My childhood was comparable to the Lady Bird storyline (minus the mother-daughter tension). I grew up in the Northern California suburbs wishing I was somewhere more artistically inspiring. However, I made do in the land of shopping malls and Olive Garden until I escaped for university.
I have been interested in the arts ever since I can remember. I drew rainbows on everything. Calligraphy, embroidery, drawing, and painting were some of my favourite pastimes (still are). I won the Thanksgiving colouring contest at the local 7-Eleven every year. My high school superlative was “Most Creative.” And while I was usually picked last for recreational sports teams (aside from dodgeball…I’m oddly adept at dodging balls), when it came to group art projects, I was MVP.
My first exposure to graphic design was in our high school’s computer class. I designed a ballet studio brochure using some archaic version of Photoshop. The teacher asked where I got the template from (I told her I made it myself!) and then invited me to join the on-campus printing business.
In “Viking Printing Press” we used Adobe Creative Suite to create plaques, coasters, letterhead, stickers, and posters for various faculty members. After undergoing rounds of feedback for a client (some teacher!) and disliking the final product, I decided a career graphic design wasn’t for me (looking back, I realize this was naïve). But I knew I wanted to do something creative. Just wasn’t quite sure what that was.
For undergrad, I went to the University of California, Berkeley, where I double-majored in Practice of Art and Media Studies. I figured with a name like “Berkeley” on my resume, a creative-art-design-y job would come relatively easy.
Job hunting turned out to be much harder than I expected (although I knew it’d be difficult). After simultaneously working as a temp receptionist, job hunting, interviewing, and experiencing lots of humbling rejection for six months, I started to wonder if I had what it took to land a creative job.
So, I decided to switch gears and pursue something completely different.
I got an English teaching job in Seoul and spent a year and a half imparting the complexities of my native language to 8–13-year-olds (annyeonghaseyo!).
Teaching was a wonderfully creative outlet, both visually and conceptually. I loved creating projects and games that sparked my students’ interest and engagement. The experience was challenging and fulfilling.
Side note: While living in Korea, I finally watched Mad Men, which had me reconsidering my thoughts on design and art direction as a career. I decided an advertising agency was the place I needed to be, so I began plotting that pursuit.
Upon my return to US soil, I was back on the job hunt. I encountered the same job-seeking issues I had two years prior, but I eventually landed an entry-level job at AKQA as a Human Resources Coordinator. During the interview process, my future manager (bless her) told me that if I gave her a year of my time, she would help me move into a creative role I was passionate about.
From the start, I envisioned myself as a designer who just-so-happened to be working in HR.
I took the opportunity to build relationships and design anything I could get my hands on. Under the guidance of a Design Director, I rebranded our new hire and HR communication in its entirety.
I created a unified design system including orientation decks, new hire paperwork, email blurbs, how-to guides, and maps. It became an obsession I spent hours in and out of work perfecting. If I were to guess, I think I’ve redesigned over 40 policies and forms in InDesign at this point (all of which look beautiful and consistent!).
In the midst of my HR redesign flurry, I had a pivotal conversation with the aforementioned Design Director who offered to mentor me in design. Thus, “Mentors Matter” materialized.
While continuing to work on my internal HR design projects, I took a 3-month Communication Design course at CCA in San Francisco as a way to benchmark my design and art direction skills. My mentor and I checked in weekly to review homework assignments and alter my designs post-mentor feedback. During these check-ins, we also discussed each project’s relevance (or lack thereof) to the work I’d eventually be creating at AKQA.
After the course, my mentor created additional briefs that were more focused on advertising. At the end of the last project, the stars finally aligned and my transition to the creative department became a real thing.
And now, here I am, working in my dream job.
Kaitlyn Peterson is an art-directing visual-designing creative hybrid hailing from San Francisco, CA. Levi’s, Facebook, and Apple are a few of the clients Kaitlyn has conjured visual magic for on behalf of AKQA. Read her works on Medium or connect with her on Instagram.
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