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Deconstructing Design

With no academic support, student graphic designers find independent work

Graphic design students independently seek opportunities to learn and practice graphic design.
Graphic design students independently seek opportunities to learn and practice graphic design.
By Clio C. Smurro, Crimson Staff Writer

When Y. Joy Ding ’10, a Computer Science concentrator, received an email from the script clearance team of the upcoming Facebook movie, she was excited—and totally surprised. As it turned out, Ding, who had designed the poster for the Fall 2009 Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) production of “The Flies,” was asked to sign a release form. The film’s producers had seen and liked her poster and wanted to use it to decorate the set for the dorm room of Facebook creater Mark E. Zuckerberg, formerly of the Class of 2006. “After noticing my poster, the Facebook movie team contacted the HRDC president, who put them in touch with me so I could authorize them to use my poster in their film,” Ding said. “Who knows if it will even make it into the movie, but it was still very exciting to be asked permission to use my work.”

Ding, who has also designed posters and publicity images for such HRDC productions as “The Hyacinth Macaw,” “The Birthday Party,” “Cabaret,” “Metamorphoses,” and “Twelve Angry Men,” is one of many student graphic designers whose work can be found brightening Harvard’s campus at any given time. Yet despite the presence of many graphic designers, the university is almost entirely lacking in formal academic resources for students interested in developing these skills. Instead, students independently seek opportunities to learn and practice graphic design—often by working for extracurricular organizations around campus and businesses in Cambridge.

OUTSIDE THE CURRICULAR BOX

Currently, no specific coursework on graphic design exists in seemingly relevant departments like Computer Science and Visual and Environmental Studies (VES). Interested students receive academic support only through peripherally related courses. “We don’t offer any graphic design courses, but if a student wants to pursue graphic design in the future, VES studio courses are still a helpful foundation,” said Paula Soares, Manager of Academic Programs for VES. Further, the Office of Student Life, which boasts a list of over 413 officially recognized student groups, does not include a single student group explicitly focused on graphic design. The best resources Harvard has to offer its graphic designers are free software downloads: both Adobe InDesign and Adobe Photoshop are offered to students by Harvard’s FAS Information Technology.

Musing on this lack of formal curricular opportunities for graphic designers, Computer Science concentrator Kane Hsieh ’12 said, “I wish departments would offer not classes, but rather, mini-seminars throughout the year, so that students can learn the skills without using up one of their few electives. Right now, I’m probably pretty inefficient when creating images, since I’m just using what I already know.” Christina Q. Guo ’13 echoes this sentiment, saying, “I’ve never heard about any workshops for graphic design, but that would be extremely helpful, especially when you’re just starting out.” Still, incorporating graphic design into the curriculum would not be without its challenges. “I’m not sure what department graphic design would fall under,” Guo added. “And obviously, there’s a limit to how many courses a person can take each semester, so it’d be great if a graphic design course could somehow fulfill a GenEd requirement.”

Given this lack of formal programs for graphic design, a number of extracurricular organizations instead provide relevant training to interested students—regardless of their level of experience. “I’d never done graphic design before, but a few of my friends were doing it for other organizations, so when a CSA [Chinese Students Association] Public Relations board position opened up, I took the opportunity to finally learn graphic design,” Guo said. Later, when Guo was comping the Harvard College Law Society, her new graphic design skills were immediately put to use in creating some publicity posters. Publications like The Harvard Crimson similarly teach students to use design software they might not otherwise learn.

Other student designers, however, come to Harvard with some familiarity with graphic design software. “In high school, I did a lot of journalism,” explains Ding. “My high school was fortunate enough to print a color newspaper with broadsheet, so that’s how I started working with Photoshop and InDesign.” Hsieh jokes that he started doing graphic design work before Harvard because “I just don’t like ugly things.” On a more serious note, he added, “I did photography in high school, and then just started tinkering with photo editing.” For slightly more experienced students, opportunities to advance their existing skill sets are hard to find.

But despite its decidedly creative nature, students say that a background in visual art is not essential for learning graphic design. “Before high school, I only dabbled in drawing, and never took a formal art class in high school,” Guo said. “Anyone can do graphic design, as long as they have a decent aesthetic sense.” For further inspiration, designers like Hsieh often look to the Internet. “You can search for design and typographic trends,” he said. “There are websites which compile user creations, like Webdesigner Depot, Graphic DesignBlog and Web Designer Wall. You can find some crazy creative ideas for business cards on sites like these.”

DESIGN IN DEMAND

Regardless of their experience level, graphic designers are a particularly valuable asset to the various student groups on campus. As a freshman at Harvard, Ding started out doing costume design for HRDC. She soon found her graphic design skills being tapped by directors and producers in the theatre community as they asked her to help create publicity images for their shows. During his own freshman year, Hsieh did the graphic design for Banquet, the annual CSA celebration of Lunar New Year, and also designed posters for a number of smaller social events within the CSA.

The creative process used to develop these images varies slightly according to the type of event and the preferences of the student group hosting it. When creating images for theatre posters, Ding said, “I’ll drop by the rehearsals and talk to the directors to get a feel for the show.” For Hsieh, the cultural board of CSA tells him what kinds of images they have in mind for a given event, and then he creates three or four designs based on their input. “It’s a collaborative process,” he said, “and then the cultural board makes the final decision about which images to use.”

