Keeping graphic designers competitive: Fairfield University's Continuing Ed program helps students acquire or update skills that are essential in today's job market

By Mike Russell

Not long ago in the Help Wanted ads, computer skills were "a plus." Now, more than likely, they're "required."

It's as true in the graphic design field as in any other, and Fairfield University's School of Continuing Education has responded with a program that enables graphic designers to compete confidently in a computer-oriented business world.

What is now The Computer Graphics Institute grew out of Continuing Ed's strong program in conventional graphic design. The conversion to computer graphics began with a proposal by Howard Abbott, an adjunct faculty member and current Coordinator of the Institute.

During the 1980s, Abbott was teaching advertising design in the program while, at the same time, running his own advertising agency/design studio with the occasional help of computers. Early on, he recalls, computer graphics were primitive, and it was not until around 1985 that they began to show real progress. A year or so later he suggested that computer training be added to the graphic design program.

It started with one class of 12 students using old equipment in the basement of Donnarumma Hall (known then as the faculty office building). From there it moved to the Center for Financial Studies (now the School of Business), and in 1993 to Dolan Hall, where it expanded from one room to a second room next door, and recently to a third. Today the program offers 22 courses, four seminars and three certificates to more than 200 enrolled adult students.

Students fall generally into three groups: graphic designers seeking re-entry to the field, who know they must become proficient with computers; graphic designers who need to upgrade their skills in specific applications; and adults preparing for a career change who want to become graphic designers and are aware that computers represent a "friendly" medium to work with. If they pursue a certificate, as most of them do, they can choose from three options: Computer Graphics Design, Computer Graphics Multimedia, and Internet Design.

Carol Royce of New Britain, Conn., had worked with emotionally disturbed children for 16 years. For her, it was time to do something else.

"By chance," she recalls, "a Continuing Ed catalog came in the mail. I had taken art classes in high school and college, so when I saw the computer graphics courses, I decided to treat myself. I loved the course in beginning design - it was like a whole new world. That summer I finished the second design course, and I knew I'd found what I wanted to do. I completed the course work in a year and a half, and last August I got my certificate in print design."

Janet Turner of Shelton, Conn., wanted to return to work after having stayed at home for a decade, during which time she had established a child care business. "Prior to that I had earned an associate degree in graphic design at another university, and had worked in the public relations field for NASCAR, the motor sports association. But during the '80s, graphics completely changed over to computers, so I felt that my skills with the T-square were useless. One night I went to a copy shop, thinking I would be able to use its computer. When I couldn't figure out what to do, I said to myself, 'Oh, my goodness, I need to go to school.' "

Student backgrounds aside, Abbott makes it clear that first, last and always, the program is design-oriented, not computer-oriented. Its objective is to produce students who, after getting a certificate or taking a couple of courses, can go out and design as well as use the computer. This requires not only being able to use the computer to execute the design, but also an understanding of the concepts of design and feeling comfortable in the discipline.

To Abbott, the key - and what the market needs - is design people who know how to design and how to use the computer. "There are a lot of technicians out there," he cautions. "What we really need are designers."

For a large part of the design industry, he says, the transition from drawing board to computer keyboard has made life better and easier. An early criticism of computer use in graphics was that it surrenders the creative process to technology. "Nothing could be further from the truth," Abbott insists. "To my mind, it actually enhances the creative process."

As an example, he cites the "What if?" scenario - trying out different alternatives in order to polish and perfect the design. "The computer has a remarkable advantage in speed over traditional methods," he says. "It allows you to try different approaches, experiment in different ways - and still stay within budget."

For people who want to become designers - but "can't draw" - the program offers Fundamentals of Visual Expression, a two-part elective in which students never touch a computer, but do learn to draw. According to Abbott, "A lot of people say, 'I have an idea in my head but I can't make it come out in my fingers.' After taking these courses, they feel more comfortable, more confident. We firmly believe that anyone who has the interest and the dedication can learn to draw. There's nothing magic about it."

Calling the program one of the most successful in Continuing Education, Assistant Dean Susan Fitzgerald suspects that its being PC-based makes it unique in the surrounding area. Although the Macintosh platform has an established reputation in graphics, PCs have become increasingly more graphics-oriented and more pervasive in business in the last few years.

Computer graphics is a field that's still evolving, and Janice Dunn, Assistant Director of Continuing Ed's Leadership Center, sees at first hand how feedback from the business community helps the program not only keep up with change, but anticipate it. "The Leadership Center is the interface between the University and business," says Dunn, who thinks of her job as one of "directing traffic" so that business can access University resources.

Among those resources are training programs for business that the Center develops, and courses it offers to individuals in business who want to be trained for practical work, not theory. "This constant interchange tells us how effective our courses are in meeting the needs of business," she explains, "and can influence the content of certificate programs to make them more valuable to business."

Of special interest to companies is the Multimedia Certificate, with its emphasis on presentations and corporate communications, but Howard Abbott asserts that students who earn any of the three certificates can go out in the real world and get a job -- at least at entry level.

Equipped with her certificate, Carol Royce, who had been doing newsletters and some work for a New York university on a volunteer basis, was asked by that university do a whole set of materials to give their College of Business a new image. "So I put together a package and they went for it, which was wonderful. I'd also met a woman who needed a designer part-time for her magazines, and before I knew it I had a freelance business. Since then I've picked up other clients, and I'm very pleased that I'm keeping busy and supporting myself. I hope to continue taking courses and eventually get into web design and multimedia."

To stay in touch with the job market, students seeking employment can take advantage of informal networking by the three instructors who are longtime career professionals. The other three are former students who have earned certificates.

For Janet Turner, who spent two-and-a-half years getting her multimedia certificate, this advising network proved a welcome addition to the practical, relevant courses that characterize the program.

"I got excellent help from my advisor on courses appropriate for a business career," she recalls. "In January '98, I interviewed at Pitney-Bowes' document services division and was hired the same day - and I'd only sent out three resumes! My background in graphics definitely helped, but I couldn't have been hired if I hadn't taken these courses. It's been a wonderful experience, and a complete turn-around in my life has taken place because of this program."

For Abbott, such outcomes are a source of great satisfaction. "The computer is an exceptionally useful tool," he observes, "but it's not a substitute for talent and training. "I might hand you Rembrandt's brush," he says, "but you'd need a lot more than that to paint a masterpiece."

Mike Russell is a freelance writer from Westport, Conn.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647,

Posted on July 1, 1999

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