Spotlight Interview: Kelly Larson

Kelly Larson: Account Manager/ Marketing & Digital Strategy, af&co

San Francisco CA

WFU Class of 2012

Double Major: Studio Art & Communications

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Kelly Larson catches us up on life since her graduation in 2012. Working for hospitality consultancy af&co as digital marketing strategist, Larson charts the course from Winston, to NYC, to Cali, including tips on life in San Fran + invaluable networking advice.

DeacLink: What did you study while you were at Wake?

Kelly Larson: I was a double major in Communications and Studio Art. I knew I wanted to go the advertising/marketing route after college, but was sort of making up my own creative path (vs. business marketing). I took any available classes in advertising/pr and marketing, as well as interning at Vela Communications my senior year. Some of my most formative classes were Communication Ethics with Dr. Michael Hyde and Management in the Visual Arts.

DL: Since you’ve graduated, how has your career unfolded? Can you walk me through your path from graduation day to your current job?

KL: After graduation, I moved to New York City without a job. I found my first post-grad internship through a tweet from Ken Kraemer (Deep Focus CCO and now good friend) that MadDeacs had retweeted and was at Deep Focus for nearly 5 years. As an advertising Account Supervisor, it felt pretty cool to be doing the job I had set out to do in school, but as you’d expect, that vision changed (you can only work on potato chips for so long). I realized I needed a better connection to my personal passions: creating experiences for the food & booze obsessed. My next role was a Senior Digital Strategist at M Booth, a communications agency where I helped lead digital and social media strategy. My clients were spirits & alcohol accounts, which was my pivot into the food & beverage hospitality space.

DL: What led you to transition to af&co, and how’s the new role?

KL: More so, it was my journey to San Francisco lead me to af&co. I had hit my New York expiration date and wanted my next city to be more outdoors focused and have a better work:life balance – the California weather didn’t hurt either. Moving to a new city a second time without a job, I doubled down on meeting everyone in SF in the niche field of restaurants, hotels, and hospitality marketing. I was looking for a job that was also specifically digital and was introduced to af&co’s founder, Andrew Freeman, where he basically created that position during our first meeting. Restaurants can be pretty old school about PR & Marketing, so being smart digitally is where I could make an impact and knew I had to get them up to speed. I couldn’t be more excited that my new role, Account Manager, Marketing & Digital Strategy at af&co is a perfect fit and allows me to work with fellow food nerds and restaurant, brewery, and hotel clients.

DL: What advice do you have for readers interested in breaking into the industry?

KL: Rip off the bandaid. If you want a new job or to make a big change in your life, consider that the options that feels drastic might not be so crazy. Taking uncomfortable steps becomes easier after the first one and enables you to take charge of the change. That ‘big thing’ ultimately will happen because of your network. Keep in touch, grow your contacts, and don’t be afraid to use them – you have to ask for what you need to actually benefit from ‘who you know’. And also, always follow up with a thank you – it’s basic, but essential to close the loop and show that you really want the job.

DL: How did you find and apply to the various positions you’ve held (online, inside reference/rec, networking in person, WFU resources, other)?

KL: All of the above! The easiest transition into securing a new role has been through former coworkers at the new company. Otherwise, yes – you have ask people to introduce you and to meet with people in person – especially if you are new to a city. Consider that while they might not be the person that gets you the job, they might know the person that does. Also, never leave a lead open – the further you get in your career, the smaller the circle gets. Don’t let lack of effort or self-doubt make you miss the opportunity to follow through. I’ve made that mistake.

DL: What do you think Wake could have done better to prepare you for life after graduation?

KL: While there is a lot you can learn in the classroom about how to do good work, having practical industry knowledge is so essential to even figure out what the job title is for the type of role you are interested in. I knew I wanted to be in advertising, but was I going to be a Project Manager? Account Coordinator? Associate Strategist? Community Manager? Should that be at a digital agency, traditional agency, media agency? Understanding the landscape, especially explained in real terms from recent grads would have helped a lot. Hearing from a CEO at a notable company is great, but that’s not the job I’m applying for right out of school.

DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?

KL: Talk to people. Anyone that offers to connect you with someone – take it. Maybe their field doesn’t feel like it relates to what you think you want to do, but you may find out about a great fit for a type of job that you didn’t even know existed. Ask them to explain the landscape of the industry they are in to you – those are the constructs you can’t google, but really only understand by being part of it. You’ll learn more about what you might want to do (or not do) and how to get there, as well as made a new connection in the process.

Spotlight Interview: Max Gordon

Max Gordon: Associate Graphic Designer, RapidRatings

New York City

WFU Class of 2018

Major: Studio Art

Minor: Chemistry

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Max Gordon came to Wake with sights set on a pre-med track. However, he encountered the Art Department and fell in love! Max works at RapidRatings in NYC as a graphic designer. We recently got the full scoop on Max’s path since Winston.

