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Four steps for building our personal brands.

One black sheep in a herd of white sheep
Image: Midjourney “A herd of white sheep and one black sheep”

“As an immigrant woman in [design and] tech, I feel like I might have hit a ceiling in terms of building a personal brand.”

One of the readers of my newsletter reached out to me, replying to the piece I wrote recently about starting a company as a creative, in which I shared several pieces of advice from my industry friends/colleagues. While pondering about going out on my own, I received advice from Brett Lovelady, the founder of Astro Studios in the US and an industrial designer extraordinaire.

“Build your brand” was the advice.

The reader continued:

“I speak at conferences, write a Substack, mentor accelerator programs, and more… but I can’t seem to break through to get a meaningful media feature. FastCo, Wired, Forbes, TechCrunch, etc. seems like all of that is guard railed for executives of big companies, those willing to shill $2,500 to be a part of the paid council, and people with a giant influential network. Is the only way to get your thoughts out through hiring a PR person? Do you happen to have any advice for someone like me?”

When thinking about this reader’s question, the analog that came to mind was Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant also known as KonMari, author, and most famous for her Netflix series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.”

While there are thousands of well-known individuals from whom we could take cues and an endless list of how-to’s on building your personal brand, how Kondo built her own provides us designers with useful hints. She turned a mundane and intangible act of tidying up into a tangible profession and built her brand.

There are four steps Kondo went through that are parallel to how we can think about and elevate what we do as designers.

1. Relevance

To start off with, everyone wants a clean, tidy home or office. The need is obvious and what she offers is immediately relevant. However, that could easily be relegated to a cleaning service. There is a limit to how much one can charge for a cleaning service. At the danger of sounding like an elite, this occupation becomes a race to the bottom.

In design, there are plenty of designers and cheap services out there that would give the customer, say, a logo for a few hundred dollars or even for free. Services like Canva and Wix provide non-designers tools to design logos on their own. Not only can competing on price when providing a design service become a race to the bottom, but it’s also a race to irrelevance.

As a child, Kondo says she would look at her mother’s magazines about home organization and become interested in tidying up. During her college days, whenever she visited her friends’ apartments and saw some messiness, she would offer to tidy up. Also, while doing secretarial work to make some extra cash, she happened to notice a very messy desk of a manager. One day she offered to tidy his desk up.

Sounds a little OCD. But that’s a prerequisite for us designers.

The good news about this kind of service is that it could be a recurring business as no room stays clean and we could generate repeat customers. But this is where she found an insight that eventually became the crux of what she would be known for and around which she built a personal brand.

While she started getting paid for her cleaning services that she could repeat, she pivoted to teaching her customers how to tidy up and organize better so that their homes and offices would stay tidy.

An obvious insight here is “everyone wants a tidy home/office.” But a more relevant insight is “everyone wants a tidy home/office that stays tidy. “

Instead of becoming just another cleaning service provider, she positioned herself as an organizational consultant. Rather than racing to the bottom, she started to elevate her service to a higher level.

2. Differentiation

In addition to her insight, Kondo had a peculiar way of organizing. She would hold each item to her heart to see if it would spark joy, which she later turned into the Method. Many people take joy in having a clean home/office but she may be the first person to turn tidying up into a method by looking for joy in items she and her customers owned. Quite unique indeed.

But the KonMari Method wasn’t born overnight.

While working as an office worker and after she started to consult on the side as a hobby, she decided to attend a book writing course at her friend’s suggestion. That led to the eventual publication of her international bestselling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” in which she methodically described her rules of organizing. “Ask Yourself If It Sparks Joy” is Rule №6 of her six-rule method.

Now, there are a few elements to her success that made her an international phenomenon.

First, a different idea. Tidying up isn’t all that desirable as an idea, but a life-changing magic of tidying up sounds intriguing. Not everyone wants to tidy up but if tidying up could change our lives, wouldn’t we all want that magic?

Asking an object if it sparks joy and then thanking it is admittedly quirky and even a little weird but that did differentiate Kondo. I emphasize “different” here. Anyone can have an idea, some can have better ideas. Coming up with different ideas is the hard part.

As designers, we need to relentlessly pursue ideas that are different, not just better.

Second, articulation. The crucial step she took was articulating and documenting her way of tidying up. It’s one thing to have ways of doing things in our heads but once we verbalize and document, those ways become more concrete and tangible.

More importantly, it’s the way she articulated it. A book titled “A Better Way of Tidying Up” might make some people curious, but “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is much more imaginative and inspiring.

In addition to her articulation of her method being unique, the translation is absolutely genius. Each language has its nuance and peculiarity that often gets lost in translation. “Spark joy” is actually not the translation of the original Japanese version of “ tokimeki.” If you look up this word in a dictionary, it provides several awkward translations. Combining “spark” and “joy” to convey the meaning of tokimeki was a brilliant touch of the translator.

This leads to my third point: naming. Kondo happened to have a name that was easy to pronounce for non-Japanese speakers. Kondo’s first name Marie is actually pronounced “Ma-Ri-Eh” but to the English speakers, it just looks like the Western name Marie and is easy to pronounce, and her nickname KonMari is equally so.

It’s quite common in Japanese to conjugate the first few letters of first and last names to give shorter nicknames not just to people but services or brands. KonMari was a nickname her friends gave by combining Kondo and Marie and shortening it. Starbucks, for instance, in Japanese becomes “ Sutaba” and Don Quijote, a massively successful discount store in Japan, becomes “ Donki. “

Not only was her method of finding what sparks joy when tidying up unique and differentiated, but it was also unexpectedly simple and easy to remember, both conceptually and phonetically. The fact that the KonMari method would be easy to pronounce for foreigners may not have been intentional but it later made a big difference for her personal brand especially outside of Japan.

Naming our ideas in a simple, memorable way can go a surprisingly long way.

3. Presentation

Once she elevated what could have been a run-of-the-mill cleaning service and organizational consultation to a new level, she paid attention to how she presented herself.

She dressed in a reserved outfit that would exude a clean image and carried a hairstyle that was tidy and distinctive but not overstated. She herself became the expression of her ideology and established an easily recognizable visual presentation.

Marie Kondo on her Instagram page

Dressing a certain way or having a distinct visual style is a common, tried-and-tested trick in the entertainment world but isn’t rare in the corporate world. In modern times, Steve Jobs is the top example of someone who dressed one way and one way only with a pair of John Lenon-inspired round glasses that added to his signature look. This was perhaps a conscious jab at his nemesis Bill Gates who had a more nerdy style. The disgraced Elizabeth Holmes is another person in a more recent memory who manufactured not only her image but also her peculiar low-pitched voice and achieved enormous brand recognition. She knew what she was doing as she later changed her appearance during her trial for fraud to distance herself from her previous personal brand. It didn’t quite work this time.

In the design sphere, we can also spot individuals who have established particular ways of presenting themselves. In addition to consistently producing beautiful products, a closely trimmed head, a soft-spoken British accent, and a T-shirt are elements that made Jonathan Ive, the long-time design collaborator of Steve Jobs and the former head of design, the most well-known, iconic designer of our time. After Ive, can we name another designer from Apple? I didn’t think so.

A visual presentation of oneself is just a clean and consistent punctuation of a sentence. Needless to say, what’s critical is the idea or the piece of innovation. When that is made visible, it can be exponentially more powerful.

Tinker Hatfield, a legendary sneaker designer who is credited with designing some of the most famous consumer products in modern history, was phenomenally skilled at visually presenting innovation. Nike Air, a shock-absorption technology in running shoes, was designed in the 1980s by Hatfield and his team and has been one of the most successful product brands. The idea of cushioning so soft it’s like running on air is immediately visible in its design AND is easily understood. It telegraphically presents and tells us what it is and does for us.

4. Consistency

One can gain recognition overnight but overnight recognition doesn’t build a personal brand.

Kondo became a well-known figure in her 20s in Japan first. Now, for over a decade, she has maintained her consistent presentation. As long as she’s been practicing as a professional organizational consultant well before she became an international figure, she had her look. She must have had an urge to change her hairstyle but I praise her dedication to her personal brand.

Karl Lagerfeld, Rei Kawakubo, and Yoji Yamamoto are some of the most iconic design figures with specific visual presentations of themselves that many of us recognize. Hairstyles, glasses, accessories, and outfits are all elements that can build personal brands beyond the products or things we as designers become known for.

However, it must be emphasized that these visual elements and styles are merely a cherry on top. We must first be known for what we do and do it consistently, not how we appear.

In Kondo’s case, she established a narrative around organizing and sparking joy, and she’s been very consistent in that narrative.

More recently, though, she admits that, as a mother of young children, keeping her house tidy is no longer her priority. But that doesn’t mean she is parting ways with her brand. She started to expand the idea of sparking joy into relationship consultation and maintaining her consistency.

Nothing stays relevant forever so we must find ways to evolve. While it’s important for us to keep up with the change around us, it’s also important to have certain ideas and philosophies that we can keep consistent. There is a fine balance we have to keep looking for between relevance and consistency.

To answer the original question from the reader:

“I can’t seem to break through to get a meaningful media feature. Is the only way to get your thoughts out through hiring a PR person?”

A media feature is nice but I would encourage you to ask yourself the following:

  1. Relevance: Is my service relevant to my clients?
  2. Differentiation:How is my service different from others?
  3. Presentation:How am I presenting my service and myself?
  4. Consistency:Am I doing these things consistently?

Make sure you have a good answer to each and a strong body of work to prove, that should lead you to what you wish. As designers, we must keep asking these questions and evolve constantly to maintain our relevance.

Keep in mind, however, that that’s only a means to an end. To borrow President Barack Obama’s quote from a recent interview, “Worry about what you want to do, rather than what you want to be.”

I’d like to note that this post took cues from the Brand Strategy Sprint at Section but is modified and expanded to fit this context. Thank you, Scott Galloway, for giving me the inspiration.

If you have feedback or a question you’d like to ask, please comment. I would love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading.

Originally published at

Branding yourself as a designer was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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