Students Help Redesign the Designer’s Role
By Matt Windsor
The advertising world may follow the maxim “image is everything,” but in reality designers are often relegated to a secondary role in the creative process, says UAB assistant professor of art Douglas Barrett, M.F.A.
“We’re often given projects after the big idea has happened, and we just style what someone else has created,” Barrett says. But UAB art faculty are helping students explore a new paradigm in design, he notes. “There’s a new catchphrase of ‘designer as author,’” Barrett says. The idea is to encourage designers to express their own ideas and show what they can contribute to the creative process. “We want to be there when the big idea happens and have a seat at the table.”
To prepare students for these roles, Barrett has tinkered with UAB’s graphic design curriculum. “We still spend plenty of time on traditional projects, such as setting type or creating brochures,” he says. “But at least once a semester, I try to do a project where the student is the author. In typography class, for example, I had each student choose a saying about time, and then they drew the text of that saying by hand.”
This work gives students “something in their portfolio that not everyone has,” Barrett says. “Someone hiring graphic designers wants super-creative people who are doing more than just typical graphic design work.”
Logos and Lessons
UAB students recently took on a real-world design challenge with a medical start-up company run by UAB School of Health Professions alumnus Mark Hamilton. Hamilton’s company, Choice Research, facilitates clinical trials—connecting pharmaceutical companies such as Astra Zeneca and Sanofi Aventis with local physician practices who are willing to test the companies’ experimental drugs, for instance.
Choice Research, which is only a few years old, is based at Birmingham business incubator Innovation Depot. “It’s an exciting time to be here in this building and in this city,” Hamilton says. But he knew that getting the word out about his company would be easier with a new graphic identity—a unified look for his logos, letterhead, business cards, and other promotional materials. When a colleague at Innovation Depot suggested he get in touch with UAB graphic design students, Hamilton quickly signed on.
“We met in person to talk about the business—the image I wanted to portray, adjectives that describe what I do, where I see myself and the company in 10 years,” he says. After more collaboration by e-mail and in person, the students pitched their ideas to Hamilton. The winning concept features a stylized strand of DNA on a green background that emphasizes the company’s role in the scientific mission of discovery.
Train of Thought
On a recent trip to Japan, Douglas Barrett found inspiration from the city's Yamanote Railroad Line. The resulting collection of paintings, "Stations of Tokyo," debuted at a Japanese art gallery last summer.
“It was great working with college students, because they enlivened my perspective,” Hamilton says. “It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of running a business, but to be able to sit down with these creative folks and brainstorm is a lot of fun.”
Success by Design
Along with career experience, UAB graphic design students are earning accolades for their work. At the annual Birmingham Addy Awards in February, several students—and Barrett—came away with honors. The event, which recognizes excellence in advertising and graphic design, was judged by advertising agency creative directors from San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago.
Alumna Alexandra Crawford, who graduated in spring 2010, won Student Best of Show and the Gold Award for Student Editorial; senior Brittany Fox won Gold Awards for Student Nontraditional Advertising and Student Collateral; senior Alyssa Mitchell won a Silver Award for Student Nontraditional Advertising; and seniors Lindsey Griggs and Elizabeth Springer won Silver Awards for Student Collateral. Barrett won two silver Addy awards in the Advertising for the Arts and Sciences category.
For Barrett, the honors prove that designers can help drive the creative conversation. “This mode of working allows designers to push the boundaries of the graphic design discipline and to explore new ways of creating a visual dialogue,” he says.
Click the arrows below to view a slideshow of a graphic design project by student Jin Chung.
"The project assignment was to interpret the Emily Dickinson poem 'Because I could not stop for death,'" Barrett says. "Students could choose their own interpretation, color palette, form, and way to illustrate the project. They became the client and in effect the author. Jin chose to use the poem to tell a story about how a little girl might relate to a visit to the dentist's office—in a way seeing the impending visit as a sort of death." The final outcome was "sophisticated and humorous," Barrett says. "She illustrated the poem with her own drawings and used a double-sided accordion fold as the final form." This type of project gets students to focus on the concept, Barrett adds. "Here the idea is as important as the physical act of creating the final form."