Featured Graphic Designer

Alyssa Arnesen

June 2019

We chat with the wonderful Alyssa Arnesen about her transition from PR firm to the design industry; her involvement in the AIGA Chicago Spring Mentorship Program, and we hear about the soon-to-be-open speakeasy she's worked hard on branding over the last few months.

Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?

I initially received a business degree from the University of Michigan back in 2013. It took a few tries to find a full-time job after graduation, but I eventually landed a position on the account side of a public relations firm. After realizing that my true interests were more in line with design than management, I hoped to make the switch from the account team to the creative team. However, I lacked design experience and changing my career in this way was proving to be a more circuitous route than I felt I had time (and patience) for.

I committed to building my technical design skills from the ground up and made the decision to go back to school for a BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). After a little over 2.5 years of soaking up everything my second undergraduate experience had to offer, I graduated from SAIC with a focus in Visual Communication Design. Since then I’ve been piecing together a list of clients for whom I’ve been designing branding/identity work.

Did you have a plan for graduation and what actually happened?

After I graduated from business school I thought I had it all figured out—I had interviews scheduled at my dream advertising agency that I fully expected to nail and then get hired right away… but that was not the case. Though this stung for a bit, I think that not landing my dream job right out of college allowed me to figure out and act on my passion for design sooner rather than later.

I was better prepared for the ambiguity that I knew awaited me after graduation 2.0. At this point, I had already experienced a fair share of survivor jobs and internships, all of which helped make ends meet and provided me with a more well-rounded perspective on different industries within and outside of the design world. I was ready to do the same thing this time around while continuing to work hard on self-assigned projects and reach out to designers and studios whose work inspired me. Luckily, I had some great clients take a chance on me early on and I am continuing to build my practice from there.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

If you don’t advocate for yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. This is a huge lesson I keep learning and relearning. I am naturally quite introverted (the mandatory networking component of business school was… not something I excelled at), so reaching out to people and showcasing my work have never been comfortable endeavors. However, after going through the immense effort of starting my career over again, I knew I was not doing myself any favors by just waiting for people to approach me. Late last year, I decided to rip off the Band-Aid and made “putting myself out there” my 2019 New Year’s resolution. This meant reaching out to local designers for conversations and portfolio reviews, becoming a part of Chicago’s AIGA chapter, starting a design Instagram, and ultimately becoming okay again with the possibility of rejection (or no response at all).

In the few short months since I’ve committed to advocating for myself and my work, I have already seen incredible benefits, both tangible and intangible. Some of the designers I reached out to were nice enough to talk with me at length about their work and how they got started. With others I’ve been able to go over my own work and receive valuable feedback. Both are kindnesses I look forward to passing on in the future. And with every interaction, I feel more confident in how I am developing as a design professional and member of the Chicago design community.


Put yourself out there and let the world see the work into which you’ve put your (sometimes literal) blood, sweat and tears!


Are you involved in any mentoring/teaching/workshops and if so how does it shape your practice?

I am currently a mentee in the AIGA Chicago Spring Mentorship Program (a direct result of the aforementioned New Year’s resolution). This program coordinates larger group workshops tackling topics ranging from Photoshop mastery to diversity and inclusion in design, along with facilitating small group sessions based on a topic of interest. My small group is focused on how to become a better freelancer, and so far this experience has been incredibly helpful not only in teaching me the nuts and bolts of being a successful freelancer (contracts! pricing! insurance!), but it has also connected me with other designers of various disciplines within the Chicago design community who are incredible sources of inspiration and knowledge.

What advice would you give students graduating in 2019?

Put yourself out there and let the world see the work into which you’ve put your (sometimes literal) blood, sweat and tears! Reaching out to other designers and continuing the conversation about your practice is the best way I know how to continue your design education after school. This will lead to more opportunities at best and constructively critical discussions about your work at worst. And I speak from experience here—putting myself out there played a large part in getting the opportunity to do this interview and is why I have any platform from which to give advice!

What’s in the cards professionally and personally in the next 12 months?

Professionally, I am super excited for the opening of a speakeasy that I worked hard to brand. It is the first full identity system I developed post-graduation, and it is so gratifying to see my work come to life and help shape people’s experiences at this cool new bar! I am also happy to be working on some identity projects for a hotel and restaurant opening up in Nashville later this year. And I am always trying to expand the set of tools (and people!) with which I work to challenge myself and become a more versatile designer.

Personally, I am trying to ease some of the habits I adopted while going back to school for my BFA. While burning the midnight oil was very necessary for me to make the most of my time at SAIC, I have a hard time accepting that it does not still need to be burned every night. Though I know that reincorporating balance and moving out of a mindset of social sacrifice is only going to be beneficial to my life (and my work), it’s been a journey readjusting my work/life balance to make it more sustainable for the long haul. And to contradict myself, I also have a few personal design projects that I would like to move from the back of my mind into realized pieces that exist out in the world where they belong!

Website: alyssaarnesen.com

Instagram: @alyssaarnesen


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