First Impressions

I first came across a small studio the night of December 25th, 2020. I recall landing on their website, perusing through their case studies, and stumbling on a page with the team's smiling faces. It wasn't long before I reached out.

Screenshot of Introduction email sent from Kaitlyn to John

I postured myself as a student. The subject line of my first email was bland. "Student Inquiry." The descriptors to pitch myself and my twenty years on this earth were "current undergraduate student." Pulitzer-prize winning stuff.

I'm not bland, or at least, I dislike thinking so. I'm empathetic, and curious, passionate, and resilient. But what employer would care about that? My hopes set low, and expectations even lower, I pressed send.

Screenshot of John's reply to Kaitlyn

John, the principal of a small studio responded. He used my name three times in that email. Each instance felt warm. Personal. He didn't mention my experience, my portfolio, or my resume, all of which took hours to create and curate. He asked about me. He asked what I saw in a small studio, and what I would like to learn.

I answered his questions. I told him what I saw. I saw a studio that designed on purpose — one that balanced intention and impact.

Screenshot of Kaitlyn's response to John

I remember awaiting his response. Did I write too much? Too little? I was looking for an internship, a chance to learn. But like many young creatives, I thought, if I just had my foot in the door. Did I even deserve a chance?

Screenshot of John's final response to Kaitlyn

I'll be honest. I don't like the word identity. I don't know what it means. From the Latin "idem" meaning "same," identity is one of those translucent words. The one that you add to your sentence to sound wiser like "amalgam" or "surmise."

It bothered me in fact. Do we really crave belonging that much that we need political identities, racial identities, and gender identities to tell us how similar we are to others? These descriptors each seeking to diminish or enhance our value.

These labels, these words we plaster ourselves with as our "identity," I came to learn, are not what identity means. Not at a small studio.

February 4, 2021 | Identity Architecture Workshop

Nervous. I sat in my chair, fidgeting, fixated on the arrangement of items around me. No one likes introducing themselves. Our choice of each word feels so heavy. I'm a white, privately-educated, engineer. I'm a female, first-generation, college student. Each word tipping the scales toward impressive or privileged.

"I like to consider myself as a curious empath. I am a student in every sense of the word. A student of design, a student of engineering, and a student of my faith."

As we continued through the prompts for the workshop, I paused. There, written out in front of me was the meaning of my own name. My eyes watered and my cheeks began to burn.

Kaitlyn: pure

Someone had taken the time to find the definition of my name. In that moment, they had given me the gift of their time.

The workshop continued. Somehow, with complete strangers I shared painful and private moments in my life in exchange for empathetic eyes and receptive ears. I spoke to my values and my beliefs, overwhelmed by an immense calm.

I wasn't here to impress. I wasn't here to be articulate, or wise. I was here to be Kaitlyn. Pure.

After learning more about John and his vision for a small studio — the lighthouse that a small studio could be — the harbor of creative impact, I realized, to be frank, he's legit. He, and the rest of a small studio team live by their values. They put people over profit. They believe in relationships, not transactions.

These are all nice one-liners to put on your well-designed website. But it is so much more to truly live by these values.

One quote that lingers in the back of my mind while writing this is "we judge others off of their actions and ourselves off of our intentions." This is why we must be empathetic with others and exhibit grace, and why we must align our intentions with our actions. Integrity.

So what is identity architecture? Identity-driven design? Is it the next "design thinking," the next phrase to add to your skillset on your resume? Perhaps. Because identity-driven design is values-focused design. It's knowing who you are, and who you were created to be. It's living your life on purpose instead of for a purpose. And it's knowing how your unique gifts equip you to bring peace to people's lives.

It isn't fancy, really. Neither are many of the best things in life. It's design with people at the center of our minds and our hearts. It's communal, collaborative... I could keep wasting my words, but instead, I'll tell a story.

It's a twenty-year old girl who is sitting alone in her bedroom on Christmas wondering if anyone will see her email. It's that same girl wondering if she's good enough to be a designer, wondering if she'll ever have the skills to make it.

At a small studio, they live by the phrase: everything starts with identity. Now I know what it means.

It means responding to that email and not saying, what can you do for me. Not saying, we're not hiring. Not saying, you don't have the credentials.


It's saying,

I'd love to know more about you, Kaitlyn.

Because that's where the conversation begins.