“At the time, I was living in a really crappy apartment, working for NASA as a budget analyst intern,” now renowned designer, Kristy Tillman laughs as she reflects on how her career has changed over the years. Her early career, and childhood – raised in the late 80’s early 90’s – she describes as “typical.”
Tillman grew up in a rural, middle class neighborhood in Florida. By American standards, it was everything that you would expect. She grew up with a younger brother and dreamt of being a lawyer, driven by the imagery of Claire Huxtable of The Cosby Show. As a teen, her parents divorced; a time that proved life-changing for a number of reasons, including celebrating her birthday and holidays for the first time (Tillman was raised Jehovah’s Witness). Tillman acknowledges this as different, yet it doesn’t seem to have been an outstanding moment in her life.
Kristy was a high achieving child, following her dream and on track to become a lawyer, International Baccalaureate classes, art competition, math competition… Her first inclinations for creativity and art started to appear around this time, but she notes it wasn’t something she could see herself making money with, “I was all about academics and scholarships and brain-mode competition and what not.
"I spent a lot of time in art as well, making very large paintings…at the time I thought that I couldn't do very much with it.”
Her academic prowess led her to Florida University on a scholarship. In the five-year MBA program, she leaned into internships in finance and business. It was at that aforementioned business analyst internship at NASA that she started to feel that pulling, back towards a more creative path.
“I was at NASA, goofing off on company time in the message boards, learning more about various things on the internet."
“It was there that I found an enclave of designers in the design world. That piqued my curiosity and I would spend my after-work hours reverse engineering this stuff, building my own website, stealing other people’s websites and codes.”
Little did Tillman know that this time goofing off and understanding more about how the business world worked would lead her to her first paid gig: $50 for a website designed for a local small business.
She described herself as feeling at a crossroads, thinking for a moment and recounting her life as a then history graduate student.
When asked if her parents really cared or expressed frustration in what she was doing, Tillman expressed that they were just happy she got a job instead of getting another degree.
Thinking there was something to this graphic design thing, Tillman applied to PhD programs in history and graphic design alike and got accepted into both. She laughs, reflecting on how bad her first graphic design portfolio was.
But she took a chance on herself and pursued studies for graphic design, only for the school she was attending to shut down. She then transferred to a school in Kansas City to continue her studies. It wasn’t all for naught: she landed internships with Converse and Payless at the height of the recession in 2009, and soon after landed an apprenticeship with Reebok.
During the recession, ends were hard to make meet. Tillman struggled to find a way to make the move from Kansas City to Massachusetts for the internship. Fortunately, thanks to the help of her family, she was able to make the move and spent the next short period of time working with Reebok.
As her apprenticeship at Reebok came to the end, Tillman began to look for jobs and sent an application into IDEO. Hearing nothing back, she picked up a role working at Puma, only for IDEO to call her six months later and offer her a role. Given the studio’s prestige, and the desire for so many to work there, it felt like the dream next steps from Puma.
Not long after her start at IDEO, Tillman felt like something was off. “I realized it was a very powerful place. Everyone wants to work there."
“You can't tell what’s real and fake, true or not – do I suck as a designer or are they miscalibrated about who I am."
"You kind of get stuck questioning yourself. I felt very isolated and not part of the cool kids club; I had to let them know," Tillman said. Not feeling heard in her role and recognizing the power of social media, much like those message boards that got her curious about the internet today, she took to the internet.
“You start thinking about why you are not getting recognized,” Tillman reflects, questioning what she knew to be true, the discrimination that was happening at IDEO, “I knew I had to advocate for myself because nobody else would.”
Tillman took to Twitter to outline some of the discrimination she faced at her role. The tweets, now deleted, highlighted a culture of belonging, and belonging only with a certain amount of privilege and flitting into her role.
It’s at this time, you can almost feel the words and the evolution of Tillman’s story. As we’ve been chatting with her nearly 40 minutes at this point, you can still hear some frustration and anger in her voice. Now, you also hear Tillman taking the role of an older sister, or mentor, as she reflects on the confidence that comes with speaking and living your truth.
