Assistant Professor Heather Quinn is a graphic designer with over two decades of experience
Taking its name from the 17th century saint who dedicated himself to serving the poor, DePaul University is the nation’s largest Catholic university with a mission to nourish its students in mind, body and heart while creating lifelong, independent learners. Diversity is a hallmark of DePaul, and it emphasizes a global perspective amidst an urban setting. Undergrads from all 50 states and over 100 countries abroad have more than 130 degree programs to choose from including the BFA in Graphic Design which habitually ranks high.
With a plethora of industry and organizational partnerships as well an enviable roster of faculty and facilities, the program offers an interdisciplinary approach that encourages students to participate in internships and select a minor degree. Graduates of DePaul’s Graphic Design program can be found influencing the world of design and leveraging their broad skill sets in ways that do justice to the university’s core values.
To learn more about it, we caught up Assistant Professor of Design Heather Quinn. Having spent years working in industry and teaching elsewhere, Quinn’s research and work uses design fiction to challenge the status quo and reimagine the current design landscape. She brings her expertise and enthusiasm to the class at DePaul. We hope you enjoy this interview.
ACR: Heather let’s start at the top. What were the merits of DePaul’s Graphic Design BFA that attracted you to it as both a designer and educator?
Heather Quinn: The faculty come from a wide range of backgrounds and work across media with research addressing contemporary issues including—social justice, design and culture, and technology. I was particularly excited to work with people who want to make a difference in the world. Several of us work directly in industry, which keeps the program fresh and in-touch with what’s happening. In addition, the faculty are deeply committed to teaching, and we support a range of teaching methods.
The location within the College of Computing and Digital Media was also important to me because I work in tech, but my research also challenges tech and considers the future ethics of emerging technologies. The location downtown Chicago in the Loop—near industry, and culture is also pretty exciting.
ACR: As you mentioned, Graphic Design at DePaul is housed within the university’s College of Computing and Digital Media. Is there cross-pollination that occurs between graphic design students and other majors in the college?
HQ: DePaul is a large university which means there is a lot of opportunity for students to engage in diverse learning opportunities—both within curriculum (for example, within the curriculum many students have 2 minors in addition to their BFA in Graphic Design in Animation, User Experience Design, Creative Writing), as well as co-curricularly at DePaul and in the community. Our AIGA chapter regularly collaborates with other student chapters at SAIC, Columbia, Loyola, and UIC. Our students also have opportunities to attend conferences, events, exhibits, and workshops. Last year we co-led a talk and workshop with IIT as part of our School of Design talk series for Black History month with Dr. Lesley-Anne Noel, Ph.D.
In Graphic Design in particular, we have a lot of cross-pollination from School of Communication students (PR, Advertising) and also from User Experience Design. In the past few years, with the opening of our new Maker Spaces—Idea Realization lab 1 (Loop Campus) and 2 (Lincoln Park Campus), we have seen an incredible amount of collaboration across programs. The IRL is open and accessible to everyone and they offer workshops regularly. It has also become a really great community space. Everyone—faculty and students alike—love to work in the space.
ACR: On that note, today’s graphic design encompasses interactive, AI, environmental design and much more, doesn’t it?
HQ: Yes, the entire field of design is evolving rapidly, and there is so much to learn and understand. Graphic Design’s location within the College of Computing and Digital Media, as well as our student’s requirements in the humanities, really prepares them more than anything. Our goal is to teach them the fundamentals of design with an understanding of various technologies, but with the ability to create with whatever tool is at hand (even a marker on a napkin or white board). Ideas matter most. Broad strategy skills and fierce adaptability is most important because the tools and requirements are always changing.
Additionally, we want students to understand the world in which they live and the potential implications of the products and systems they are designing. We want them to have a voice on project teams, and not just be skinning products. This requires an understanding of history, philosophy, ethics, and also good writing skills. We also hope our students feel confident enough to question everything and to challenge the systems and structures that exist. The Vincentian mission at DePaul, commitment to service, and social justice means that we frequently see students activating their voices and taking jobs with an opportunity to make change.
ACR: What trends or themes are heavily impacting graphic design today, and how do these manifest in the work, projects, and interests of your students?
HQ: Anti-racism and approaches to decolonize design educators is impacting graphic design more than anything else. As educators, we are working to unlearn how we were taught, and to constantly question everything—systems, structures, the whiteness of the screen, to listen and make space. Our DePaul Impact Grants (student driven projects) are being featured publicly next week and they are framed around themes of social justice. DePaul’s students are highly driven to improve and care for society and the earth. They are passionate about service towards community, therefore, when I teach Capstone for example, themes of race, culture, sustainability, climate change, ethics, and activism are present.
