What’s Math Got to Do With It? A Day in the Life of a Graphic Designer

Kat Sikes

Don’t limit yourself to one particular course of study: You can always find ways to apply what you learned to your future career if you try. That’s what freelance designer Kat Sikes has learned as she transitioned from studying Sculpture, Math, and Interior Architecture to pursuing a career in graphic design. Here’s how she managed to tie it all together.

What is your current company name and job title? How do you present yourself to clients?

I’m currently a freelance designer at Kat Sikes Design. Whenever I meet new clients I introduce myself as a designer with a focus in user experience and a background in the varied field of museum exhibit design. I’m open about my experience and interest collaborating with my client in creating new, exciting designs.

What’s a typical day on the job like?

I live in Silicon Valley, and have since adopted the “start-up” schedule of my roommate where I start my workdays at home around 11 a.m. and then work late, usually taking a break around dinnertime. There are pros and cons to working from home, and self-discipline is a must to keep your schedule (and the deadlines of multiple clients) straight. Most importantly, I have to be as accurate as I can in estimating how long it will take to complete a project in addition to scheduling some buffer time to account for the unexpected. Typical days, however, are pleasantly quiet, and I will admit it’s great having my cat join me at my “office.”

What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the things you would change if you could?

Both the favorite part of my job and the frustrating part of my job is that I’m in charge of everything. No one is there to boss you around, but no one is there to nudge you along either. Clients need their projects, or they will find someone else, so you truly have to focus on good communication (and scheduling) to keep your work afloat. I find it really relaxing to work for home (no commute, or break room, or office drama), but it can be frustrating not to “leave your work at the office.” It’s also important to establish boundaries with your friends and family on when you’re working so that you’re not interrupted.

What did you study in college? How does your major relate to your current position?

My interests have always been eclectic, but I’ve always found it to be “art” that made me most happy—so in college I studied a range of things, from biology to millenary while I got a BFA in sculpture and a minor in Mathematics. Later in graduate school I grew more interested in applied and interactive design, earning an MS in Interior Architecture concentrating in interactive museum exhibits.

Strangely while the specifics of my major don’t apply directly to work I’m doing now, the experiences I gained in my range of study have been useful to my work every day. Abstract proof classes in math helped improve my skills in creating a step-by-step flow of ideas; something I do in creating the framework for infographics all the time. A typography project from one of my favorite professors introduced me to a subject that is constantly useful in my current work. My studies in interactive exhibit design in grad school gave me a head start into the new field of User Experience design.

If you want to be designer, yes, learn fundamental elements of design, and some art history. But most importantly, just learn how to think and communicate with other people. Study English, Psychology, History… whatever catches you. I’m constantly amazed how much my previous experiences have become useful again. Another advantage to studying fields outside of design is that it makes it easier for you to communicate with coworkers that are not designers, and to understand where they’re coming from. Time and again my ability to think beyond just the world of pure design has been appreciated by my clients and coworkers. In the professional world, the specifics of your degree don’t matter as much as your ability to think, to connect with clients, and to meet their needs.

What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?

Network, and try to get an internship in order to build up both experience and perspective of an office that is either creating (or in need of) design. If you can’t find an internship, find a way to “make your own” if you have to, by finding a way to volunteer a project for a local non-profit. Learn how to work with people, find what they need, and learn quickly that the design work is not about you, but about the audience you’re designing for. Your design is part of a team effort, which is a wonderful thing.

Also, networking events can lead to internships, which can lead to more networking. Dive in and get to know people. Try to do what you can to help and connect people in your field even if it doesn’t look like it will directly benefit you. Networking has led to my best office jobs and to all of my freelance clients.

Have you ever done an internship in your field? What was that experience like?

Internships helped me get a full-time job in design a month out of college. I interned with the Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central for a summer, and while it was unpaid, the experience itself was priceless. This led me to pursue projects at other museums closer to home, (thus creating my own “internship” with a state museum) that led me to getting a job out of school, and a snowball effect of opportunities.

As I looked for more advanced design projects in graduate school, I initiated projects with local community organizations to build my experience, and test my thesis ideas on interactive exhibit design. These skills have led directly to my career in freelance.

Homework time! Kat talks about the importance of networking in finding job and freelance opportunities. What are you looking for? What can you offer to clients or employers? Spend some time preparing an “elevator pitch” (imagine you’re riding in an elevator with someone and you just have 30 seconds or so to introduce yourself). Don’t be shy—share it with us in the comments!

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