Carolina Brinkley grew up a sports fan, but she had never seen a game of hockey. Almost ten years after graduating from the University of Florida, she cried when the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup.
Brinkley attended Miami Carol City Sr. High School in Miami, Florida, where she first started designing for the school’s newspaper. She intended on majoring in journalism in college, but her experience designing the yearbook during senior year made her think about graphic design as a profession.
She applied for college out of state but realized the extra cost of out-of-state tuition would make attending difficult.
UF accepted Brinkley into the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship (MFOS) program, which assists historically low-income, first-generation college students in meeting the costs of school. MFOS provides recipients a full grant and scholarship package to earn a bachelor’s degree at UF, and it made attending college a financial reality for Brinkley.
She said she felt incredibly blessed to be chosen as one of the scholars and is grateful for the amazing friends and connections she was able to make through the program.
“The people in charge of the program were very much on top of us and encouraged us to get out there, providing a lot of resources for our transition from high school to college,” Brinkley said. “I made a lot of friends because of the nature of the program. We’ve kept in touch over the years. Those connections never dropped off.”
She found a home in the School of Art and Art History’s graphic design program, though she felt at first that she had major catch up to do.
“UF has a really great—small but mighty—program,” she said. “It is really competitive, and I had some major catching-up to do. There were classmates whose parents were professional photographers or artists, and I was this Hispanic girl from a low-income neighborhood who had only taken one art class in high school.”
Nevertheless, Brinkley received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design in 2011. Then, she began her job search amidst an economic recession but said she was fortunate to not be as severely affected as she would have been during the previous year.
Having grown up watching baseball and playing tennis, she had her sights set on designing for a sports team. She knew that jobs were scarce and difficult to get, especially within the realm of graphic design. She applied to all the sports teams in Florida, but the process was tricky. Sports organizations are very selective when hiring staff and only hire if there is a vacant spot on their team, Brinkley said.
She had multiple interviews and callbacks—including being a runner-up candidate—for several organizations both in and out of sports but didn’t have a lot of traction in the professional sports arena. When she discovered that a position with the Tampa Bay Lightning became available, she quickly applied.
“Being a kid from a Hispanic household, we didn’t watch hockey,” she said. “I had to practice Canadian names before going into my interview.”
She was hired as a temporary contract designer with the idea that if she proved herself and if the company could prove the need for a third designer, she would be permanently hired. That decision came a year later.
“I think the Lightning staff was entertained by the fact that I didn’t know much about hockey and knew I would be able to learn and grow as a part of their team,” she said.
Now, she cheers on the players like a true hockey fan. Her days in the office—which are currently at home due to the coronavirus pandemic—move quickly. She works with multiple designers who usually start their morning with a brief meeting, get a job list from their Creative Services Manager, and then hit the ground running.
“Once you get out into the real world, different rules apply,” she said. “In school, you have a set plan and expectations. My job—the real world—is a mile a minute.”
The design industry changes rapidly, so Brinkley is consistently learning to keep up.
“I’ve learned different shortcuts and tricks that are more on par with industry standards,” she said. “Everything used to be so static. Now I try to push myself to keep up.”
In addition to designing for the Tampa-based hockey team, the Lightning’s creative team also designs for Amalie Arena and the Yuengling Center at the University of South Florida. They design everything from show collateral for concerts at the arena to basketball and football advertisements for USF. They have also been heavily involved in merchandise graphics for the team's apparel store, Tampa Bay Sports.
In September 2020, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Finals, the championship series of the National Hockey League. Even though the pandemic didn’t allow Brinkley to see the games in person, she was still emotionally invested. After winning four of the six played games, the Lightning took home the trophy.
“I definitely cried,” she said. “Because I’ve been with them for so long, I’ve seen them come close so many times. You get so invested.”
Brinkley has looked through the series game images frequently since the win.
“It was sad that we couldn’t be in the arena,” she said. “As I look through the pictures, I have to remind myself that wow, this really happened.”
To student designers, Brinkley offered a piece of advice: Don’t settle for simply checking the boxes of school projects.
“Get on Twitter or other social media platforms and see what the industry is doing,” she said. “Think about how you can push the boundaries. Strive to be creative and innovative. That will go such a long way."