UA School of Art doubles capacity for graphic design degree

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,013 views 

Tom Hapgood, associate professor and head of the graphic design program, speaks to students in the digital tools and concepts class, the first studio course students take in the new degree program. (photo courtesy of Novo Studio)

The Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design was in the works for five years before it was established as a standalone degree at the University of Arkansas, but graphic design classes have been offered at the university for decades.

In fall 2016, the first classes for the new degree started in the art department, which became the School of Art on Aug. 23 when the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation announced a $120 million gift to establish the school. Over the next five years, the school, along with the graphic design program, will be developed and expanded.

The School of Art has three graphic design professors, two associate and one assistant, and four graphic design professors will be hired as part of the five-year expansion plan. Over the period, a total of 26 professors will be hired to work at the School of Art, said Tom Hapgood, associate professor and head of the graphic design program. Initially, the plan was to accept only 15 students annually into the new degree program, but the School of Art expanded the number to 30 because of the high level of interest in the program. In its second year, it has 45 students and had 50 applicants before the March application deadline.

Hapgood, who has been teaching graphic design at the UA for 12 years, created the standalone degree with David Charles Chioffi, associate professor of graphic design, and Marty Maxwell Lane, assistant professor of graphic design. The degree was created to dedicate more courses to graphic design and to offer students more graphic design training. Before it was established, students would take between four and six graphic design courses for degrees that offered a concentration in design.

With the standalone degree, students take 14 graphic design classes, more than doubling the amount of classes, from the previous degrees that offered a concentration in design, which have been discontinued.

“The new Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design was very much composed as a collective investigation and realization,” Chioffi said. “I am fortunate to be working with colleagues who share in developing pedagogical advancements within our academic discipline but also translating those tenets to the School of Art and its students.”

Chioffi, who is in his fifth year teaching graphic design at the UA, said the new degree program “fully exposes students to a professional education which is rigorous, thought provoking and socially relevant in the art school model — while fully interacting with the exceptional resources of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences and the greater university community.

“The new degree enables students to learn in a sequential manner, in that each curated course allows them to consider the evolution of their knowledge and art making practices, to develop and independent and critical visual voice,” Chioffi said.

Some of the key courses developed include identity design, which is followed by identity systems, and user experience, which is followed by interactive language, Hapgood said. Other classes include human-centered design and design for good, which offer students real-world opportunities to create with clients and determine their needs.

Maxwell Lane, who has been teaching graphic design at the UA since 2014, has taught human-centered design and has established a partnership with the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese. In spring 2016, the class focused on law-related issues, and students had the opportunity to work with legal experts and those in the Marshallese community designing items to break down communication barriers between the community and all those who interact with them.

“Human-centered design has the ability to tackle the world’s messy problems by designing ‘with’ people rather than ‘for’ people,” Maxwell Lane said. In spring 2017, she received a $6,600 grant from the Fulbright College to assist in her work with the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese.

The first class to graduate with the new bachelor’s degree in graphic design will be in spring 2019, Hapgood said. At its peak, the graphic design program is expected to have 90 students.

“The quality of work and thinking exhibited by the students is on par with top programs across the country,” Maxwell Lane said.

Recently, the art school established a foundations program to help freshmen students select a major. All students who have entered the degree program have come through the foundations program. Hapgood said the school is interested in working with colleges in the region to accept transfer students, such as those with an associate degree.

The program helped UA junior Karen Hessing choose graphics design as her major. She started classes for the new program in fall 2016 as a sophomore.

“In my classes in the foundations program, I was unsure about what I was going to end up doing,” Hessing said. “I had painted in high school, and I was somewhat interested in teaching. But I wasn’t 100% about anything at the time.”

Hessing took image making and experienced graphic design, typography and using programs to create work.

“I loved everything I made in that class,” she said. “That spring was when the BFA program was just starting up and accepting applications, so I decided why not go for it.”

Hessing, who plans to graduate in 2019, said she has learned “such rich information from professors” who want “to help us grow as designers,” and that’s “so rewarding. Yeah, we get to make cool things and learn programs and do the designing, but I think the faculty that lead this program make it what it is.” Recently, Maxwell Lane named Hessing to work on the project with the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese and plans to “finalize the work in early spring.” Hessing said she plans to meet on the project soon and will update design documents and assist on creating a website.

UA sophomore Shelby Osbourn started the degree program in August and was inspired by her mother, a graphic designer, to pursue the bachelor’s degree in graphic design. In May 2016, she earned an associate degree from NorthWest Arkansas Community College and said it prepared her for the program at the UA.

“I’ve always been drawn to the arts and knew that graphic design would be another avenue for me to venture down as an aspiring artist,” Osbourn said. “To be frank, it’s important for me to leave college knowing that I have a secure and financially stable job available and graphic design seemed like the most viable option.”

Osbourn, who plans to graduate in 2020, wouldn’t change anything about the program.

“This entire program has been a godsend,” she said. “I know that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and that is such a freeing feeling as an undergraduate.”

The transition of the art department into an art school adds “more legitimacy to my degree and allows me to more effectively secure a future job the design field,” Osbourn said. “Having this program and such a revamped attitude toward the arts here in NWA is going to open up the door for so many aspiring artists and designers to pursue an education here.”

To be considered for the graphic design program, students must submit a portfolio of artwork, two writing samples and have at least a 3.0 GPA, Hapgood said. Before the new degree was established, students weren’t required to submit a portfolio to take graphic design courses. Requiring a portfolio is “a sign of a higher quality program.”

The program is “more of a professional degree,” he said. “We do try to streamline people into a career.” One aspect of planning for the degree was talking to ad agencies and design firms to identify the skills they need in their staff. Hapgood also is responsible for student internships in the program. Graduates of the former programs that offered concentration in graphic design have gone on to work as designers at area ad agencies, companies and organizations, such as Saatchi & Saatchi X, Wal-Mart Stores and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“We’re seeing a really good group of students,” Hapgood said. “They’re good students, more research minded. They’re more interested in designing for the user.”

Another aspect of the new program is the studios and the lack of desktop computers in them. The students are required to provide their own laptop computer, a MacBook Pro, and the studios offer them a place to learn, create and work together. The program has two studios with a third on the way, allowing for sophomores, juniors and seniors to have one studio each, Hapgood said.

“I love the collaborative nature of the studio and the curriculum, the ability for students to be design generalists and also hone in on their area of expertise and interest in the senior year,” said Maxwell Lane, when asked what she most enjoys about the program. Lane also said the emphasis on design for good, connecting with our communities, and passion and culture as the students “really love being in the program.”

“We look forward to seeing the program grow, see where our first graduating class goes and turning our sights to developing the master’s degree.” While a timeline has yet to be set for it to be in place, she said it might be two to three years from now.