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Secret Origins: College-bound art student

2011 February 3

Cyber-pal Sean Kleefeld recently noted how he became a graphic designer largely by default rather than through any goal-oriented active approach, which got me thinking that it’s about time for another Secret Origins post.

I think that, in some form or another, Sean’s route into graphic design is by no means uncommon; at any rate I believe such was the case when I was a student, and I know it was the case for me personally. The basic reasoning went like this: You like art? You want to earn a living? Compromise by going into graphic design.

(This kind of reminds me of a conversation with an Admissions Counselor at old D.U., who described the typical would-be pharmacy major as someone who wanted to help people, and be well-paid, but didn’t like the sight of blood.)

“Art” was always “my thing,” growing up, though looking back I sometimes suspect that even that was kind of as much drifting as it was passion. I know that I liked drawing, but at the same time, I also liked praise, and the fact that adults seemed to be especially interested in and complimentary about my picture-making may have contributed significantly to my forming a concept of self which in which “likes art” was integral.

In any event, I still don’t think that I had any kind of strong concept of “I’m gonna be a _____ when I grow up” until I discovered comics around age 13. For the remainder of my teenage years, I nursed the fantasy that I was going to be a comic book artist, though I applied rather less effort to that dream, I’m sure, than do most of those who succeed at it.

I drew, sure, but I didn’t devote myself to it. I probably spent a good deal more time on practicing the clarinet, an activity which I never had any real thought of pursuing even as a long-term hobby. In high school, largely through sheer bloody-minded effort, I made two trips to Iowa’s All-State music festival (of which more later), and (to my complete shock) was selected by my fellow students for our high school’s John Philip Sousa Award at the last concert of my senior year… at the end of which, I took my instrument apart, cleaned it, put the parts in the case and closed the lid never to open it again.

One wonders what I might have achieved by applying those hours and hours of effort to something else, such as drawing. But here again, I think I was really just responding to what was going on around me rather than single-mindedly pursuing my own path. When I was in high school, nearly all of the bright students were in band (or choir, and I didn’t sing), so I was too; that being the case, I applied some effort, which was rewarded, etc., etc. in a virtuous circle, if also a mostly pointless one. (I’ve completely forgotten how to even read music, today.)

Whereas for the visual art student, at AHS, there wasn’t anything like the music programs’ structures of support and encouragement. I took art classes, but it was a largely solitary pursuit, at least relative to music, especially for a “good student;” I’m sure mine was not the only high school where art class was mostly populated by indifferent students looking for some easy credits and a chance to sneak out and smoke (something or other).

This in spite of an excellent art teacher; I still remember my mantras. (“Negative space… shadows are shapes…”) And in one freshman-year drawing studio at dear auld ISU, in fact, I had a better understanding of rules of perspective than our professor, who seemed distressingly challenged in explaining the concepts.

So I did invest some time and energy in art and drawing, I guess. I did not invest time, energy or thought into becoming a graphic designer, though. By my junior year of high school, I think, I had pretty well accepted this notion that I was going to go to college and study graphic design, but I had no idea what that meant. As I recall, art class went on a couple of field trips to visit design workplaces; an ad agency, the Gazette‘s art department. But I don’t think I really absorbed that much.

This was the mid 1990s, after all; I have some vague sense that graphic design as a professional activity is somewhat more visible nowadays, perhaps due to the ubiquity of its tools and products in the world wide web era, but 16 years ago that was definitely not the case. The concept of “graphic design” as a distinct field, under that name, was maybe 40 years old at most? And the modern, computer-based graphic design was scarcely a decade old.

My own experience with computer design methods, as I set off for designer college in 1996, was probably limited to The Print Shop, a 1980s program for the Apple ][.

That didn’t matter, though; I wanted to draw comic books anyway. Pencils, pens, ink and bristol board were all you needed for that!

So… what happened?

As noted, to a considerable extent I just kind of went along with what adults advised for most of my early life. Peer-modeling played a role as well, at least to some extent: on the matter of getting a college eduation at least, both my peers and conventional wisdom of adult society were pretty much in complete agreement. That’s what students with a promising future did. So that’s what I was going to do.

