DeacLink: Since you’ve graduated from Wake, you’ve gone to grad school and had quite the interesting career. How has your career unfolded? Can you walk me through your path from graduation day to your current job?
Leigh Anne White: There are several stops along the path so sit tight. What actually led me to grad school is another Wake alum came to speak during my senior year about her job as an exhibit designer. I had been trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew that I needed to do something visual and hands-on but when I went to career services, they told me I needed to apply to every art gallery in New York and that was the only way I was going to find a job in the arts. After that I started looking more into architecture or interior design tracks because I assumed those were my options for design. While at Wake, I had also done an art therapy internship, so I was looking into that as well. Then Jame Anderson came to Wake; at the time she was an exhibit designer for the National Gallery of Art in DC. She was describing her job and I decided that was the exact job I had been searching for because it combined my passion for art history, education, and design.
After the talk, Leigh Ann Hallberg set me up with Jame, and I met with her a couple of times when she was visiting Winston-Salem. She told me about the Corcoran College of Art + Design Masters program that her boss at the National Gallery had started with a few other exhibit designers in DC specifically to train students in not just exhibit design but curatorial studies, conservation practices, graphic design, and lighting design - all subjects a professional exhibit designer uses in their job. I applied to that, got accepted, and started grad school the fall after graduating from Wake. I thought I would end up in New York, and I instead found my way to DC. In the program, I was one of the only people coming straight from undergrad which was intimidating. The program was amazing and confirmed that this was the path for me. I loved every minute of it.
While in grad school, I had a few different internships; one was an internship at the National Museum of American History, which gave me a chance to be apart of an in-house museum design team. After that experience I decided I wanted to work in museums more than anything else. For those who are unfamiliar with exhibit design it is essentially visually interpreting a curator or organization’s message in an accessible and entertaining format for the general public. I loved being able to interpret someone’s written words or idea and turn it into a visual 3D environment but I felt like I wasn’t able to help others in the way I had hoped my career would allow.
As a result of me explaining this over lunch to my boss at the Smithsonian, she told me about their accessibility department and how I might be interested in the work they were doing. They were beginning to come up with new design guidelines for neurodiverse audiences, and wanted to understand how design influences visitors with brain-based conditions. At the time, anything relating to accessibility was shoved to the programming and education departments. Basically they were putting on a bandaid by tweaking the programming or services available because the environment didn’t work for someone rather than changing the design to be accessible. Museums should still have those specialized programs, but that shouldn’t be someone’s only option for visiting. In my last year of grad school, I moved over to that department as a fellow and helped research and write design guidelines for neurodiverse audiences. I watched visitors in the exhibits to see what worked, what didn't work, and figured out how we could change the environment to make it better for visitors with brain-based conditions. I was really hooked after that job and decided I wanted to focus on designing for accessibility.
I had assumed I would stay in DC after graduating from the Corcoran or move to another large city but instead I got an opportunity back in North Carolina that I couldn’t turn down. My friend from grad school had gone to Duke for undergrad and had interned at a local children's museum in college. After grad school she moved back to Durham to design their new museum. She called me a few months before I graduated and asked if I would be interested in moving to Durham to help her design the museum from the ground up. She said I could work on the accessibility of the exhibits which won me over. So on a whim I moved to Durham. It was supposed to be a six month project, but construction never works that way, so six months easily turned into over a full year. Molly and I were the two designers; we worked closely with the construction team, and the entire museum staff throughout the design and build. I also helped teach art classes two times a week at the temporary pop-up space and was able to use my art history knowledge to create programming for the kids. The program I developed was taking a famous artist and explaining his or her work to the kids, and then we would create our own project based on the artist’s work.
Once the museum opened, there wasn’t much else for us to do. I wasn’t ready to leave North Carolina, so I found the one exhibit design firm in the area (Design Dimension), and they luckily had an opening. I applied and got a job as the one structural exhibit designer at the firm. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Their focus was more on smaller exhibits and the industrial design side of things; it wasn’t as much about the educational aspects of the exhibits like I expected. I left there after a year, very confused about what to do next. I thought I wanted to be in a firm and that was the right path for me, but that experience proved otherwise. I liked being in the museum world, but it can be unstable long-term. You go from museum to museum based on projects, and as soon as one is done, there’s no certainly you can stay. So I spent eight months in North Carolina figuring out what I wanted to do. While I looked around, I was able to do freelance graphic design work which allowed me the time I needed to figure out my next step. I realized I missed the accessibility side of things and the ability to analyze environments and wanted to find a job where I could focus on those things. I narrowed my search down to jobs in San Francisco or Boston because those two felt like they were doing the most with accessibility and design. While I was looking, I met with my old boss (Beth Ziebarth) at the Smithsonian, and she gave me a list of people to connect with, most of whom were in Boston. As a result, I moved to Boston without a job determined to find one.
