Just outside of the vibrantly revived city of Cleveland, Ohio, sits a small college where aspiring designers and visual artists find a career-oriented education fit for the changing needs of artists and industry. VMCAD (aka the new Virginia Marti College of Art & Design) intersects design with business, offering a unique pedagogical approach that gets graduates industry-ready with realworld experience. Among their offerings is a BFA in Graphic Design that boasts successful and passionate working faculty along with enviably low student-to-instructor ratios often less than 12:1.
Todd Saperstein has served as Department Chair for the Graphic Design program since 2002. In that time, he has overseen a fullscale reimagining of its curriculum, pivoting away from software-centric courses in favor of interdisciplinary, holistic, and creatively-inspired classes and realworld internships. We recently caught up with Saperstein to talk about the shortfalls of many modern-day graphic design programs and how VMCAD aims to be the proving grounds for 21st century design education. Enjoy!
ACR: Todd, let’s start with you. When did you become interested in pursuing graphic design?
Todd Saperstein: My bachelor’s degree is in Illustration; I thought that I was going to be a Marvel Comics illustrator or a Disney animator but when that didn’t happen I began to wonder what to do. I got a freelance job with American Greetings illustrating greeting cards and a subsidiary (of AG) illustrating action figure and toy concepts, but my fulltime job was at a sign company where I designed and produced signs on the computer. I was really falling in love with things like typography and page layout and using a computer, which we didn’t have in my college illustration program. I started doing logo designs on a freelance basis and I was hooked.
ACR: What made you decide to pivot into teaching?
TS: When I get really good at something quickly, it can become boring unless I elevate it to be challenging again. I was beginning to get bored of designing things and I had a friend whose family owned a college and kept asking me if I wanted to teach. Mind you, I had never taught before and growing up I was a teacher’s worst nightmare. I kept turning down the offer until one day I thought to myself, “I have an opportunity to teach kids what I never learned, and to be an exciting, creative, and empathetic teacher.” I could design people instead of things, which was a huge challenge… but that’s what I like. The next offer my friend made me was for the Department Chair position and I said yes!
ACR: And thus you found yourself at VMCAD. When you joined on as Department Chair of Graphic Design back in 2002, what were your initial challenges and goals?
TS: Prior to my arrival at VMCAD, the school was widely known and respected for its career-focused education in the fields of Fashion Design and Fashion Merchandising. I really liked the career–focused aspect as opposed to the art for art’s sake approach that I had experienced and found to be very unrealistic and lacking in realworld preparation that students so desperately need. VMCAD’s Graphic Design program was not as well revered at that point, and had a lot of room for improvement. It was somewhat of a blank canvas that triggered my autonomy, mastery, and purpose button- it allowed me to serve a part in something bigger than myself. I was given the opportunity to turn a molehill into a mountain and I was energized by the possibilities.
ACR: Tell us a little about the culture like on campus and in your department?
TS: VMCAD has a small, family-like environment; it’s friendly, focused, and supportive. It was the kind of place where you could fail and still belong. I have always felt that failure is a big part of success so this felt right to me. Even though it’s a family-operated career school and not necessarily thought of as a threat to the larger higher education institutions, we have some well-known graduates and the respect of local companies who hire our grads on a regular basis. To me, VMCAD is a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered and it’s exciting to be a part of that expedition.
ACR: What are the best aspects of Chairing VMCAD’s Graphic Design program?
TS: The best part of being the Graphic Design Program Chair at VMCAD are the amazingly talented people I get the opportunity to work with every day. My staff has held some of the highest creative roles in some of the largest and most respected companies. My design instructors have held VP, Creative Director, and Art Director positions at American Greetings, Sherwin Williams, Ernst & Young, Progressive, Nasa, Sapient Razorfish, just to name a few. My video production instructors have worked on blockbuster films like Spiderman, Captain America, The Avengers, Planet of the Apes and more. One of my sound design instructors was on Michael Jackson’s thriller album and was the lead sound engineer for The Simpsons.
Designing curriculum with the likes of my team was an incredible experience to say the least. Partnering with industry is what I believe to be the key to our success. My very experienced instructors and advisory board are the source of our career–focused education. It is my job to find out what is happening in the industry and work it backwords into our curriculum. You wouldn’t build a website without asking potential users what they want and how they want it- that’s what we call UX/UI Design. So, why would we design a curriculum without asking industry what they want and how they want it?
Recently, our Dean of Academic Affairs unveiled our new revolutionary pedagogical approach. It combines 21st century business innovations and digital/AI advancements with the latest neuroscience research that shows the interconnectedness- rather than departmentalized- brain regions to create a holistic pedagogical approach at VMCAD.
