It Girl | KRISTIN LUEKE
I sat in on a talk that Kristin gave at Hopscotch Design Fest in Raleigh, North Carolina. True to self, she stood on stage and poured her soul out in the most meaningful and *gasp* vulnerable way possible. She touched on a ton of super prevalent topics that we face as creatives, but also things we deal with as humans. From not feeling validated to imposter syndrome to stepping outside of your comfort zone, she completely nailed it and has a way of making you instantly feel comfortable. After her lecture, I knew I had to introduce myself and ask her about working with Aspiring Co.. Her wisdom and way with words is approachable, insightful and relatable, and reading over her answers makes me feel like it- whatever that is for you, is all going to be okay. Kristin is an absolute delight and we are now besties in my head. She also gives amazing hugs, just saying.
Name: Kristin Lueke
Job Title/Company: Content Strategist at Firebelly Design
Education Background: BA in English, Princeton University | MA in Humanities + Creative Writing, University of Chicago
1. Tell us a little about who you are.
As a Virgo, I’m contractually and cosmically obligated to make sure everyone knows I’m a Virgo. A really good one too. I have a primordial drive to seek perfection and take on problems that aren’t my own. This isn’t always healthy, or helpful, and it’s not very chill. I mention the chill thing because I’m also from Southern California, which has led to a lifetime of people assuming I’m laid back, but whoops! I’m not. What I am is emotional—just really full of feelings. I’ve been known to have like 3-5 feelings at once. But I’ve come to see that as a strength; I don’t mind letting people see me get vulnerable. Every time I’ve let someone see who I am, I’ve lived. And bonus: when you open up to people, more often than not, they open up to you, and BOOM—you got yourself an honest-to-goodness human connection. So vulnerability isn’t just a form of honesty, it’s a time-saver, which, as a Virgo, I love.
I’m also a poet. Once upon a time, it made me feel self-conscious or silly to say that, but fuck that. It’s something I love—finding the right words, arranging them just so, attempting to replicate a moment or movement or thought so that someone else could feel it too. If you can find something to love in this strange, cold world, you gotta own it, care for it. Keep it alive. Which is also why I like plants, and old dogs—I’ve got two twelve-year old pups, we call them the Old Lady Friends because they’re always touchin’ butts. So all told, I’m a deeply flawed but always trying human being who loves poems, plants, people, dogs, and my job, which is rad. I’m a lucky chick.
2. What sparked your interest in the work you do as a Content Strategist at Firebelly?
I love language and meaning making, and also the internet. Well I used to anyway. The internet as it currently exists may be beyond saving…which doesn’t stop me from wanting to make it a little more thoughtful, a little more useful in whatever corners we can. And that requires thinking about audience and context, prioritizing and organizing information, modulating how we speak to meet people where they are. It all goes back to making connections.
What is endlessly fascinating and fulfilling and challenging about my work at Firebelly is applying the discipline more broadly to brand strategy, helping organizations understand that every thing matters—the words they use, the colors and typography they choose, how verbal and visual layers come together at each moment—it’s all meaningful. These things have the power to spark thoughts, memories, feelings. As a studio that strives to be a force for good in the world, it’s our responsibility to be as thoughtful and inclusive as possible, so that when we make design decisions, we’re taking into account the many perspectives, experiences, and abilities of our audience. Human-centered design is cool as hell.
3. Who are you most influenced by?
The women in my family—my mother, my grandmother, my many tias. We’re talking about some magical broads. I’d say they take no shit from anybody, but the truth is, they’ve put up with all kinds of shenanigans. But they’re patient, grounded, born helpers and nurturers who see the good in everyone, and know how to sublimate the bad. They’re healers, really—they understand that anger comes from pain, and pain from alienation. They can strike up a conversation with a stranger and immediately go deep. I’m not nearly as patient, or as naturally empathetic, but I’ve got good role models and I’ll never stop working at it.
4. What was your first job and how long did you hold that position?
First job: roller coaster operator at Six Flags Magic Mountain, the summer before college. First post-college job: a year-long fellowship as a Program Assistant in the Office of New School Development at Chicago Public Schools. It was…educational. Really opened my eyes to the broader, historic systems at play when we talk about “underperforming” schools.
5. Can you share one of your proudest achievements with us?
Earlier this summer I stepped way outside my comfort zone and did what can only be called performance poetry for a friend’s show at the iO Theater. It was a trip—a mythological, pseudo-spiritual funk and improv show about a chosen child who reaches enlightenment. My part was as a galactic sage, sent by a cosmic serpent to help the child understand the fundamental truth about choices—how every decision we make also represents a path not traveled, and every life lived contains a thousand lives that never came to be. It was trippy stuff, and I wrote a piece that required more performance than I’ve ever done in public. I built an altar on stage, with each object representing different energies and intentions, and I asked the audience to choose which objects stayed, and which went, and it ended with me destroying a bunch of things I made on stage. It was cathartic, terrifying, and terribly fun. My mom even flew in from California for it…she’d never seen me read in public, so it was really special to have her there.
