Psychology and Creativity with Katie Steel
On mindfulness, creativity and storytelling through design. Katie explains the joy of small town living and tells us how being passionate and interested in what you’re working on helps you avoid burnout.
Today’s guest is Katie Steel, founder at design consultancy, Supafrank. They build brands that are packed with personality. She’s also the Co-Owner and Creative Director at Department Store for the Mind.
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Hi, Katie. Welcome to the show.
I would love to hear a little bit about how the place you live influences the work that you do today.
I live in Hazlemere, which is an hour on the train out of London, surrounded by Surrey Hills on the southbound so it’s just phenomenally beautiful. It’s massively hilly, covered in trees and just natural beauty everywhere that you look. Natural beauty, loads of it, so you can just roam freely around. It’s a wonderful place really.
You’re not from the South, are you? Where are you from originally, Katie?
No, I’m from the north. I’m a hybrid of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire and a few other places, but yeah, out in the countryside big time. I grew up surrounded by fields generally, fields and nature. I do get lots of comfort from that now.
I moved from London five years ago. The pace of London was amazing but I’ve always been a country bumpkin and I feel at home in the hills. Something that I wasn’t really prepared for when leaving London was the pace just slowing right down, and then I just ended up with so much time to think. At the same time when I moved out of London, my business partnership blew up, my mum was going through cancer treatment, and I had to stop smoking for health reasons. It was just a really intense time. That’s when I first started walking. Now, the hills and the woodlands and the countryside around where I live are just my total everyday therapy. I absolutely love it. I love being able to get back into London and explore and get the adrenaline, but I feel very at home with my feet on the ground getting muddy and cold and wet and whatever it might be. That’s where I am now. The place that I live now is not very urban. It’s a town but it has a fast track line into London and I can go walking every day.
What it actually does give me is a real sense of clarity and I have a little bit of distance from things. I think actually it’s made me more creative and more able to solve problems in a creative way because I don’t feel like I have the pace and the judgment around me quite so much. I feel like I can do my own thing a little bit more, free from judgment. I was in Clerkenwell where everybody and his dog was a designer, and now I just feel a little bit detached from it so that I get a little bit more clarity and I’m a little bit more able to be myself.
Katie, when you were up here living here in London and you were surrounded by more of your peers, do you feel that that ever gave you comparison paralysis because you were aware of what peers were doing? Did that have an impact on your work or how you approached your work?
I think it did. It’s interesting because at that time I was in a partnership. There was a lot of comparison and we were very new. I started my own business when I was really young and I’ve never worked in a consultancy so I didn’t really know what it was all about. I didn’t have any comparison in terms of what I should be like. I just moved to London naively, I didn’t have any contacts. I just thought, “I’ll start this design consultancy and then we’ll make the world a better place with design.” Super naive but actually probably have to be because if I had known what a long journey it would be, I maybe wouldn’t have started it. I don’t regret a thing, but at the time I might have didn’t know how hard it was going to be.
To answer the question about creativity, I think it’s intimidating because you are surrounded by people that are just creating such wonderful things all the time. Sometimes I think it can stifle you. There’s a lot of stuff on social media. A lot of designers I’ve worked with and talked to say you just think that everything is being done, when actually it wouldn’t have been done quite in the same way. The only way that you can differentiate yourself in the marketplace is by being brave and being a bit different and trying to think about things differently. I think that’s why I love it so much with Department Store because it was a really different angle on design. Now when I’m thinking about design, all I can think about is people. I think about how it affects their emotions and why should they want to be hooked into this brand and what does it mean to them. My creative process, I think about that as well. It’s really nice, understanding and bringing your actual interests into the design work has helped me differentiate myself and see myself as not really playing the same game as everybody else. I’m doing something totally different. I think I had to move out of London to be brave enough to do that.
Do you think that move, possibly by accident rather than by design, gave you a different perspective and gave you space to realise some of these things?
Definitely. We started working with some quite big companies when I was in London and I never really felt a huge attachment to them. I loved the work but I didn’t really feel a sense of purpose in it. I grew up surrounded by entrepreneurs. It sounds very cheesy but we’ve been really brought up to do what we love and not really worry about the money and the money will come. When my business partnership broke down, I really went back to the basics of that thing. I love entrepreneurialism and I love people. I took on the projects that didn’t really earn any money, didn’t have any kudos, and then all of a sudden I was back working on projects that did have kudos again. I did feel like it was from an angle that I felt more genuinely and that was my genuine journey to get there, in a place that I really find interesting. All of a sudden we’ve got these books coming out and it’s madness to me because all I did was go back to basics and just really focusing on what I found interesting and what soothed me. It’s fantastic really.
