much of Debbie Downer. Social media can be used for good! Notably, cute photos of your friends’ kids.

Q / Do you use the internet on vacation or do you prefer to completely disconnect?
A / I’ll use it as a utility — for making reservations, looking up recommendations, etc. But no, I try to stay disconnected as much as possible when I’m on vacation since my job is to be plugged into a computer all day.

Q / Is there anything in particular that you do to take care of yourself and relax?
A / To be completely honest, I haven’t been very good at this lately. The last few months I’ve been juggling too many personal and professional projects at the same time, and have run myself a little ragged. Now that those projects have wrapped, I’ve made a promise to myself to get my priorities in check and make sure I’m putting my time and health first: Starting with getting eight hours of sleep a night…but the main recipe to a relaxing night is cooking dinner, lounging on the couch, and binging on a good new show or movie. You have to be completely lazy every once in awhile.

Q / Was there any particular person who helped shape your career in formative way?
A / I had a fabulous art teacher in high school, who had worked as a model and makeup artist in NYC when she was younger. I remember thinking her life was so glamorous and almost unfathomable. She’s the first person that told me I had a really special artistic talent and always encouraged me to dream bigger. She never made it sound unrealistic, but almost like my destiny. That really stuck with me for many years. My husband is also my fan club president. We met working together. He was the Creative Director and I was a Senior Designer on his team. Because of this, I feel like he has a true understanding and appreciation of my skills and always gives me the encouragement and confidence to take my career to the next level.

“As a creative, I gravitate to image-driven platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. Pinterest is my daily creative brain food — feeding me graphic design, UX, interior design, fashion, etc. and I’ve discovered so many talents, so many artists through Instagram rabbit holes.”

Q / How did your family feel about your career path?
A / I think my parents were slightly skeptical of some of my careers moves early on. Only 2.5 years after college, I quit my full time job to be a freelancer and run my own little design studio. I think that initially concerned my parents, who came from a generation that stayed in the same job for decades and held onto their benefits. I completely understood where they were coming from, but it’s a different world now. People are constantly shifting their careers, chasing the best opportunities, etc. After proving to them I could succeed on my own, I think they just trusted my decisions. I know they always trusted that I would land on my feet some how. Everyone in my family is really artistic actually, but I’m the only one who followed it into a career.

Q / What’s the worst job you’ve ever had? The funniest?
A / My worst job was definitely working at Abercrombie & Fitch in the mall during high school. They notoriously play the music super loud in those stores (which is fine for 15 minute shopping sessions, but not all day), so I was always counting down the minutes until we closed and the music was killed. Some nights we’d be there until two in the morning, setting up the store with the newest arrivals, and this one male co-worker with blonde frosted tips (all the rage then) would feel the need to put on his club kid music for the rest of the night — just to fill in those last few hours of peace with electronica. Why??? And they paid you next to nothing and made you wear only the newest arrivals of their clothing every day, so you put your money right back into the store. Not my finest hour…

Q / In what capacity do you work with other people?
A / My current job is all about collaboration. I bring the art direction and design to the table, but the final product usually requires the touch of many individual experts. For example, if we’re working on a multimedia feature, then nearly every team will have been involved in some way — editorial, creative, product and marketing. It sometimes makes for a lot of chaos, but we’re always learning from each other and bringing our collective talents together makes for a greater product in the end.

Q / What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
A / Watching ideas turn from scribbles in a notebook to real products and experiences. There’s a bit of magic to that.

Q / What has been your proudest career moment thus far?
A / I can’t think of any one moment in particular, but I’m quite proud of having made a successful career out of doing exactly what I love. Nothing was ever handed to me on a silver platter. I got a scholarship in college which afforded me the opportunity to study abroad. I moved away from my friends and family to follow my professional ambitions in New York. I took risks moving on from comfortable jobs that didn’t quite fit anymore. I aggressively chased after jobs that did fit. It’s all taken a lot of hard work and determination, and that in itself in my proudest achievement.

Q / What are you looking forward to this year?
A / My husband and I just bought a house in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. It was built in 1899, so we plan to gut renovate the kitchen and bathrooms and update the original features. It’s honestly a dream design project for us. Andy is great at envisioning spaces, so he’s been working on the structure and creating 3D renderings of the room alterations. I, on the other hand, am the master of Pinterest. I have a secret board for every room in the house and am in charge of interior design and sourcing materials. We’re a good team that way.

“My current job is all about collaboration. I bring the art direction and design to the table, but the final product usually requires the touch of many individual experts.”

Q / Lastly, ten of your favorite people, places, and things that we should discover too?
1. The work of Inès Longevial.
2. Iced coffee and olive oil cake at Abraço.
3. Sautéed Haloumi cheese (and everything else on the menu) at Pylos.
4. Varanasi, India.
5. Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.
6. Vis, Croatia.
7. This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.
8. French 75s.
9. Fresh Black Tea Instant Perfecting Mask.
10. A Soft Murmur

Interview & Photography
Catherine Litke

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