The Card Designer Spotlight is a series featuring independent makers whose greeting cards you can find in Paper Source stores. Meet and be inspired by a new designer every month on our blog!
Amy Kwong of Smitten Kitten is a creative entrepreneur and an absolute vibe. From her storytelling to card designing, everything she does, she does with fun, flair, and a love for Fridays. Amy’s continued hard work, well-rounded skills & personality founded her thriving business while the universal language of humor connects her with her quirky audience.
How did you begin your card-making career?
Smitten Kitten’s origin story? Cue montage!
Our protagonist graduates art school in her 20s with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Ceramics, ‘a super handy degree to have for a career path’ said no one ever.
She needed a job, preferably in a creative field but with said ‘handy degree’, the prospects weren’t good. She taught herself graphic design, worked hard and eventually lands a position as creative director for a large giftware company. She kept grinding and won design awards for them. After a couple years they offered her a part of the company and she became part owner.
However just when everything seemed rosy and her path is set, she quits her dream job because she disagreed with the company’s ethos. ‘Screw you greedy bunch of bastards!’ she said, “I will not have my good name tied to your shoddy manufacturing and shady business dealings anymore!”. She walks out as the building behind her explodes and burns to the ground. She had always wanted to start her own company but with nothing but a dream in her pocket and on Employment Insurance, she sold her belongings to buy the equipment needed to get started.
* Okay that might’ve been a tad dramatic. In truth, I respectfully gave my two weeks’ notice at that company. It didn’t burn to the ground but they did go under about a year after I left. The only thing I sold were some trading cards and I used that money to buy myself a nice computer.*
Moving on! Scrappy underdog starts from the bottom and spends the next few years hustling hard at local craft shows. Local crafts shows turned into national craft shows and soon after, she nuts up and makes the leap into the tradeshow circuit.
Her first tradeshow, the National Stationery Show in New York, was rrrough. She had such high hopes and spent so much money to be there only to end up writing 3 orders. She went to a TGI Fridays afterwards and cried over her French fries and beer
*Okay now cue Rocky Balboa running up the stairs music*
Still, our fierce heroine hangs in there, showing up season after season until eventually her line gets picked up by retail chains such as Paper Source, Urban Outfitters (a full circle moment for her because she used to be a manager there in her twenties), Nordstrom, and Indigo. She met sales reps who wanted to hawk her wares, so schlepping from show to show was no longer necessary. Huzzah! She never went back to TGI Fridays again.
In 2014 she outgrows her home-based business and moves into a commercial space. It’s all still just a one-woman show at this point but our ‘one woman’, despite being tenacious and stubborn, had to admit she couldn’t carry the load alone anymore, so she hired on staff.
With people helping, her workload lessened. However, instead of slowing down after having worked like a crazy person for the last 8 years, she decides to demo the front half of the space to build herself a retail shop. She aptly named her shop I Have A Crush On You (Get it? Smitten Kitten / I Have A Crush On You). She even built a mini cup-noodle shop inside. Why? Because she laughs at the face of convention and yeah, she’s kind of a weirdo.
The end! Well actually, we’re coming up on Smitten Kitten’s 17-year anniversary this year so not the end I guess.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Food? Pop Culture? Timeless Motifs? Playful Puns?
Pop culture as inspiration might be a bit of an understatement, it’s in my DNA. As the daughter of a busy single mother, it’s fair to say I was raised by TV. The Nanny was my nanny, Bart Simpson was my bratty brother and Veronica Sawyer my best friend. I dated Alex P. Keaton for a while but when 90210 aired, I broke up with him and started dating Brandon Walsh. When I grew up I wanted to be a F-14 pilot just so I could be Maverick’s wingman.
I’m a TCK (Third Culture Kid) meaning I grew up living in a few different countries. Having moved around a lot I figured out at an early age that humour is a universal language and making people laugh is the quickest way to fit in. I love and have always been curious about people, language, and culture. All of which is an abundant source of inspiration for me.
What does your day look like as a card maker and designer?
The actual designing and card making represents only a small portion of my day-to-day. To run a business you need to be well-rounded and be able to step into different roles.
