A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

Caroline Keem (MFA DET 2005)


Where are you now and what kind of work/projects are you currently working on?

After leaving SAIC I was hired by Interwoven (eventually acquired by HP) and was mentored in user experience. After six years I left to direct UX & research at Connect EDU, a company specializing in educational software. I currently work for Humana on the online purchase funnel for small business. Humana might not sound all that spectacular, but I'm part of a kick-ass team of women spearheading integration of extensive user testing with an agile design workflow. At the beginning of this year the small business funnel had little activity and lots of drop off. After lots of redesign and lots of testing (and some more redesign) we have increased sales on this funnel by 500%. (that's just so far - it's getting better). To me the sales increase is merely evidence of a design and process success.


What career advice do you have for current students, looking at how you see your field evolving, what is critical for the future practitioner?

a: You can do good work anywhere. Don't be dispirited if you don't land the fancy job with some fancy name company. Some of those places chew up designers and spit them out fast. You will see the same job listed there every six months. Build a life, not a career. Pick a place with a healthy atmosphere and nurture a good team around you. A good career is really an inside job. (meaning inside your mind!)

b: Design as a field is constantly evolving. I find it important to get blogs and news feeds that help me stay abreast of trends. I also just talk to people a lot about their thoughts and observations. 

What trends I see? Design coming off the screen and being embedded in our physical lives more and more. For me this will mean UX isn't only negotiating a relationship between a user and a flat screen of pixels. Also, I see on-screen design developing a more intimate voice. Bit by bit it sounds less canned and anonymous. There is more of a "me talking with only you and I like you" feel evolving and less "me shouting at all you whose eyeballs might be here". 

c: I also don't berate myself for not staying on top of absolutely everything. Trying to do that makes one sound pretentious and when you walk away people will roll their eyes so hard they might get a concussion.

d. Always make friends with janitors, cleaning ladies and security guards. ALWAYS. Also, if your workplace ever has someone whose title is "Business Analyst" make that person your friend and ally!! They will push your new design thinking into the business process and help keep your lofty ideas grounded in reality.

e: Play. Keep trying new things that are non-work. Without that juice in your life work will go stale, fast. What's really critical about design is not just being a designer but also a player and a learner.


With whom did you study at SAIC or who influenced you?

I don't think there was anyone I studied with who did not influence me greatly. I had great teachers and advisors at SAIC. The best influence, however, came long after I graduated. 

When I was graduating everyone said "oh you should go get a job at IDEO!" I applied there, I never heard back. I did this three times. I tried at other bigger name places that had been suggested. I got no results. I got short listed for jobs at Samsung and Apple but didn't make the final cut. Then, I was emotionally and financially exhausted. I felt like an absolute failure. I felt like a failure going and getting a small beans job and setting about paying my dumb bills. I since avoided speaking with anyone from the Art Institute save two close friends. I was ashamed that my faculty mentors had seen some spark of promise in me that I had failed to fan properly. That was the state of affairs for 11 years.


Then, one day, I saw Doug Pancoast on the brown line. There was an empty seat next to him (the only one available) so I thought "what the hell!". I sat down and sparked up a conversation. As we spoke he asked where I was going. I described the job I was heading off to and he said "Another success story!" My jaw dropped. I explained that I didn't feel like much of a success story. He told me "no really, you got out and got a job doing what you learned, that's great." An enormous weight of expectation lifted off of me and I realized how much more I had to be grateful for than I had realized. My faculty advisors at SAIC had merely pushed me to aim high and for myself I had discovered that this meant nurturing good team relationships (not as easy as it sounds if you have ever worked with developers!) and never getting complacent.