For the production of The Flies, the show’s director envisioned a Western-themed retelling of the original play by Jean-Paul Sartre, so the Harvard production of the show featured a specific aesthetic invoking the American West. Correspondingly, Ding’s poster for the show incorporated this visual motif, and it was this unusual image which captured the attention of the producers of the Facebook movie.

The amount of artistic control given to student graphic designers also varies. “It really depends on the director. Some have very specific visions for the posters, and we’ll meet several times to replicate those images as closely as possible, and others simply come into a meeting with me with a general feeling about what they’re looking for,” Ding said. Ding’s latest project, creating the poster for the HRDC’s upcoming production of “The Pillowman,” actually involves a small picture that the director had drawn as a child. “I think I’m going to incorporate it as the central image,” said Ding, “since the image fits oddly well with the themes of the show even though this drawing was done years ago and was not related to the production at all.”

Often, by the time directors meet with Ding, they will have already given a lot of thought to the visual representation of their shows in publicity materials. Inspiration comes from a number of sources, including the show’s own set design and images of the production from past performances. “Even beautiful images from the Internet or films—like screen shots from movies—can inform the graphic design work for a poster,” she said.

Ironically enough, such digitally-designed posters are easier to disseminate on paper than online. “Publicizing over Harvard email lists is tough, since there are pixel limits,” said Guo. To get around this, the CSA creates and sends posters through MailChimp, an account that allows users to send smaller posters—as well as headers, footers, fonts and other means of visually organizing information—over email lists.

SKILLS FOR BILLS

Beyond the creative and artistic satisfaction involved in creating digital images, graphic design skills can also translate into financial profit for students. Hsieh currently holds a paid position doing Photoshop work for the Harvard Graduate School of Design, a job which builds on the skills he gained doing volunteer graphic design work for student groups and friends. Ding has also found gainful employment, as she is currently paid to work on the Harvard Student Agencies’ Rover iPhone application. The application, which was developed by Winston X. Yan ’10 and Alexander G. Bick ’10, is an iPhone version of “The Unofficial Guide to Harvard.” “I’m a Computer Science concentrator, so I do a lot of the programming for Rover. But since I also do graphic design, I redesigned the user interface and overhauled the look with new icons,” Ding said. “As a programmer, it’s easy to get caught up in the technical aspects and forget the aesthetic elements which make technology beautiful.”

Opportunities for graphic design work at Harvard require a bit of scouting, but these positions can be surprisingly rewarding. “My freshman year, I would just do freelance graphic design work that I’d find on the Student Employment Office website,” Ding said. “But more recently I was hired by Finale Desserts to do a small graphic design project.” Two summers ago, Finale gave Ding several images of desserts and she turned them into icons for the Facebook Gifts application, so people could exchange digital Finale desserts online. In this way, Finale was able to use Ding’s graphic design skills to gain a valuable marketing tool and Ding, in turn, was sweetly rewarded. “They gave me a few hundred dollars of Finale’s gift cards—I bought everyone birthday cakes for the rest of the year!” she said.

Despite the opportunities to profit from graphic design, actual careers in graphic design aren’t necessarily what these students have in mind for the future. “I’m planning on going into law,” said Guo, “so I don’t really see my graphic design skills factoring into my career. But in college, these skills are incredibly useful.”

Guo’s observation rings true. While having such talents has already been noted as an asset in student groups, these skills can further be utilized in students’ individual pursuits. Recently, Hsieh designed the logo for Legata, an Internet start-up business he created with classmates Sasank Konda ’12 and Calvin McEachron ’12.

GRAPHIC GRADS

At the undergraduate level, student groups and paid employment offer aspiring graphic designers a chance to further explore their art. At the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), however, slightly more structured programs exist. In the spring of 2009, world-renowned Norwegian graphic designer and publisher Lars Muller joined the faculty of the GSD for one semester as a guest lecturer in the Department of Architecture. His course “Building Books” examined print media from a perspective of layout and graphic design, and was accompanied by a student exhibition of book projects in the GSD library. While at the GSD, Muller also worked on graphic design for “Ecological Urbanism,” a collection of writings from Harvard professors and other design leaders about urban development and ecological planning in the modern era.

Aspiring designers at Harvard can also learn about graphic design through GSD student publications. For instance, “New Geographies,” a doctoral student journal distributed by Harvard University Press, has featured a different emerging graphic designer in each of its four issues of 2009. In this way, GSD doctoral students are able to highlight new talent in the field of graphic design and enjoy a fresh aesthetic for each issue.

Thus Harvard students interested in graphic design can draw from a few resources for inspiration and support, but ultimately the University provides little support for aspiring graphic designers, particularly those in the College. Still, these students do find artistic satisfaction in their independent pursuits. “Graphic design is great because the time commitment is manageable, and it’s still a creative role,” explains Ding. “It’s really rewarding work.”

—Staff writer Clio C. Smurro can be reached at csmurro@fas.harvard.edu.

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