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For this Art & Design professor, students’ professional careers start now

For many art students, a college degree is the first step toward establishing a career as a designer. But why wait until then to gain real-world professional experience? Assistant Professor of Art Shawn Meek believes a student’s career can get off the ground during college.

“You need to get your work out there so you have a foundation,” Meek says. “Get published while you’re in school. Get some awards. Get noticed.”

Meek teaches a number of design classes in the Art & Design Department at Fort Lewis College. “My specialty is combining hybrid knowledge in print, web, and interactive media into one skill set,” he says, “whether that is building strategy for a website, designing a user interface, or coding a site altogether.”

Students in these disciplines used to be lumped together as simply “graphic designers.” To better suit the nature of the modern design industry, though, Meek emphasizes a shift toward what’s today called communication design, which Meeks feels is a much broader and more applicable label.

“As ‘designers,’ we design more than just advertisements and websites,” he says. “We design behaviors, systems, and ways of thinking. The ‘screen’ or ‘canvas’ is constantly changing, constantly upgrading – and I find that very exciting.”

“Designers are plugged into a larger system,” Meek adds. “They could be working on an environmental design for a hospital or water systems in a third world country. They design user interfaces, apps for your phone, and now wearable technology. They make more than pretty pictures. Designers are problem solvers.”

With so much diversity in these career fields, Meek sees both the potential and the necessity for students interested in commercial art and design fields to engage in professional arenas while they’re still learning the trades. To that end, he has a huge list in his office that looks like a handwritten railway timetable  – each entry a route to student opportunities.

“That’s all the shows and competitions for the year, both professional and student,” Meek explains. “It has the dates for when entries are due.  Every semester, I’ll blast it out to our students to say, ‘Here’s what’s going on.’”

Not every design student takes advantage of the opportunities, Meek acknowledges. But the ones who do are choosing to invest in their futures through professional experiences. And he has observed how student successes are putting Fort Lewis College on the creative map alongside more specialized institutions.

“Last summer we had five students published in Graphis, an international journal based out of New York,” Meek says. “That’s huge. It was great to see five Fort Lewis students get into that. And when you go to the results listing, you see big brand design schools, and Fort Lewis College. We’re getting a lot of recognition on a national level.”

Meek’s students have also been published in NIU AIGA Signature Awards (Illinois), Brass Ring Awards (Oklahoma), and CMYK (New York). A Fort Lewis College senior won Grand Champion this year at the 2015 Design Slam in Denver, and four students placed as finalists in the Go Code Colorado challenge in 2015.

Investing in their portfolios benefits students well beyond the potential recognition of winning a competition, too.

“By engaging in competitions and professional arenas, students hone their skills,” Meek says. “They build professionalism by responding to a deadline and submitting the correct files to a panel of strangers. They are able to have their work reviewed by design professionals – many who could potentially hire them. They learn how to pick their own battles for show entries based upon their skills and weaknesses.”

“By submitting to these competitions, they get their name and work out there,” he adds. “Even if their work doesn’t get in, at least they tried to enter it, and they can learn from that experience to do better the next time an opportunity arises.”

The process of submitting to professional-level competitions also prepares Meek’s students for professional life. “I have past students working in many metro areas, such as Austin, New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles,” Meek says. “I have past students who work for large advertising agencies, many that I respect and follow. That is the icing on the cake.”

Meek credits these alumni success stories to their FLC education. “Our students become better conceptual creative thinkers than just style generators,” he says. “You should leave here being a great thinker. I want my students to leave here and be hired based upon how they approach problems and projects.”

Meek teaches with this philosophy because it’s the same standard he applies to his own career. He submitted his work to shows as an undergraduate and learned to convert the discouragement of losing into renewed effort.

“I tell a lot of personal stories to my classes,” he admits. “I tell them all my mistakes. A lot of them are funny, so that’s helpful. They can laugh at me, and I can laugh at myself too.”

To this day, Meek enters his work into competitions, just like his students. His most recent success is a typography/motion graphic project that will be on display at Minnesota State University’s upcoming gallery show, Project Passion, beginning in February 2016.

“I like the fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Meek says about his joint teaching and creating careers. “I change my projects every semester. Same goals, but I change the scopes, and I bring real clients into the classroom to work with students.”

“So for me,” he adds, “the uncertainty of possibility means something’s going to happen –we may actually fail, this may not work out, but we’re still going to try. That’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s what makes me happy.”

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