Design leader interview series: Amber Atkins
By Lilly Smith
Header Image
Design leader interview series: Amber Atkins
By Lilly Smith
Design leader interview series: Amber Atkins
By Lilly Smith
Header Image

For AIGA Women Lead’s first interview series, we sat down with women pioneers at colleges, design studios, agencies, and large companies to share their unique stories: the journey from mentee to mentor, frank assessments of women and the design field today, and how they’ve demonstrated a commitment to gender equity in the workplaces they now lead.

With a title like Head of Global Design Talent Acquisition—Positive Vibes Technician, one would expect Amber Atkins to have expert knowledge on what it takes to recruit women with top-level skills to IBM Design (she does). But what has she learned about herself and the larger issues women face everyday? Atkins spoke with AIGA executive director Julie Anixter about her time working with student groups as an AIGA chapter leader (and what she learned from it), why the tech industry has some catching up to do where women in leadership roles are concerned, and why design should find ways to empower everyone. Now that’s positive vibes for all.

What do you do at IBM?

A lot of my career has been centered around what I call fostering and creating communities of creatives. You could call it recruiting but I don’t see it as such, and I never have. I’ve always had every intention of taking the community as is and trying to understand what it would like to be. I’m trying to connect the right people and mentor individuals accordingly so as to achieve that statement.

As vice president of AIGA Colorado my focus was to connect emerging designers with seasoned professionals through mentorship, so I built quite a network within Denver. I was excited to be asked by IBM if I would be willing to support IBM Design in coming to recruit some of my university network.

I was so protective of my student designers. I wasn’t sure what IBM was doing yet. One of my students whom I had mentored through AIGA Colorado was there and said, “Amber, I wouldn’t ask you to do something if you couldn’t trust the outcomes. IBM really is designing a future ecosystem for designers to be successful, and ultimately bring design into some of the greatest problems to solve in the world. You can trust this idea.” I was like, “Okay, I’ll host IBM Design for the week I guess.”

So I saw an opportunity and I felt a sense of responsibility to engage, educate, and expose my AIGA Colorado students to it, but only through meaningful experiences; not just for IBM to get their name and potentially accept or reject candidates. I wanted there to be an experience so if there was any rejection at the end of it the students were prepared for that. At the end of that week I had hosted IBM Design on five campuses. By that time I was a believer in IBM Design.

When you were doing this, what was your day job?

I had just started my own consultancy called Role Play. I was promoting this idea that agencies could adopt a more agile and design thinking approach to their practice. Most often this shift would require them to play a new role in their business and I’d coach them towards that behavior change. When I heard the IBM Design story for the first time, I realized that was essentially what IBM was doing and beating me at my own game at scale; I just didn’t know about it—and I was inspired by the potential for impact they truly have.

What I found at IBM was an opportunity to take everything I love about connecting with humans, and what potential they have, and connect them with an opportunity to make an impact at scale. No other organization can offer that quite like IBM can.

How are you encouraged to both be a leader and grow other leaders at IBM?

I’m asked to help change how IBM works while also supporting my team and holding down the “day gig.” Luckily, IBM has a rich history of a diverse and inclusive culture so I have a lot of leaders around me to look up to, specifically a lot of women who lead. I’m happy to find mentorship not only at IBM but also through the work I do for AIGA Austin—and those streams cross often. I’ve been empowered to find ways to incorporate community programming into my work and even get a chance to make an impact where it really matters when you’re pushing for a more inclusive industry—the educational level. I’m supported by IBM to pursue give-back opportunities that most of us at AIGA would call “design for good” work.

Are you seeing parallels with women in leadership in creative?

I see a lot more women in leadership roles within creative leadership, but tech leadership has a lot of catching up to do. We are getting closer but I don’t think it’s just an IBM issue. I think it’s a societal issue. I believe we’re in the midst of a major paradigm shift as far as what one means by “creative leadership” and who we consider a creative problem solver. Consider my role at IBM Design. I’m not a creative professional or practitioner; I leverage creative problem solving, iteration, and consider myself a creative strategist...but my “day gig” is that I run a recruitment platform and program.

When IBM asked me about my title when I accepted the job, I said, “Positive Vibe Technician,” and they were like, “No, but we can hyphenate it so our HR system doesn’t reject it.” I was pleasantly surprised. Many times as a woman in leadership I have feared being my true self—and I love that I now feel confident enough to present myself as the type of professional I am rather than fitting into some other mold. My title is fittingly, Head of Global Design Talent Acquisition—Positive Vibes Technician.

What have you learned from your mentors about leadership?

Delegation is everything. You can't lead if you don't take others with you, so take those who choose to follow you and challenge them every opportunity to fill your shoes. With that level of empathy, anything is possible. My mentors have shown me who I hope to become as a leader and I hope to make them proud.

What have you learned that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

I wish I knew that being a woman doesn't hold one back—as long as you follow through, listen to feedback and leverage it, and find ways to constantly change. Then you can be successful, no matter who you are.

What advice do you have for companies that want women leaders to be successful?

Find ways to empower everyone—not just women, but all leaders, regardless of seniority. It is through active empowerment that you can find change catalysts that will help you innovate, so make way for all leaders, regardless of who they are.

What is the hardest thing about the work that you do?

The hardest thing about what I do is finding patience and maintaining empathy. I have a lot of context that others don't get access to and while being transparent is key to my success, knowing what someone is ready to know and ready to act on takes a lot of active listening, empathy, and a true understanding of what drives a person to take those next steps.

During Women’s history month, AIGA is launching the Gender Equity Toolkit, a cardgame and tool to address gender biases and encourage empathy in the workplace. We asked Atkins to answer a question from the empathy-building “Building Connections” section of the kit: What would be your dream collaboration?

Collaborating with a k-12 school district to deliver an immersive creative problem solving program focused on social impact.

About Amber Atkins

Amber Atkins headshotAmber Atkins is the Head of Global Design Recruitment for IBM, where her team delivers on delightful experiences. For almost 10 years, she has helped build communities for creative education and design as the vice president of education and mentorship for AIGA Colorado and now in her role on the AIGA Austin board. Amber believes in the power of what a diverse group of humans can do when they challenge one another to think—and then do.