A ROMANTIC VIEW of VCU’s CA&D PROGRAM

FACULTY MATTERS WHEN IT COMES TO DESIGN SCHOOLS

One thing I lament about design schools these days is not all of them give students what is promised in the recruitment brochures. Thats why I still consider attending Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) one of my best life decisions. When I first started, I remember applying to Parsons, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and VCU. I was accepted to them all but, could only afford to attend VCU. (I had to pay my own way and the in-state tuition was the tipping point.) Regardless, VCU was/is one of the top rated public universities with dedicated art and design programs. It was also grueling.

 IMAGE CREDITS: Various Student, Alumni and Faculty work

MONOLITHIC NONRELATIONAL OBJECTS

During our freshman year we didn't design a single logo, not one page layout, not one product package. Instead you went through "Art Foundation" (code for lets torture these kids and see if they really want to become artists) which included multiple six-hour studios twice a week, classes in visual thinking, communication as well as the requisite academic classes. We were given assignments such as, "Next week, bring to class an original, non-relational, monolithic object." When we asked for clarification, none was given and for a full week most of us were dumb-founded. Those of us who thought we had a clue, had our solutions publicly dissected. In the eyes of Richard Carlyon, our instructor, we all failed. We were asked in our second week to try again. Another project involved developing a solution for "visual sound." Again in the eyes of Richard Carlyon, our instructor, we all failed. We would come to realize Art Foundation was less about showing your innate talent than weeding out those who didn't have the chops — a blessing for many who were forced to reevaluate their true desires in a career and a life after college.

IMAGE CREDITS: Various Student, Alumni and Faculty work

DECLARING A MAJOR, THE PORTFOLIO REVIEW

 Your sophomore year you had to declare a major within the school of arts. Some became sculptors, others chose to become painters, illustrators, print-makers, interior designers, fashion illustrators, multi-media artists, animators, photographers or filmmakers. All these majors accepted the sophomores with open arms. However, if you wanted to major in Communication Arts & Design (CA&D), you had endure a second gauntlet — a juried portfolio review at the end of your freshman year. The program attracted hundreds of hopefuls for the 50-60 available slots, essentially 10-15 students for every one opening. It could have been more it could have been less, 20 years later the memory wanes.You dropped off your portfolio in the morning and would return with the rest of the hopefuls in the evening to pick up the evaluation form. If you were successful you found a note welcoming you to the CA&D program. If you didn't make it in, you received a note of consolation and instructions on what to do to improve and what classes to take in the interim (200 level minimum university requirements like english, math, social sciences — while you waited another semester to reapply.) You weren't kicked out of the university, just denied access to the CA&D program.

OF THOSE WHO DID NOT MAKE IT, some were determined they would not fail a second time and took the jury's advice to heart, others were distraught and changed majors. Still others were more more drastic in their expression of disappointment and tried to harm themselves. It was these last group of students whose parents complained and threatened legal action that gave VCU's governing body pause. This allowed them to consider relaxing their requirements and grow their CA&D classes — at least that was the rumor.

THOSE WHO MADE IT THROUGH were subject to a mandatory curriculum; three years of advanced typography, three years of graphic design, visual thinking, art history, design history, B&W as well as color photography (using film) the courses go on and on. You were always exhausted if you took your assignments seriously.

 IMAGE CREDITS: Various Student, Alumni and Faculty work

FACULTY

 In return for your diligence you got to work with faculty like John Demao, Philip B. Meggs, Rob Carter, Ben Day, Richard Carlyon, Akira Ouchi, Lindsey Brinks, Nancy Strube and Robert Meganck. They all came from different backgrounds and themselves had been graduates of RIT, RISD, Parsons, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Columbia, Cal State, Cambridge, SUNY, VCU, Cooper Union, Ohio State and Carnegie Mellon. Some of these names are recognizable to the general public because they authored many of the books used in design schools around the world, they are part of the fabric of AIGA (past and present), others are recognizable only to their students. Though many of them held multiple degrees, BAs, BFAs, MFAs, MAs they were very approachable. You'd as likely to run into them on campus as you would at the Home Depot. (though it was called Home Center or some other brand in Richmond, before they folded/merged into Lowes)

Regardless of tenure or stature one thing my professors did ( constantly ) was push you to do better. They harangued you if you didn't live up to your promise. Some refused to accept your projects for grading if you worked below your potential. Some required you to redo the project and resubmit. To them it was better to get docked for turning in something late than turning in rubbish. They taught because they loved to teach. How did we know they loved to teach? Every Spring the student newspaper, the Commonwealth Times, would publish the salaries of all VCU professors. State school, public knowledge. It was painfully obvious that most of the faculty were not being paid enough to earn a living by teaching alone. This was a blessing. In order to make ends meet, many would write and publish design books and were practicing designers running their own design studios or agencies. They brought their real world experiences to their classes and we, the students, benefited as a result.

What I remember most about studying at VCU was that of the faculty I gravitated to, not one of them taught me a technique, or how to use a piece of software, or even how to solve a problem. Show the student the way and it becomes a crutch. The faculty I benefited from most taught us how to see the world differently, taught us to think, how to communicate, how to use color, how to illustrate with typography, how to break 3-D space, harness light and to see the beauty in the human form.There would be more than enough time in future years for honing your Adobe CS skills and camping out in the Mac Lab.

To be fair, VCU graduated its fair share of nonstarters. The faculty and the curriculum is only half of the equation, it is up to the student to take advantage of the brain-trust available at the design schools. A degree may get you in the door but, it won't get you the job. Some saw the gauntlet as a way for the professors to get the upper hand, like catholic school nuns. I prefer to think of them as getting us ready for the real world. If they didn't do it, the world would have done it for them. And the world is not always kind. So here's to you Phil Meggs, Akira Ouichi, Robert Meganck, Rob "Don't Stretch Type" Carter (you too Lindsay Brinks) for making the class of '88 what we are today.

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Hyperlinks to:
Rob Carter: Books
Robert Meganck: Website
Nancy Strube: Notes
A History of Communication Arts
The VCU CA&D department

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In Memorium
Phil Meggs: Wiki
Richard Carlyon: Microsite
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