If graphic designer Molly Ahearn ’81 had to illustrate her career path, it wouldn’t be a straight line. After studying abroad in Spain her junior year, the Spanish and psychology double major figured she might be an ambassador. Instead, after graduation, she landed a job booking talent into a 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheater in the Dominican Republic. After that job ended, Ahearn worked for a private investor in New York City. She’d bought one of the first Mac computers and learned out how to use its drawing and graphing capabilities on presentations at the office. “I realized what I really enjoyed doing was working on this computer and making beautiful things, so I started working at ad agencies,” she says. “The long and the short of it is that I’ve been a graphic designer for thirty plus years.” She opened her design firm, Full Deck Design, in Clinton Corners, New York, in 2009.

Ahearn calls herself a “thinking designer.” She helps nonprofits and businesses think their way through messaging, how to appeal to their client base, and then how to visualize it all. Here Ahearn shares some of the lessons she’s learned along her career journey.

Honor what’s precious to you

When I was first working as a designer in New York City, I took a photojournalism class at the International Center of Photography. I loved it. My instructor urged me to get an internship, and I ended up interning with Bruce Davidson, one of the original street photographers and an acclaimed Magnum photographer. I worked with him on his Central Park photo essay, which later turned into a book. I spent every weekend in the park with Bruce walking around and meeting people. I began to think I would rather be a photographer than a designer. But I quickly learned that taking pictures was just too precious to me. To have an art director over my shoulder telling me how to take a picture drove me insane. But as a designer, I had no problem. You want the logo bigger? Sure, I’ll make the logo bigger. Designing wasn’t precious to me, and it’s been a really rewarding career because of that. I’m able to understand what the client needs more than what I need, give them that space and my whole creativity, and welcome criticism.

Lower the bar

Networking is a skill. My networking strategy is to assign myself some goals. For example, talk to one to two people and get a conversation going. And if I accomplish that, I call it a success. Lower the bar for yourself. The truth is that everybody’s nervous, and you just kind of have to go for it.

Go where your clients are

I’m on the board of the local chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. And you say to yourself, wait a minute, she’s a graphic designer. What the heck is she doing there? But that’s where my clients are, so it’s a perfect place to network. You never know where a lead’s going to come from.

Find a mentor

I didn’t understand the importance of mentors when I was younger. I wish I had. I have been involved in multiple mentor relationships and still keep in touch with most of them. If I had had that encouragement earlier on in my own life, I’m sure I would have had the guts to go out on my own a lot sooner than I did. I am sure there were people that would have been open to mentoring me, but I didn’t know to ask or who that might be.

Give yourself credit

I was in my early forties before I felt that I was good at what I did. That was a big change for me, going from somebody who attended events to somebody who led events, and being comfortable in that role. You are good at what you do. Give yourself credit.

Be open to serendipity

Even though I was a Spanish and psychology double major, I ended up being a graphic designer, and I’m so happy I took that path. You never know what’s going to come your way. Be open to receiving it.

February 6 2024

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