Assistant Professor of Graphic Design
Hot House Gala brand and collateral, 2017
April 6, 2020
W: Historically, have you found yourself feeling the most creatively fulfilled by the work you do professionally or outside of that?
S: Very much so in the work I currently do professionally. After I graduated from PSU many years ago, I taught and practiced as an artist/designer simultaneously. Then I left for my non-profit career—I gave up teaching. I found that I was not as creative and I approached problems in a less dynamic way. That's one of the things that I will often hear from colleagues. Something about teaching design messes with your brain and makes you explore problems differently, faster, smarter, and more dynamically.
W: Help each other, help yourself.
S: Exactly! Here's a great quote for a throw pillow, "It's like you are teaching us." I think there is something to that. Students approach problems in a million different ways that us teachers are not expecting. That is really exciting!
W: With feeling creatively fulfilled as a teacher, do you have a practice outside of teaching that you feel fuels the creative drive within yourself?
S: Yes, but I think I need to expand it. This position is contingent on producing a lot of creative output. That's hard, juggling your ordinary course work with a personal practice. In addition, I'm doing a bunch of special projects for the school’s office, creating vinyl signage for the galleries, acting as sort of an exhibition designer, etc. I think especially with the special projects, it's often a very creative and complicated thing. The projects require a lot of time and effort to make it right, but a lot of them will pay off dividends in the long term for every person who will go to PSU for the next 50 years. I'm really excited to work on things like that and I find it really creatively fulfilling.
"I'm really excited to work on things like that and I find it really creatively fulfilling."
W: How do you find your creative drive impacted by times of high stress? Including right now as we are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic?
S: How do I find my creative drive impacted by times of high stress? In short: a lot. Managing stress is an area I have not traditionally excelled in, which is odd considering that much of my practice has landed me in situations that are actively on fire, from live productions to ongoing festivals to short-turnaround projects. It becomes creatively stifling, and I often find myself retreating to familiar if otherwise wrong solutions to problems; I tend to become less willing to attempt or explore new things creatively, skirting past early process stages that end up costing me time later in a project. I think, though, this has not been a situation I've reacted to exactly the same way. Perhaps partly that is having a good supportive cohort around me, including my partner, the best dang teaching faculty in all of graphic design, and incredible, inspiring students. In situations like this, the students keep me (and, really, us) going, believing in a better tomorrow past the end of all this.
W: What are 3 tips you have for finding creative inspiration/outlet when in isolation or a high stress environment?
The best tip for keeping stress managed is to consciously not let it overwhelm you. Easier said than done, perhaps, but in my experience, there is a metaphorical valve in one's mind that lets stress out, and once you unseal the valve, it has a way of becoming impossible to reseal. Bad moods beget bad moods, and the proportion of badness gets even higher when you take into account how it spreads to others.
Find something outside of what graphic design is immediately supposed to represent creatively that brings you joy; if I didn't have comedy to lean back into, I might be much worse off than I am now. I tend to feel better, too, when I lean further into that divide; David Reinfurt calls graphic design "the discipline without the discipline of another discipline" and that is one of the great advantages of our fields. Find your joy and hold it tighter. It might fit with where you want to be better than you would expect.
I manage stress with research—weird, I know. But in my times of greatest stress or uncertainty, I often end up looking back to the past for guidance. We are in a wholly unique situation, but it isn't the first and won't be the last. Knowing in the resiliency of institutions and ideas through times such as these helps give me solace in ways other things don't. Structure is reassuring to my brain and probably lots of others too; finding how a thing you are uncertain about came into being and how it's stuck around—or evolved around strife to become what it is today—can give more sense in the continuity of human thought.
"Find your joy and
hold it tighter. It might fit with where you want to be better than you would expect."
W: If you could create any project right now with unlimited time, energy, and resources, what would it be?
S: A new building for the PSU School of Art and Design. But, not just any building. What I would love to see for us would center around a whole new way of learning about art, design, and art history centered around community.