Q&A: Kate Schmidgall, Bittersweet Creative

The team at Bittersweet Creative is doing a lot of good, and not just during the holiday season. Bittersweet is a shop that helps brands tell inspiring and powerful stories. But that’s just what they do as a day job. A few years ago, they started a non-profit called Bittersweet Foundation, which publishes Bittersweet Monthly—an online narrative hub for stories about organizations doing work on critical social issues. On January 14th, 2016, Bittersweet is kicking off the new year with a local non-profit called Life Pieces to Masterpieces. We had a chance to talk to Kate Schmidgall, founder and editor of BittersweetMonthly.com, about what motivates her and how to get involved.

How did Bittersweet Foundation come out of the work you do at Bittersweet Creative?

At our core, Bittersweet is a story shop, so we divide it both ways: we create story packages for clients and then we do the same on the non-profit side for causes. And honestly, it’s just what we love doing. On the client side of things, we work for organizations like The World Bank and startups that have brand stories that they’re looking to define and strategize. Anything that involves metrics, data, with a compelling human narrative of need or solution, that’s kind of just what we find fun as creatives. So we thought, it’s so great that we’re doing work for corporations that we believe in, but we also see a lot of organizationslocal organizations especiallythat need our expertise but may not be able to afford it. And we asked ourselves, how can we leverage our professional skillset in a way that contributes to our local community? And helping them to highlight their brand stories is what we came up with. So we use film, photography, infographic design, we’ve even commission spoken word artists and lyricists to write for them. We really try to push ourselves. It’s a sandbox for us to use our work, to contribute to our community, and that’s where we find a lot of meaning and reward.

How did you discover your passion for storytelling?

I actually started out as a journalism major, wanting to tell stories. Then I broadened my degree to communications and began my career post-college as a developer, when table-based layouts were still a thing and CSS hadn’t been invented yet. I spent a few years as a professional freelancer doing web design and development and then worked for Motorola on their creative services team. I moved to DC in 2008 and started getting more freelance work than I could handle by myself and built a team of experts to bid on jobs as Bittersweet Creative. The goal was always to find a way to fund my dream of telling stories of the good happening in the world. I like to think of Bittersweet as a “cause-driven for-profit.”

How do you find time to do this on top of running your own company?

It’s just a matter of setting priorities. Everyone needs to invest in whatever fuels them creativelyand for us, it’s giving. It really energizes us as people and drives our reason for existing in the world and in our community. Many of us can relate to feeling overwhelmed and almost paralyzed by the constant negative news cycle. We’re inundated by it, maybe even more so here in DC. It’s hard sometimes to see the good out there when the statistics pile up. But as designers, we have a skillset that transcends a lot of barriers; we can turn those statistics into stories, we can humanize the data. What we love to do is use stories to build hope and to try and look in our own backyard to make sure that we’re lifting up those who are really making a difference. And hopefully, at the end of the day, if we do our jobs well, then we can help show how people can engage in the social issues that they care about with their own skills.

What surprises have emerged from creating Bittersweet Monthly?

It’s so great when people are so generous. That is really a recurring theme. When we tell the story of an organization, people really do grab hold of it, share it, want to promote it. People are hungry for beautiful, uplifting, hopeful stories with real impact. And that’s what we hoped for, but it has still been surprising that it has worked so well.

We started out in 2010 printing Bittersweet as a quarterly zine and sold it around town at cafes and bookstores. But it was so expensive and hard to sell a physical product. It was way too much to keep up with. We’ve gone through several iterations since, but in this past year we’ve built our online narrative platform which has been far more successful in terms of audience reach AND creating value for our featured organizations. So I’d say, it’s been a bit surprising (great!!) to see that take off the way it has.

Contributed by Decade (decade.is)

How can people submit an idea for an issue and how can they get involved in the storytelling? 

Many of our stories come from nominations submitted through our website. We’re always looking for ideas. Once we get the submission, we read through the bios, find out what the people are doing, and figure out their capacity for creative material. We’re looking for organizations that really need our help. Then we try to see if the work can fit into one of our four topic areas: defending human rights, economic empowerment, improving public health, and cultivating community development. We try to balance local and international organizations.

We also have a “readers choice” feature every November. Our most recent one was for StandProud, an organization helping children with disabilities in the Congo. We sent a filmmaker and a photographer there in September to shoot the story as they saw it and created this amazing short film that won a Vimeo staff pick award and has since been picked up by the One Campaign and shared with over a million people. It’s just a great example of the gift of story and helping an organization find a platform that they might not otherwise know how to ask for.

So once we’ve figured out what we’re going to feature, we invite creative contributors to participate in the work. Our goal is to define the organization, find out what is unique and inspiring about them, and dive into the who, what, when, why, and how of their work and tell that story through craft. We have dozens of contributors and a core stable of folks without whom we definitely couldn’t do this. If anyone is interested, we are always looking for new creative contributors.

Tell us a bit about the event you’re doing in January.

It’s the first of twelve events that we’ll host next year. Pretty much half of our stories are international and half of our stories are local to DC. This one in January is for a local non-profit called Life Pieces to Masterpieces. They work with youth to empower them through character building, future planning, and art skills education. They’re an incredible organization. They put up galleries for kids to present their craft and we’re going to have some of them come to our studio and show off their artwork. It will really be a showcase of the kids’ creative expressions across the gamut. We hope you’ll come on by! It’s on January 14th from 6:30 – 8:30p at the Bittersweet Studio (52 O St NW #301, WDC, 20001).

Still looking for the perfect holiday gift? Check out Bittersweet’s Good Gift Guide. For the last five years they have found beautiful products that generate profits to solve social issues and contribute to a world of good.

By Pascale Vonier
Published December 15, 2015