Everyone thought I was crazy and was telling me to just take a job and that what I wanted to do didn’t exist. The place I am working at now (Institute for Human Centered Design), was one of the places Beth had told me to reach out to. I had actually used IHCD a lot in my research in grad school, but it's not a place with regular job postings so I had assumed nothing would be available. I thought they would be able to help me find similar places to apply, so I went to meet with the Executive Director (Valerie Fletcher) last June for an informational interview. I was there for almost three hours and at the end Valerie said “I have heard everything about you, Beth filled me in and told me to not let you leave.”
I have been at IHCD since that meeting where I work mainly on cultural projects. We are a small nonprofit “dedicated to enhancing the experiences of people of all ages, abilities, and cultures through excellence in design”. When we aren’t as busy with our cultural projects, I am doing field research surveying for improved accessibility for parks and other public spaces. I never thought I would be assessing parks or police stations, but I am able to use my designer brain to figure out how to make those environments accessible, too.
DL: Do you have any networking tips for students?
LAW: I think I am terrible at networking. I don't like reaching out to people I don't know, but I do stay close to those that have made a difference in my education and career which I would advise everyone do. It isn't the awkward situation of going back to them after five years of not speaking and asking for something. These people do care about you and more often than not are happy to help. They are a friend and mentor and are invested in you as well. That is very much the case with Leigh Ann Hallberg and Paul Bright at Wake. I still try to stay in touch with Leigh Ann, Paul, and Peggy Smith (who retired the year I graduated). Jame Anderson was that person throughout grad school. Beth at the Smithsonian was very much that, too. It made it a far less awkward experience to go and say, this is what I am looking for and interested in, how can you help me? There are other people I could have reached out to but I would have felt like I was only using them for their connections. I have chosen to only lean on the people I have stayed in touch with.
DL: The design route is an interesting option for art alums considering Wake doesn’t have a formal design program. What advice do you have for readers interested in breaking into the field?
LAW: I think just keep doing your own design work on the side, which seems impossible when you are at Wake and working on other stuff. See how you can incorporate design projects into your studio projects. My collage and drawing classes gave me knowledge and skills I am constantly using in design. I feel like my time at Wake prepared me for design thinking too, especially with the Art History classes. Learning how to think creatively, problem solve, how to look at things aesthetically as well as technically - all of that helped me when I went to grad school for design. It continues to allow me to see things differently. I spent four years analyzing things I looked at in Art History, and today I spend my time looking at how things are designed and figuring out how different visitors experience a space or an artifact. Part of Art History is a subjective understanding of how to interpret a work of art. What I do is also very subjective - there are a million types of people with a million different tastes, thus not just one solution, so how do you come up with something that best suits everyone.
Interning also helps you figure out what you truly want to do. My art therapy internship made me realize I like to use art and creativity to help people. Each new opportunity I had helped me figure out exactly what I wanted, or didn’t want, to do.
DL: What could Wake have done better to prepare students for life after graduation?
LAW: I think they could have done a better job of introducing us to more people that have graduated and gone out there in different fields (in the arts) and made something of themselves. They are doing a better job of that now. If Jame hadn’t come to speak, I would have never known this was a career path. It would be great to have more resources that show art and art history doesn't just mean becoming a curator, professional artist, or professor and that there is so much more out there.
DL: What is your favorite part of living and working in Boston? What’s the art scene like there?
LAW: I feel like it is a very innovative city. When people think of Boston and innovation, they think tech and medical, but there is also a huge undercurrent of art innovation. A lot of that is combined with the tech, and as a nonprofit, what we do integrates tech, accessibility, and design. People are excited for new ideas and you can feel that. There’s a buzz going around where everyone wants to think of the latest and greatest idea, and they don't want ownership or fame, but are excited by the possibility of something useful being created. That is a huge contrast to DC where things are a little more linear and things are often influenced by politics.
DL: What is your favorite part about working for IHCD?
LAW: I feel like I am in an office of people who think like me and feel like me, and we always joke we’ve found our tribe. It is an office full of designers and architects that are passionate about accessibility. It’s not the norm.
I also love being able to work with such varied clients. In the last year I worked with large museums in New York, Chicago, and DC. I’ve worked with aquariums, museums, theaters, and libraries. I love being able to be at the beginning of new museum projects that are trying to be inclusive from day one. I also love being able to go to a historic building that recognizes that their environment is not accessible to all visitors and want to change that. I really enjoy helping our clients design solutions that are both aesthetically pleasing and accessible.
DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?
LAW: Don't listen to people that say “you can't do it” or that “being an art or art history major won't get you anywhere.” Plenty of people have come before you and made incredible careers out of art degrees. We are an underappreciated group at Wake where everything is more business oriented. It can be hard at times to feel like you are being taken seriously but don't give up on it, you choose your majors and minors for a reason, and there will be something out there that requires the knowledge and skills you developed in the basement of Scales.