Auburn Graphic Design: Tradition Meets Technology

Patrons at the 2021 Graphic Design Juried Show Show interactive with digital design work using smart phones.

Although she came to Auburn to study exercise science, freshman Erika Donley recently changed her major to Graphic Design (GDES) when she realized the program could provide her the opportunity to turn her artistic talents into a career. “I love the way the major here at Auburn is a very high-level program with small studio classes and access to quality instruction and tools,” she says.

But before Donley changed her major, she had to consider the question of what exactly graphic design is. At its most basic, graphic design is the use of visual communication to convey information to an audience. Graphic designers aim to inform, persuade and communicate. “Design is really about meeting other people’s needs,” explained Professor Wei Wang, Graphic Design Program Chair. “The goal for us is to prepare our students to be not only creative problem solvers but also empathetic designers who care about the wellbeing of other people as well as the world around them.” Graphic Design graduates can be employed by companies in a wide range of industries or they could work on a variety of projects at a design firm. They can work strictly as designers or they could lead a team of collaborative designers. A graphic designer’s responsibilities could include creating traditional print media (such as illustrations, packaging design and publication design) or emerging digital media (like motion graphics and interactive design). They may also work with brand identity and experiential design.

At Auburn, students enroll as Pre-Graphic Design majors and take foundational courses like Drawing, Design I and Art History as well as other university core classes. After the first year of classes, students are evaluated for admission to the second year of study based on their first-year coursework. After one semester of second year studio, they submit a portfolio of work for review by a faculty committee for admission to the graphic design program. GDES majors continue the next two and half years with a mix of studio courses and specialty courses like typography, interactive media, photography and design electives. Graduates earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts, an indication of a hands-on learning experience. “The fact that the degree is a B.F.A and not a B.A. means the program is more studio-based than other schools,” explained alumna and CADC Communications Coordinator Madison Champion. “You’re not just sitting in a lecture hall with 100 other people learning how to manipulate images in Photoshop. You’re in the studio creating work and solving problems through design.” During their time at Auburn, students exhibit their work, attend guest lectures and design symposiums and complete senior projects. They also have opportunities to study abroad and complete internships.

Wang says there are two things that make Auburn’s Graphic Design program stand apart from other schools. First is its emphasis on digital technology. While foundational skills are vital to students’ success, GDES faculty make sure they know how to increase the effectiveness of visual communication in a variety of ways. “We really try to emphasize teaching the design principles, not design tools,” said Wang. “But at the same time we teach students how to integrate technology as part of the solution. It doesn’t matter what you use: motion graphics, 3D renderings, eye-tracking, AR/VR or programming. The goal is really to try to communicate the message more efficiently and effectively.”

The other unique aspect of Auburn’s program is that lower level students are usually taught by more experienced faculty, while third- and fourth-year GDES majors are taught by younger faculty. This arrangement is designed to make the best use of everyone’s strengths, both faculty and students.

Auburn’s program is the only NASAD-accredited B.F.A. in Graphic Design in the state of Alabama and is consistently recognized as one of the nation’s top programs. Wang says that the cooperation between faculty members for the good of the students is part of what makes the program so great. “The sense of community here is so unique,” he said. “We share, we collaborate and we respect each other. I think that’s something that’s rare to find in other programs.”

Related people:
Wei Wang