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Collection of graphic elements in shades of purple and pink on a white wall

From Concept to Career: Exploring the Intersection of Theory, Practice and Purpose in Graphic Design Seniors

Graphic Design seniors shine in exhibition as they prepare for their upcoming portfolio presentations and life after college

The UNC Arts Graphic Design Senior Show runs through May 2 at the Campus Commons Gallery.

While many seniors at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) hustle to finish final papers, study for exams and gear up for graduation, Graphic Design students enrolled in the Senior Exhibition Project course are diligently preparing to exhibit their best work for public viewing at the Campus Commons Gallery. Their pieces, as well as their portfolios, will be critiqued by a panel of industry professionals, all before the pressure of finals week.  

UNC’s College of Performing and Visual Arts Graphic Design program is quietly revolutionizing the way future designers prepare for their careers. Students are not just assembling a collection of works but are also laying the foundation for their future career success. Kalyana Gallagher is one such student who is not only utilizing this course to advance her knowledge of the graphic design field but also to launch her magazine project, PURlll. Magazine. This magazine combines design, storytelling and collaboration with a few other students. 

Students standing in front of artwork depicting Purlll magazine.

Alyssa Leven, Gallagher's co-collaborator on Purlll. speaking to a group viewing the exhibition.

It’s important to students like Gallagher that their art is not only for consumption, but also has a meaningful influence. PURlll.’s official launch will include a website and the first two issues of the magazine. They’ve pledged to donate 20% of all profits from PURlll. Magazine to True Colors United — a nonprofit organization focused on innovative solutions for homelessness in LGBTQ+ and BIPOC youth across the country.  “I want to impact others with my work and use my platform and my voice as an artist to reach others and amplify other people's stories,” Gallagher said.  

“So, especially with PURlll., a big part of that is telling other people's stories and giving them an opportunity to connect and collaborate with me in a way I wouldn't normally be able to.”  

One of Gallagher’s collaborators is fellow classmate Trevor Erpelding, who is assisting with rendering the PURlll. logo, creating all 3D components and developing product mockups. Simultaneously, Erpelding manages his own virtual reality exhibition, showcasing his multidisciplinary talents. Notably, Erpelding is proficient in Blender, a versatile and powerful open-source program for creating 3D digital assets and virtual environments. Through self-directed learning, Erpelding has combined Blender's capabilities with his artistic knowledge to seamlessly integrate his 3D modeling skills into his virtual reality exhibition titled, “DIMENSIONAL REVERIE.” He aims to craft an immersive experience that captivates audiences and enhances the overall impact of the exhibition.  

Designing a Course  

From the conception of this course to the eventual exhibition of student work, the Graphic Design instructors are fervently dedicated to crafting an educational experience that prepares their students for career success whatever that looks like for them — from agency work, freelancing, web and interactive media, merchandising, packaging and everything in between. Samuel Dong-Saul, MFA, one of the instructors of the Senior Project course, believes in instilling in students the importance of showcasing their work with integrity.   

"The portfolio is your resume," Dong-Saul said, stressing the importance of teaching practical skills in addition to the theoretical. 

“The objective for this class is to help them prepare for the career environment and help them build targeted portfolios where students curate their design and artistic work to their field of choice [while] learning what it takes to do a formal, artistic exhibition by making a proposal, making sure that everything is explained conceptually, translates physically.”  

External critiques offer students real-world, industry perspectives, giving them invaluable insights beyond the classroom. For Dong-Saul and his co-instructor who teaches part of this course, Director of Galleries at UNC, Belle-Pilar Fleming, the focus remains on exposing students to numerous opportunities for tangible projects and exhibitions during their time in the classroom. Fleming sees these experiences as a reflection of students' growth and expertise. With each project and exhibition, students not only showcase their abilities but also gain a deeper understanding of their artistic journey.  

“For the exhibition portion of the course, having those fully realized projects builds a lot of confidence [in students], and sometimes these big culminating events can allow students time to reflect and think about how much they’ve learned and the skills they’ve acquired.”  

From the quality of their work to their industry acumen, every aspect of their portfolio presentations will be carefully examined. As students brace themselves for critique and evaluation from professionals in the graphic design world, they know they'll be judged not just on their technical prowess but also on their ability to respond to feedback, an important life skill. It's a testament to the class's commitment to bridging the gap between academic learning and practical application.  

Refining Their Artistic Voice  

The course structure is holistically designed to equip students with the skills to navigate the challenges of the design world and to refine their artistic voice. This is the first year that the director of galleries is also serving as an instructor of this course which has spurred a collaboration between the Graphic Design program and UNC Galleries. This has resulted in a unique way for students to experience the nuanced and varied world of art and design. From visiting artist exhibitions to professional preparation courses, every component is geared toward equipping students with the tools they need to thrive.  

