Goldsmiths Design career talks: Ilyanna Kerr, See What I Mean

Early in 2016, the Design department invited a few of its graduates to speak about their career paths after graduation and the challenges they encountered. One of the speakers was Ilyanna Kerr (BA Design 2013), co-founder of the social enterprise See What I Mean, which originated in a final year project at Goldsmiths.

See What I Mean is “a speech to image communication tool for people living with dementia and their carers”. Ilyanna was able to grow this idea into a start-up with funding from Bethnal Green Ventures, a company supporting initiatives that pursue both social and financial returns. The project developed from her dissertation, which “looked at the way language changes the neurological makeup of our brains, and how that affects perception and our understanding of the world.” After many experiments and tests, and with the help of Goldsmiths Design tutor Peter Rogers, the result was an app that associates images to spoken words. Ilyanna decided to use the software to help people who are living with dementia, and she applied for funding to Bethnal Green Ventures after attending a presentation on campus at Goldsmiths.

Ilyanna admitted she knew nothing about running a start-up when she embarked upon the project. However, she did find it was possible to apply skills learned during her studies: “the advantage of coming from this course was that we had already spent a year testing all kinds of stuff, I was always told to test, test, test, and re-make, rather than keep all my process in my head. So that really put us at an advantage when we went to get funding. Often people try to get funding without having spoken to a user or built anything”. Other aspects of the Goldsmiths course that translated well were interdisciplinary thinking and experience with presenting and pitching.

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Currently, Ilyanna runs “See What I Mean” together with Peter Rogers (who is in charge of the technical side of things), and the enterprise has enjoyed success: they are partnered with charity Jewish Care (who use the app in their care work with dementia patients), as well as with stock photo agency Getty Images. They were also one of the professional runners-up for Core77‘s “Design for Social Impact” award in 2015.

Of course, running a small enterprise means that you end up taking on many tasks that aren’t necessarily related to design: “there was a point when I was working on See What I Mean and I was just writing funding applications constantly, I wasn’t doing anything that I had originally enjoyed, and it really started to grate on me”. Ilyanna decided to balance her start-up work with freelance design work, which was necessary not only financially, but also to bring back her enjoyment of creative action: “It’s really important to have goals, but you have to make sure that getting there is enjoyable as well, or you’re just going to lose that passion for whatever it is you’re doing.” Her clients include independent charity The Health Foundation and arts organisation Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre.

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Ilyanna’s trajectory on the Design course at Goldsmiths was more unusual, as she took time off after the second year in order to accumulate practical experience on placements. She ended up spending two years with the established design consultancy Pentagram, where she managed to get a graphic design internship and was then offered a job as a designer. At Pentagram, Ilyanna worked on a number of high-profile projects, amongst them a Christmas campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, which included illustrating a children’s book. She describes her time with them as an “amazing experience” during which she learned a lot, but there are, of course, disadvantages to deferring studies, too: “The main disadvantage is that you’re not graduating with your year, you’re kind of disconnected socially.”

When summarising lessons learned from her studies and work so far, Ilyanna highlighted the importance of taking it easy: “don’t take yourself so seriously that you get stressed out about everything. It’s so easy to get stuck in the bubble of what you’re doing”. She told current students to try and create new spaces for design within systems that already exist, and to carve their own paths as designers, rather than follow current trends. She credited her studies at Goldsmiths with teaching her to be disciplined intellectually and practically, as well as “the importance of having a personal design practice that you really enjoy and value, that is true to yourself rather than just aiming towards a particular goal or a particular industry”.

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Finally, Ilyanna advised young designers to have realistic expectations about what they can do, and to learn from pitfalls: “Not everything has to be this golden dream of success, where you’re making all the right choices and everything goes wonderfully.” She also warned them not to jeopardise their health by working too hard, something she had to learn from personal experience. Her last piece of advice praised the strong working partnerships forged while studying design at Goldsmiths, a point made by other alumni, too: “make sure you develop relationships with your peers, because they become your professional network when you leave, I work with all my friends, that’s like a lifeline.”

Images from the presentation courtesy of Ilyanna Kerr.

Read our other write-ups of Goldsmiths Design Career Talks with Kirsty Minns and Nick Marsh