New Design School Graduates: What’s Weirder—You or the Real World?

“Degrees Earned, Real World Awaits” reads a headline over a photo of happy graduates in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal. It’s the height of graduation season, but not all graduates will be as happy as those smiling Columbia University grads ready to enter lucrative finance careers.

Graduates of art and design programs, like the ones at Purchase College, State University of New York, 28 miles north of Columbia, may be questioning their future prospects. At conservatory schools like Purchase, students are not trained to serve clients who say things like, “Can you make the logo bigger?” and “Isn’t this color a little too bright/ dark/ light/ whatever?” They’re trained to think about bigger issues — racism, sexism, the environment, the meaning of life. And (when they’re not working on posters promoting the theater, music and fine art events on campus) to use the language and media of design to express their own passions and ideas.

Award-winning graduating senior Julianne Waber installing her project in at Purchase College, SUNY

Then comes the real world. Julianne Waber, 21, has put her thoughts and fears about a career in design to the ultimate test. Her senior project — she was the unanimous decision of the graphic design faculty to win the 2017 Dean’s Award for Excellence, according to longtime faculty member Warren Lehrer — tackles head-on such issues as “Will I lose myself?” and “I am exploring the fear of sacrificing your personality in an artistic field where you have to serve a client?” And, even more pointedly, “Why have designers allowed themselves to become servants to increasing overheads, careerism, and predominantly corporate goals?”

Honestly, I’d been planning to devote this column to the Occupy Museums piece in the Whitney Biennial. But when I saw Waber’s work — two vertical screens playing videos and animated GIFS mounted next to a personal manifesto that begins with COMPOSING YOURSELF, LOSING YOURSELF, PRESENTING YOURSELF, SELLING YOURSELF — I thought, this is what should be in the Whitney.

“HIRE ME I’M WEIRD” reads one of her images. “What’s weird about you?” I asked her in a phone interview. “I have short hair” was her answer. “And I like to make things that are different. My style of making collages is about spotty movement and bright clashing colors.”

Born, raised, and now living back home in Elmhurst, Queens, Waber finished her coursework last semester and is working at two (paid) internships in New York City: at Tumblr and at The Morgan Library & Museum. At Tumblr, she makes GIFS for events and presentations for the marketing teams. At the Morgan she “edits stuff for their website.” These are not the most unconventional of jobs. Does she see herself remaining at one of them? “I enjoy Tumblr,” she says. “I want to see how it goes there, but I dream of one day having my own studio.”

What would you do, I asked her, if one of your studio’s clients says something like, “That’s nice, but I can’t read the type”? Her answer: “I would explain that the type draws attention to the message. If people have never seen anything like it before, they’ll want to take a closer look and spend time with your message.” I couldn’t have come up with a better answer myself — and actually this is exactly what some of our profession’s most influential designers, including April Greiman and Rick Valicenti, have been saying for years.

Waber’s senior project began quite differently, as a collection of clear plastic clothing with digital images applied to them, clothes that would reveal or not reveal the body. Her advisor, assistant professor Jessica Wexler, a partner in the NYC design office Greenblatt-Wexler, urged her to go deeper, to reveal her feelings, not her body. “Jessica told me not to think of the container before finalizing my thoughts,” Waber recalls. “So I started thinking about what I was really worried about, which was losing myself in becoming a professional. I googled around and read a bunch of articles with career advice. The advice is ridiculous, depressing, funny. My friends, whether they’re artists, musicians, dancers, all feel the same way. They’re worried about making a living. They’re worried bout applying to work at the same boring websites. About having to design invitations and car ads. The quotes from the articles became the basis of my project. They actually started as 18 x 24″ posters that referenced classic design but had different images and GIFS within each one.”

After all is said and done, with the award for “superior achievement in graphic design” under her belt, when Waber walks with cap and gown to get her BFA degree in Art+Design at the Purchase commencement ceremony, will she still be worried? “Much less,” she says.

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