Think of it as the A-Team but you’re your own A-Team. You’re Hannibal sometimes (Boss and team leader). Howling Mad Murdock (the creative designer). Faceman (sales and marketing), and B.A. Baracus (the muscle) i.e.: physical activities like printing on the presses, fixing things, and making products.
A perfect day for me would look like this: Work on creative projects at a nice coffee shop in the morning (Murdock), then go to my studio and shop in the afternoon to meet with my team (Hannibal), chat with customers (Faceman), print cards and merchandise the store (Baracus). I go home early, make a healthy dinner, be in bed by 10pm. HA!
But shit happens and every day is different. Some days you find yourself eating cup noodles at the studio at 1am in the morning four days in a row because a deadline is due. Other days you’re running back and forth from the hardware store because the typeholder on your stamping machine fell off, or the stupid toilet needs fixing AGAIN. Shit literally happens sometimes.
What does your creative process look like?
It starts with the most important tool in my creative arsenal, the Notes app on my phone.
Whenever an idea or a thought comes to me, I stop what I’m doing and put it in my phone right away. I’m a suuuper forgetful human and ideas seem to pop into my head at the most inopportune time. If I don’t write that thought down as soon as it pops up It’ll be lost in the ether forever.
I write everything down! Half-baked ideas, funny thoughts, soundbites, things that make me go hmmm… If something gives me pause I’ll jot it down. I currently have 407 notes on my phone which sounds insane but you know what? Come time to hunker down and design a new line, I’m ready to roll.
When I’ve figured out what ideas to go ahead with, I move on to graphics on my computer. This is what takes the longest! All that drawing, tweaking, working and reworking… I swear if this whole Smitten Kitten malarky goes to pot, I can always get a second career making fake IDs.
After the graphics are done, I make mock-ups of all the new cards to show my friends and my staff. They’re my target audience so that’s the true test. Some cards are for-sures, others are maybes. If a card doesn’t make the cut this round it’s ok. I’ll bank them for another day.
Then to finish up, I’ll spend another 50 hours overthinking and second-guessing for good measure, before sending the files off to my printer and plate-makers.
What is your preferred medium?
For graphics I work on my Mac, AKA ‘Ground Control’, and my laptop, AKA ‘Major Tom’.
I like to get my hands dirty making things so I love working on my C&P named ‘Beauty’ (because she’s 100 years old and beuuutiful!) and my Kwikprint hot foil stamping machine ‘Beast’ (because he can be temperamental).
What are you most proud of as a creator and card maker?
There’s certainly been many things I’ve been grateful for of in my career like having won the Greeting Card Association’s Louie Award three times. But what I’m proud of is that I bootstrapped this mother from the ground up. What started as a one-woman home-based business is now all grown up and continues to be women-owned and operated. I’m proud of my resilience. Aside from that one time at TGI Fridays when I almost up and quit this whole thing, I rolled with the punches and stayed in the game. I’m grateful that we got through two year’s worth of lockdowns relatively unscathed.
I think in the end though, what I’m most grateful for is that I get to wake up every morning and live life on my own terms
Any personal tidbits? Special talents/fun facts?
More things? Haven’t I overshared enough already?
I’ve been in an axe-throwing league for three years now but am still terrible at axe-throwing.
I’ve had ADHD my whole life but was only recently diagnosed. It was definitely an ah-ha moment for me and after Learning about it, a lot of my idiosyncrasies, even my behavior as a kid, made sense. I don’t think having ADHD is necessarily a bad thing. Sure, I’m super forgetful, not always so organized, and adulting is hard for me sometimes, but the divergent thinking and hyperactivity made it possible for me to build my business.
I was OBSESSED with MacGyver when I was a kid. I shit you not! Here’s a pic of dorky 13 yr old tomboy Amy, decked out in her DIY MacGyver jeans and high tops ♀️ I gotta say his resourceful can-fix-anything attitude continues to inspire me to problem-solve obstacles that comes with running your own business.
Find Smitten Kitten Cards such as Skeleton Valentine Card and Congratu -fing lations Card at your local store or online at papersource.com. For more inspiration and behind-the-scenes action, follow @SmittenKittenca on IG.