I’d love to delve in a little bit more into that transitional period where the business partnership was breaking down, your mother, as you said, was undergoing treatment for cancer, and you were moving out of London. Would you say that that was a period of burnout?
Massively, yeah. It was a time where I lived a hundred metres from the post office and I would struggle to get there. It was hard core. My physical health wasn’t good. I had to stop smoking as well and it was all this stuff. In London I’ve been so quick. I spent the last five years starting a business in London. In the beginning I was working two jobs and then focusing totally on Supafrank and putting everything I have into it. At the same time, I was rushing up north every five minutes to go and see if my mum was okay. Because things stopped and I had a bit of headspace, I just had to deal with so much, I really hit the deck with it. Just really gently, the only place that I felt okay was walking so that’s all I have to do. I broke my day up into the tiniest little portions and I just penetrated it all with walking.
Somehow really slowly I came around. I often have my stereo in and listen to music; that meant a lot to me. I’ll sing as loud as I could in the countryside because nobody could hear and I love that. I talked to people in my life I hadn’t had a lot of time to talk to in the previous five years because I’ve always been so busy. That’s what soothed me. Now, it’s just something that I go back to. Whenever anything gets hard, I go back to walking instantly. I still walk every single day but I walk with my dog now so I have a distraction. I still do walk every day. If I’m struggling with something or I have a big decision to make or a hard conversation to have, I will definitely just walk and walk until it feels okay. It’s lucky to do it around here because it’s absolutely stunning, it’s beautiful, and you just realise how tiny you are and how tiny your problems are when you see the magnificence of the trees and hills and how the weather changes. It’s all beautiful to me.
For somebody who’s listening today who’s living in a more urban setting, what tips could you give them around how they might tune into the elements? Because I think we can perceive that to be less dramatic in a city setting than in the countryside. I don’t actually agree with that. Have you got one or two super easy tips to share, Katie?
I think it really sounds stupid, but it’s to just do it, just to go and walk. It doesn’t matter where you are. For me, being a little bit away from traffic helps because it enables me to focus around things, to get off the busiest roads. Looking in all of the cafe windows and looking at the shop windows and look around you. Just to look and notice really and trying to do it slowly. When I was in London I walked a lot and I would look in the windows and think, “My goodness, everybody is getting on with their lives and everything’s working for everybody. Everybody has got loads of friends around and family and everybody looks happy.” I’d just be walking on my own through Shoreditch thinking, “Do I really belong here? Where am I?” Actually, I loved it. The other thing is to probably just get totally lost and not worry about the time. I loved getting lost in London, that’s probably my favourite thing about it.
Department Store for the Mind, what is it?
Department Store for the Mind is a shop full of great things that help support us in acceptance of ourselves and also to make connections with other people. We sell things from a Ten Deep Breaths bracelet that reminds us to breathe deeply in times of high tension, and also like a hug that you can send to a friend that’s going through a difficult time. We’ve got lots of different products that are all designed for mental well-being, having good conversations with people, reaching out, and generally just being more connected to ourselves and the people around us. A lot of the products that we designed, we’ve tried to make them into daily habits. We’ve got little clutch of stickers that will tell you to eat breakfast even when you’re busy and that walking is medicine and lovely things like that.
It’s really interesting to me that Department Store for the Mind is all about mindful living and psychology and positive mental well-being, and obviously Supafrank is a beautiful design consultancy. I’m interested to know a little bit more about your work around re-branding how we feel about our emotions. As a creative entrepreneur, how have you managed to avoid sliding back into burnout and how have you managed to stay creatively fulfilled when you’re wearing two different hats for two very different entities?
I think the two hats make it interesting to me. If one wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be interesting. To me, having two hats and the collision of two things makes it interesting. If I didn’t have psychology to inspire the creativity then I don’t think it would be anywhere. If psychology didn’t have the creativity and the design around that, I don’t think it would be interesting. Having the two things to me just makes it fascinating. How we feel about ourselves and how we feel about our emotions, I feel so strongly that it’s a really cool thing. You would always say the complexity of the mind is a source of pride and I really believe that it is. I love how everybody thinks and ticks in different ways. I love that we’re all different and all struggling and all vulnerable. We all have really amazing things and maybe terrible things about our personalities. Being able to celebrate all of that within one brand is so cool. Because I love it and because it’s fulfilling for me, I don’t get burnt out by it because it’s just interesting, it’s not like work. I also have a really nice routine of how I do the work. I’m trying to be really disciplined with how I put different types of work into different days, just to make sure that I have the headspace.
