Recent grad designs her dreams with innovative music app

February 11, 2013
By Bill Krueger

How does a childhood musician from Huntersville, N.C., end up a promising young graphic designer in Portland, Ore.? Support, curiosity and “the right tools,” says NC State alum Kirsten Southwell of her recent accolades.

Since graduating in 2012 with a degree in graphic design, Southwell has won the esteemed Adobe Design Achievement Award and a 2013 Interaction Award – both for Rehearsal, an app for practicing musicians she developed as her senior capstone project at NC State.

kirsten_adobe-achievement-award“The thing that’s really interesting about this project for me is that I didn’t start with the intent of creating an app; I started with the intent of discovering something,” Southwell says. A pianist since sixth grade, Southwell began to notice specific problems she encountered while practicing – problems that left her wondering, “How can design enhance the musician’s experience?”

Upon completing her research, Southwell shot an informational video to highlight the Rehearsal app’s unique features. The clip demonstrates Rehearsal’s heightened user interactivity, such as a “mimic mode” – which plays measures of a song and asks the musician to play it back – and a scoring system that compares to sheet music what the user last played. With two separate portals for visual and audial learners, Rehearsal allows musicians to record live sessions on the app, compare and mix tracks and complete practice exercises in musical theory.

Southwell laughs as she remembers the process of filming her video for Rehearsal. “It’s kind of a funny story, because I’m not an experienced filmmaker or photographer,” she says. “One of my former bosses put me through studio video and photography boot camp. Finally came in handy!”

NC State professor Amber Howard was a constant source of encouragement and inspiration for Southwell. “Amber has been a mentor for me since my junior year. She’s a professor who doesn’t restrict herself to the confines of the classroom,” says Southwell. “She really pushed me to apply for the Adobe awards.”

Southwell says she’s still in shock from her success. “The caliber of work submitted for the Adobe awards was really great,” she says. “I was competing against professional projects, so I didn’t expect to win at all.”

A perk of Southwell’s Interaction Award was traveling at the end of January to Toronto, Canada, for the organization’s annual awards ceremony. Sponsored by GE, the ceremony brings together award winners from around the world. “Being there was awesome,” she says. “Every person I met, I’d either learned or read about. There was so much influence in one room.”

rehearsal-app_2Southwell was hired in August, 2012, by Second Story Interactive Studios – a company specializing in interactive digital storytelling for a variety of brands and industries. With a versatile team of artists, designers, engineers, systems developers and producers, Second Story researches and implements new ways for audiences to interact with their digital environments.

Interning with Second Story less than two years ago, Southwell now works as a junior user experience designer on projects such as mobile and tablet apps similar to her Rehearsal application. “Being in Portland at a studio where I’ve already built relationships,” she says, “has brought a lot of stability to the tough transition from student to college graduate.”

Southwell says her internship with Second Story “changed everything.” It’s exciting, she says, to be back with the same company that taught her the skills she’d later need for the award-winning Rehearsal app.

“It’s all been so surreal,” she says.

– Lindsay Williams

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