Kiana Toossi is a freelance graphic designer and a general creative based in LA and NYC. She just graduated from Parsons in New York with a major in communications design with a focus in branding. Since then, Kiana has been back home in LA because of the pandemic and created numerous projects like Merch for America, Overheard Celebs and so much more.
How did you realize graphic design was your calling and how did you get started in the creative industry?
With both of my parents being architects, I kind of grew up in the design world. Parsons was a random back up school I had applied to just because I knew I had to be in New York and that was my only criteria. I ended up getting into Parsons and I toured it and fell in love. Being in New York and going to Parsons became a big part of it for me, if I wasn’t in that situation I probably wouldn’t have gone that route.
I started working with Peet Rivko. They’re an all natural skincare company, super small and based in New York. I started working with them starting in my freshman year and have been ever since. I’ve become really close with the founder, Johanna Peet, over the years. She’s a small business owner and I’ve been able to meet so many small businesses in New York through her and The Wing. So many people needed a personal site or were starting a business and needed branding. It turned into a crazy word of mouth web and it became my weird little career.
My mom and her business partner recently got into the hospitality business. 3 years ago, they bought a roadside motel in California, basically in the middle of nowhere. They gave me the chance to rebrand it, and it’s been a huge adventure to be consistently designing and photographing and doing virtually anything else we need for the property.
When you go back to New York would you want to continue freelance or work for an agency?
I definitely have battled that question in my head for such a long time now.
I’ve interned at a few different studios of different sizes and got such amazing experiences from them.
Before COVID, I was thinking about trying to get an agency job but all I knew was that I really wanted to work somewhere small. I want to work on a bunch of different things instead of focusing on one specific thing. Basically, I didn’t want a normal desk job because that just sounded like hell to me (no disrespect to cubicles!), so I’ve tried to avoid that as much as possible. I’ve found a lot of flexibility with freelancing that I haven’t found anywhere else. I’ve really liked managing my own time, my own schedule and choosing what I want to do. What I’ve realized is that I would love to go back to New York and freelance at studios and do little stints.
What made you want to create Merch for America?
Nicole, who is the other half or Merch for America, and I have always collaborated on things on social. It started with this post: I went on a date with all the presidential candidates so you don’t have to. It’s a satirical piece about what each Presidential candidate would be like on a date. We kind of got into this political space on Instagram where she would come up with the concepts, and I would design them. It was fun for me because she came up with the copy, which I’m so not good at, and I would just translate it into visuals.
For the Biden merch, Nicole just texted me being like “Should we just make Biden merch that’s in the style of old logos?” and I was like, “Yes we should!” We ended up doing our first round—we had 4 designs and we had no idea how it would do. But then we launched. We ended up getting 1000 orders in the first 3 days and in the first season we ended up raising $50,000 (USD), which is just insane. 100% of the proceeds were going to the campaign so it was just super rewarding. From there, people were just asking for more and we ended up doing two more rounds. For now, I think we’re done.
That’s so cool, the designs were amazing. What was the process for coming up with the identity for Overheard Celebs like?
Overheard New York had seen the post about dating the presidential candidates, and asked to post it on their story. I got in contact with the Overheard team and I started freelancing with them. I had a growing relationship with them and they asked me if I wanted to do the identity of Overheard Celebs. I was like “That sounds like a dream!” They had an idea already and wanted me to bring the idea to life. They liked the idea of it being like an old school book situation—if it had chapters, and if each one was like a book cover or not.
In terms of your projects, how do you decide what you take on?
I’ve been really lucky with word of mouth and it’s just never stopped. Basically every client I’ve had always has friends that need a website done or a new business that they’re starting. It’s been awesome that my work has stayed steady, especially during COVID. In the past few months I’ve gotten busier and the work I decide to take on depends on 1) what I’m interested in at the moment or 2) if I’m a fan of the brand and what they stand for. I try to take on branding projects of any kind because branding is what I’d like to do in the future.
I’d love to have my own branding studio in the future, it’d still be just myself predominantly. I would really love to officially start my own studio when I take on less freelance work from brands and take on more strictly branding projects. I think that’s where the division lies. I absolutely love random freelance projects that come in, but it’s different than branding a project from the start. I have no idea what the process is, I’d love to have my own physical space, hire a few people and hire people that can do what I can’t do. I’d love to have that team environment. The people element is a big element for me and it would make it feel really official!
What would your dream project be?
Because of Cuyama, I’ve been interested in the general hospitality industry for quite some time now, so my dream project would definitely be another hospitality project. The special thing about hospitality is that you’re creating a space where people are going to enjoy. Whatever space that you’re creating is going to become a gathering place for people. Whatever you can do design-wise to make someone feel special and safe while they’re admiring the space (and details!) around them is so important.
How did you come up with your senior thesis and what did it mean to you?
I completed my thesis earlier this year, right at the beginning of COVID, it’s called Camp Tigertail. I never went to summer camp as a child. That was always something that I was so fascinated with which I didn’t realize until recently. It was strange that I was so inspired by something I hadn’t experienced. For my thesis, I decided to brand my own summer camp, but the twist is that it’s for adults. It would be a mix between a traditional summer camp and glamping. With Camp Tigertail, a lot of it was inspired by nostalgia. In the branding and design process, I tried to take parts of my actual childhood that I was nostalgic about and bring it into this atmosphere. Tigertail was a street near where my elementary school was. For the activity cards, each card was named after my friends from high school and was fit for each personality. That was my version of creating space for people and bringing people together through design.
What are your major inspirations?
Nostalgia is an overarching inspiration for me. I collect a lot of things, I love taking paper collateral from hotels, I collect postcards wherever I go. Definitely the 60s as well – the music, the fashion, the typography. And being outside and taking road trips is a huge part of who I am. It’s not something I do enough and it’s so different from my day to day life. Also, photography! Whether it’s digital, film and movies too. Kind of anything visual honestly.
How did you feel when you saw that your designs were copied?
For Peet Rivko, I had designed this crewneck sweatshirt and sweatpant set. It was super simple design wise and it had a globe on the front breast pocket area with some text around it. The sweatpants had two layers of text. I thought about this later but I know that globes as a design concept and are just really trendy right now and it’s not original at all. I definitely follow designers who use globes so that was something to consider.
I loved Chillhouse, my friend and I went there all the time so I’m signed up for their newsletters. I opened it one day and I saw they had new merch up. I was like, that looks a little bit familiar… I clicked on it and I was a bit blown away, it was so spot on to what I had done and a blatant rip off. I wouldn’t have felt that way if Peet Rivko was a random company to them, but we used to wholesale with Chillhouse. I felt a weird mix of anger and definite sadness. It was something that I had worked hard on to create, but I learnt that’s just what happens with social media. There’s pros and cons of posting your work and the biggest con is that people can rip it off and you can’t do that much about it. I’ve kind of let it go since it happened, but it was more the fact that it was taken from me and that’s something that anyone can do. There are just so many things we see daily on Pinterest and Instagram, and as creatives, there are always things in the back of our heads and sometimes we won’t know if we’re copying or not. Big con of social media.
Moving on from that, what are you working on next?
I work for a lot of different brands at the same time so I’m just working on a lot of ongoing projects that are happening. On a larger scale, I’m always starting my own little projects where I can, there are always so many projects I want to start. Right now I’m making these 2021 calendars, so those will be ready for the holiday season!
All images used are Kiana’s work.
Interviewed by Anna Lowe