Two retired faculty members reflect on how they changed UdeL’s graphic design program
If you put Steve Skaggs and Leslie Friesen in the same room, chances are they’ll enthusiastically tag entire conversations, finishing each other’s sentences and frequently paying compliments.
Such was the case recently when the pair met in the “red chair room” in the basement of Schneider Hall to talk about the UofL’s graphic design program. They talked about what defines a visual object and about semiotics and other granularities unfamiliar to those not actually in the world of graphic design.
They also talked about the history of the program – its ups and downs – and how the strengths of each have ushered the department into a modern era.
This friendly and thoughtful dialogue has been going on between them for more than 20 years now, sometimes in the red armchair, sometimes over a cup of coffee at McDonald’s. But those conversations will soon become less frequent since the two faculty members recently announced their retirement.
Professor Skaggs leads the BFA graphic design track. He graduated from UofL in 1973, then worked in design in Atlanta before leaving for graduate school at the Pratt Institute in New York. He then spent three years as an assistant professor at the University of Kansas before taking charge of the UofL program in 1983.
Skaggs followed a fairly deep bench. In fact, the first graphic design professor hired at UofL was Malcolm Grear in 1950 (if that name sounds familiar, it’s because Grear designed the look of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta). Grear was followed by Robert Doherty, under whom Skaggs studied, and Daniel Boyarski.
The moment Skaggs took over, he immediately identified the changes he wanted to make and was able to conceptualize how he wanted the program to grow.
“There weren’t a lot of changes to the program before, and the graphic design was combined with the media,” he said. “It wasn’t meant to be a graphic design program, but rather a series of design thinking courses.”
Skaggs spent years jotting down his ideas and was finally able to articulate them to then-president John Shumaker. He wrote his first vision statement in 1984.
“I didn’t think our students were completely prepared and wanted to guide them to do more than just think and figure out life for themselves,” Skaggs said. “I knew that if we were going to get it right, the minimum we needed was a program that required four or five auxiliaries or a second full-time person.”
The vision statement finally becomes a reality
His vision, however, did not become a reality until almost 18 years later. Enter Friesen, who joined the department in 2002 as Power Agency’s designer-in-residence. Skaggs calls his hiring the “big turning point for the program.”
Friesen, also a UdeL graduate, said her role specifically focused on three goals: teaching, facilitating internships and serving as a professional liaison. This latest directive was the catalyst for Portfolio Day, an annual event for graduate students to present their design portfolios to local and regional professionals.
“The first Portfolio Day was in 2003. Suddenly it became a big event, with agencies and professionals coming from all over. Now people come to us and they hire our students,” Friesen said.
Indeed, Portfolio Day has raised the profile of the program. According to Skaggs, it also allows our students to better connect to the city.
“Louisville is a dynamic city. I felt we needed to put more power into this piece and Leslie did that with Portfolio Day,” he said.
Together, Skaggs and Friesen also modified the program’s curriculum to better suit each student’s development and specialty areas. These changes are necessary to keep pace with the industry as a whole.
“As a result, our students are better able to compete with huge art school programs that offer four times as many design courses as we do. We are able to punch above our weight and our students are better prepared because we are now able to customize the program for them,” Skaggs said.
Where does the program go from here
Notably, Skaggs’ vision statement stretched beyond just two full-time professors, and for a brief moment three professors brainstormed and complemented each other. Meena Khalili was signed in 2016 but moved on in December 2019 just before Covid-19 ended any potential replacement.
Skaggs would like to return to at least three full-time faculty to move the program forward. For now, however, with the gradual retirement of Skaggs and Friesen, the department has brought in Trysh Wahlig, assistant professor of graphic design and program leader, and Sheri Squires, designer-in-residence. They have the chops, as Skaggs says. Wahlig graduated from the prestigious Illinois Institute of Technology and was recently employed by Humana.
Squires was an assistant for several years and graduated from the Design, Art, Architecture and Planning program at the University of Cincinnati. She has publishing and agency experience and served as president of the Louisville Graphic Design Association.
Although Skaggs is staying another year to help them make the transition and Friesen may be called up as an assistant, the two are full of retirement-induced reflection on how their work has impacted their students, the department. , for the UofL and for the city.
Friesen effortlessly ticks off a long list of program alumni who have accomplished great things, such as working for companies like PepsiCo, LinkedIn and the University of Chicago Press.
“I could go on and on. I am very proud of our students. They have proven that they can really go far,” she said.
Skaggs admits he’s not necessarily an excitable person, but that changes in no time when he talks about his students, especially their ambitions and ideas.
“It’s not enough for students to make something pretty. What motivates me about the program is having students with a dream and trying to achieve it and making those dreams come true – they can do it successfully as a designer,” did he declare. “Ideas are the other part. The world of design is all about ideas and this exchange of ideas between students and teachers excites me.”
No doubt the exchange of ideas will continue between the students, Wahlig and Squires. When asked what else he would like to see from the program after his retirement, Skaggs simply replied, “It’s not my decision anymore. The program is in good hands.
That’s not to say he’s not proud of where the program is today, all thanks to his vision scribbled on a piece of paper in the 1980s and a strong working relationship with someone who shared that vision.
“If this program is an animal, it was kind of a pupa stage for a generation, and then it suddenly became a butterfly,” he said. “Once it became a butterfly, it wasn’t the biggest butterfly anymore. But it was a very beautiful butterfly.