ACR: How has the field of graphic design evolved in the years since you began your career, Heather? And what issues do you find most engaging in your practice?
HQ: I went to art school and then started working as a designer in industry in the 1990’s before moving into tech. The design projects at that time were huge as we were starting essentially from scratch. I worked on 100+ person teams on Website/Intranet/Product V1 for Fortune 100 companies. We would work on ideas for years before they became a reality. In retrospect, they were prototypes- forms of design fiction. My research now focuses around design fiction and design futures—specifically looking at the ethical impacts of emerging technology. How can we use design to imagine dystopian, utopian narratives of products and systems before they become reality.
For many years, designers have helped make technological “solutions” real by creating “trusted” brands and interfaces that made technology feel safe and accessible to the everyday user—for better and for worse. My hope is that with greater integration of design futures-thinking and design ethics, designers will use their narrative skills to question power structures or demonstrate how a technical “solution” is actually a societal problem or ethical dilemma.
Currently, several of my projects involve augmented reality and the law. Project mariah on the AppStore is a site-specific augmented reality application that narrates stories of historical injustice through the backdrop of significant cultural institutions and the funding that has allowed them to exist. Mariah explores AR’s potential for creating multi-layered narratives, as well as its ethical implications by virtually hacking into the MET Museum by replacing Sackler donated art and signage with names and audio from victims of the opioid epidemic via augmented reality. The point of the project is twofold—activism about the epidemic, art and its corrupt funding sources, and also to raise awareness for the future implications of AR in public and private spaces/property rights—who owns our virtual space when the AR cloud becomes a reality?
ACR: Tell us more about the Idea Realization Lab and the other facilities and equipment that your students have access to at DePaul.
HQ: While we have all the usual GD-centric equipment—computers, scanners, etc. it is the IRL (Idea Realization Lab/Maker Space) that really gives students the ability to create. Additionally, because this space is not GD specialized, our students are making things that are outside of the normal, expected silos. They will work on physical computing projects, digitally fabricate typography, and even wearables. Last year one of our students made a robot that screamed when you came too close to it. Her project was centered on themes of AI, gesture, etc. Ironically, this was before covid, so it is even more interesting in retrospect.
ACR: The Graphic Design program leverages many commercial and organizational partnerships. Talk about some of these partnerships that help students gain real world experience at DePaul.
HQ: Our partnerships with community and industry are so broad it is difficult to encapsulate here. These partnerships exist at every level—faculty research, grants with community, experiential learning/classes, internships, student group events and college-wide events, faculty design labs, and so on. Our faculty also has partnerships across non-profit/community, government, and industry which gives students connections to a lot of different and diverse opportunities. I have taught a class called Client and Community a few times. In it, we partner with a local organization or business and the students spend the quarter working on an initiative. In 2018 we worked with Youth Jobs on a variety of design projects, and in 2019 we worked with Emergo UL on a speculative healthcare project.
ACR: The city of Chicago plays a major role in your students’ education at DePaul. How does the Graphic Design program contribute to Chicago’s design landscape?
HQ: Our program is located in our downtown loop campus which means it is literally immersed in the center of industry and culture in Chicago. Our classes integrate projects at many of the art museums - students roam the neighborhoods collecting what remains of vernacular typography or experimenting with Google Maps.
Our program contributes to the Chicago design landscape in a variety of ways—the obvious one being the presence of our students out sketching or documenting with cameras. Recently they engaged with a visiting designer on a series of large scale activist projections outdoors. In February, several students also exhibited with me at the Typeforce 11 exhibit at Co-Prosperity Sphere. The exhibit titled “Worldbuilding—The Fictional Nations of Föhn, Delta and Afterlife”—showcased expanded projects from a design fiction class project. I also co-designed (with GD faculty member Laura Rossi García) a limited edition poster for the event which featured all 23 student projects.
ACR: Lastly, you said at the very top that DePaul’s faculty was a major pull for you as an educator. How do you work together to create the best learning outcomes for students?
HQ: We all have similar goals for our students—adaptive thinkers, socially and community aware, future-oriented, ethical thinkers. Our faculty takes a holistic approach to teaching and pedagogy—meaning we care about the whole student, not just their academics, and so there is a lot of support among faculty for different teaching approaches. So while classes have specific learning outcomes, we are open to each other’s methods of reaching them.
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.