Department of Art and Art History upgrades visual communications program

New graphic design faculty (left to right):  Stacy Asher, Aaron Sutherlen and Colleen Syron.
New graphic design faculty (left to right): Stacy Asher, Aaron Sutherlen and Colleen Syron.

With the field of visual communication growing, the Department of Art and Art History is updating its graphic design program with the hiring of three new faculty members and a review of curriculum this Fall.

“There is a big student demand for this. The goal isn’t just to bring the program up to date, which we want to do, but we are also expanding because the field is expanding,” said Department of Art and Art History Chair Peter Pinnell. “Graphic design entails a lot more now than just designing the outside of milk cartons and magazine ads. It’s now about smart phone applications. It’s game design. It’s web design. The possibilities are almost limitless.”

Consider the USA Today newspaper, he said, which started more than 30 years ago in 1982 and was known for including a lot more images, graphs and charts with the text.

“Still it was a text-first environment,” Pinnell said. “Now 30 years later, that has flipped. People are communicating much more with images and graphics and less with text. Text has taken on a supporting role, for good or for bad. We now have a freshman class coming in who has grown up with that—a world that is image first and text second. So not surprisingly, a lot of them want to learn how to create and manipulate images and graphics.”

But it’s also more than just text and images.

“I’m used to reading information on a piece of paper that stands still. We now have a generation that gets their information from sources that are moving and talking and have sound,” Pinnell said. “What we do in the field of visual communications has to include visuals, and not just text. It also has to include movement and sound and accommodate a whole range of screen sizes, from portable devices to desktop computers and home television screens. Our program will now work with all of those things.”

Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts Endowed Dean Charles O’Connor said visual communication is an important priority for the College.

“The visual medium was one of the earliest ways in which people communicated with each other, and visual communication is an even more powerful force in our culture today,” O’Connor said. “Therefore, art and art history students have enormous value and credibility in the changing ways we inform, persuade and perceive each other. Companies of the new information economy, big and small, know this, and they are hiring.”

O’Connor said today’s visual communication designers help us navigate information.

‘Traditionally graphic design had a marketing and advertising connotation and was mostly confined to print media,” he said. “Now the field is called visual communication and design, and students must learn how to visualize data and concepts, create websites and social media platforms and develop computer user interfaces and applications for smart phones and tablets—and soon Google glasses. They are specialists in finding the best way to inform us.”

Planning for the update of the visual communication program began two years ago when the Department of Art and Art History created a digital production center and last year hired a digital instructional specialist, Lexi Bass. The department also upgraded the computers in the graphic design computer labs with the latest technology.

“We now have a department-wide facility for software instruction, access to equipment and large-scale printing,” Pinnell said.

This Fall, the visual communication program will have three new faculty members: Stacy Asher, Colleen Syron and Aaron Sutherlen.

“When these professors talk to our students about the communications world, they will be speaking from real-world experience,” Pinnell said. “Our new faculty members are amazing, with more than 50 years of top-level professional experience between the three of them. This, together with our new facilities and new curriculum, is going to make us one of the top visual communication departments in the region.”

Asher is dedicated to the study of visual culture and the creation of social art, which engages the public in reflecting how people exist in public space. She has previously taught at the University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, Ohio University, the University of Dayton and Metropolitan State College of Denver. She earned her M.F.A. in design from the California College of the Arts, and has collaborated on the design of several, large, outdoor signage campaigns for HIV prevention, as well as the promotion of the cultural arts in San Francisco.

Syron has worked as a creative director in New York City and has designed for organizations like The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, IBM, Merrill Lynch, GE, Pfizer, Merck Pharmaceuticals, Nextel and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She has designed everything from boutique wine bottles to the rebranding of international corporations. Her experience includes work at print design firms, PR agencies, interactive design agencies, advertising agencies and strategic branding companies. She received her master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts and has taught there and at Parsons School of Design.

Sutherlen began his career creating printed collateral for restaurants and hotels for the Walt Disney World Resort, before transitioning into merchandise and package design for the various Disney properties, including the Disney Cruise Line. This experience strengthened his understanding of retail and merchandise graphic design. He then spent 10 years of doing art direction and conceptual design for the Abercrombie and Fitch, Co. He earned his M.F.A. from Savannah College of Art and Design.

In late July, the three new faculty members began meeting with Pinnell to begin designing a new curriculum.

“We’re going to start with a clean slate to design an ideal 21st century visual communications program—all new curriculum and all new structure,” Pinnell said.

He is not going into that planning with any preconceived notions of what it will look like, but he has goals for what students should get out of the new curriculum.

“Our goals will be to have students leave here with the ability to work in any aspect of visual communications and design,” Pinnell said. “I’m sure they will go off in directions that we don’t even envision.”

He noted the example of recent graduate Trent Claus (B.F.A. 2006), who is doing special effects work in Hollywood after receiving his degree in art with an emphasis in graphic design.

“He moved right to the top of that profession and is working on blockbuster films,” Pinnell said. “Trent is a great example of a student who created his own path. He took the knowledge he gained here and applied it in an entirely new way.”

Pinnell said students sometimes mistakenly think that studying graphic design is all about learning software.

“Back in the 1970s, I took some classes in what was called commercial art, the precursor to graphic design,” he said. “We used press type, pens, rulers and a T-square. The high tech tool I used was an airbrush. Had I gone on in commercial art, nothing that I learned as a tool would be applicable today. Tools always change. The purpose of the program will be for people to understand visual communications. The curriculum will be set up so our students can operate in the world they live in now and can continue to operate in the world that will exist 40 years from now.”

O’Connor sees great potential for the new visual communication program collaborating with the College’s Digital Arts Initiative (DAI) and other technology-related areas.

“The College is moving forward on several fronts in the area of digital media, of which visual communication and design is just one part,” he said. “With animation and interactive game design emerging in both the art and the film programs on campus we see visual design training as a central feature in the rapidly converging, and quite frankly inspiring, world of digital-based arts practice.”

The Digital Arts Initiative is an interdisciplinary program designed to teach digital and computational skills to students throughout the College and includes three faculty members, one in each department: Damon Lee in the School of Music, Steve Kolbe in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and an open position in the Department of Art and Art History that will be filled in the coming school year.

Pinnell sees natural collaborations happening between the three DAI faculty and his new faculty in visual communication.

“I think there are great opportunities for collaboration with our DAI faculty,” he said. “There are natural areas of overlap between our program, the DAI and the programs in Film and Music. I know we have students interested in studying sound with Damon Lee and video with Steve Kolbe, and I’m sure some of their students will be eager to take classes from our new faculty.”

Pinnell is eager to get the word out about the revised program.

“We want to grow, and we want motivated, industrious, creative students,” he said. “I have already heard from students who are excited about what we have coming in here.”

O’Connor said his message to prospective students is this program will give them the skills that employers want.

“If you are a creative person, and you want to make a difference in this world, come to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln,” he said. “If you are willing to work hard to develop your creative thinking and art and art history education, if you are willing to undergo rigorous training in computer programming, design and business entrepreneurship, then you will be venturing out into the world with an awesome set of competencies.”