Becoming a Creative Director at M.AD: An Interview with Brittany Petish

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Brittany Petish joined the Creative Director program with an impressive resume. She's an award-winning designer, with years of experience working with high-level clients in the worlds of healthcare, government service, and the like.

No matter the project, she brings her trademark enthusiasm and care. In our interview, that enthusiasm was on full display—she's a passionate speaker with infectious energy. No wonder, then, that Ms. Petish has dedicated her life to creativity.

Now, though, Brittany's on to a new challenge: transitioning from creative work to the leadership and management of creative teams. Hence her enrolment in the M.AD Creative Director Program.

So, while she continues to study, we wanted to ask her: what's it been like? What has she learned? And perhaps most importantly, where does she see herself heading?

Here's what she had to say:

M.AD: So before the CDP program, where were you at in your career? What made you start looking for something like this?

Brittany Petish: Well, I am a Senior Art Director, primarily for government clients like the NIH, the CDC, hiv.gov. It's like the alphabet soup of government acronyms that I lead and help with. And I absolutely love the work that I do. When I found government work, I think that's kind of the first time in my career that I felt like I got to make a difference and work mattered, and it wasn't just showing up and punching a clock for selling a specific product, which I have done. I like knowing that I can make a difference.

So my goal, hopefully, with the program is to move up. I want to move up to an ACD or a CD role. That's truly what I want to do. And I think I wanted to be able to spot my blind spots if I had any. I know I don't know everything. So I wanted to identify first, in a really nice safe place, if that is the right move for me. Because it's less creating hands-on, and more just guiding the creative. So just really making sure that's the right choice and what I want.

M.AD: How did you find out about the Creative Director program?

Brittany Petish: I went online! I'm not sure exactly how I found it. I think by just doing Google searches, you know, how your phone listens to you? I was looking for some kind of training, but I didn’t think there was anything for Creative Directors. Nothing that specific. I was so happy to find this as an option. I wasn’t ready for my Master’s…but this is the closest thing!

I also saw some posts on LinkedIn. I knew of M.AD because of Hank Richardson here in Atlanta. I knew him through AIGA. I was on the board for a while. So, we connected there. I knew of the school, I loved the school. I just loved the creativity, and how it felt when I was on campus. All of that. So when I saw this program, it felt like, because it was virtual with the pandemic, I thought, "Oh! This might be perfect". And I'll admit, I was nervous. I was just hoping I would get enough out of it, but it's been incredible.

M.AD: That's so cool. I promise we weren't asking Google to listen to you, though.

Brittany Petish: But even if you had...it was exactly what I needed! Because when I went to school to be a graphic designer, I was learning the basics of typography and leading and kerning. All those nuances of what good design just is, and then how to get a job and keep a job. But nobody prepares you for the workforce, or how to move up, or even what moving up looks like. What you have to sacrifice, but what you gain.

What's really cool about this program is that I'm with people at the same stage in their careers. We get to come together and collaborate. And sometimes they come up with solutions that are so simple. You know, when we're talking through problems (we have a group chat), and you're just like, "I don't know why I didn't think of that!" That's the nice part: sometimes you just get so caught up in your own world. You just need an outside source to be like, "that's not the way you should do it".

That's been the neat part: just being with like-minded people at my stage in their career to problem solve with, to learn from, to network with. And then I think the coolest part is, it's not just ad people. I kind of expected that, going to M.AD and all. But the first day we all went around and were talking about our jobs, and I think about three or four people work for the government, or pharmaceuticals, or something like that. And I was like, "oh, these people do what I do!" They get it. It's fantastic to have such a varied group to learn and grow with.

M.AD: That's incredible. So, as you meet these other leaders, and as you learn, what do you think makes a great creative leader? And what have you learned about your own leadership style?

Brittany Petish: So what's interesting is that while I'm doing this, I'm also in management training with my job. We took this like leadership style quiz. It was accurate. Like, scary accurate! It said that I was an inspirer. That I like to lead through example.

I lead by example. It’s about motivating people by really supporting throughout the process. A leader has to be detail-oriented and goal-driven. You can’t miss that goal once you’ve set it. But they also have to take responsibility. If we have to stay late…we’ll stay late together to get it done. It’s important my team knows that I care about them. That I'm also in the trenches to do the work. Like I'm not gonna leave them when things get hard, you know what I'm saying? Or we're in a pinch, in a deadline at the 11th hour, I'm not gonna be like, "Well, I'm going to have dinner, good luck". I’ve had bosses that you don’t support you when things get tough. That’s not what I want to be.

