Interview with Digital Creative Director Inii Kim

The View magazine hooked up with digital creative director Inii Kim of King & Partners, a company in New York, that design and develop digital flaghsips for different clients including fashion and luxury brands. We chat about her childhood, how she entered the design world, the creative-business process, and what she like to do in her personal time.

TV: Tell us a bit about you, when was the first time you got in touch with creativity, and how has this influenced you?

IK: I was born and raised in Seoul, Korea. Everyone in my family were either businessman, doctors or professors. And I was expected to be something similar, as a lot of Korean kids were. I went to a private high school that’s aimed at sending kids to top universities in Korea, and I hopped on the school bus at 6am, was dropped off at home 11pm. It wasn’t great. The only joy I had was the Internet. I navigated as far as I can to find beautiful images and cool things, and I started learning how to use photoshop.

One day my mom suggested applying to an art school and becoming a designer, because I seemed to enjoy web surfing and Photoshop more than studying. I thought she was being sarcastic at first but surprisingly she wasn’t. And more I think about it, she was so right. All of a sudden, I could work hard to achieve something I really want, not just studying hard to get higher scores or enter better schools. Everyone except mom (dad, my friends, school teachers) thought I was being crazy to choose art school over business or journalism major.

Two years later, I travelled from Seoul to start my college life in Baltimore, Maryland. At the time I was in school, web design wasn’t the hottest thing for many students still. A lot of us had the perception “Proper graphic design = print design”. I also thought web design wasn’t as refined as print design, until I saw Gucci’s website in 2005. It was so simple and sexy, just something I’ve never seen online. It really made me think “Ok, something like this, I’d love to do.”

End of my junior year – Summer 2006, I decided to stay in New York and do an internship. The first place I applied was Createthe Group (Founded by Tony King in 2004, it was the first digital agency to specialize in fashion & luxury) and I got a phone call from Tony 30 minutes after, and I got an internship offer. That was basically my first and only job interview.

I started as an intern at Createthe Group that summer, working alongside Tony and Art Director Jesper Lund. My very first task was to help finishing designs for the new Balenciaga site. After a few weeks I also found out Tony was the designer of the Gucci site that had inspired me so much. Everything was too good to be true.

TV: Take us through your career, what was your first proper job, to your current role?

IK: Beginning with the summer internship, I continued working for Createthe Group, and joined as full time designer after finishing the school. I was very lucky to join the company when it was growing really strong, and I got to work on countless amazing projects (Calvin Klein, Burberry, Theory, Stella McCartney, David Yurman, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Nowness….). I got to work with a great team, and the most amazing boss. Tony became the most influential person to me professionally and personally. I spent three years at Createthe working hard and learning a lot. Tony left Createthe Group to build a new agency in 2010, and I left a few months after. Around the same time Tony and I became partners in life as well as work. We’re incredibly lucky to share our lives with each other and have this great balance of life and work.

TV: Have you always thought about becoming a CD inside a digital outfit, or did you go where the flow took you?

IK: I knew I will continue to focus on digital, but never thought I’d be a CD or do what I do now. I used to be very shy, and I barely spoke to people (That’s a big reason why I loved design. Good design never needed much explanation.) At first, I was so glad to find an internship, then was so happy to have a full time job, when I became an Art Director, I thought there was nothing else I want. Quite long time ago, Tony told me that one day we will build a new amazing agency, and I will be the creative director, I thought he was just crazy but he was right.

TV: Can you share about the creative-business process for a CD or web designer? A potential client is looking for a new designed online presence, then what?

IK: We start off a project with a very thorough discovery phase, where we learn about the client and their objectives. The more we experience the brand, we get much clearer, greater picture of what the final results should be.

Next step is to present sitemap and concept, where we solidify the structure of the site, and present look & feel of the new site. It’s definitely the most exciting phase for clients and us.

Once we’re all happy with the structure and look & feel, we design out every single details of the site, including designs for all devices (tablet, mobile) and also start working on detailed list of what needs to be done on the client side. We try to assist clients as much as possible here, as it could be quite daunting for a lot of clients. Quite a lot of the time we art direct and produce film or photography, other times, we recommend external resources that can help our clients for these needs.

