Design, like music composition or the scientific method, can be lonely, insular work. Which is precisely why, in January 2010, five Chicago creatives met for brunch and decided to combine forces. "More brains are better than one, especially when you need to come up with singular ideas," says art director Elaine Chernov, one of the twenty-something females who moonlight as Quite Strong when not working day jobs either as freelancers, in graduate school, or at some of the Windy City’s biggest design agencies.
Though Chernov, web developer and photographer Jennifer Sisson, illustrator Jana Kinsman, and graphic designers Katherine Walker and Victoria Pater knew each other vaguely through friends, the professional circuit, and social media, it took the breaking of bread to hash out their mutual gripes and their collaborative mission. The problems at hand? The pains of freelancing (efficient pitching, self-promotion, and getting paid) and the realization that design can be a boys’ club. As Chernov points out, "Dudes head all the big firms and seem to get most of the recognition, even though the field is pretty evenly split right now." Sisson jumps in to quip, "Except in tech, of course." They started the meal as acquaintances and ended it as a collaborative, deciding to band together on freelance design projects, rent out a shared studio, and encourage others to do the same. "We all needed space to work on projects. But more importantly, we knew a partnership would help ourselves, and others, professionally," explains Walker, who also came up with the name. "I already owned the domain, and we all thought it was apt," she says, laughing, recalling she snatched it up a month earlier after seeing the movie Meet the Parents, in which Ben Stiller riffs on his non-existent portfolio.
As the group refined their purpose, the name went from flip to significant. First came a Logan Square studio, then in August, their website, a joint effort, was up, sporting the pointed tagline "Creatives of the female variety." The following October, they started a monthly meet-up for like-minded design types. Then, as Jana Kinsman recollects, "It blew up. We began as a group who respected each other and wanted to do creative things, then started getting attention and became a community resource."
The initial catalyst for all that attention (local media queries and speaking invitations) was the stunningly simple yet crucial "Lust List," a digital address book of inspirational female designers, developers, and artists around the globe. The list cites heavy hitters like Jessica Hische, Diana Sudyka, and Kate Bingaman Burt, as well as relative unknowns. Currently numbering 124 and counting, the compilation garners submissions from all over the world, and some of those listed have even reported snagging commissions thanks to the visibility.
Quite Strong has grown their gig in substance and spirit offline as well, starting with a slew of pro bono projects, from branding and web development for nonprofit legal action group Out for Justice to mentoring students and other design professionals through the local chapter of AIGA. They curated an exhibition for Chicago’s Twelve Galleries Project in January, showing the work of fine artists next to designers from their Lust List. And in April they pulled off their most notable effort to date, a sold-out daylong seminar in conjunction with Columbia College called Moxie Conference (MoxieCon).
How to top that? "We’re trying to figure it out ourselves," says Walker. First up will be a change of venue. The women gave up their Wicker Park storefront in May in favor of rotating monthly pop-up events. "We’re together all the time, be it in person or online, so collaborating is now virtual and second nature," she says. So is the most salient lesson they’ve learned, power in numbers: "When all five of us stand together," explains Sisson, "people pay more attention to us."
Lisa Skolnik is a mother of four and a writer living in Chicago. As the former Chicago editor of Metropolitan Home, she's been in countless homes built with unlimited budgets. Seeing Nancy Church and Charlie Jett's dreamy beach pad ("Come Sail Away," June 2011) gave her new hope that "even normal folk can aspire to own a house that's cost effective to build and maintain."