Spotlight on Alumni: Makenzie Brown ’11

MAKENZIE BROWN ‘11, Berkeley (CA)

Graphic Designer, Mountain Hardwear

What was your academic journey after BMA?

I hated the idea of going to school only an hour away from home, but I fell in love with the campus and ski team at Middlebury College. I had a bumpy start at Middlebury, where I planned to ski Division 1 for four years right after graduating from Burke. I ended up taking the fall semester off to chill out and work at my parent’s cider mill. I restarted as a “Feb” and tried to ski competitively that year but last minute realized I needed more brain space to experience everything else college had to offer. That summer I trained super hard (with my Burkie 1.75, box jumps and timed hike mentality) and entered my second semester at Middlebury, rearing to go, a proud member of the ski team. I sent it too hard on everything that fall including my class schedule. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in at that point, so I basically tried it all. I took Italian, computer science, calculus, creative writing and an oil painting class. By the end of the semester by grades were beyond sub-par except for my painting class which I had my first A in at Middlebury. My professor asked me, “so you’re planning on being an art major, right?” I hesitated and freaked out and actually called a fellow Burkie (a few years older but on a similar path) and asked her advice. What Tasha told me changed my perspective on my role in life forever. She said “Art is everything. I mean look around, everything is designed.” I went to Rhode Island School of Design that next summer for a graphic design program that Tasha had taken and recommended as a “test” and to maybe get my GPA up a little bit 😉 Within 2 short weeks of being at RISD, I had fallen in love with Adobe Illustrator, the culture of art school and the inspiration of living in a city environment. I called my best friend on the ski team, Bryan Shpall (the captain of the team at the time) and told him I didn’t want to come back to Middlebury and that I wanted to apply to art schools. I quit skiing competitively in that moment and have never regretted it. I spent that next year living in Indonesia studying art, religion and social change, snowboarding with my dad at Stowe and doing graphic design work for my mom at the cider mill. I applied to RISD, Pratt and California College of the Arts. When I didn’t get in to RISD as a transfer student I was heartbroken. Choosing between Pratt in Brooklyn and CCA in Oakland was pretty easy after I visited both campuses. I spent two weeks road tripping out in CA with one of my closest friends and Burkie, Aaron Robertson. We both looked at schools, both fell in love with CA and the Bay Area, and both ended up moving to San Francisco that fall. I excelled at CCA. I had some amazing design professors and a quirky advisor who let me into the “individualized program” where I designed my own curriculum and chose graphic design, fashion design, illustration and textile arts as my main focuses. I taught myself to sew and ended up exhibiting my senior thesis in a teardrop trailer that I built out with an entirely zero-waste upholstery and apparel collection. In the summer before my last semester, I landed a gig as an intern in the design department at The North Face in Alameda. I met my current boss there and he employed me part time as a freelance graphic designer through my last semester at CCA. We’ve been working together for the past two years and I owe my entire career so far to him.

What does your day to day work entail?

I do a lot of concept and communications work around the creative direction for the brand as well as oversee the logo wear, branding, color, and act as a liaison to the marketing team so that our initial design intentions get communicated accurately when products go to market. Lately I’ve been working on a wide range of projects like designing new business cards, initiating a new script for file management on our server, designing sleeping bags, producing visual presentations for the president to give at global meetings, working with local artists and foundations on unique logo wear projects, and I’m about to start a brand book with one of the graphic designers on the marketing team which will outline the visual and conceptual tone, look and feel of our identity and it’s usage. I’m usually working on too many projects at once but that’s what keeps things fun!

How did you get into this field of work?

I started as a color design intern at the North Face and was pretty quickly swept up by my current boss to work on a small team of creative directors. I was basically their “token millennial” and they valued my younger, alternative perspective to theirs. I learned a ton about conceptual design thinking and how to work with a team of creative people. My eye is strongest graphically and I tend to think in an info graphic sense when I am explaining systems or thoughts. After doing countless presentations for the team, I knew I wanted to pursue graphic design as my main focus versus product design. I get super satisfied when the spacing between letters is perfect or the color I’ve calibrated on my computer matches the exact Pantone swatch. In the current design sphere, Graphic design can mean such a wide variety of mediums. There’s motion, 3D rendering, web coding, environmental design and experiential design that all come under the field. This really motivates me to expand my learning and realize the potential to use design for the betterment of humanity versus just pumping out products that seem excessive or wasteful sometimes. With graphics I can also stay in the digital realm if I want and reduce my waste and footprint that way.

What is most exciting about your work?

I get most excited when I design something that evokes emotional response. It seems like such a “duh” desire as a designer – to make someone feel something. But it’s another level of purpose you feel when you get to experience someone experiencing your work. For example, I designed a sleeping bag called the Lamina Eco AF which is all recycled materials and it’s undyed, meaning it’s all white and off-white. It looks crazy! People get so stoked to touch it and learn about it and they really resonate with the eco story. Moments like that are cool when your design is powerful to people’s emotions like that.

Do you pursue personal passions in the arts as well? If yes, what are those passions? Talents?

I do for sure. I paint sometimes and make my own clothes. But I mostly draw constantly. Even at work in meetings, my boss and I basically communicate concepts through doodles. I’ve always had a passion for illustration and I think if I were ever to work freelance, it’s the field I would gravitate towards. I used to be super into making digital print repeats. I’d draw something in my sketchbook and then digitize and color in photoshop or illustrator and make it repeat. My content is always super colorful and trippy. Sort of a vomit of my own crazy thoughts but also a release from the rigidity and constraints that graphic design can have. I’d also like to say that being an artist isn’t always about producing. I’d like to think that I live a creative lifestyle where every choice I make comes from a place of curiosity, optimism and open-ended ness. In this way, I think we all have a little “art” in us. Being a creative is a lot more than just drawing pretty pictures. It’s also a way of coexisting with your community and the earth.

Was art always in your life from a young age? How did you foster that passion while at BMA?

Yes. I used to throw up in the back of my parents’ cars, trying to draw in my sketchbook. It got to the point where my parents would have to stop every once and a while on road trips so that I could have a “drawing fest.” It’s always been an impulsive part of me for as long as I can remember. At Burke obviously skiing took the front seat but I was able to practice with Marysia was the art teacher at the time was who really fostered my talent and taught me a lot of basic techniques that allowed me to test out of intro classes at Middlebury and CCA. I came up with a lot of my own projects and she encouraged me to work with all kinds of mediums so that I could experience a wide variety of the field.