After her diagnosis, this design director found a surprising way to cope. 

By Jane Porter
Updated June 21, 2016
Kim Kovel
Credit: Christine Bailey Speed

Kim Kovel had her dream job as director of color design for Nike (managing a team of 80 and coming up with looks for footwear) when she was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer, in 2015. After months of intensive treatment, Kovel, 49, returned to Nike in a new role—and touched a lot of lives with a darkly funny coloring book for cancer patients from someone who really gets it.

Did you always want to work in design?

When I was little, I wanted to live in a ski town and be an orthopedic surgeon, fixing broken legs. Then, when I was in middle school, my parents built a house. I would sit with the architect. That opened my eyes up to design thinking. I hung pictures of furniture cut out from magazines in my locker.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up right outside New York City. I have a brother and a sister. My mom was a teacher, and my dad had a textile business. One of their big clients was Wrangler, and we’d get to go to the art department and work on plaids and things when we were little.

You have a master’s in architecture, but you left that career.

After graduating, I went to work for two architects in Colorado. I was not inspired. I became friends with the owners of a restaurant while working on a project there. One day they asked me, “How are you doing?” and I said, “Terrible. I don’t want to be doing what I’m doing.” They said, “Come work for us.” That was 1989. I waitressed for two years and got immersed in snowboarding.

Then you started your own snowboarding clothing company, which eventually hit $2 million in sales.

I had no idea what I was doing. I ran the business through the back-end and shipping department of my dad’s textile business. I remember saying to my father, “How hard could it be?” First of all: super hard. I did that for about five years. At the time, I had a bunch of friends in the industry, and one of them hired me to work on Italian Olympic products for Fila. I worked for a lot of other brands over the years. Eventually I started at Nike and became color design director for the brand Jordan.

Being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer changed your path.

Four days after I was diagnosed, I was in treatment. I took six months off. I was in the hospital for five days at a time with continuous chemo and radiation. It was surreal.

Your son was 14.

I realized my attitude was going to affect everybody, including myself, so I approached things with a twisted sense of humor. We had parties in the room; we smuggled stuff in; I did hall walks, five miles a day, with my headphones on and my chemo pole. A couple of months ago, my son and I were watching a movie where the mom died of cancer, and I asked him, “Did you ever think I was going to die? Were you afraid?” He just looked at me and said, “No, Mom. I knew you weren’t going to die. You weren’t afraid, so I wasn’t afraid.”

You created an activity book called Hello My Name Is Cancer during that time.

It came from what was happening day to day. People were really well-meaning—I had guests all the time bringing me things to eat, but nothing tasted good. They’d bring me things to read, but I had no attention span. I realized there are activity books for kids to make them feel better, but nothing for adults. So I’d take pictures or I’d sketch something and send it to Mark [Smith], who cowrote the book with me. It was something to focus on that seemed relevant. We raised money [on Kickstarter] to print and ship 5,000 books to cancer centers.

It’s gotten a great response.

On Christmas, I got a call from the head social worker at the hospital where I had my treatment. She was crying. She said, “I’ve been handing your books out on all the floors, and you cannot imagine how many people you’ve made smile today.” This is the best thing I have ever been part of, for sure.

You’re in remission and in a new Nike job.

As senior innovator, my job now is to make mistakes and explore. I’m at the beginning of the product pipeline.

Tell us about your family life.

My son is going into 10th grade. His father and I have been divorced for 11 years, and he and his wife are my best friends. All four of us travel together.

What does work-life balance mean to you?

I don’t think of it as a seesaw. For me, it’s just all kind of a blob.

Do you cook?

I don’t cook ever. I eat almonds and avocados. Some people associate being into cooking as being passionate. I’m passionate—I just don’t care about cooking.

Any parting advice?

Make stuff, break stuff, and have fun.