ACR: Let’s talk about that. Your curriculum represents a multidimensional, or interdisciplinary, approach. Why does this give your students a leg up in the Graphic Design industry?
TS: We call our difference “Convergence” at VMCAD and we intend to prove through our new pedagogy that the ‘right brain’ ‘left brain’ idea that education has sold us for 100 years is wrong. We are whole people and we use our whole brain. Yes, some of us are more creative and some more linear, but each still needs and uses the other. If you really want to know what makes VMCAD different, check out our basic and general courses like Idea Generation: Theory and Practice, The History of Revolutionary Ideas, Verbal Communication of Visual Concepts, and The Neuroscience of Creativity.
Our students don’t have to wait two years before taking classes relating to their majors. In their very first quarter, they work with, think about, and learn to speak confidently about design. We develop whole people and teach then to use their whole brain in everything they do. The uniqueness of the program is that I have embedded Print, Web, Mobile, Video Production, and Motion Graphics all into one.
ACR: When it comes to Graphic Design, some programs really emphasize software knowledge. How do you balance the practical skillsets of today’s designers with the fundmentals of the craft?
TS: The biggest switch in our program is that we took the focus off software proficiency and put it back on design. A Creative Director from American Greetings once said to me, “You can be a master at Photoshop but if you don’t understand great design, everything you create will just be glorified bullshit.” That comment stuck with me. Now, mastery of industry standard software is important but master of the software is secondary to master of the design.
Our old curriculum had courses like Photoshop 1 & 2, Illustrator 1 & 2, InDesign 1 & 2, etc. Because of this focus on software, our projects were based more on the tools and limited the potential creative ideas of the students. In our new curriculum, we have flipped that upside down. We focus instead on idea generation, inspiring and motivating the students to push boundaries and jump curves. When a student comes up with an amazingly creative idea, they are naturally more inspired and energized to learn the tools necessary to make it a reality. It’s so simple right but amazingly no one else is doing it.
ACR: There’s certainly much overlap between graphic designers and digital media artists. Where do they converge, and what do you envision in the near future?
TS: Technology is the reason for the creation of digital media from graphic design, the separation of digital media from graphic design, and the coming back together of the two. In the future, I see Graphic Design being a skillset that is expected of everyone just like reading, writing, and arithmetic. I’m not saying that everyone will be an award–winning designer, but everyone will be expected to manage their own brands. This is the reason we are re–envisioning what graphic design is and what its place in the future is.
ACR: Do your students gain working knowledge outside the classroom, as well?
TS: The one thing we can’t fabricate in an educational environment (no matter how hard we try) is realworld experience. I use my industry connections to create realworld opportunities for my students and I will either build those into a course or add it to one if necessary to make it happen. We have multiple key courses, Capstone being the final, where students are asked to bridge the gap. We work to create internships, externships, freelance opportunities, co–ops, etc. anywhere and everywhere we can to enhance our students potential for success.
ACR: On that front, do all students participate in internships?
TS: Yes, internships are mandatory and we have two built into our program. The expectation of the first internship is for the student to be around their field of study but not necessarily practicing their craft… it’s akin to a shadowing experience. The expectation of the second internship asks that the student practice and apply learned skills in their field of study. Disney, for instance, won’t let you intern for them in connection with your career choice until you have worked as a sales clerk in one of their stores. We model our internships after that idea, whereas the first experience should be as an observer of the business, the culture, and what actually happens on a daily basis and the second allows you to add your personal value.
ACR: Last but not least Todd, VMCAD’s Cleveland, Ohio, home has become a hotbed for graphic design. Tell us about the local art and design scene, as well as the opportunities that Cleveland holds.
TS: You are correct about Cleveland being a Graphic Design hotbed. It doesn’t hurt that we have Lebron James, chef Michael Simon, and the Rock & Roll Hall Fame, either. People are always surprised when they hear about great actors like Tom Hanks or musicians like Joe Walsh and Nine Inch Nails, or designers like Michael Bierut that hail from Cleveland. As far as Cleveland’s design and art scene, we have the world–renowned Cleveland Museum of Art and MOCA, the Weapons of Mass Creation Fest (Cleveland’s SXSW), and a plethora of nationally and internationally recognized design and media agencies like Sapient Razorfish and American Greetings. I have graduates in high places in many of them.
Over the last decade or so, our talent isn’t leaving because you can live anywhere and make it big thanks to technology. We even see people leaving New York, LA, Chicago, and Miami to come to Cleveland. If my love for Cleveland isn’t enough, we were just named to National Geographic Traveler's 2018 'Best of the World' list!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.