Adam J. Kurtz is a designer, illustrator, author, and creator of the ADAMJK gift product line, but he never set out to make any of those labels a career. He says his multi-hyphenate reality is a result of sharing the things he makes without worrying about them being perfect.
On Instagram (@adamjk), he posts quippy, inspirational one-liners, handwritten on brightly colored backgrounds. They often say just what you’ve been thinking, but would never have thought to write down. An evergreen sample: “The best ‘Monday Motivation’ is fucking Tuesday.”
Adam’s popularity lies in the raw simplicity of his work. “I just want to encourage people to stop learning so hard, stop searching for so much inspiration, and just make literally anything,” he says. I spoke to him from his apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, about using Instagram as a space for experimentation and his life as a freelance artist.
How do you use Instagram?
I don’t always get to be the boss if I am working with a client or on a book, but on Instagram I get to be the boss. A lot of my earlier projects were self-published zines, and in the same way, what I post on Instagram is just whatever I feel like sharing. It doesn’t have to be serious.
I treat Instagram as a scrapbook. It’s curated, but it’s also intrinsically personal, not necessarily professional. Sometimes I share something I’ve been working on and I’m excited about, and sometimes I post something that I literally just finished drawing two seconds before. I take a quick photo of the paper itself or I scan it in and slap it on a color background—no layers of approval, no edits.
I recently posted a photo of this crumpled piece of paper that says, “My superpower: feeling it all at once.” I was in a weird mood so I drew it, photographed it on my desk, did some light editing just to brighten it, and it has more than 12,000 likes. There wasn’t an editing process, there was no first draft, I just took the thing and put it up. The work itself holds an emotional weight, and I think people like my work more for concept and meaning than the actual execution. The execution usually reveals the process because its rough and scribbly. In this case, the paper was probably still warm from my touch it was so quick. It was just something I was feeling that I needed to get out.
Even when I post something on a solid color background, where it’s clear it has been through Photoshop, it’s still really quick. My handwriting isn’t perfect and it’s not always consistent. Even though I’m using the tools and skills, the intention and emotion remains because I don’t tidy it up too much. And that’s something that I think Instagram is great for.
Do you worry about engagement on social media?
I would love to lie and say that I don’t care about engagement, but my ability to get paid is tied to the number of followers I have. Clients will literally pay me more money for having more followers. So as an independent creative entrepreneur, social media matters.
I post a lot of the phrases and inspirational stuff because I know that my audience on the platform likes it. Similar work exists in my book already, but most of my Instagram followers are not people who loved my book and then followed me, many of them have no idea who I am. So instead of assuming they’ve read every page, I meet them where they’re at.
I try to keep a balance. Sometimes I’ll be like, “Hey, it’s Monday. People are feeling down. I’m just gonna hit ’em with something positive.” And then other times I’ll be like, “I just made this thing and I’m posting it; I don’t care.”
How do you create your illustrated phrases?
It’s all pencil on real paper, and I try to be really transparent about that.
My newest book, Things Are What You Make of Them, has a picture of the pencil that I wrote it with on the spine. And my business card is a little golf pencil.
I try to communicate that you don’t need a fancy digital tablet and stylus. When I started designing, I was making due with what I had access to. Now that I’ve been doing this longer, I could go out and buy different tools, but as a point of pride I continue not to. A digital tablet company actually gifted me one and I gave it away. It’s not that it’s not a powerful tool and an amazing way for creatives to work, but for what I do it feels antithetical to my mission.
What does a typical work day look like for Adam J. Kurtz?
My husband, Mitchell, is a journalist, and he and I work together at a long desk in the second bedroom that operates as our studio. He’ll be on the right side working on stories or pitching, and I’m on the other side working on my projects.
I try to be sitting at the computer as if I were in an office by 10am. But the best part of working for yourself is that you can decide how much work to take on and when to give yourself slow periods. I’ve tried to build a professional life where I have the option to rest. We can’t do our best work every single day. If I worked in an office, I would have those days where I sit at my computer and half work and hope no one notices me. Being my own boss at home, I try to listen to myself in that way.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start sharing their art on Instagram?
Remind yourself what you’re capable of. I think we get so wrapped up in what we think we need to do and what we see other people making that we forget to just make something easy (and maybe bad) for yourself and see where that takes you.
Who are your favorite people to follow on instagram?
@mitchellkuga is my very talented and beautiful husband. His beauty is secondary to his talent, but it doesn’t hurt.
@geometricsleep is the deputy editor of No Man’s Land, the print publication from The Wing, a network of women-focused community and work spaces. She catches me up on the cool girls of New York scene.
@jermcohen is a photographer who is everywhere around New York capturing street portraits.
@_erichu is a graphic designer who recently left Essence and is now the design director of Nike. He is so talented but doesn’t constantly try to convince you he is talented. He’s always on top of the latest weirdo design trends.