6. What were your initial goals with your work? How have they evolved?
When I got into the content strategy game, I just wanted to make websites suck less. You know? Clean up word counts, encourage good habits, provide helpful structure. But the longer I’ve been in this industry, the more I’ve come to see all the ways design fails people by being too pristine, too rigid, too narrow. I think we do a good job at Firebelly of interrogating our work, asking if we’re making responsible decisions given what we know about not just our clients but the larger systems we’re working in. But we can always do better, and it begins with making sure we’ve got as many perspectives at the table as possible and we’re having hard, important conversations about what we’re making, why, how, and for whom. That’s something I want to work on.
7. What do you think is the most important life skill you learned from working in your field?
Putting aside my ego. Feedback is always a tough pill to swallow, and as a writer, hoo boy. I used to take it so personally! Like, how dare they! That is of course just ego talking, protecting, defending me from criticism. But it’s not about me, the work never is. I’ve gotten better at bringing an open mind to feedback sessions, learning to listen and ask clarifying questions, and leaving them feeling motivated and optimistic, rather than demoralized. or frustrated Only took me 30+ years!
8. Where do you hope to be in 5 years?
Going strong at Firebelly, writing killer playbooks for badass feminist and justice-minded organizations, collaborating with other studios around Chicago, participating in or even coordinating learning exchanges. Hopefully by then I’ll have published a full-length book of poetry or two and really nailed a few talks. It’d take a lot to get me to leave Chicago, I’ve built a home here. I feel like I’ve found my place.
9. What is a typical day like for you?
Wake up at 7, coo at the dogs, walk ‘em, feed ‘em, give ‘em their meds. Talk about the day ahead with husband, a novelist and professor, so usually that conversation is some version of “reading, writing, listening, talking.” Maybe a fresh-pressed juice before I dash out the door 10 minutes later than I meant to. Arrive at work promptly at 9am, make a pot of tea, then settle in for the day.
Every day is different, but generally from 9am-6pm, it’s non-stop, writing copy, creating and reviewing decks, phone calls, meetings, brainstorms, Slackin’, answering new business inquiries, guzzling water, fighting with InDesign. Then home to make dinner with the dude, maybe step out to shoot pool for an hour or two, get a little reading in, fall asleep on the couch 15 minutes into a movie, and crawl into bed with all my favorite living things. Not bad.
10. What was the biggest obstacle you’ve faced so far in the process of pursuing your goals?
Self-censoring. Thinking my ideas or needs aren’t important, being afraid to share my thoughts for fear that they’re not terribly interesting or useful or creative. Again, that’s ego, protecting me from potential shame or disappointment. Like, give it a rest.
11. What is the best piece of advice you have received?
All my horoscopes and my therapist are in agreement on this: Let go of that which no longer serves you. Recently I was on vacation in Mexico with my mama and a bunch of tias—one afternoon I got something called the Three Treasures Sound Harmony treatment. It was a sound bath complete with gongs, singing bowls, tuning forks, crystals, incense, reiki, the works. For a while my mind was totally and blissfully silent until WHOOSH, this chorus comes rushing into my brainspace, chanting “perfection is the enemy of progress.”
I laid there butt naked trying to make sense of it, until finally it clicked—perfection is a fixed, unattainable end point that rejects everything that isn’t itself. Which is to say it makes you miserable to live without it. The pursuit of perfection is a real recipe for self-loathing, and I’m done disliking myself. Hell, I’m out here trying to love myself. The pursuit of perfection no longer serves me, and I’m ready to let it go. Or at least work on it. Thanks Chani Nicholas and my therapist!
12. When do you get your best ideas?
I guess laying butt naked on a table surrounded by gongs and crystals.
13. Can you share with us one time that you failed and what you learned from that failure?
I bombed my first client presentation pretty hard. I was sharing a new naming convention and taglines for a suite of educational tools to a bunch of educational researchers. They tore every word to shreds—they weren’t by any means cruel, but they were rigorous. I strolled in there thinking they’d be razzle dazzled by some shiny branding, but they wanted to understand the rationale behind each word and metaphor, and wax philosophical about the value of taglines…I went it there without a strong point of view, and didn’t have very good answers to their questions, so I couldn’t get their buy-in to move forward with the naming changes. It’s easy to change nothing. If you want to move people forward, you have to bring them perspective and passion.
14. How do you unwind?
I try to get close to myself—getting real cozy at home, doing yoga, revisiting old journals, taking stock. I also turn to water and ritual—preparing excellent baths with homemade salts, drinking tea slowly, hydrating. Also weed. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
15. What would you tell someone else who is struggling with (imposter syndrome, taking a seat at the table, feeling validated creatively/professionally)?
YOUR BRAIN AND YOUR HEART HAVE GOTTEN YOU THIS FAR. SHARE THEM.
You’ve always survived. It’s time to thrive.
16. What do you hope people take away from your story?
Whatever you do, just care. Care as much as you can.