When Jennifer Beyer, ’03, MA’08, came to a fork in her professional road, she took both paths. She is an award-winning exhibit designer and the co-owner of the Michigan-based Good Design Group as well as a riding instructor for the disabled working at Ann Arbor’s Therapeutic Riding, Inc. Her two jobs may seem profoundly different at first blush, but Beyer believes that the central role of storytelling makes them more like two sides of the same coin.
“In both my roles, my primary job is to teach people something,” says Beyer, who has worked with a number of museums and galleries designing their exhibit spaces.
But what has Beyer herself learned? She recently shared some life lessons with Michigan Alumnus.
Don’t give up. “A design degree can be fairly marketable,” says Beyer, who graduated from U-M with a bachelor’s in fine arts degree in industrial design. “But when I graduated, I had to do a lot of digging and scratching to find someone to hire me as an entry-level designer.” Beyer got that first opportunity in Midland, Michigan, working in the museum department of the now-defunct company Design Craftsmen. When her salary could not sustain her lifelong equestrian habit, she decided to volunteer in Midland at a therapeutic riding center. “I worked with the instructors as an informal student teacher,” says Beyer.
Be prepared for detours. “Two years into my career, I got a reality check when Design Craftsmen was sold. I learned that jobs aren’t as secure as you think they’ll be.” Beyer returned to U-M to pursue graduate programs in both education curriculum development and museum studies. Leaving her job meant leaving the Midland therapeutic riding center, so she signed up to work at another one in Ann Arbor. Then, when one of the senior designers with whom she had worked at Design Craftsmen struck out on his own, she teamed up with him to launch Good Design Group.
Take an array of classes and seek new experiences. As a U-M undergraduate, Beyer played multiple intramural sports with a franchise team called the Underdogs. It provided her with friends, future business contacts, and the chance to build her athletic skills. She also explored different areas of study. “I think Design Craftsmen appreciated that I’d taken history, art history, and English classes. I’ve always been a strong writer, and that’s a real asset in the exhibit business,” says Beyer. “In my industry, it’s not just about making something pretty, it is also about understanding the content and knowing how to get that across to the masses—the people who come to the exhibits,” Beyer says.
Never stop learning or giving back. In 2010, during graduate school, Beyer became a certified therapeutic riding instructor. More recently, she has become a para-dressage coach and an education and outreach coordinator for Therapeutic Riding. “People with disabilities don’t always have the same access to sports as able-bodied people,” says Beyer. “I love teaching riders and helping them gain access to some of the amazing opportunities I’ve had.”
Jenn McKee, ’93, worked for more than a decade as a staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News. She is now a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications.