Communicating by Design
Graphics courses offer students a nice slice of reality
By Myrna DeVries Anderson '00

DeVos Place ad
DeVos Place ad by Zac Boswell (click to enlarge image)

The image is of a little girl, screaming her head off. The text reads: “Your convention will not sound like this.” The ad, for DeVos Place, cleverly emphasizes the sound quality of Grand Rapids’ spanking-new convention center.

The ad is also a student project, one of ten concepts that Calvin senior Zac Boswell, of Japan, is creating for his Communication Design class. Each of Boswell’s fellow students — rapt at their plasma screens in the Mac lab of the library basement — is likewise responsible for ten persuasive reasons to choose DeVos Place over larger convention centers in more cosmopolitan places.

It’s a class in graphic design, a discipline that communicates through the interplay of text and image on the page and — increasingly — on the computer screen.

And the ad campaign is typical homework for Calvin graphic design students. “I usually try to take on a real client in this class,” said Calvin art professor Frank Speyers, who teaches all three levels of Communication Design — the entire graphic design curriculum at Calvin.

“The more actual clients I take on, the more students are able to bridge from academia into the context in which they graduate,” Speyers said. (Previous Speyers classes have designed campaigns for Goodwill Industries, Mel Trotter Mission, Baxter Community Center, Habitat for Humanity and Jubilee Jobs, Inc.)

The current class’s advertisements are clearly situated in a context beyond the classroom. An ad that juxtaposes a “boring” bowl of potato chips with a dancing couple spotlights the convention center’s spacious ballroom with the line: “That’s a lot of dancing!” Yet another shows overstuffed library shelves with the line: “We’re booked!” The messages emerge in both print ads and digital pop-up ads.

To achieve this level of design work, the students have first mastered the latest versions of three or more software programs: Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, QuarkXPress, Dreamweaver, Fireworks or Flash.

They have also acquainted themselves with their clients’ needs. “We’re trying to solve a problem on behalf of a client,” Speyers emphasized. And this problem-solving focus is what separates graphic design from its partners in the fine arts. “All design principles always manifest themselves in actual design problems,” he said.

Speyers’ class is itself a representative image of the current state of graphic design. Today’s aspiring designers, in addition to being good designers, must be good writers and proper computer geeks.

It wasn’t always this complicated — and certainly not at Calvin. As Speyers put it: “We used to do all of this by hand.”

In 1976, Calvin offered its first graphic design course, Graphic Reproduction, during Interim. “It was really a student need,” said former art professor Chris Overvoorde, who taught the class.

“The concern was preparing students to do graphic design as an occupation,” said former art professor Robin Jensen, who also taught the early graphic design classes.

The art department’s move toward design was not simply a concern for job training, he said: “It was a concern for good communication — particularly from a Christian perspective — that led us in the beginning.”

The early classes taught communication theory and advertising theory as well as rudimentary design. “We were just covering basics in terms of typography and image. Any ad consists of three points. You have a headline. You have an image. And you have copy. The relationship between each one of those becomes important in any ad,” Overvoorde said. “We were using markers and pencils and pen and ink and some rendering. Illustration — simple illustrations.”

And along came the computer. Jensen first became interested in computer design back in 1984. “I was taking [students] on field trips to local advertising agencies, and they would have art shops, and they were just getting into using the computer.”

It was a pricey option. “I investigated in ’84 into getting a basic computer for a class. And it was just too expensive at the time. It was around a quarter of a million dollars for just a basic PC,” Jensen reminisced. Two years later, Jensen was able to acquire the coveted machine — plus the necessary graphic arts software — for around $16,000. That computer, housed in Jensen’s office, formed the art department’s informal computer lab. (Jensen later added another machine.) Digital cameras and scanners — commonplace items for today’s designers — were not yet on the horizon.

In 1988, Speyers, armed with a degree from the Pratt Institute and a background on Madison Avenue, arrived at Calvin and pulled the graphic design program fully into the computer age. By 1991, computers (complete with bells and whistles) were entrenched on the Calvin campus, and the following year saw the college’s entrance onto the Web.

The new technologies caused seismic changes in the graphic design field. “The artificial demarcation of disciplines has largely evaporated,” Speyers said about the boundaries separating graphic designer from typesetter, production artist, photographer and printer. Today’s graphic designers, including those in Calvin’s computer labs, perform all of those roles with ever-cleverer clicks of the mouse.

And Calvin’s mouse handlers score big not only on techno-wizardry, but also on ideas.

Frank Blossom, a Grand Rapids expert in branding, recently visited Speyers’ class to critique the DeVos Place campaign and came away impressed with the sophistication of the students’ conceptual thinking, according to Speyers: “He said, ‘I guess that’s the benefit of a liberal arts education.’”

Speyers himself sees room for improvement on the technical side: “We need another three courses to round out the discipline … courses that specifically deal with illustration, typography and publishing design.” Currently, Calvin design students who want these courses have to take them downtown at Kendall College of Art and Design or at Ferris State University.

Acknowledging that Calvin’s design focus could be stronger, senior studio art major Sarah Lowrey, of Clinton Township, Mich., nevertheless maintained, “We learn how to communicate, not simply ‘Wow! That’s cool,’ but ‘That would resonate.’” Lowrey, who hopes to design logos and packaging, would consider doing advertising, but only for a non-profit corporation.

DeVos Place ad
DeVos Place ad by Sarah Wenger (click to enlarge image)

Her classmates hope to use their communication design expertise in a wide range of fields. Senior Andrew Hodgson, of Whitby, Ont., hopes to try his hand at computer animation. Jose Ruiz, a senior from Guatemala with a dual major in art and computer science, wants to design Web sites. And senior Sarah Wenger, of Grand Rapids, Mich., is interested in using her B.A. in studio art in a graphic design studio.

“At times it’s frustrating because it’s a lot of problem solving,” Wenger admitted, while she tweaked her DeVos Place ad. She found Communication Design to be a nice slice of reality, however. “It shows you what a career is like and how to deal with clients.”

Many who have taken the three Communication Design sections are still working in some area of the discipline that taught them to wear so many hats.

“There’s a lot of money to be made in this field,” said Speyers, but he hopes his students turn their multiplicity of communication skills in redemptive venues. “Be cognizant that you are a people of influence,” he tells them. “You are movers and shapers of a culture that is indeed watching, looking for purposes other than collecting Benjamins. Remember who called you, to whom you belong and to whom you will ultimately have to give account for what you did with your training, time and talents.”