What makes Graphic Design Professor James Grady excited about teaching at BU?

“We figure out what excites a student the most and we help make it happen.”

What is graphic design?

Grady: The simplest way to answer that is, it’s the synthesis of form and content. It’s an art form. It’s mark-making. A visual experience. It can be other things too, like a haptic experience, a sensory experience. But generally, it’s a visual experience which has the intention of communicating something to an audience, whether it be crystal clear or abstract. There’s a blurry line between graphic design and fine art. Although they’re helpful for a wide audience, these terms — fine art and graphic art — are pretty antiquated at this point. Graphic design has been appropriated into corporate communication, logos, identities, and branding. All of that is 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 using an Apple watch, a phone, interactive installation, sculpture, poster, painting, or a book. No matter what the context of use is, its purpose is to communicate. The beauty of graphic design is, it’s still being defined. It’s not tied to a particular medium. It doesn’t need to be a poster or even typography, although those are some of the tools we use.

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

What are some of the strengths of the BU programs in graphic design, (MFA and Certificate)?

Grady: We offer prolific form-making, with lots of divergent ideas, prototyping, sketching, concepts. We don’t have a “one-solution” point of view. Our faculty doesn’t have a singular point of view. We try to meet the students where they are, especially the graduate students. We want them to bring their experience but leave some of it behind, too. They should unlearn some of what they thought graphic design is. We want them to be incredibly divergent with their ideas, especially in the beginning. Once they find their curiosity, they can match it with a visual form. They can bring them closer, converging them. The question always is: how do they want to frame their point of view through the lens of graphic design and all the many different mediums it can employ? So, the idea is to go really wide and then converge on a thesis which can be topic-driven or process orientated. We help them to define their own process and can direct them to various topics.

Can you talk about the MFA Thesis?

Grady: You can do many different projects that run the gamut of different visual styles and mediums. You identify what your process is whether its posters, digital, installation, etc. Some students define a process around a subject area that can be political, environmental policy, human rights, etc. We want them to ask how can more be uncovered about an issue using graphic design?

“The programs are built to assist the students through the long term, not just create a portfolio style to get a job.”

So it’s not just about a portfolio but about developing a process or processes?

Grady: Yes, I would define it that way. Process is the only way to adapt. If you are in tunnel vision about a current trend or style, it won’t help you in the long term. Life is a long journey and you need to be prepared for those pivots. Whether your project is four weeks long or 10 years long, you need to be prepared. Our goal is to provide those tools.

How much experience if any, should an MFA applicant have?

Grady: In the past, we looked for two to five years of experience after college in the industry, whether it’s in-house or in a studio where the student has tried different things. By having that experience you can see what you’re missing regarding your process. You’ve seen some other ways people do things and you now know a little more about how you want to define your process. Recently, we have many more MFA applicants directly 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 real world projects. We do that in the context of a fine arts college which encourages them to be more divergent in how they think about graphic design as an independent field.”

Same question for Certificate applicants.

Grady: Many of our Certificate applicants majored in another field in their undergraduate program but they had always wanted to “do graphic design”. Most of them have some experience in the working world in business, marketing, or even biology. They’re looking for a career shift 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 operate. We give them real world projects. We do that in the context of a fine arts college which encourages them to be more divergent in how they think about graphic design as an independent field.

Is the graphic design faculty composed of professionals in the field?

Grady: Definitely. I certainly am. Some of us work for clients. Others are publishers or curators. Some of us work in more esoteric places and others work in client-driven roles that help sell products or ideas. There’s a practicality to graphic design that no matter what we do, we’re communicating with a wide audience.

If New York City is the media center, why shouldn’t a student get their MFA or Certificate there?

Grady: I’ve been in the Boston area working since the late 1990s and I’ve seen huge growth here in the technology industry using graphic design. There is more of an opportunity in Boston to chart your own course. There are places here that will respect you and your individual vision. You don’t need to just get in line here and work in a large firm with a certain point of view. You can be a visionary, not just a worker. From my experience, you can partner with people and do new things. There are many international companies that have their headquarters here. I have a resources page on my website that lists all of the companies and studios in Boston that have either hired BU graduates or are friends of mine. If you want to go to New York, that’s great. There are tons of opportunities here and in New York. I guess I am a homer. I come from Rhode Island. There’s space for breathing here.

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

Can you talk about the graphic design facilities here at BU?

Grady: I just took some people around the studios last week and they were blown away. The facilities were a big draw for me to come to BU to teach. The first time I saw the graduate studios, I could imagine myself here. I think that’s true for our students, too. They can really imagine themselves here. It’s not a dark basement studio where you just grind things out. Here, you enjoy the space you’re working in. I think that’s incredibly important. That’s (the work space) is graphic design, too.

“In academia, we’re told you can’t cross boundaries but I’ve been able to do it easily here. There are so many opportunities for collaboration between design and technology here.”

Anything you want to add?

Grady: I came here with an interdisciplinary career. I love the University because its graphic design department is within a School of Visual Arts, itself within the College of Fine Arts which sits alongside all these other amazing colleges. In academia, we’re told you can’t cross boundaries but I’ve been able to do it easily here. There are so many opportunities for collaboration between design and technology here. I work with BU Spark! (BU’s technology incubator and experimental learning lab) where I co-teach the design fellowship. BU Spark! is less about bringing a product to market and more about bringing together designers and developers who share curiosity about how to solve a certain problem. I also have a partnership with the BU School of Theatre where we’re working on an immersive experience for a theater production where we’re using projection and motion tracking as the set. That project brings in graphic designers, computer scientists, and theatre students — all working together in a seamless way. It’s challenging work but really fun. It’s all about finding the right people to work together, regardless of their department or college. I am very practical but I also have a broad range of interests and BU gives me that range to explore them and I want the students to have that, too. I ask students, “Is there something on the medical campus you’re interested in? 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 we help make it happen.

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

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James Grady

James Grady

Principal, Design Axl & Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, Boston University