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Currents: brandy gibbs-riley

A New Career By Design

Since leaving a rewarding career with a graphic design firm to pursue her long-time dream of teaching, Assistant Professor of Art Brandy Gibbs-Riley finds it possible to achieve success both in the classroom and as a graphic artist. While teaching courses in graphic design, typography and publication design in the last year, she has also put her design skills to work for the college, creating a striking new graphic identity for the Fine and Performing Arts Department and a beautiful new marketing publication—aimed at garnering support for a new art center—which features the art work of students.

Gibbs-Riley's designs for Colby-Sawyer, with a color palette that complements the college's Web site and simple yet bold graphic elements, have brought recognition to the college and to her formidable talents. This summer, she earned two Awards of Excellence in the prestigious University & College Designers Association's international design competition, and three of her designs were recently selected for inclusion in the American Institute of Graphic Arts' juried exhibitions.

“My involvement in these organizations has helped me build a bridge between the academic world and what I do,” she says. “It's important for me to see what other designers are doing in higher education and for the college to be well represented and connected to these networks.”

In her previous career, Gibbs-Riley focused on creating branding, identity and marketing campaigns for corporate, industrial and academic clients. Her campaign for the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston—which sought to re-brand itself as a four-year school with strong programs in architecture and industrial design—led to a 300 percent increase in admissions applications, according to Gibbs-Riley.

“I didn't leave the corporate world because I was unhappy in it. I have always wanted to teach, but I knew I needed the business credentials first,” she says. “I am not implying that designers without corporate experience cannot be effective teachers. However, for me, my corporate career informs my pedagogy. I pass the lessons I have learned in the private sector on to my students.”

Preparing Students for Career Competition

Gibbs-Riley joined the college in 2007 and has since taught and advised students in the Graphic Design Program, which claims nearly half of the college's art majors. Her extensive corporate background, along with experience in teaching and curriculum development, have brought depth and stability to the program, according to Fine and Performing Art Department Chair Loretta Barnett.

“Brandy brings to the college her professionalism, intelligence, good sense of humor and general willingness to roll up her sleeves and work hard,” Barnett says. “This is a model that we can all admire.”

Senior Graphic Design major John DeGray has taken many courses with Professor Gibbs-Riley in typography, graphic design and publication design. He calls her an “amazing professor” who doesn't just give feedback; she tells students what works, what doesn't, and why.

“She will put up images of famous designers and show us why a piece was successful and explain how we can alter our pieces to create good designs,” he says. “She explains the rules of design in such a way that they become instilled in my memory.”

It matters to students when a professor is current, closely connected to and successful in her field, DeGray explains, and he's certain he'll graduate with a strong understanding of what constitutes good graphic design. Yet his favorite part of his classes with Gibbs-Riley is the individualized instruction she gives him.

“She knows exactly how I work and what things I need to work on. She works with us one on one to create assignments that will be strongest for our portfolios and in return, get us jobs,” he says. “Each and every project coming out of her classes is some of my best work, and I feel confident graduating and pursuing a career because of her courses.”

Alicia Foss '10, who also majors in Graphic Design, agrees that Gibbs-Riley pushes students to do their best work. Foss has already taken the courses Graphic Design II, Typography, History of Graphic Design with Gibbs-Riley and is currently enrolled in Publication Design I with her.

“Brandy is an excellent designer who is willing to share her knowledge with us every day. I look forward to any class with her because I know that I will learn something,” Foss says. “She makes it interesting and gives us examples and projects that can be applied to real-life projects we will create after we graduate. Brandy has helped me to develop a process for designing that works for me. Now I always know how to start and progress through a project.”

A typical class starts with a critique of students' current work, followed by time to improve on their design while Gibbs-Riley comes around and helps each student individually. “It works really well having time to work with the opportunity of one on one time with a professor. Every class I get input from Brandy as to how I can improve my design.”

Another Graphic Design major, Renot Lopes '09, says Gibbs-Riley's teaching style is very effective in that she prepares her students for “real life clients and for dealing with the process of products and presentations”; she encourages outside research and study, which he says “opens up students to new ideas and inspirations.”

Gibbs-Riley has shown him the “do's and don'ts of graphic design,” but most importantly, he says “she has taught me to steer away from my usual predictable style. It was in her class that I learned to value simplicity of design and that less is more.”

Of teaching, Gibbs-Riley gushes, “I love it, love working with students,” yet she also admits that “like any new job, it's challenging. What helps is that I know what the results have to be, what students need to do to be competitive. They know my background so they respect what I have to say.”

While she spends a lot of time teaching her students to master the tools of their trade, she also seeks to persuade them that it's not all about using and executing technology. “It's a designer's strategies and creativity that make the difference,” she says.

A Merging of Disciplines

Gibbs-Riley began college life as an undergraduate at Bates College with a major in studio art and a focus on painting and printmaking. Historical motifs informed and inspired her work, and for her senior thesis, she explored and incorporated elements of global design and architecture into her pieces. After she had completed about 20 pieces for her thesis project, her professors sat her down and recommended she switch to graphic design.

“They thought I had an innate sensitivity to the subject matter,” she says.

After graduation, Gibbs-Riley found an entry-level position in design that offered tuition benefits, and while working she took design classes at the Massachusetts College of Art and New England School of Art and Design. She then went on to earn an M.F.A. in Graphic Design at Boston University's College of Fine Arts.

“My undergraduate professors were right; I was suited for a career in design,” she says. “I love design and the challenge of solving the problems of visual communication relevant to an individual or group of individuals other than myself—a specific client, with a specific message, geared toward a specific audience. I still, however, paint and make art. I think that maintaining a fine art practice is necessary for producing good design. Each discipline influences the other.”

Gibbs-Riley also juggles a few of her own design projects for corporate clients, which keeps her, and by extension, her students, directly connected to the design world. It's the exciting and inherently rewarding career that she dreamed of—and designed for herself.

-Kimberly Swick Slover