Creative Voices

Going Deep: Designer Kelli Anderson

By Dan Cowles

Brooklyn-based designer Kelli Anderson goes very deep into her work. Rigorous research, curiosity, and experimentation are all primary parts of her process, and she’s almost obsessive about finding the best way to approach a project.

And this rigor and research are part of what make Kelli’s work unique. She brings something insightful and special to every project she works on.

For a new pop-up book, for example, she cuts, folds, and iterates, over and over again, pushing the form into new places. The pop-up book came about after she created a working paper record player for the invitation for a friend’s wedding. She often works with paper but jumps back and forth between the physical and the digital, with no clear favorite.

For her recent Russ & Daughters project—the design of a new sit-down eatery for a legendary Lower East Side specialty food store—Kelli and Russ & Daughters’ Jen Snow dug through the archives and visited public libraries to create a design that was both true to the history of the hundred-year-old establishment and completely fresh. The new restaurant is full of inspired modern touches, but Kelli also used traditional techniques and materials to authentically replicate the original brand.

Watch Kelli at work and learn more about her recent projects in this video profile. 

Watch this video about Kelli Anderson and her inspiring creative work.

You can see more of this beautiful work on Kelli’s blog, where she—fittingly—documents many of her projects in great detail.


In April 2015, Adobe introduced a new program called the Creative Residency. It gives residents a compensation package that covers their living expenses for a year so they can focus on what might otherwise be relegated to side projects. In return, the residents share their work and insights publicly. Kelli is the first of two residents. (The other is illustrator/author Becky Murphy.)

Inspire [name changed to Adobe Create in late 2015] asked Kelli to talk about the Residency.

Inspire: What was your reaction when you heard you were chosen for the residency?

Kelli: It sounded like a dream come true. Especially when I realized that there were no strings attached to all of this freedom.

As soon as I started to jump up and down, however, the sense of privilege (and a sense of responsibility) kicked in. Artists and designers do time-consuming work that is oftentimes unsustainable, which leaves the majority of us struggling with balancing our paid and unpaid work. Because of the generous hand I’ve been dealt, I have a new responsibility to be equally generous in return. Design, in particular, is discipline whose funding is almost entirely market, consumer, and trend-driven. However, design is also an innately philosophical discipline with its own internal logic, concerns, and questions. It can drive itself, in other words. I feel an obligation to prioritize those non-market-supported questions with my residency time. I’ll try to stray from the known path more, push things further, be more fearless, report back more articulately, and share what I find more openly. 

Inspire: Will your typical daily schedule change once the residency begins? 

Kelli: I don’t think it will change much. Even though the economic context is changing, my eye will stay trained on the several little project balls I already have rolling.

However, I think I need to make these changes to my routine: One: I need to set aside more time for research and purposeless inquiry—for experiments tethered to neither a specific project nor a desired outcome And two: I need find a better way to share what I learn. 

Purposelessness is important in the studio. When you’re making creative work, you naturally tend to prioritize specific aesthetic outcomes. But if you’re chasing a specific result over and over again, it limits what you can discover. Working without a desired outcome lets in the unknown. And lets in fun too! For example, the other day I stumbled upon the mention of a moiré (interference) pattern. When this specific interference pattern is overlaid on a particular arrangement of small type, it has the effect of dramatically magnifying the small type. The result appears to be some kind of crazy analog magic. It seems to defy reality! I want to spend more time chasing things like that. (I can worry about coming up with a project to fit it later. Or if I share this research, maybe someone else will find something cool to do with it!)

So my routine will change in this way: when I walk into the studio every day, I need to prioritize asking: how will I learn something new? The coolest things happen when I think with my hands rather than limiting it to what is in my brain. By letting my materials lead, I think I can start an ongoing, open-ended search that doesn’t limit my findings in a pre-determined way.

Inspire: What are some of the projects you may explore during the residency?

Kelli: I’ve been working a lot with paper lately and plan to continue on this track into my residency. Specifically, I’m interested in what paper can teach me about how structure (design) can tap into invisible forces at play in the world. Or, more succinctly put: “What can paper do?” 

I’ve been building semi-functional (very lo-fi) contraptions out of paper. Six of these contraptions have been finalized for publication by Chronicle Books in October. It’s a pop-up book about science and design that I wrote, designed, and engineered. This Book Is a Planetarium’s purpose is to reimagine what the structure of a book can do—morphing from being a planetarium, to a spirograph, to a musical instrument, to a perpetual calendar, to a decoder ring, to a speaker—supported by text that connects design decisions with the underlying (hidden) physical conditions they tap into.

Their lo-fi nature urges the user into a more active role — inviting them to play, tinker, respond and otherwise feel out aspects of the world presumed to be abstractions like light, time, weight, and sound. I like the idea that we can explore the abstractions in our world with our hands. Sometimes having a haptic inroad to a problem can be very helpful.

So I want to do more research in that vein—and also (hopefully) find a way to finalize, polish, and release as many of the nine remaining pop-up contraptions as possible. Perhaps as products or as open-source, downloadable designs…I have yet to figure this out.