I always walk at work, I always exercise and I take really lovely holidays to be able to keep everything in check. If one of those things go, it’s difficult. I’m really lucky because I’ve got a really supportive home life as well that just lets me do that. Tom is just always really chilled and has no expectation of me. He helps in so many different ways, from setting a pop-up shop in Old Street to re-reading something that I’ve tried to write a thousand times. I think it’s just the right balance for me. You know how people say that when the three things come together, so I’ve got psychology and people that I’ve just always loved and being on a journey with myself, there’s creativity and design but there’s also entrepreneurialism in there. All three things together just make me feel really alive, to be honest. They fulfil my soul. To have that in your working day makes me feel incredibly happy and privileged and proud. I feel so amazed about how far you can go by just being really true to yourself. It’s a real privilege to me to be able to do that.
You mentioned Sophie. I know that’s Sophie Howarth who is the co-founder of The School of Life. How did you come to meet Sophie?
It’s such a high-tech thing. We were both on Pinterest and we have this relationship for quite a few months actually, it couldn’t have been years. I didn’t know who she was because she was an anonymous user. I’m pleased I didn’t because I probably would’ve pinned differently and I would have been trying to be cool and trying to impress her. I didn’t and we just had this nice connection where we would pin each other’s things that were nice. All of a sudden one day, Sophie just reached out and said she had an idea and told me that she was this anonymous user on Pinterest and how she liked the way that I thought and invited me to Shoreditch House and we had a lovely chat about her idea and it just sounded so inspiring, and a bit of the puzzle that was missing yet for me.
I had the design and the entrepreneurialism thing going on but I didn’t have the psychology. Sophie had loads of ideas. She’s just a powerhouse of creativity. It was really interesting to distil them down to pick out the things that really work. It was amazing because we had a long time to work on it. Normally with my projects, the maximum is probably about six months, but this was getting on for more like 18, maybe two years. To be able to have that time to really chip away ideas and to come up with a whole shop full of ideas and products was amazing to me. We went from this really loose idea with a different name to having products for sale in an Old Street pop-up. It was a really phenomenal journey.
This month, Department Store for the Mind is releasing its first two books. I’m super excited about these books. Tell us about this next big development in the genesis of Department Store for the Mind.
I still can’t really believe it myself. Octopus, with the imprint Aster, has published two books for us. One called Walking in the Rain, which starts with my story moving out from London and then using walking to find my feet again. I do believe you’re in that one as well, Clare, which is very exciting.
Walking in the city, yes, street walking, but not that kind of street walking but the less illegal kind of street walking.
I absolutely loved your chapter. Your chapter actually gave me goosebumps before I even met you. I felt really close to you before I met you, which is really nice. Also, Washing Up Is Good For You, which is all about bringing joy into the daily drudge. From your cleaning schedule to all that stuff that fills up your life and you feel like you don’t have time for anything because of all the daily drudge. Actually, if you find all the joy in the daily drudge you’ve got time for everything. You can get a lot of happiness from that, so that’s wonderful.
For both books, it’s been incredible because I’ve got to work with all of my favourite photographers and illustrators and art directors and designers. It just feels like it’s a combination of everything that we’re supposed to do for the last ten years and I can’t deny how amazing it is. We’re really good one for going, “Right, next. We’ve done that, we’ve achieved this, we’ve gone there,” and then I’d be on to the next thing before I really taken it in and understood that a publisher really wanted to publish this story and work with me and basically my friends to come up with some ideas to make them look beautiful. That was pretty amazing to me.
Because I’m not a psychologist and obviously, I’ve done a lot of learning around it through the people I’ve hang out with for the last few years, but it’s just really common sense things that’s useful for every day. If you’re just feeling like life is overwhelming you or just full of drudge, I think it’s a lovely thing to be able to just realise that other people feel like that and you don’t need to be in the lotus position. There’s something for me around making it fun and interesting. A lot of the graphical approach to this well-being area has been very soft and gentle and calming and understanding. Actually, I don’t really connect with that because I’m not quite up for it and wanting to do some stuff. I’ve done a lot of reflection and a lot of big journey with my mind, but I don’t connect so much with that because I don’t want to have to change and live a fake life.
