Spotlight: Morgynn Wiley

A Chicago-based designer shares how she got her start.

Morgynn Wiley in SOM’s Chicago office. Photo © SOM

Chicago native Morgynn Wiley got a head start as a summer intern at SOM, hit the ground running out of architecture school, and hasn’t broken stride since. For the first profile in our Spotlight series, Morgynn takes a break from her design job to tell us about working in her hometown, the opportunities she’s found as an entry-level designer, and why one portfolio does not fit all.

I’ve been working full time at SOM for a little over two years; it’s my first job out of architecture school. I also interned in the Chicago office over two summers while I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

What attracted me to SOM was the opportunity to work on such a wide breadth of projects. The opportunity to start my career with almost limitless options in terms of scale, program, and region was just too good to pass up.

The interview process was a little bit more straightforward for me, given that I had already worked as a summer intern. I met with the studio heads and a couple of team members, and it really was a mutual exchange. I was interviewing them as much as they were interviewing me — to understand the best fit, and also to talk about some of the soft skills, aside from the hard technical skills, that allow a team to work together effectively.

Photo courtesy Morgynn Wiley

In architecture school, a lot of people have the impression that large firms don’t tend to provide a lot of design opportunities, especially in entry-level roles. What I found was the opposite — that based on your initiative and how confident you were in your ideas, they could actually be implemented. As an intern and as an entry-level designer, I had real opportunities to design, not just “produce.” And a lot of the designs I worked on were presented to clients.

When I first started at SOM I also participated in the Year One program, a cohort of entry-level employees. We could network together, find mentors, and also have research opportunities, in addition to being exposed to other projects around the office and the work they involved. It definitely broadened my perspective. Rather than being siloed within a studio or a single project, I had an avenue to interact with many different teams and with other designers at various points in their careers.

Rendering of 400 Lake Shore Drive. Image © Related Midwest

I’ve worked on quite a few local projects, which has been cool for me as a Chicago native. Some include Lincoln Yards, the redevelopment of a former industrial site on the northwest side of the city, and 400 Lake Shore Drive, a pair of residential towers. I’m also currently working on a project in Wuhan, which is especially relevant now in terms of exploring technologies for pandemic resilience.

I enjoy the pace. It’s dynamic and exciting, and you never know what’s next. With so many opportunities and different projects that come in, it’s really hard to be bored.

The culture of the office really fosters a sense of community. People want to support you to do your best work and to grow in your career.

The most challenging part of working here is distilling the different options and design ideas that everyone comes up with. There are so many ideas floating around, but the reality is you have to narrow down the options to produce a project. That can be quite a nerve-racking experience for someone who’s creative.

The culture of the office really fosters a sense of community. People want to support you to do your best work and to grow in your career. It would be difficult for me to single out one person as a mentor. Over the last two years I’ve reached out to many people for guidance, crossing different backgrounds and disciplines within the office, for projects I’m working on or even for extracurricular activities.

Morgynn in Abu Dhabi with Tutu the camel. Photo courtesy Morgynn Wiley

My advice for new graduates is to put a lot of thought and care into curating your portfolio. It’s the first way in which companies will get to know you as a designer. In school, the portfolio is often an afterthought, something obligatory at the end of the semester. But in fact it’s the single most important document for finding career opportunities.

Make sure you think about who will be reviewing it, and how it will be shown — a portfolio you create to send by email is going to be a little different from the one you’re presenting in person. This relates a lot to the way we work at SOM. We often synthesize information into visual narratives, each tailored to a specific audience and purpose. Being able to effectively adapt and curate information is a skill that will serve you throughout your career.

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