Human Resources’ Kurt Green on the challenges and rewards of running his freelance design studio
Scottish graphic designer Kurt Green co-founded Human Resources as a visual culture blog, posting about film, art and more, before taking on the mantra for the name of his freelance design practice over a decade later. Based in and around the city of Edinburgh, and primarily operating solo, he utilises more than 10 years of design industry experience to help a range of international clients and studios translate their ideas into straightforward, meaningful solutions.
EM Hey Kurt, how are you doing?
KG I’m very decent Elliott. I have recently moved out of the city (Edinburgh) to the South of Scotland, in a small town surrounded by greenery, hills and farmers. If you could only get a decent coffee here.
EM How have you found the last couple of years with the pandemic? Has it affected your work?
KG That’s scary to think all this bullshit has been nearly two years. Christ. Work wise it has been up and down, with some cancelled projects and a lot of dead-end enquiries. But the pandemic has provided some nice opportunities to work a lot further afield than Scotland and the UK with clients around the globe, from a new gallery space in Austin, Texas selling incredible antique furniture pieces to a new personal care brand in Ireland.
EM What’s the story of Human Resources? It started as a blog before becoming the name for your freelance design practice?
KG Indeed it was. My friend and Edinburgh College of Art pal Ross and I started Human Resources as a blog in early 2007 while in 3rd year as a means to curate visual content from around the globe. This was just before Tumblr launched and just after design blogs like INT and September Industry were getting going, so to differentiate we focussed more on film, art and other forms of visual culture. At its peak, we were getting nearly 1m unique visits a month. A few years after graduating it kind of just fizzled out with work and life commitments.
When I went perma-freelance in 2019, I quickly needed a name to work under, and as I’d been talking shit on the HR Twitter account for years, I thought I would use that. In hindsight, the HR department is usually somewhere you want to avoid, so whether it was the best choice is still TBC.
EM What do you find the most difficult about running your own studio?
KG It’s always new business for me, which feels like a full-time job on its own. Moving to a remote location has emphasised the FOMO of city life and the opportunities it can present, so I’m still trying to get used to a largely online life to make new connections.
EM And how about the most rewarding?
KG It’s always about the work and seeing something you have had a hand in developing being launched into the world, but I also think meeting new people and building relationships with clients, even if it’s primarily remote at the moment, is a lovely part of the job. Every designer always has a bigger skill set than just merely the mover of shapes and letters, whether they realise it or not. When you work closely with clients and founders, especially with smaller enterprises and startups, you can feel like an integral part of their business and offer advice and guidance beyond creative output, which is rewarding in itself.
Don’t take on more than you can handle.
EM What tools and software do you use to make everything run smoothly?
KG Freeagent for invoicing and €£¥$flow. Dropbox to handle all my files, and I use Dropbox Paper as a really basic note-taking/project management system. I also use Numi daily, a really simple, lightweight calculator app that will convert almost anything – especially great for quick measurement, time and currency conversions.
EM Working on your own, how did you learn how to properly plan and charge for projects?
KG Planning is relatively straightforward – don’t take on more than you can handle, and do the work. My projects always start off with a timeline of milestones, but you can never really account for client delays, receiving external content etc. so you have to learn how to be pretty fluid. Taking on projects, I still use a pretty common equation — as long as new projects tick two criteria points I’m good to go;
1. Do I believe in the product or service (+ will it be enjoyable to work on)?
2. Does it pay (well)?
3. Can I promote it?
For estimating project fees, I still apply my day rate x time to cost projects with a sprinkle of value-based pricing depending on the client. It’s still something I need to get much better at. But always get a contract with a deposit upfront.
It’s taken a while to learn how to work a little smarter and not harder.
EM Do you manage to find a good balance between work and life?
KG This is super important to me. In the past, I have teetered on the edge of burnout a couple of times without really knowing it. It’s taken a while to learn how to work a little smarter and not harder. Since starting a family, working for yourself and having time freedom, not being tethered to a desk Monday-Friday, 9 til 5, is an amazing privilege. If it's a nice day I can take time off and go to the park with my daughter or whoop my wife at a game of afternoon Squash (sorry Hannah).
EM What kind of work would you like to do more of?
KG I have loved doing brand+packaging work recently, especially helping clients make as sustainable print choices as possible. From working mostly on solo projects for the last couple of years, I would love to do more collaborative work with other designers, animators, photographers, getting more people involved in my projects when budgets allow. You can still create a sense of studio even if it’s over instant messenger and you are 50 or 5000 miles apart. Some immediate design bucket list projects would be to work with a Winery and do a branding suite for a hotel.
EM Speaking of brand and packaging work, your Obadiah Coffee identity is a recent favourite, with the blind emboss on the lovely Extract papers. It must’ve been satisfying to see it come out how it did?
KG That was my first proper packaging job so seeing the final product and the response it got from customers and the design community (thanks T—BI) was great. It was something a little bit different for coffee packaging and I still get hit up about it weekly.
EM Have you thought about a world in which you grow the studio to have more permanent people?
KG I would absolutely love to at some point in the future. I’d like to test the waters a bit and do some mini apprenticeships, but I would equally love to partner up with someone with complementary skills. Maybe something for 2022. But first, I need a proper website.
EM Do you have a project you consider to be your best work?
KG Cop out answer incoming, but as I spent the first six years of my professional design career as an exhibition designer, I still feel like a relative newbie in branding and digital, still learning, still refining my process. I always think most designers feel their best work is yet to come, I guess that’s what keeps us motivated and hungry.
EM Going back to the beginning, what got you into graphic design?
KG When I was young, my big brother was a professional footballer and one of my earliest creative memories was sketching football kits with shirt outlines he had made, redrawing the logos and sponsors. My mum also had a big beauty magazine collection and I used to rip out the ads I liked (still do). In my early twenties, it was really club culture and music that got me into graphic design and with no experience, I talked my way into doing club posters for local promoters in Aberdeen. It was then I realised it could be a viable career option and applied to Art School with a book full of A6 flyers.
EM You mentioned you used to be an exhibition designer after you graduated – how was that experience?
KG Most of the projects I worked on were public sector funded projects, with project lead times being anything from 2-5 years and working on everything from the feasibility studies to the interpretive and interior design – so learning patience was key. It also taught a lot about image cropping. Having a 30 foot high image printed as a digital wallpaper that has been badly cropped will do that.
EM To wrap it up, what typeface are you using for every project if you can only use one?
KG Ooooft. If there could be only one, highlander style, it would have to be Beausite Classic from FatType. It’s been my workhorse for the past couple of years and has so many alternative stylistic sets it would never get tired (is that cheating?).