DeacLink: What did you study at Wake? How much did your studies at Wake inform or drive your career path?

Max Gordon: I majored in Studio Art with a minor in Chemistry when I was at Wake. My experience at Wake had a large impact on my current career path. When I was a freshman, I intended on being pre-med, but I knew I wanted to continue with art as well. After taking my first studio at Wake, I fell in love with the art program because it was small. The size of the department allowed me to develop relationships and receive detailed feedback from the professors. Although I never took a graphic design class at Wake, I began creating my own path by experimenting and teaching myself through Wake’s free Adobe program. I also took a graphic design class when I was abroad in Copenhagen with a DIS program. Taking drawing classes taught by Leigh Ann Hallberg also granted me creative freedom as she allowed me to go in a design-based direction.

DeacLink: So how did you end up becoming a graphic designer in the city?

Max Gordon: It started when I interned at RapidRatings the summer before my senior year. I was then offered the job the following January. I began doing some online work for them and made one in-person visit to NYC for an OPCD Wake Career Trek later that semester. Now I work at RapidRatings full time!

DeacLink: How did you find and apply to RapidRatings and other design internships? Did you receive any helpful tips along the way or have any advice for students applying to internships now?

Max Gordon: I was originally planning on going out to LA for a different internship that I found out about through a Wake alum, but I applied to others including RapidRatings just by searching on my own. In terms of advice I learned that your first choice isn’t going to work out most of the time and that’s fine. Whatever you end up getting will be helpful in some way for what you want to do; it will help you get there. It also helps, especially in the art world, to take initiative and put yourself out there in the first place because people aren’t always going to come to you.

DeacLink: In your experience, do you think there is anything that Wake could have done better to prepare students for life after graduation?

Max Gordon: Wake does a great job with a certain type of student, but in my opinion more could be done for art students in particular. For instance, it would be cool to see the Art Department and the OPCD team up to provide better templates for art students to work from when beginning to search for jobs. In the end, it’s best to trust yourself and what you think is best when you are working with Wake to prepare for your future.

DeacLink: What is your favorite part of living and working in NYC? Is there anything you find interesting going on in the art scene there right now?

Max Gordon: Living in the city gives you tons of opportunities to see public art, especially in the summer. There are installations all over the city; you can’t escape it! The pace here is very different from Winston-Salem. Sometimes the size of Winston was limiting, but you can still make an impact because it’s so small. In NYC it’s harder to make your impact, but the city definitely makes an impact on you.

DeacLink: Could you tell me more about working for RapidRatings? What is your favorite part?

Max Gordon: I really like that it is a small company. I have a unique position since I am the only graphic designer here, so I can make a big impact which is a great feeling. I work on designs for their public-facing content, so I have a lot of responsibility. I also manage the website, infographics, and videos. I can get involved in multiple projects which is cool. I am also getting involved with the UI/UX program for user experience and user interface.

DeacLink: What and where is next for you?

Max Gordon: I was applying to Parsons and NYU for grad school before graduation, but I was offered the job at RapidRatings and accepted before I found out if I got in to either school. Turns out, I got in to both, so I’m in the process of reapplying right now. I’m going for design and technology going into web development or UI/UX.

DeacLink: Is there any advice you have for the readers?

Max Gordon: A great piece of advice I received when I was looking for jobs was “Just land. Figure it out from there.”

Spotlight Interview: Leigh Anne White

Leigh Ann White: Inclusive Design + Cultural Projects Manager, Institute for Human Centered Design

Boston, Massachusetts

WFU Class of 2011

Major: Studio Art

Minor: Art History

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Leigh Anne White graduated from Wake with a Studio Art major and Art History minor. Her career path since has been guided by a strong desire to help others whilst keeping in the art & museums realm. Read on to learn about her story and wisdom acquired along the way.

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.

Spotlight Interview: Kat Shuford

Kat Shuford: UI Designer + Owner/Founder of Catbat Shop

New York City

WFU Class of 2009

Major: Studio Art

Double Minor: Spanish & Latin American Studies

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Kat Shuford is a multitalented creator, leading a dual career in web design and fashion. Kat graduated from Wake with a Studio Major in 2009 and has since carved her own path in New York. She spoke with us recently to outline her journey since Winston-Salem.

DeacLink: What did you study at Wake? What was the job market like upon graduation?

Kat Shuford: I majored in Studio Art, with a concentration in Sculpture. I double-minored in Spanish & Latin American Studies.  I had been told that you can always be an art teacher at a private school the year after you graduate, but the Great Recession had hit teaching jobs hard, and my applications went unanswered.  My other idea was to teach English abroad, which I had done the previous summer, and I was accepted to a program through the Spanish government to teach in Mallorca for a year. When graduation finally came though, I was too exhausted from travelling during my years at Wake Forest (Santiago, Chile and Querétaro, Mexico) and thought that it would be hard to continue an art practice doing that.  

