Bobby Campbell is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of North Caroline Charlotte and produces, exhibits, and writes about design.
A cultural and economic hub in the southeast, the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNC Charlotte) is a large research university which seeks to foster innovation for the metro Carolina community. Among its many undergraduate degree programs is its BFA in Graphic Design, which exemplifies the university’s commitment to preparing students with a pioneering attitude in their respective fields.
As a rigorous professional degree, graduates of the BFA program are ready to hit the ground running in the field. Their many successes are testament to their time at UNC Charlotte, and students and alumni alike are no strangers to receiving industry awards. Until recently, graphic design students at UNC Charlotte studied within the BFA in Art program. Thanks to the dedication of many faculty, staff and students, the university now boasts a standalone BFA in Graphic Design which transitioned at the start of 2021 and allows students to dive deeper into the field of study. We caught up with Associate Professor of Graphic Design, Bobby Campbell, for our latest Q&A to ask about this new transition and the program in general. We hope you enjoy.
ACR: Bobby, as a BFA program, tell us about the advantages of UNC Charlotte’s Graphic Design degree and how it prepares students for their professional lives.
Bobby Cambell: Our current concentration is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art & Design and offers 80 hours of coursework that prepares students for a range of potential creative careers. It is important to us as faculty that students experience a range of media, like photography, illustration, 3D printing and more; a range of technologies, like software, digital drawing tablets, video cameras, and more; and a range of strategies, like information design, project planning, brand strategy, and more.
Graduates of our program go on to professional design careers in Charlotte, as well as places like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and San Francisco. We pride ourselves on a challenging program that prepares students to pursue their dream. At the same time, we are a small-ish program in a really large university: there are about 100 graphic design students at a university of 30,000 students. So we also provide a warm, family atmosphere where students forge bonds that stay with them throughout our careers. Many of our graduates actually work with each other and definitely still keep in touch from their school days.
ACR: Until recently, students of Graphic Design were a part of the university’s BFA in Art. Beginning at the start of this year (2021), the degree transitioned to its own BFA in Graphic Design. How does this impact the curriculum?
BC: We officially launched the BFA in Graphic Design in January 2021. We have actually already launched the new courses for the program, which gives us a chance to expand our offerings in user experience and user interface (UX/UI) design, in particular. In a specialized course, as well as throughout the curriculum, students now have the chance to do more in-depth study in this emerging field of graphic design that promises to be quite in-demand as a skill set. We are also launching a new course called “Design Research” so that students will be better prepared for the strategic and process-oriented role designers frequently play in the modern economy, from developing agile brands to closely analyzing user input in digital communications channels to visualizing trends in an increasingly data-driven world.
ACR: Given the breadth of today’s graphic design world and the technologies that designers employ, what skills and interests should graphic designers possess? And how does UNC Charlotte’s program foster these attributes in its students?
BC: It’s important to us that our students be ready to begin their professional careers as soon as they graduate. We put an emphasis on immersing students in cutting edge technology, which we’ll talk about more in the next question. That being said, the crucial skills and attitudes for a graphic designer have endured in the face of these technological changes: an ability to apply strategy to your work, a detailed concern for how things look, and a willingness to look at things from someone else’s perspective. In some ways, the rise of subfields like UX/UI have increased the need for those skills, as the “U” stands for “user” (willingness to see from another’s perspective), the “X” stands for “experience” (an ability to apply strategy), and the “I” stands for “interface” (a detailed concern for how things look).
ACR: Designers employ many tools for a variety of industries and applications. Tell us about some of the projects or courses within the curriculum that require students to get comfortable with these technologies.
BC: We launched a new Graphic Design program course titled ‘UX/UI Design Strategies’ where students will develop a prototype app using Adobe XD, learn some core coding skills via HTML and CSS, and explore motion graphics in Adobe Animate and Adobe After Effects. Students also take ‘Interactive Art and Design’ as part of a partnership with our Digital Media program in the Department of Art & Art History. That class involves in-depth study of website development in Adobe Dreamweaver.
Multiple courses across the curriculum engage students in motion graphics, social media design, and other screen-based design projects, such as Typography II, Graphic Design Projects, Design Research, and Communications Design, which is our branding and advertising course. Because we are in a Department with extensive studio art facilities, we also offer Digital Fabrication as an elective. Many Graphic Design students over the past few years have taken that elective to explore laser cutting and 3D printing of materials, among other rapid prototyping technologies. There are also separate electives in Animation, Video, Illustration, and Photography that allow students to explore a wide range of technologies that can apply to UX/UI development.
