Moving Design Into a New Era

Graphic Design and Digital Arts Faculty Chair Jack Sprague helps design students chart a course in an evolving industry

April 2016—It’s an understatement to say that a lot has changed in the 30 years Jack Sprague has been a designer and educator. The industry transitioned from “commercial art” to “graphic design” to “communication design.” Agencies shifted from training entry-level employees to expecting solid contributions on day one. The tools of the trade became digital, and so did the communication platforms. And there are so many more platforms that require thoughtful design.

What hasn’t changed—but is too often overlooked or overshadowed—is the need for strategic thinking and a conceptual process that puts idea creation ahead of technical production. That need to teach “the business of art and the art of business” motivated Sprague at the University of North Texas, where he led the design program, and continued when he founded the Smart Center Santa Fe in 2010.

“We set it up to provide creative, conceptual, and business skills that the typical designer, art director, creative writer, or photographer never really learned in school or on the job,” Sprague says. “What’s so common is that students get wrapped up in the mechanics of the solution but nobody teaches the creative methodology for solving the problem.”

Sprague is making sure that doesn’t happen at SFUAD, where he is the Chair of the Graphic Design and Digital Arts departments.

“I want students to think of themselves as a professional providing a service,” he says. “My job as a professor and a designer is to present that professional reality while students have time to absorb the expectation and learn how to do it, rather than just pass the buck and assume that students are going to learn it once they get out of school.”

One way he’s doing that is by requiring students to create budgets and production schedules for their projects. Once students have worked through the design methodology to a solution, they have to show how they would produce it, considering the cost and schedule for everything from copywriting to photography, models, and makeup.

He’s also redesigned the BFA thesis presentation: It’s now an opportunity for students to have their portfolio reviewed by industry professionals. Last fall, Sprague brought in designers from L.A., Dallas, and Denver to critique students’ work and help them refine it. Students graduated with a professionally vetted portfolio and preparation for job interviews.

This fall, the BFA in Graphic Design program will transition into a BFA in Communication Design: Graphic Design and Art Direction, and the BFA in Digital Arts will be known as Digital Arts: Visual Development and Illustration. “That program will help students to be visual narrative story tellers,” Sprague says. “They are developing the visual ideas, and concepts and illustrations that would ultimately be used in film, animation, gaming, and entertainment industries.”

More than a name change, the revamped programs will better link students to industry expectations and what they need to make contributions quickly to future clients. “My goal throughout my life as a designer and an educator,” Sprague says, “is to pass on everything I know so that somebody else can have a cool career.”

Watch a video to learn more about the program.