Back to School--for an MFA in Design

Back to School--for an MFA in Design

I met Ron Gabriel in the fall 2009 semester of my Just Type class in the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, where I teach. He looked familiar to me, and I soon figured out why. A longtime magazine designer at a host of New York-based publications, Ron's most recent job before returning to the classroom was as Creative Director for the international editions of Hearst Magazines. Small world, indeed. 

I was curious to find out more about what made Ron decide to go back to school in the middle of a successful career in publication design, and thought you might be interested, too. So Ron took a moment from a Ramen Noodle and coffee-fueled day to answer a few questions...

What made you decide to go back to school after working in the magazine industry for so many years?

I looked at myself harshly and concluded if I were to leave my current job, I wouldn't hire me. Too many new things have happened in the last 10 years. I watched as the industry changed from one with lots of movement -- people taking magazine gigs for 2 to 5 years at most, then hopping to another one -- to one where a job was something to cling and hold onto for dear life. Instead of resigning myself to a long period of clinging, I decided to expand my skill set while I still dared to do so. I also do not feel a bachelor's degree I earned pre-internet and pre-mobile age remotely represents who I am anymore.

You've now completed your first semester as an MFA student and the second one is well under way. What's been the most interesting part of returning to the classroom?
It's incredible to watch how they make you learn. I now see it is through being forced to do things you do not wish to do that growth happens. Some of the things in the first semester that really scared and challenged me I now look back on as the most valuable. (Examples of scary: forced to do my own hand illustrations, learning digital video software, 3D product design, contacting a charity to work with to mount a series of posters.)

I feel the focus is on changing you into someone markedly improved from who you were when you entered...not just getting a 'degree'.

I am impressed with the emphasis on the importance of sound ideas. Every project and every class is based on the 'thinking' part before the 'designing' part -- this has helped me learn to solidify ideas before running with them.

Do you plan to return to editorial design after getting your MFA? Do you see the advanced degree opening new doors?

Editorial design is kind of a first love, and even more special now with the internet and apps and the increasing lack of sensitivity to the relationship between meaning and design. There's a quality and sophistication to print design I don't see in digital media. But that said, I do see exciting new possibilities, particularly 'socially engineered' product design and digital video.

What was your undergrad degree in? And some of the publications you've worked for?
I was somewhat untraditional, in that I began with a journalism degree, but was fortunate enough to transition to design early on. Some of the magazines I worked for were Seventeen, New Woman, The New York Times Upfront (published jointly with Scholastic), and CosmoGirl. My last job before school was Creative Director of international editions at Hearst Magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar and Esquire.
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The thing that would be most daunting to me would likely be worrying about money while I was in school full time. What's it like to make the transition from a regular check to living as a student again?
It is a worry, and it is difficult. Pizza has returned as a dinner staple. But I tell myself it is not really two full years, rather 20 months since the second year ends in early May. And if I am lucky enough to get a paying job during the summer, it's really only 16 months. In terms of the work world, 16 or 20 months is nothing -- I've had to wait that long to get a 2.5% pay raise. I am also learning of tax advantages... a portion of the tuition can be deducted since my 2009 earnings were in an industry directly related to my studies.

Tell us a little about the MFA program you chose and why you selected it:
I chose the School of Visual Arts "Designer as Author" program. I love the concept of controlling both the content and design of my work. It's great practice in self-sufficiency and idea creation. I like the emphasis on entrepreneurialism. With so many industries changing, it makes sense to me to be as self-reliant and broad-based as possible.

So, let's see what you've been up to, Ron:
These samples highlight my first design excursions outside magazines. They are living on the web - for me, that represents a big change.
Here's a link to my Beatles type video that was blogged on Monday, January 25--it's on page 3 right now (from Gail's Just Type class):

And here is a link to an educational product design for Allan Chochinov's class, posted on the Design Ignites Change website:

And a link to a stop-motion video I made for Stefan Sagmeister's class, posted on his 'Things I've Learned' website:

  • Nancy Stamatopoulos

    Scary. Daunting. Exciting! Ron, tell everyone to sign up -- what a great experience this is. You were so right when you mentioned how important it is to keep up (or catch up to) the new creative world we're now working in. Hats off to you, going back to school full time. And if you get tired of pizza, there's always Kraft macaroni and cheese.

  • Mike Solita

    Great interview. I was looking at the interaction design programs at Pratt, SVA and NYU a few years back, as well. Learning as you work is fine, but there's a point where you just want to devote yourself 100% to a reboot before deciding which direction to move forward.

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