What makes graphic design professor James Grady excited to teach at BU? | by James Grady | February 2022

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Repost from and interview with Marc Krone Associate Director of Graduate Affairs, Boston University (Spring 2022)

“We determine what excites a student most and help bring it to life.”

Grady: The simplest way to answer this question is the synthesis of form and content. It’s an art form. It’s making marks. A visual experience. It can also be other things, like a haptic experience, a sensory experience. But generally, it’s a visual experience that intends to communicate something to an audience, whether it’s crystal clear or abstract. There is a blurry line between graphic design and fine art. Although useful for a wide audience, these terms – fine art and graphic art – are quite antiquated at this point. Graphic design has been appropriate in corporate communication, logos, identities and branding. It’s all part of what graphic design is. But it can also be an immersive experience. It can be a solution to the problem of communicating a certain thing to a certain audience. There are many contexts of use. For example, some audiences respond to the use of an Apple watch, phone, interactive installation, sculpture, poster, painting, or book. Whatever the context of use, its purpose is to communicate. The beauty of graphic design is that it is still being defined. It’s not tied to any particular medium. It doesn’t have to be a poster or even typography, although those are some of the tools we use.

“The beauty of graphic design is that it’s still being defined. It’s not tied to any particular medium. It doesn’t have to be a poster or even typography, although those are some of the tools we use.

Grade: We offer prolific form creation, with many divergent ideas, prototypes, sketches, concepts. We don’t have a “one size fits all” perspective. Our faculty does not have a singular point of view. We try to meet students where they are, especially graduate students. We want them to bring their experience, but also leave some of it. They should unlearn some of what they thought was graphic design. We want them to be incredibly divergent with their ideas, especially in the beginning. Once they have found their curiosity, they can associate it with a visual form. They can bring them together, make them converge. The question is always: how do they want to frame their point of view through the prism of graphic design and all the different mediums it can use? So the idea is to go very far and then converge on a thesis that can be subject-oriented or process-oriented. We help them define their own process and can direct them to different topics.

Grade: There are many different projects you can do that span the gamut of different visual styles and mediums. You identify your process, be it posters, digital media, installations, etc. Some students define a process around a subject which can be politics, environmental policy, human rights, etc. problem using graphic design?

The certificate program has a similar philosophy. We want to attract promising students to the program and introduce them as much as possible. We want to give them a historical context of where graphic design has been, where it is going and where it should be going. We really want to send certificate and MFA students out into the world to make a difference in society through the prism of graphic design. The programs are designed to help long-term students, not just to build a portfolio style to get a job. There are certainly practical applications of graphic design and people need to earn money. It is important. We give them those tools. But we want them to have a long-term philosophy and process that they can adapt to the current climate and also five, ten, twenty years from now. It’s not just about learning Illustrator and creating logos. It’s fun and I love doing it, but that doesn’t define graphic design.

“The programs are designed to help long-term students, not just to create a portfolio style to find a job.”

Grade: Yes, I would define it that way. The process is the only way to adapt. If you have a narrow view of a current trend or style, it won’t help you in the long run. Life is a long journey and you need to be prepared for these pivots. Whether your project lasts four weeks or 10 years, you need to be prepared. Our goal is to provide these tools.

Grade: In the past, we were looking for two to five years of post-college experience in the industry, either in-house or in a studio where the student tried different things. By having this experience, you can see what you are missing about your process. You’ve seen other ways of doing things, and now you know a little more about how you want to define your process. Recently, we have many more MFA candidates straight out of college due to the pandemic. For these students, we need to hear from them that they have a clear reason for coming to graduate school.

“We give them concrete projects. We do this as part of a fine arts college that encourages them to be more divergent in how they think about graphic design as an independent field.

Grade: Many of our certificate candidates majored in another area of ​​their undergraduate program, but always wanted to “do graphic design.” Most of them have work experience in business, marketing or even biology. They are looking for a career change and want to immerse themselves in graphic design. We try to introduce them to the culture of graphic design. We talk about what studios look like and how they work. We give them concrete projects. We do this as part of a fine arts college that encourages them to be more divergent in how they think about graphic design as an independent field.

Grade: Absoutely. I certainly am. Some of us work for clients. Others are editors or curators. Some of us work in more esoteric places and others work in customer-focused roles that help sell products or ideas. There is a practical side to graphic design that no matter what we do, we communicate to a large audience.

Grade: I’ve worked in the Boston area since the late 1990s and have seen huge growth here in the tech industry using graphic design. There are more opportunities in Boston to chart your own course. There are places here that will respect you and your individual vision. You don’t need to stand in line here and work in a big company with a certain point of view. You can be a visionary, not just a worker. In my experience, you can associate with people and do new things. Many international companies have their headquarters there. I have a resources page on my website that lists all of the companies and studios in Boston that have hired BU grads or are friends of mine. If you want to go to New York, great. There are tons of opportunities here and in New York. I guess I’m a homer. I’m from Rhode Island. There is room to breathe here.

“I just took people to the studios last week and they were blown away.”

Grade: I took a few people to the studios last week and they were blown away. The facilities were a big draw for me to come to BU to teach. When I first saw graduate studios, I could imagine myself here. I think that is also true for our students. They can really imagine themselves here. This isn’t a dark basement studio where you just sort things out. Here, you enjoy the space in which you work. I think that’s extremely important. This is (the workspace) is also the graphic design.

“In academia, we’re told you can’t cross borders, but I was able to do that easily here. There are so many opportunities for collaboration between design and technology here.

Grade: I came here with an interdisciplinary career. I like the university because its graphic design department is part of a school of visual arts, itself within the college of fine arts that sits alongside all of these other amazing colleges. In academia we are told that you can’t cross borders, but I was able to do that easily here. There are so many opportunities for collaboration between design and technology here. I work with BU Spark! (BU technology incubator and experimental learning lab) where I co-teach design scholarship. BU Sparkle! is less about bringing a product to market and more about bringing together designers and developers who share their curiosity about how to solve a certain problem. I also have a partnership with the BU School of Theater where we are working on an immersive experience for a theater production where we use projection and motion tracking as a set. This project involves graphic designers, computer scientists and theater students, all working together seamlessly. It’s hard work but really fun. It’s about finding the right people to work together, regardless of department or university. I’m very pragmatic but I also have a wide range of interests and BU gives me that range to explore them and I want students to have that too. I ask students, “Is there anything on the medical campus that interests you?” Or, do you want to work in film at COM (BU College of Communication)? All of these things are possible at BU. We figure out what excites a student the most and help make it happen.

Learn more about James Grady’s teaching and student work here: profgrady.com

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