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Apr
15

Alumni Stories: Noel Danforth ’85 on Working as an Independent Graphic Designer

Position: Principal, Gold Star Studios/Independent Graphic Design Professional 

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Description of what you do: I am a graphic designer. I use visual communication (design) skills to design and develop a broad range of materials for my clients. You can see some of my work on my website: www.goldstarstudios.com

Major at Dartmouth:
 French

What is most satisfying about your current work? 
Being fulfilled by what I do each day. Design exposes you to so many of life’s currents and allows you to use your intuition to explore.  I have variously fallen in love with different aspects of my design practice: form, color, typography, layout, my tools and my current obsession—my camera. I’ve been exploring the idea of seeing and perspective through the camera lens.  

The beauty of a career in design is that there are so many possibilities and if you like learning (most liberal arts students do) it’s a great field as it is continues to evolve and there are always new things to learn. When I started my career in graphic design the computer was a relatively new tool for designers; with the computer and of course the web, many new areas of design practice have been born. 

What’s the best way to enter your field? Any essential elements of preparation? 
There are various ways to obtain the background you need to be a designer and it’s a multifaceted field with many specializations. My advice is to research what type of design you’d ultimately like to practice and to have that information direct your educational path. Pick a school and culture that aligns with your goals. The traditional path is to attend a BFA or MFA program. Ultimately an MFA is the best route if you’d like to teach design. 

When I started looking into a career in design, I was initially disheartened as it seemed the best approach was a BFA and that I had, in a sense, “missed the boat” and an MFA seemed beyond my reach not having any background in design nor a portfolio. After researching the possibilities open to me and considering school locations, finances and work prospects I decided to take a less traditional path. I attended the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s graphic design certificate program, an evening program, and gained work experience by day. Before entering the program I took design courses to see if pursuing design studies was something I really wanted, and I was able to build a portfolio to gain entrance. A portfolio allows potential employers/design schools to assess your design skills.  It is a reflection of you and your work, and a good portfolio is a necessity when you start looking for work or are seeking to gain admission to a design program.

What advice would you give to others seeking opportunities in graphic design?
For exploring the field I recommend taking courses in design at an art college. This will expose you to the design skills you need to develop, the culture of art schools, and allow you to start building a portfolio. Once you have developed a portfolio you can apply to a design program and/or start looking for work. Personally I found attending an evening program and gaining work experience simultaneously to be very rewarding; I was able to immediately put my new skills into practice. Design is about practice, the more you do the better you get.

Can you tell us about your experiences in different work environments as a graphic designer? Which has been your favorite?
I have worked in-house for educational institutions, financial services companies, a medium-sized design firm, and an in-house advertising agency. I enjoyed all these experiences to different degrees and I learned something from each environment. One distinction often made in the design world is working in-house as opposed to working independently or as a freelancer. All have their advantages; for me it comes down to personal preference and that can change over the course of your career. Having this varied background is what allowed me to start my own practice. It enabled me to broaden the scope of my portfolio and develop a network for future work opportunities. Running my own small practice suits me now and is my current favorite.

How would you recommend students who are interested in freelancing get into the field?
A freelance design career is something that develops over time and doing good work is the best marketing tool. If your work is good, clients will become repeat customers and new clients will seek you out. To start out you must be armed with a strong portfolio then you can either introduce yourself to prospective clients/employers or seek out an agency that specializes in connecting employers with temporary design help. This latter approach is an excellent way to see different work environments and to explore what type of work you might enjoy as a practice long-term. 

What do you do to keep your practice/perspective fresh and evolving?
I enjoy experimenting in different media; this gets me away from my computer and allows me to access different thought pathways for problem solving. I believe design is about keeping open and developing a keen eye. Also, I find it important to remind myself in a more tactile way why I love what I do. Picking up another media and working with color, shape and texture in an intuitive way helps me to connect to less directed problem-solving. Whether it’s drawing, painting, sewing, or beading, I love to work in a way that allows more freedom for my intuition to connect with an unconscious flow. We all carry ideas around that sometimes need a little coaxing into the light.

How has Dartmouth supported you in your career development?
Dartmouth’s dedication to undergraduate liberal arts is legend, the broad spectrum and depth of course offerings allows students many lens on the world. Design is a big picture field, it’s everywhere and in everything, the more of the world you understand the better you will be at your practice. Though my design skills are essential to my practice the underlying skills are from the liberal arts: having a broad knowledge-base from sciences to languages, the ability to problem solve and communicate clearly, having curiosity and discipline, and a love of learning. Dartmouth serves these up in spades.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~careerblog/2013/04/alumni-stories-noel-danforth-85-on-working-as-an-independent-graphic-designer/

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