Through constructive criticism and guided portfolio building, they find themselves well-prepared for the professional world and hopeful about their freelance design aspirations. Networking and proactive engagement have been not just buzzwords, but essential components of their educational journey. 

For students like Sasha Krause, a Graphic Design major who is also earning a certificate in Arts Entrepreneurship, the class is a chance to put their passion projects within a more professional setting. Each student in the Graphic Design program is required to complete an internship before graduation, which is not merely a box to check, but a way for students to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Krause’s internship with BandWagon Magazine, a prominent publication that reports on live music, arts, entertainment, nightlife and community in northern Colorado, sparked their interest in merchandise design.  

Colorful blue and black design elements on flags and tshirts

Design by Sasha Krause

As Krause navigates the transition from academia to the professional arena, they emphasize the significance of proactive engagement and stepping out of one's comfort zone. Networking isn't confined to formal events or job fairs. It's about embracing every opportunity to connect with peers, mentors and industry professionals. Krause’s vision of building a freelance career and a small business underscores the importance of nurturing industry connections. They are growing a graphic design and illustration business called Rayne's Things (inquiries can be sent to sashakrausedesigns@gmail.com or @raynesthings on Instagram), which means stepping out of their comfort zone, taking risks and being unafraid to make connections. 

“I would like to continue working freelance and building a small business,” said Krause. “With any degree or program, as you do in life, it’s what you put into it. It’s really important to push yourself into feeling uncomfortable, not too uncomfortable, obviously take care of yourself, but it's so important to push yourself to talk to that person in your class, talk to your professor, make connections.”  

Their senior project focuses on building apparel and other promotional materials for MUNA, a pop band that focuses on queer liberation, for the exhibition. Through constructive criticism and guided portfolio building, they find themselves well-prepared for the professional world and hopeful about their freelance design aspirations. Networking and proactive engagement have been not just buzzwords, but essential components of their educational journey.  

Developing a Thick Skin  

From virtual reality to packaging designs to interactive websites, each showcase will underscore students' individual strengths and career objectives. Alongside the presentations, the seniors craft exhibition proposals, delving into in-depth explorations of design concepts or enhancing existing projects. This exhibition serves as a testament to the students' readiness to enter the graphic design field with creativity, professionalism and innovation.  

Throughout the semester, students practice both receiving and giving feedback, preparing them for the panel of judges who will critique their upcoming portfolio presentations and provide feedback based on the areas of professional practice they are pursuing. This professionalism exercise enables students to demonstrate their command of design principles and their ability to adapt to feedback, something their career path demands. As Krause puts it, the program has prepared them for this moment.  

“Once you get to senior year, it's like, ‘all right, we hope that your skin is thick and you're ready for this’ because it's a lot of reviewing projects and tweaking things where they need to be tweaked, so you just have to be open-minded. In this course specifically, there's a lot of creative freedom and there are higher stakes because it is going to be in a gallery and on display,” said Krause. 

Catrina Chocolate in brown writing with orange design elements

Design by Raquel Eduardo Nuñez.

Line drawings of lions and doves onseveral yellow and pink paper

Design by Kristin Keiter.

Photographs of red flower petals on black background

Design by Chelsea Ojeda-Soto.

Collection of design elements on yellow backgrounds

Design by Mercedes Schultz.

Collection of pink and gray graphic elements on paper and material

Design by Kayla Sigmon.

Record player with the needle down on a record covered in hearts

Design by Morgan Carlisle.

Collection of black and white graphic images surrounding a colorful image of a human form.

Design by Tally B.

As the semester progresses and students inch closer to the exhibition, their work will no longer be confined to the classroom, but it will be on display, offering the public a glimpse into the talent and dedication cultivated throughout their academic journey. It's not just about grades or credits, it's about nurturing the next generation of designers. With each project, exhibition and feedback session, students emerge not only as graduates but as confident, skilled professionals and artists ready to leave their mark on the world of design.  

UNC is deeply committed to meeting students’ financial needs. In 2022-23, 87% of all UNC undergraduate students received some type of grant or scholarship aid that does not need to be repaid.  

Sasha Krause received the following donor-funded scholarships and UNC institutional scholarships or other federal, state or grant aid. 

UNC donor-funded scholarships: 

  • Reisher Family Scholarship 
  • Robert and Marilyn Clark Scholarship 
  • Glen D. Beebe Scholarship 
  • Genevieve and William Harrington Scholarship 

 Other institutional grants or aid:  

  • Colorado student Grant 
  • Provost Scholarship 
  • Work study 

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