After all designs are ready and approved, we go ahead and build the site. This is when all the flat designs come alive, and become really exciting. Sites are built to perform perfectly on all devices and browsers, and they go through rigorous testing before launch.

Once the site has launched we see that as the start of our ongoing client relationship and we aim to optimize, bring new ideas to life and continue to excite and inspire our clients, as well as achieve all the goals we originally set.

TV: How has your business changed from when you just started and today?

IK: When I started as a web designer we could really just assemble pieces that were handed to them by print designers, i.e. here’s the look book, the campaign and branding – make something that works. Now it’s much more than that, we create digital flagships. Many brands are looking to digital to drive all aspects of their business, and we are seeing that sites and digital design are influencing the campaigns, the print work, advertising, even in-store.

TV: Web design and development are now very accessible, even encouraged with initiatives like ‘hour of code’. How has this affected your business, spotting new talent, or project estimates/fee?

IK: I think accessibility is a good thing and it will make the industry stronger, bring advanced digital experience to us all in the end. The fact that coding is now ‘cool’ has really helped bring some interesting people into the industry. There’s also increased competition, especially after the recession in 2008 – so many people all of a sudden turned to digital, and claim to be “digital consultants”. We just aim to keep our quality, efficiency and integrity intact, and believe that will always keep us ahead of everyone naturally.

TV: What are the biggest misconceptions potential clients have when thinking of hiring a professional agency for their digital needs?

IK: Thinking that designing and building a new website is 99%. They have to think about a more rounded digital strategy that a website is just a part of. They need to hire an agency that’s going to be brave, take some risks, is a specialist in their sector and can help beyond the browser – so picking the right third parties, the best software, and good content. Website is a tool, not just a facade. How client uses the website will define the success, not the tool itself.

TV: How do you convince clients what they need? Do they blindly trust you?

We wish! Although most of our clients trust we will do something great, companies get quite hesitant to make decisions these days. I think this is because there’s larger budget involved with digital, more people steering the projects in different directions, and some clients have had bad experiences with past endeavors too.

We try to show our clients the vision that’s successful, but also realistic. Because we’ve been in this sector longer than anyone else, I think we’re in the better position to see what works and what doesn’t in terms of all aspects – creative, technology, content, budget, resources etc.

TV: What sets King apart from competitors? What keeps clients coming back to you/choose you over others when looking for an agency?

IK: 1. We don’t have our agency style, and none of the work we produce for clients are even similar to each other. We want to make sure every single digital experience is on-brand and original. There are so many websites that are made up of elements that are taken mostly from other websites. I don’t think I can ever do that for my own integrity, even if a client asks us to do something identical to someone else’s site.

When we begin every project, our goal is to take the entire brand to the next level and change their business, not just to create a cool website.

2. There aren’t many agencies that investigate equally on creative and technology. There are good design agencies and good development companies, but an agency with equal focus on both is rare. Also for our eCommerce clients we have a strong focus on conversion rates and ensuring the site will achieve sales goals. We’re an agency that produces beautiful effective work with a strong focus on transactions.

TV: Aside from the job, what do you like to do creatively on a personal level?

IK: I really do enjoy photography. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting a shot where everything’s captured nicely – color, shape, light etc all perfectly. I also enjoy very simple cooking on weekends, and would love to do more. It feels just as creative as designing. It’s all about putting right ingredients together, giving it right balance and great flavor to the dish.

TV: How do you relax after a full week?

IK: Last summer, Tony and I moved to a house by the lake in Westchester, and it changed our lives completely. It’s about an hour of driving to get to work and come home every day, but we enjoy every bit of it. These days, we spend most weekend doing things around the house, and explore the neighborhood with Tony’s daughter Olivia.

The three of us travel together often too, and it’s always a good fun. Our last adventure was to Jose Ignacio in Uruguary last January, and it was absolutely magical.

TV: Thanks Inii for this great interview!

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