Engaged by Design: Professor Cate Roman Shares Insights

Cate RomanCate Roman is an accomplished designer, educator, and storyteller whose work in education and for private clients spans more than 20 years. Her professional experience ranges from brand strategy and packaging design to exhibit graphics.  Cate has taught classes in nonprofit branding, information design, packaging design, typography, and portfolio presentation.
We asked Cate some questions about graphic design and what prospective students should know about Woodbury and the profession:

Q:  What do you tell incoming graphic design students about the qualities that set Woodbury apart?
Cate:  Aside from Woodbury being a small school and students get a great deal of individualized attention, I focus on the relationships that students are going to make. Not just with their peers, but with the faculty. We have incredibly dedicated faculty members who are interested in conveying knowledge as well as building enduring ties with their students.  Also, students have an opportunity to make lasting relationships with the city through internships and involvement in the LA professional graphic design organizations. I believe these qualities are unique to the Woodbury experience.

Q:  That segues to the next question: when prospective students look at the graphic design field, are some just kicking the tires, or are they committed to design as a career path?
Cate:  A great many students know that they want to be designers, but then there’s a small group of students who are intrigued, but they’re not exactly sure what graphic design is. That gives me an opportunity to show them, and typically, it doesn’t take long for them to get on board.

 Q:   What usually brings them into making a commitment to the field, or conversely, saying “well, maybe this isn’t for me”?  How does that process work at Woodbury?
Cate:  Interestingly enough, the students who gravitate to us very rarely say, “oh, this isn’t for me.” But, I find that there are two tipping points: one is the development of an absolute love for typography — its design, its history, its use, both conventionally and experimentally.  We teach letterforms as imagery first. Typographic expertise sets us apart from the other design disciplines: ultimately, we need to understand how to communicate through our choices of typography. When I show students examples of what they’ll learn and what they’ll be able to do by the time they finish the program, you can see their eyes light up. That’s a graphic design student.

The second tipping point involves graphic design and social impact – students in our program engage in multiple social impact projects. Most notably, their degree project. This is a yearlong project where students select a social or global topic that is meaningful to them and create design around that. When prospective students see examples of these projects, it is very inspiring and helps put the field of graphic design into perspective.

“The difference between someone who learns to use Photoshop and someone who spends four dedicated years studying the field of design is that the work, and the content of that work, becomes more meaningful. This makes me extremely confident about the job market for graphic designers, because of the inherent way of thinking that is required of a graphic designer.” -Cate Roman

Q:  A while back, everyone was suddenly a desktop publisher and all anyone needed was some software and a Mac. Professionals continued to do what they do, but there was a lot of questionable home-grown design back then. Today, the state of the art in graphic design has advanced dramatically. What, if anything, does this legacy say about the career path for those in graphic design now?
Cate:  As computer design became accessible to everybody, there was an influx of work created that may not have achieved the aesthetic level of a professional designer. However, over the past couple of decades, that revolution created an increased awareness of the power of design — to communicate, to inform and to provoke.

The difference between someone who learns to use Photoshop and someone who spends four dedicated years studying the field of design is that the work, and the content of that work, becomes more meaningful. This makes me extremely confident about the job market for graphic designers, because of the inherent way of thinking that is required of a graphic designer.

This thinking takes three forms: flexibility, an instinct toward innovation, and an openness towards collaboration. These elements, which also happen to be components of design thinking, apply to anything you can imagine that has to be done in the world. Graphic designers, as flexible and creative thinkers, can solve all kinds of problems that may or may not have to do with creating visual communication. Our students take psychology courses and communications courses that support the decisions that they’re making visually.  So, it goes beyond the aesthetic.

Q:  Talk a bit more about the job market.  What fuels your optimism?
Cate:  Students can go into any organization and take on just about any project management role.  Because of our close proximity and ties to the entertainment industry, many of our students gravitate there, creating key art and movie posters and those kinds of things.

There’s longevity in this field. Graduates can start out, say, designing logos or brochures and move up into positions of management, where they’re then overseeing designers or groups of designers.

We have graduates at Saatchi & Saatchi, Trailer Park, Dunn & Bradstreet and Hulu, as well as at corporate and environmental design firms.  Some of our designers have gone to work for cities, including Burbank, and nonprofit organizations, to help roll out brand stories and strategically engage in visual storytelling.

Q: How does your work in the classroom and the studio play out for you in your own career as an artist?
I’m sort of a hybrid designer/artist, with three areas of focus.  One is brand design — creating narratives and brand marks with all the collateral that supports the client’s needs.  This work filters into the client-sponsored class that I teach.

I also do a lot of social impact projects. I’m interested in recording histories that are in danger of being lost and of connecting people to places through these histories. This could manifest as the digital archive I created for UCLA’s Mapping Jewish LA project about the history of Jewish run grocery stores in Los Angeles from 1912-1950. Or, Walk Watts, the collaborative interactive walking tour project I did with Jeanine Centuori, Professor in our school of Architecture.

Finally, I create physical objects – sculptures – of language in an attempt to give the viewer a visceral experience. I feel this work closely informs my experimental typography class.

My teaching and my making feed each other. There’s this beautiful flow back and forth, and I’m passionate about it all. I find I can bring the struggles and the successes from my methodologies for creating this work in my studio directly into the classroom studio to enhance my students experience at Woodbury.

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