How I Landed My Job as a Designer at AKQA: Takeaways

Kaitlyn Peterson
7 min readMar 5, 2021

Previously, I shared my HR → Creative career switch story. Today, I’m outlining some of the things I learned in the process.

Here goes:

People are key. Don’t listen to everybody. 120% certainty. Stalking people helps. Be a knowledge sponge. And these learnings don’t age.

People are key.

You need people. You need people who want to help you. And you need people who believe in you. Building connection and trust will help you do this. Finding the right level of tenacity without being annoying is imperative.

Looking back, I’m so glad I got my agency start in Human Resources. It gave me the chance to interface with AKQA leadership regularly. I was one of the first people creative new hires met when joining the AKQA team. I became a confidant and resource to pretty much everyone at the office. My job was to help these people, and later on, they helped me.

I think little efforts — like remembering birthdays, sparking a real convo at a company happy hour, inviting someone to lunch (purely with the motive of getting to know them, not for asking advice), going the extra mile when given a task, engaging in company extracurriculars — go a long way, too. I suspect my engagement helped others see my personal investment in AKQA and also helped people know who I am (we’re a ~300 person office so it was important not to get lost in the shuffle as a small, entry-level human).

The mentors I sought out in my early days continue to be career mentors for me today. I still benefit from their wisdom.

Don’t listen to everyone!

But definitely listen to some — just be selective about the opinions you take to heart.

While I had a solid team of mentors encouraging me, there were some people who deterred or discouraged my pursuits.

“This is a big risk. We can’t baby you, and if you fail, it’s on you.”

“You might not like digital design. Maybe look into other creative agencies.”

“You know being a junior designer isn’t as glamorous as you think, right?”

“Are you sure you want this?”

“How do you know you’re ready for this?”

“We don’t know how to know if you’re ready for this.”

“You didn’t go to ad school — you won’t have the same salary or the same respect as the creatives here that did.”

Barf.

I focused my attention on the opinions of those who either had the job I wanted or exemplified characteristics I wished to emulate on a personal level.

I won’t lie and say it was easy dismissing the negativity. It wasn’t! But it made me especially grateful to the people who were on my team. Plus it was a good lesson in self-confidence and grit. There’s a reason why all those successful peeps emphasize perseverance in their TedTalks.

It is tricky striking a balance between being open and receptive / yet knowing when to filter out the comments or questions that won’t propel you forward. All I can say is find your tribe, and stay close to those people. In an ideal world, everyone would be a helpful cheerleader who wants the best for you. But that’s being idealistic, not realistic.

120% certainty. Always.

The ol’ fake it till you make it. Sorta.

“Are you sure you want this?”
“How do you know you’re ready for this?”
“We don’t know how to know if you’re ready for this.”

Uhhhh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Okay, so before my actual transition, I was probably 85% sure that I wanted to be a designer and I could, in fact, execute the job successfully. Maybe even 70% on tough days. There were a lot of unknowns, but I needed to convince the AKQA decision-makers to take a chance on me.

Also, I’ve witnessed other AKQA-ers attempt at a career switch without hyper-focus and assertion (i.e. vocalizing their interest in UX, Strategy, Art Direction, and Design—and while this might’ve been meant to communicate openness, I suspect it translated to uncertainty and lack of clear direction).

If you’re asking a company to take a chance on you, you’re also asking them to gamble their time (and money!) — seems like too big of a risk for someone who’s wishy-washy.

So be 120% YES-I-CAN-DO-THIS and 120% YES-I-WANT-THIS.

Plus! I think people like the idea of helping make a person’s dream come true — so make sure the job you’re pining after seems like your legit dream!

My advice is if you have some qualms or uncertainty (which is natural—we are just humans after all), write it in your journal or talk to your mom about it. But show up to work with confidence, tenacity, and sniper focus. ☜

Low key stalking is high key helpful.

Confession: If you’re an AKQA creative, I’ve probably stalked ya.

When I was working in human resources onboarding various Art Directors and Designers, I had myself asking:

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

and

HOW DO I BECOME ONE OF THESE PEOPLE??!

A couple thoughts here:

1:
I have a lengthy list of bookmarked portfolios from creatives who have passed through AKQA’s frosted glass doors. I found it helpful to see how these individuals organized their books, the types of projects they displayed, the ways in which they showcased work, and even how they described themselves in their bios.

Our recruiters and creative leaders saw something within these pages that showed AKQA-specific potential, so I spent time weighing my experience/aesthetic/etc. against those that actually worked the job I wanted.

Side note: If this behavior is considered creepy, then let it be known I’m okay with being creepy. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

2:
Based on stalkage, we made a lot of creative hires from either advertising or art schools (like SCAD, VCU, Academy of Art, Art Center, Parsons, etc.). The second most-likely-to-hire types came from public state schools with applied art programs (like San Jose State).

Berkeley and the greater UC system prides themselves on theory-based degrees, not applied skills. Humblingly, I learned agencies want hard design skills (and were likely less impressed in my ability to write pages on 20th-century fine art theory or create gallery-worthy intaglio prints. Sigh.).

And to be clear, I have no regrets about attending UC Berkeley. I absolutely loved my educationand the way the faculty and peers both pushed and inspired me. But it would’ve been nice to have a more seamless transition into the ad world. #gobears nevertheless

Be a sponge.

Not in the cleaning-up-messes sense (tho I’d advise keeping your designs sparkling clean!), but more so in the be-receptive-to-learning sense.

I self-identify as a student for life.

And one of the things I love about design is it’s a bottomless pit of learning. Just when you think you’ve mastered Photoshop, they release an app update. Did you get really good at making dynamic type in AE? Cool! But there’s gonna be another motion trend around the corner begging you to try it out. And every project will have a different set of deliverables, client personalities, and team dynamics to navigate. So relish in the fact it won’t get old (at least it hasn’t for me yet).

I’ve taken that Strengths Finder personality test—Learner (people who have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve) and Input (people who have a craving to know more and like to collect and archive all kinds of information) were in my list of top strengths, so I understand knowledge sponginess comes easy to me.

There’s a wealth of knowledge you can gain from the people around you (but especially the people who have the job you want!). And I’ve found that people are happy to talk about the things they know a lot about (but like don’t get me started on Korean food or Southeast Asia backpacking — I’ll talk your damn ear off).

Various mentors have told me to keep that eager-to-learn spirit alive as long as possible (and I fully intend to do so!).

To summarize, approaching your work with humility and curiosity makes people more receptive to teaching you. And, in turn, you learn more things and are better for it.

These lessons are evergreen.

While each of these points were pertinent to my career switch, they continue to hold significance today.

I still seek out mentorship from people I admire. I still ask people how they’re doing (and I really listen when they respond). I still filter feedback based on whether it will help me grow or is better ignored. And I’m still learning all sorts of new things — as a designer, art director, and human on this cool little planet.

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Kaitlyn Peterson

𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒑𝒖𝒓𝒔𝒖𝒊𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒐𝒑𝒕𝒊𝒄𝒂𝒍 𝒑𝒐𝒆𝒕𝒓𝒚 www.kaypeetza.com