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Kate Bingaman-Burt | Illustrator, Educator | Portland, OR

What Did I Buy Today: An Obsessive Consumption Journal

Kate Bingaman-Burt

Fail in Good Spirits

Kate Bingaman-Burt is an illustrator and educator at Portland State University. She also is a curator, author and ambassador for indie-craft culture and a champion of entrepreneurialism.

Kate started her daily drawing project, Obsessive Consumption, in 2006 and hasn’t stopped drawing. What started as a side project led to a book contract, and her illustrations were published in the book, Obsessive Consumption: What Did You Buy Today?

She learned firsthand that working on personal projects helps designers figure out what they want to say. Kate has followed her instincts and challenges her students to push self-initiated work to find their own voices.

“What worries me is if I look at a project and think it is a total success.”

Can you give a bit of your background and how you came to illustration? How did Obsessive Consumption start?

Obsessive Consumption was actually illustration free until 2006. I relied more on photography and installation methods for the first few years of Obsessive Consumption, which officially started in 2006. I started making work about the things that we buy because I was sick of having notebooks filled with half-assed ideas about our relationship to objects and no execution follow through. The daily drawing project started after a few years of photo documentation, credit card statement drawing, lots of sewing, lots of talking to strangers, and lots of Internet engagement. I started drawing because I didn’t like drawing. Now, six years later, I draw every day and I love it.

How does teaching influence your practice?

Teaching plays a huge role. My students inspire me; they challenge me, and they cause me to rethink ways of making and doing. The problem-solving aspect of it is super rewarding, and I think my ability to improv has skyrocketed because of my daily teaching practice. Students also make me really listen. Being a good listener is such a crucial skill, and I work on being better at this every day. Constantly having to talk and think and explain really helps with your own practice, and having an active practice helps your students. It is a weird Möbius strip.

You are an illustrator, an educator and an ambassador for indie-craft culture. We’re interested in the entrepreneurial spirit of designers and illustrators. Do you consider yourself to be an entrepreneur?

I am a huge champion of entrepreneurialism and try to cultivate it in my design students, as well as through class assignments and simple encouragement for their independent ideas. I wish I had more time to execute all of the microbusiness ideas that I have floating in my brain. Seriously, coming up with ideas and products and helping students figure out how to execute them is like a sport to me. I get all competitive and sweaty just thinking about it. I guess to answer your question, yes.

As an educator, do you have a perspective on how design education could better prepare students to push personal projects into the market?

From my experience, working on personal projects helps you figure out what you want to say as a designer. If you have a good handle on what you are trying to say and your personal voice then you can help clients figure out what they want to say and help them define their voice. School can help cultivate experimentation, exploration and also provide a framework —  deadlines, goals, community, critique — to help execute these ideas. School also provides a supportive community, where you can fail and flail, and hopefully flourish.

“From my experience, working on personal projects helps you figure out what you want to say as a designer.”

Do you think it is beneficial for an illustrator to have a recognizable style? Is a style beneficial to get work but potentially a hindrance to experimentation?

Speaking from experience, I think it is good to cultivate a style and demonstrate evidence of that style in many formats and situations. Again, I didn’t think of myself in the illustration context until I started my daily drawing project. Producing a pile of work in a similar style was really helpful in attracting other illustration opportunities. However, I think you can produce a pile of work in a variety of styles and succeed in that regard as well. Experimentation is difficult to do if you become really busy executing work in one style because this is what is being requested of you, which is not necessarily a bad problem, but it does hinder exploration…if that is something you are searching for.

Consumption is a theme in much of your work. Do you have thoughts on how we consume content online as designers? Do we look at too much work?

I don’t think thoughtfully consuming too much visual work is a bad thing. Where it becomes dangerous is when we consume too much visual work and don’t think about the context, don’t think about the concept, and don’t think about the ‘why’ of looking. It is also harmful if you are only looking at design and design on the Internet for inspiration. Only looking at design and only looking at the Internet leads to headaches and a general yucky feeling. It also makes you want to brush your teeth, go for a run and take a shower. Or maybe that is just me.

I can always tell when my students have been looking at the same websites because their moodboards all look the same. This is a conversation I have all of the time: ‘Look outside of design. Look outside of Pinterest! Go get lost somewhere looking at tangible things. Go read a damn book — with words, not pictures.’

You’re in your seventh year of Obsessive Consumption—is drawing something every day still fun for you?

In the future, I might not always draw as much as I do now, but I do know I will try to keep going with the daily process of drawing a small window into my life. The rewards are too big for something that is so very simple. I love the paper archive that I have created regarding the last six years of my life. For me, the drawings of purchased goods are just a conduit for memories and experiences, reminders of the bigger stories and emotions that are represented in the lines.

Was it your plan to monetize the drawings and turn them into a book?

My plan wasn’t to monetize them or to turn them into a book. Little zines, yes, but a book no. My plan was to figure out how to document my life within the framework of executing a simple task, in a similar way, every day. My plan was to figure out how to feel comfortable with a pen in my hand. My plan was to share these drawings with whoever cared to look. I am amazed at the extra surprises and experiences that have come my way through this project. The people whom I have met and the conversations that I have had are incredible.

What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?

I’m not sure whether I have taken my biggest risk yet. I have a few things on the back burner that make me nervous — in a good way. I think I should probably pull the lever on those.

What is your favorite failure?

Favorite failure? I’ve had oh so many failures! This isn’t meant as a negative thing, however. I always fail in good spirits. What worries me is if I look at a project and think it is a total success. That is when I will get kicked in the ass. Failure is such a severe word. I consider myself so fortunate to be able to work the way that I work. I work with amazing students. I draw fun stuff for fun people. I talk about zines and then help people make them, and I am able to travel because of these things. I make dumb stuff. I sometimes make smart stuff. I hang out with my husband and my dog and eat hot dogs and chips. I explore, make, share and experiment. I am so very fortunate.