Conversations in Design: Jenna Ryan, Winner of Retail Touchpoints’ 40 under 40 Awards

Clare Sausen June 1, 2022

Jenna Ryan, Senior Designer, has been announced a winner of the Retail Touchpoints 40 under 40 Awards. Today, we’re sitting down with her to talk about her design inspiration, her experience with mentorship and how she prioritizes equity in the design community.

How did you get started as a designer?

Jenna Ryan: I was in high school when I decided, on a whim, to switch all my elective classes from my childhood interests, like show choir, towards painting and ceramics. That opened a whole new genre of expression for me. I got really interested in materials, art objects, and how things are created. I did community college for a while and continued taking art classes and basic design classes, leading me to interior design. Also, HGTV influenced me back in the day, too [laughs].

Early in my design education, teaching centered on observing space first and foremost, and as I did, I began to experience the world in a whole new way. I saw how people used space, and I questioned how it could be better. I started paying more attention to my own experience in different types of spaces and how they made me feel – like if the room setup crams everyone in the corner with no natural flow, I might experience anxiety. There are so many multidisciplinary aspects to architecture. If I could go back, knowing what I know now, I would consider minoring in psychology—an understanding of human behavior helps you design and interact with your clients and the end-users in a more meaningful way.

What are some of your sources of design inspiration?

JR: I derive a lot of inspiration from color and the fashion industry – I love bold colors and clashing prints. Also, I identify as a queer woman, and I often feel inspired by my queer community – it’s a vast group of people. Still, they are constantly questioning norms for themselves, and just by existing, they inherently push society to confront its biases and lack of awareness. Gender identity, disability, race, class — all of these experiences often go unseen by the dominant able-bodied, heteronormative, white, cis culture. As a white person with a certain amount of privilege, I’m constantly trying to listen and recenter my design career and activism around experiences outside of my own.

Tell me a bit about your experience with mentorship.

JR: When I get the opportunity, I speak with young designers about mental health and encourage them to know where they lie within that spectrum if they don’t already. I see many people enter the corporate world and try to mimic the performances they see around them. Normalizing unhealthy habits, especially in a work-heavy culture, like regularly staying late or working on the weekend, become familiar and sometimes praised. I encourage young designers to assert their boundaries and be honest about their limits. I know that can be vulnerable and scary. Personally, when I’ve advocated for myself, I’ve experienced judgment and gained respect.

Being vulnerable at work is complex and radical. It gives the people we work with permission to be human and us. We are not machines. Dismantling the glorification of ‘busy or grind culture’ is something I’ve worked to change in my own life, and I’m interested in being a part of that shift in the workplace. It’s very anti-American.

The pandemic shed light on mental health. People are much more aware that we’re all on a spectrum of mental health and that it changes every day. Corporate culture can no longer dictate the one standard norm for a work environment. Finally, corporate culture must acknowledge and trust that its’ employees know the very best work environment to meet our individual needs and perform at our best. Times have changed; we’ve all grappled with Covid collectively. I now see and experience us sharing our struggles more openly and having more compassion for our coworkers when they are struggling. Finally, we are embracing flexibility.

How do you prioritize equity in the design community?

JR: At this point, I believe many of us, including myself, are learning how to incorporate and prioritize equity in the design community. Especially since the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. I present as a cis, white woman — I have a privileged platform to work from, and I know that people with power will listen to me to a certain extent. Over my eight-year career with CRTKL, I have personally witnessed and experienced countless microaggressions, disrespect, and oppressive interactions against marginalized coworkers, between young/new employees and upper management, and systemic issues that cause our company to lose talent. When I witness this, I try to act as an ally. Acknowledge and affirm the person’s experience and encourage them to speak to someone with authority. Whether or not they speak out, it feels important to me to talk to management about my experience of the person enacting the oppressive behaviors. If the issue is less personal and more systemic, I speak out to people in our office who hold power.

Jenna Ryan brings a high level of design talent, creativity, and thoughtfulness to her work. Her voice, combined with a passion for social activism and strong presentation skills, is a positive disruptor amongst her peers. She cares deeply about the well-being of her team and works diligently to nurture an inclusive work environment. Notably, she advocates for the visibility of mental health issues and varying accessibility needs that large organizations can sometimes overlook. As a queer woman, she has led the charge in many groups, talks and initiatives to create awareness and safety in the workplace for womxn and LGBTQIA BIPOC. Additionally, Jenna finds great joy in mentoring student designers who are just starting their professional design journey. She is committed to sharing her knowledge and experience to move the industry forward into new and better ways of working.

She has a keen design eye and the incredible ability to connect with clients to bring their visions to life. She achieves a project’s goals and needs by starting with thoughtful, inspired research. Her talent lies in translating the client’s ethos into meaningful built environments. She produces conceptual design ideas and enthusiastically leads team members in the design process. Her work speaks for itself, yet her natural presentation skills and confidence also help to sell ideas and build client trust.  She impacts our clients’ success, but she also significantly impacts the design community, specifically with design students across the country. She is constantly helping design students grow by participating in studio crits and making time for personal mentoring.

Author Spotlight

Clare Sausen
Clare Sausen is a Content Writer for CRTKL. Based in Washington, D.C., she leverages her personal and professional experience in journalism, radio, and nonprofit communication to serve as a valuable member of the global firmwide team. Since attaining her Bachelor of Arts degree from George Washington University in Communication and American Studies, she has honed her craft of architectural storytelling across multiple platforms. Her work appears in outlets such as Broccoli Magazine, Sackville, Building Construction + Design Magazine, High Times Magazine, Medical Construction + Design Magazine, NORML Blog, The Lounge, You Are Here, and WRGW Music Blog.