“I had to build that confidence muscle. People will help you but ultimately you're responsible for your own career and trajectory."
Talking with Tillman, it sounds as if in some ways, this was a catalyst for her to begin moving forward and speaking out in her industry, emerging as a leader. Her hitting a point of feeling fed up caused her to better evolve for the future.
“If you’re in a leadership position, you should use it or lose it, I didn’t have to start my career by being intimidated by white men and women in their roles, I’m excited for a more diverse future.”
Tillman reflects on her time at IDEO. “Let’s just say we had a nice little breakup and I’m through that process.”
We catch Tillman in a state of internal reflection, talking about what moved her past, and how she caught her stride. A known advocate for “pulling up a chair and inviting yourself to the table,” she now advocates for other individuals to invite themselves to a table, especially if it’s a table they don’t expect you to be at. It’s this confidence that Tillman exudes, that leaves you energized, and ready to do anything.
“Why shouldn't I be bold and confident in what I'm doing. Not to hold back, be humble, or any of that bullshit.”
Looking back at her journey, it’s easy to feel inspired, but what’s most notable, is how down to earth Tillman really is. Throughout our conversation, she is so personable, so real, you can’t help but feel like you’re chatting with an old friend.
She reflects briefly on the past hour or so we’ve spoke, and begins to elaborate on what keeps her sane, that inner circle, and day-to-day sense of normalcy, and this concept of a personal board of directors, of both friends and mentors that will be real with you, throughout your journey. “I think getting that type of normalcy is important,” Tillman said.
“It’s in the effort of keeping yourself sane. There's got to be a better way to get money. You gotta have a little honesty. Sometimes you need honest feedback. I think you need both (mentors and friends)."
Tillman takes a moment, and reflects on the advice her friends and mentors have given her over the years, and now has taken a more active role in mentoring and advocating for the next generation, and a more inclusive design industry.
Over the last few years, Tillman has given talks and interviews with organizations such as Clever Podcast, 99u, Fast Company, and General Assembly, among others. There is no doubt at all that Tillman has now found her footing.
This same strong confident voice that Tillman uses to advocate for diversity in tech and design, she uses to advocate for causes closer to her own world. The Human Utility project, from which she cofounded with friend and programmer, Tiffani Ashley Bell, started from a tweet as well. Tillman credits her ability to just do, rather than to just sit and think about the problem, as a means for success.
This, in combination with a scrappy nature, led to the project’s evolution.
“It happened over a weekend, we realized because of water issues we wanted to figure out you can actually go on the water website, and look at accounts with just account numbers and not passwords, which led to a way to pay bills directly,” Tillman recalls, “So we started paying peoples bills and then people wanted to start donating to pay people's bills.”
With all of this going on, a nonprofit, figuring out what’s next, playing a heavy hand in the startup and design ecosystem—Tillman recognizes that she’s got a lot on her plate. That being said, she also would rather have it no other way.
“When it comes to balance, I don't recognize it,” Tillman said, “I have a lot of goals and I want to achieve them and I don’t see balance as taking me there.”
This mindset of tackling things head on, is one that can feel like a lot, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. Tillman, takes this on by protecting her time fiercely. When asked about how she relaxes, she admits that she’s not the best at self care (we all felt that one a little bit). When she feels like she’s beginning to hit a wall, she logs off.
“I actually don't believe in balance, I try not to achieve balance.”
Tillman explains, “I wouldn't say I'm a workaholic, I love what I do. I really love doing what I do as much as I want to do it.”
It’s a beautiful thing when a life holistically ends up becoming a career, and Tillman throughout her own journey, has achieved just that. Through prioritizing her values, life and loves, she’s able to create her own flow.
One thing that rings consistent from wherever she’s at on her journey—the power of maintaining your personal truth. Tillman may not have it all figured out right now, but who really does. What she does have is the confidence forged from her own journey to speak out and for what she does know.