So, I've learned both from training and by the good and the bad that I've had, where I felt cared for and I felt supported. And that's important to me.

M.AD: What have you gleaned from the program so far? What are the big standout lessons?

Brittany Petish: With every talk, we take something different away. One week we had a producer. One week we had a famous creative. It's been different each week. And something always stands out. It's hard to pinpoint.

The thing that has been the nicest for me is the community. A space place to talk, to air what's going on, and to find these solutions. So you don't feel so alone in the problems or stuck in a broken cycle, which is really lovely. Um, hall is really good at getting incredible things out of each speaker that we have, like she's friends with them. She knows the right questions to ask. Sometimes she asks questions that you wouldn't have even thought about asking, but you're like, "oh my goodness, that's a good one". I take notes and I just have a notebook dedicated to it. I'm writing so ferociously as she is talking and interviewing them that sometimes I'm caught up writing things down. She's such a good interviewer. She makes you feel seen and heard, which is really nice. The class can be big. Sometimes it's 20 people. But she makes sure everybody gets to talk. If somebody's been quiet, she says, "we haven't heard from you. What did you think of the speaker?" She makes us feel seen and heard in the class, which is really cool. I love it. It makes me want to go back.

M.AD: What would you tell your younger self, now that you've grown as a leader?

Brittany Petish: I want to be the leader I needed at those stages in my career. What would I tell myself? To keep going to not be afraid of new opportunities, even if they're strange. Like the HIV CDC role. I never would've imagined that I would've been in that out of school. I didn't even know it was possible. When I was in school, I went to the art Institute of Atlanta. That wasn't something that was covered as an option. But it’s become something I’m so grateful that I’ve found.

M.AD: Going forward as a creative director, do you have a dream job or role you'd like to work and play in? Or have you already found the world you belong in?

Brittany Petish: I'm in love with what I do. Sure, it's hard sometimes. Going through layers of clearance, all that. But I love the nuance to it. There are certain ways we can say things, and it's very particular. You can only use these words. You can only use these phrases. You have to remember that and make sure that you're including that. You can only use these fonts, these colors, these sizes, things have to be compliant and accessible. It's a whole different way of designing. But I love it. I love the challenge. I want to stay in that arena...but as a creative director! That's my goal. I've found what I want to get up every morning and do.

M.AD: How do you see yourself implementing what you've learned here with M.AD?

Brittany Petish: There’s been so much. I would have to literally comb through my notes. What’s been really great is the focus on emotional intelligence and being self-aware. We talked about being aware your own patterns. If you’re having a bad day, do you become hyper critical? Do you take that out on the team? It’s huge to have that self-awareness as a leader. Focusing on that has completely changed me in my work.

I've been asking like my direct reports, just having honest conversations. Asking them, "how do you see me?" Can you tell when I'm in a certain mood? And one of my direct reports, who I absolutely love, said, "Yeah! Depending on what time of the day it is, you're much more less particular. We call it my agreeable time. I’ve caught myself in weeks since doing it now." She'd noticed that! Basically, if I hadn't had my coffee or it’s the end of a very long day. And I'm so glad the program got me to ask. Having those honest conversations is so valuable. It helps with self-awareness.

So that's not all! But it's one thing that stood out. Like I said, I've got a stack of color-coded notes from all these sessions. I've had so many amazing moments of learning. I can't recommend this program enough!

More About Brittany:

She serves as the lead art director for the Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity (COSWD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) UNITE initiative. She has served as lead author for abstracts presented at local and national-level conferences related to innovative creative content. She also received the July 2019 CDC Director’s Recognition Award for her contributions to creative graphic and content development on the Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. initiative. Her most proud accomplishment was creating the brand for the Ending the HIV Epidemic campaign, as well as collaborating with the White House on graphics for the State of The Union in 2019.

She shows her commitment to diversity and inclusion both in her creative work for the public health arena and in her volunteer efforts in the neurodivergent community. She has experience designing, with a thoughtful and compassionate approach, for a diverse group of individuals and for sensitive topics. By leading the design efforts for NIH’s COSWD project, Ms. Petish aims to provide graphics that represent an inclusive and diverse workforce and culture in an accessible and easy-to-use final suite of products. She is committed to being a positive and uplifting individual for her team and ensuring that all individuals and their contributions thrive.

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