Elevate: Careers in Design 2019 Recap

Danielle Cormier

Rachel Yoo, Brittany Fan, Kate Kirkpatrick, and Erin Kennedy are four UVA alumni who made their way back to grounds on to talk about their experiences working in careers in design.  They took turns answering prepared questions about the field and their experiences as UVA graduates. The following are a few highlights from the event:

What would we have done differently?

Kate wished she had taken more commerce classes in college (marketing, accounting, economics). She described how these classes provide exposure to the business world and its vocabulary. That knowledge helps her now bring a broader understanding of client’s business issues to her work. She also emphasized that as students, we put way too much pressure on ourselves. “Sit back, learn. Let things unfold.” 

Erin recommended setting up a career advising meeting with Kate Melton (kate@virginia.edu). She remembered how writing out a dream career board in her meeting really pointed her in the direction of design and helped her realize what she wanted to do. Working in Product Design, she also wishes she had taken more computer science classes. She even shared that she had to return to a short technical school program to learn html, coding, and other standard computer science skills. She also mentioned: “Interdisciplinary backgrounds are sometimes the greatest. People can be pigeonholed rather than being creative and analytical. The more you can learn, the more subjects you can get into, the better.”

Rachel really emphasized the importance of communication. She shared that of all the people she has worked with, those that are able to advance their careers to Art Directors are those who can speak well. She highlighted the importance of critiques in art classes and design. Rachel explained that professors are essentially teaching you to explain your choices and defend your work, an important skill in the art world. “Sometimes the most successful and talented artists are really good at talking. They can sell themselves. They are their own marketers.“

What are the best things students can do now to prepare for a career in design?

Kate suggested talking to people, learning how they got their jobs or learned their skills. Connect with them on LinkedIn. Send them a message on the Virginia Alumni Mentoring platform (https://alumnimentoring.virginia.edu). Ask for a short phone call or a portfolio review. Even if you may not be able to follow their path exactly, their story can still inspire you. “Keep working at what you love. Build a portfolio, even if you don’t have a class for it. Create your own projects.”

Brittany emphasized customer service. It’s important to be able to listen and read people, both what is said and left unsaid. Take opportunities to interact with the public on a managerial level or public speaking opportunities. Anything you can do to gain experience and confidence in dealing with people both on a personal and broad level, do it. “Take advantage of the UVA network, reach out to people.” 

Rachel said that as an entry level applicant, you need to build a portfolio right away. Even if you are great at talking, it’s important that you can demonstrate your ability. “I don’t even look at their resume before I look at their portfolio. If I don’t like the way their stuff looks, I don’t even bother.”

Erin opened up about her experience working while she was in community college. If a concept in class intrigued her, she would go above and beyond to perfect her skills in that one area. If the assignment was one magazine spread, she designed the entire magazine. Even though she didn’t have the most experience at the time, she told the panel that her employers really liked that she took the time to perfect one or two skills rather than just dabbling in four or five.

How would you recommend people with more of a science background get their foot in the door?

Rachel emphasized that have to have the initiative to work, research, and reach out to people. As someone with a degree in Systems Engineering, she shared her own success story. When she decided she wanted to pursue a new field, she started researching questions like: What are creative directors? Where did they go to school? Can you connect me to someone? What would it take for me to get a job there? 

Rachel also really pushed the idea of “going straight to the source.” Interested in a position? Find someone in that position and contact them. There is a good chance that only a couple out of twenty tries will respond, but it’s worth it. She also expanded on the importance of your current peers and contacts at UVA, don’t forget them. 

As for the portfolio, she says: “A portfolio isn’t necessarily an art book. It’s work that you produced.” The same concepts go into a collection of work and projects as art: What went into it, why did you do that? Overall, initiative to work, research, and contact professionals will take you a long way in this world. 

What recent book, film, or art has inspired you?

Kate said that Hamilton the Musical was always an inspiration for her, but recently she watched documentary on Bill Cunningham that moved her. He photographed both high fashion and street fashion. “He was so curious and joyful about the world. In design, curiosity is so important. It was inspiring.” Most importantly, it’s free on Prime!

Brittany immediately said Dieter Rams, a product and furniture designer. He has published 10 commandments of design. He just has a way of thinking about design that she found inspiring. 

Erin said Bon Appétit magazine without hesitation. She’s inspired by the layouts, food photography, and effective storytelling. 

Rachel mentioned that Bohemian Rhapsody struck a chord with her. She seemed to be especially inspired by Freddie Mercury’s vision and how he pushed the envelope. “You should take risks. Put yourself out there. The people who are most successful got rejected so many times.”

For current students who are maybe in their second or third year, what steps would you recommend taking when pursuing that dream design career? 

Erin seemed torn when asked this question. She said, intern if you can. But, she firmly believes that your own drive and work can sometimes take you farther. Build your portfolio, talk to people. She said she used to give her projects away for free to local companies during her design classes. Doing so got her name out there and provided her with real world experience. Experience is everything. Demonstrating that you know what you’re doing is more important than having a specific degree. The degree will give you a leg up, but demonstrating that you can do something is even more crucial. 

“Artists solve their own problems, designers solve other people’s problems.” - Rachel Yoo 



RACHEL YOO | B.S. Systems Engineering ‘00 (Moderator) 
Freelance Creative Director in NYC, formerly at NBCUniversal. Rachel has years of experience in the entertainment industry and is passionate about problem-solving, process, communication, storytelling, strategy, design, live action and animation. After working a few years in business, she later returned to Pratt Institute for a M.S. in Communications Design and Animation.

BRITTANY FAN | B.A. Studio Art/Art Administration/Art History ‘15
Print Designer at Journey Group, a Charlottesville-based independent design company. In addition to her photography and illustration work at Journey, she is a regionally exhibiting painter, freelance lifestyle and wedding photographer, as well as an illustrator and stationery designer. 

KATE KIRKPATRICK | B.A. English & Art History ‘91
Design Strategist at Gensler in Washington DC. Kate has worked at Gensler for over 20 years as a Director of Marketing, Studio Director, and Principal. Ask her about the Design-Strategy Development (DSD) Program for recent-grads at Gensler!

ERIN KENNEDY | B.A. Cognitive Science & Studio Art ’14
Product Designer at nCino in North Carolina. Now working on a UX software development team, Erin uses her experience in graphic and web design to revolutionize how financial institutions do business. 


Big thanks to the Parents’ Fund and Archie Holmes, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs for making this event, and other ELEVATE series events possible.