ACR: What labs and facilities do students have access to on-campus?
BC: Currently the graphic design program has two computer labs that offer secure 24-hour access. These labs are equipped with brand new iMacs, as well as color laser printers. The iMacs all have the full Adobe Creative Cloud suite of software, as well as additional specialized software for video and 3D modelling. Graphic design students also have access to a digital fabrication lab, which offers 3D printing and laser cutting.
There are also photography and illustration studios which include traditional darkroom facilities and large format printing. Further, depending on the electives a student chooses, there is access to painting, ceramic, sculpture, fibers, and print media facilities. Because we are part of a larger unit within the university that includes architecture, dance, music and theatre, students can also get access to some really specialized technology, such as CNC routers, water cutters and even a robot arm that can cut large complex forms.
ACR: Does the program leverage industry partners, Bobby?
BC: It does! Our students have completed internships with in-house corporate design groups, advertising agencies and boutique design studios including NASCAR, Saturday Brand Communications, LGA Advertising, Little Red Bird Marketing, Moonlight Creative, and many more. Students from UNC Charlotte’s graphic design program have twice been selected for the competitive ‘Form’ Summer internship at Wray Ward Advertising Agency, which garners applicants from students across the country.
We also have an active student chapter of AIGA, the national professional association for graphic design. Through AIGA, students can meet with professional designers in Charlotte and participate in events like Beer & Branding, an annual competition and social event put on by the Charlotte professional AIGA chapter. We participate in the American Advertising Awards, or ADDYs, hosted by our local American Advertising Federation chapter. Because we have a significant community of alumni working in design fields in Charlotte, we can often bring alumni to class from the aforementioned companies or help students find alumni mentors in organizations like AIGA or AAF. In Fall 2020, we began a partnership with CompanyBox, a Charlotte firm with national clients that prints on-demand packaging. Students in advanced graphic design courses will be able to have packaging projects printed with CompanyBox. Further, we will look to do internships with CompanyBox in the near future.
ACR: Speaking of the ADDYs, recent graduate Jacob Guess earned a Gold ADDY Award. Congratulations to him! Tell readers about the ADDYs, as well as why competitions can be important benchmarks for the program overall.
BC: The ADDYs are the annual awards competition of the American Advertising Federation, or AAF. The AAF describes the ADDYs as the advertising industry’s largest and most representative competition. Jacob Guess won at the National level, which means his work was selected from among over 30,000 entries nationally between the student and professional competitions. Because there are 130 local ADDY competitions feeding up to the National level, students are entering from graphic design programs across the country. So, the competition does provide a benchmark that students from our program are able to compete with students from across the country. We encourage students to enter the ADDYs as well as AIGA competitions, such as Flux, another national student design competition.
ACR: That is terrific. As a graphic designer yourself, Bobby, what emerging trends and technologies excite you the most and why?
BC: Personally, the most exciting thing happening in graphic design right now is the recognition that there are lots of different people who can be designers and there are many different people who make up our audiences. We’re proud that our program can serve a diverse student body (as do many other graphic design programs). But it’s nice to see that design competitions and publications are increasingly recognizing the work of underrepresented and under-recognized designers from diverse backgrounds.
As for technology, I am most excited at how the cost of drawing directly on a screen continues to come down. Compared to even five years ago, it is much less costly now to buy an iPad or Surface Pro or Yoga or a Wacom and just draw right on the screen. Similarly, although I am less experienced with these technologies, the accessibility of video and still cameras have increased with their incorporation into smartphones. When I came out of school in 1998 “desktop publishing” was the new thing: “you can do design with a personal computer! Wow!” Now you can make movies with a laptop and a smartphone! You can animate on a tablet! The future, except for the jetpacks, is here!
ACR: Last but not least, if you’re speaking to a prospective student who’s interested in pursuing graphic design, what recommendations do you give them in terms of developing their skills?
BC: I think it’s really helpful to develop your basic image-making skills, in drawing, photography, or other media related to design. Although graphic design has a considerable software component, the basic principles of making a good image, through aspects like composition and color, are the same whether you are painting or making a collage in Photoshop. Also, I think a student interested in graphic design could practice coming up with several different ideas for the same project to get a feel for what we call the “ideation” process.
ACR: Thanks for your time and insight today, Bobby. It’s been a pleasure!
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