DL: Please walk me through your path from graduation day to your current job.

KS: I decided to move back home to Atlanta and save money to move to New York to pursue my art career. I had a number of odd jobs and internships that year, and I didn’t have much more than 3k saved. I figured that I had handled a big city before in a different language and culture, so I should be able to navigate New York. I only knew one or two people there and no close friends.  I managed to line up an internship as an artist assistant for Dustin Yellin through Craigslist (unpaid) and decided to go ahead and move since I could network better from New York than sending out more resumes from Atlanta.

I worked at the Dustin Yellin’s studio for several years, mainly doing collage work.  He happened to get a big commission right around the time I was going to have to stop interning there and get a paid job elsewhere. It was lucky timing. The team of assistants was up to 20 people at one point. In many ways, it was a dream job. I was doing art everyday and working alongside talented people, but it was physically taxing. I was exhausted by the time I got home.  My own art practice seemed so small in comparison.

After a few years there, I was growing restless. I wanted to have my own studio and the energy to work on my own art. I saw that working in the art world would always be a hustle. I got burnt out and quit. I started teaching myself web design with online videos and by building my own websites.  Web design appealed to me for the same reasons I liked making art: I put something out in the world, and someone on the other end would have to make sense of it without me there alongside them.

I was able to find internships by applying online, and one of those turned into steady gig. I got connected with my current job at BrightCrowd when a friend introduced me to one of his buddies from Business school at a mixer as SXSW.  I’ve been a UI designer at BrightCrowd for 4 years now. It’s a directory of helpful alumni that was started by two Stanford alumni and has spread to 20 more top universities. I do everything visually-related for them- from graphic design to front-end templating.  

And what happened to those dreams of being an artist? Once I started working as a web designer, I had enough money and time to get a small studio. I loved having a space to create in, but I didn’t like being alone in a tiny windowless room when there was the entire city of New York around me! I somehow found my way into designing capes that could be worn everyday, and it led me back out into the world, going into factories and warehouses in Brooklyn and New York, touching and learning about fabric, meeting incredible models and photographers, having an eye out for photoshoot locations. You can check out what I do at http://www.catbatshop.com/ or on Instagram @catbatshop.


DL: How much did your studies and general experience at Wake inform or drive your career path?

KS: I was pushed and challenged, but it was very much within an academic context.  Some of that translated to the larger world, and some of it didn’t. There were a lot of gaps. Many people competing for the same art jobs I was came from art schools, so they had a really strong network and more technical skills.  I felt like I had a critical eye and that I understood the dialogue in the art world, but those skills didn’t translate to getting a job.


DL: How did you find and apply to the various positions you’ve held? Do you have any tips and suggestions for the student audience on networking, interviewing and applying for jobs?

KS: Craigslist… I think a lot has changed since I was an intern. First of all, interns get paid! Almost all of mine were unpaid. If you want a job from an internship, I do think you have to go above and beyond what the other interns are doing and to become friendly with people in the company. Even in the most casual work cultures, you still have to be top of mind. Even if they can’t hire you, they’ll feel confident recommending you or passing your name along if you have been helpful. I also applied through NYFA frequently, but I never had much luck with it.


DS: What could Wake have done better to prepare students for life after graduation?

KS: I remember they had a How to Interview panel, but the panelists worked in finance and sales. There wasn’t a tailored experience for students in the arts. As I mentioned before, the people I met in New York who went to art schools had big networks and the skills that put them at an advantage in getting jobs in the arts. Making sure every studio art major knows their way around the Adobe suite, specifically related to photo and video editing, would be a good step. I’m happy to talk to anyone who’s just graduated and trying to figure out what to do.


DL: What is your favorite part of living and working in New York? What is the most interesting thing going on in the art scene there at the moment, in your opinion?

KS: I was sold on New York during my first week here.  I loved being able to ride a bike most places, and I met so many interesting people it made my head spin. After 8 years, I still think it’s the people. A perfect day for me is to ride my bike into Manhattan bounce around to different cafes, bookstores, parks -- people-watching and eating.

I’m a bit out of touch with the art scene, but I saw Like Life this summer at the Met Breuer. I loved the mix of time periods. When I was younger, I only wanted to see contemporary art-- art of ideas. The Met knocked that out of me.

DL: What is your favorite part about owning a clothing line? What about web design- what are the perks of that?
KS: Designing the capes brings me in contact with new places and talented people.  It’s inherently collaborative. I get my fabric from a deadstock fabric supplier named Danny in Chelsea. Five generations of his family have been selling fabric out of the warehouse, and now he’s got a Zaha Hadid apartment building across the street and hotels all around him. It’s a remnant of an older New York.

As for web design, I like being a part of a team and knowing my creative skills have real value for the team. If you like to be constantly learning and you are happy spending the day not talking to anyone, web design is a good fit.