(As an aside, it always interests me to consider how this may reflect some measure of a generational shift. Out of my four grandparents, two parents, one step-parent, ten or so aunts and uncles and a similar number of cousins, to this day there are only three university degrees, and one of the other two belongs to my mother, who was the youngest of her family by some ways. Many of her sisters and in-laws, now mostly retired, did have skilled, well-paying “white collar” careers without college educations. By the 1990s, though, it seems like it was pretty generally understood by adults and young people alike that this was much less likely to happen.)

So why ISU? What else did I consider and how did I arrive at my decision?

Honestly, yet again I kind of just drifted where the currents led. I got mail from a large number of schools, of course, and looked at it. But realistically, I don’t think that I was ever likely to go off to SCAD (which actually offered a program in “sequential art”) or the Kubert School or even MCAD or, really, anywhere outside the state of Iowa. I’d been far away from home on my own in high school, and still had something of the pre-Millennial concept that when you reach adulthood, you move out of Mom and Dad’s house. But my daring and confidence had limits.

And within the state of Iowa, it was pretty much impossible that I was going anywhere other than ISU. The only other school I even visited was UNI, mostly to make some token exploration of alternatives, and because that was mater‘s alma mater. Neither UNI nor any Iowa institution other than dear auld ISU ever really stood a chance, though, for multiple reasons:

  • At least as of 1996, only two colleges in Iowa even offered a full-fledged degree program in graphic design. The other was Drake, which was a private university (cha-ching) and still had that reputation for being in a “bad neighborhood” of the big city, at least for rural small-town folk.
  • My high school art teacher and mentor earned her degree from ISU and pretty enthusiastically recommended I do the same.
  • ISU was eager to enroll National Merit Scholars that year and, as I was one (aptitude for standardized tests really paid off for the first 18 years of my life, at least), they put on a most impressive reception when Pop and I visited campus. I mean goodie bag with T-shirt, intro to the Honors Program and what it could do for me, individual meeting with a graphic design professor (who had presumably drawn the short straw)…
  • Most importantly, though, they showed me the money. As in those two magic words, “full ride.”

I’ve really wondered, since, and never come up with any good answers, regarding what I would have done without a free college education. As a student I seemed likely to get a good scholarship but, thinking back, I don’t recall that I’d managed to come up with anything else even close to covering the cost of a four-year degree, had ISU not gone on a National Merit Scholar shopping-spree that particular year. The University of Houston offered me the same deal, but I have my doubts that I would really have been prepared to take them up on the offer even if there’d been no local free option.

I really don’t know what I would have done; presumably I’d have gone to college somehow, and it was a good deal cheaper then than now at least, but I still probably would have graduated with a considerable loan burden. Which seems like a really terrible way to start a young person out in life, honest. But I suppose that’s a discussion for another forum.

In any event, in being a National Merit Scholar desirous of attending Iowa State University in the fall of 1996, I effectively hit the lottery for possibly the only time in my life. (And then blew my winnings on a degree in graphic design, ho ho.)

So my K-12 education ended, I left off my studies of the clarinet (who cares) and French (kind of regret that), and passed the last bone-idle summer of my life (what did I need to earn money for?) and at last Orientation Week rolled around.

Mom and Pop moved me into the dorms, and then cried a little (whereas I’d been in Ames multiple times for those All State festivals and wanted to get away to the awesome comic store I remembered), and at last I was left on my own, standing by the arches in Old Richardson Court. Eighteen years old, completely clueless, and on the threshold of a great adventure.

3 Responses
  1. February 4, 2011

    Did not know about the full ride! Nicely done, sir!

    Interesting to note, too, that a lot of my graphic design friends from college aren’t actually doing much design work any more. Some do have their own design studios, but many are doing things unrelated to design. Lot of project managers and whanot. One girl opened her own flower shop and another is a State Representative in Illinois!

  2. Matt permalink
    February 5, 2011

    I don’t usually advertise the scholarship, too much; in college those of us who had the Nat’l Merit scholarship were known to our paying friends as “bastard.” 🙂

    And yeah, even if one stays “in graphic design” it seems like a fairly short career ladder to largely supervisory/managerial roles, at any rate if one chooses to go that way. Admittedly quite a few fields seem like that–bleh!

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