I want it to be life and I want it to be just super simple things that just make all the difference, like actually sitting down and making space to listen to your friends or your partners, and turning your mobile phone off so that you can actually connect. I think just getting back to basics really. I think probably our parents and grandparents knew how to do it a lot better than we did. They all exercised and they all ate well and they all have time for things. It’s just nice to get back to basics. You don’t need any leotards or lotus positions or mats or sunset on the beach. You just can live and take a walk down the street and notice a few things. To me, that’s what life is about and I love that.
Personally, what I really enjoy about Department Store for the Mind as a brand is that there’s a playfulness to the branding even though often the message is not necessarily that it’s serious but that it’s thoughtful, it’s so thought-provoking, and it encourages self-compassion. When you’re approaching a branding project, what are the key things that you have in mind when you’re working with a new client? Before you answer that question I must, for the purposes of full disclosure, say that I am a client because my very beautiful Urban Curiosity website was designed by Supafrank.
Every project is so different because the thing to me that makes it interesting is how to communicate what’s interesting about this new brand and how to put a different stint on it. Whether it’s a brownie company or a workplace psychologist or a workshop person or somebody that runs a theatre school or a gym, my approach is always the same and that is to literally really try and work out with the client what their thing is, what makes them tick. As soon as you can work that out and as soon as you can communicate that, that’s the thing that will engage and interest people. It is really getting to know your client and then working with super talented people to bring it into reality. That’s all I’ve done for the last ten years, which is a process that I’ve come to over a long period of time but it’s one that works now for us. Listening is probably one of the big things, and clarification. People often say actually that working with me helps them get clarity on where to go and what to do and how to do it. If you can be super clear about what you’re doing then it makes it easier for people to understand and come with you. If you have a crystal clear mission that is compelling, then everybody will come with you and want to come and do it with you. You were a dream to work with on that because you just got it and you’ve nailed it, and I love your tone of voice. That will work for me.
It’s always a journey with design. We try to make it an enjoyable journey but it’s always a journey. You go from just learning about this person and it being an abstract idea to really pinning it down and how to then express it to the general public. For me, you were just really open and you didn’t panic by the idea of it being a journey. If there were things that you didn’t like, it doesn’t matter. That’s life. Working calmly through that process with me is a dream. I really enjoyed our project together.
Likewise. Katie, one of the things that I’m really interested in is what is the single thing that you do in your work across both companies that really, really floats your boat, if you can name one? That might be hard to answer.
It is and it isn’t. It’s so interesting because sometimes you’re stalled and you’re just like, “I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I don’t really fancy doing that. I don’t fancy doing that,” and listening to what you really do fancy. Every single time, the thing that lights me up is coming up with new ideas for solving problems, whether it’s a new product or coming up with a graphical direction for a new brand. Those things actually still do really ignite me. If somebody tells me their story and I just get so full of inspiration from that, and think how on earth can I tell this really interesting story in about two seconds, which is a massive challenge but one that I absolutely love. I’m a trained product designer. I’m actually an engineer, so I’m an industrial designer in engineering. That manifests itself in product design for me. Telling fun stories through products is really where my key thing is. That product can be a website and it can be some photography or it can be an interior scheme. That’s the bit that I really love, to be honest.
I love creating physical things more than digital things because I like seeing them out in the real world and I love getting away from my screen sometimes. It’s all very cool, measuring and balance, I think. Generally, hearing people’s stories and getting excited about it, I never fail. I’ve taken on so many projects that I probably shouldn’t have taken on strategically for my business just because I’m so interested in what they’re doing. I so love it when people have these lovely little ideas and they want to make businesses out of them. I can’t resist working with people that don’t really have any budget but have a great idea. I really love that and I love bringing it to life, and then seeing them about five years later and they’re doing amazingly. Often I’ll stay with them on that journey as well. With the brownies, I’ve known them for ten years and they’re now doing incredibly well. We still have a nice lovely relationship, we speak to each other every week so it’s nice.
Katie, the last question of this interview is, what are you curious about right now?
I’m so curious to know what happens with these books. It’s a journey that I’ve never been on. I have no idea what to expect. We’re getting lots of lovely press and loads of interests around it. I’m just absolutely so intrigued to know what happens next with these books. I’m so looking forward to hearing the reviews of it and I just want to hear what people think. Some of it feels so personal because it’s everything that we love wrapped into one thing. I just hope that people can feel that when they’re reading them and see what that’s like. Also, I’ve started mountain biking lately and somebody’s taught me how to climb up hills. so I’m intrigued as to how far I can go with this because it’s been really fun.
Katie, where can people find out more about your work through Supafrank and Department Store for the Mind?
Katie, thank you so much for being a guest on the Urban Curiosity Podcast today.
Thanks, Clare. It’s been brilliant.