Zach Koss earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design seven years ago. For Mary Rohl, it was 20 years ago.
They and others with diverse art and design backgrounds have returned to school, however, and are part of a group making history — the first class in University of Wisconsin-Stout’s first terminal degree program, a Master of Fine Arts in Design.
An MFA is considered one of the highest degrees attainable in fine arts. Comparable to a doctorate program, the MFA in Design is a hefty 60 credits but opens the doors to teach at a university or advance to senior positions in industry. UW-Stout’s first doctorate program, in career and technical education, was approved last month but isn’t yet available.
The estimated three-year time commitment as a full-time student to complete the MFA in Design hasn’t deterred Koss, Rohl and their classmates. It has inspired them. They are eager to expand their design skills and career opportunities.
They saw the chance to do that at UW-Stout without having to completely alter their lives. The MFA in Design was developed with the working adult in mind. Courses are offered using a variety of delivery methods including evenings, online, a hybrid delivery or face-to-face with online components and other flexible methods.
“The program was a no-brainer for me. (With the flexibility) I can still work full time and go to school full time. It makes the financial part of it easier,” said Koss, a training specialist with the software company Siteimprove in Minneapolis.
For example, Koss is taking the course Ethics in Design. Much of the class is online, but students also meet one full Saturday a month. It’s taught by Associate Professor Julie Peterson, MFA in Design program director.
The program was approved by the UW System Board of Regents in 2011 and started in fall 2012.
In his second semester, Koss already is seeing his perspectives on design changing. “We’re thinking about the ‘why’ of design and questioning the role design plays in society,” Koss said. “It’s a much broader perspective.”
Koss, who earlier in his career did design work for Hamline University in St. Paul and for Denali National Park, is considering teaching when he completes his MFA.
Developing new skills
Rohl, of River Falls, also would consider teaching someday. She has done graphic design for publishers and ad agencies, including Fortune 500 firms, but had been considering an MFA program for some time.
“I didn’t see any programs that worked for me. I saw this one and was excited. It’s more hands-on and directed with very specific courses,” Rohl said. “I’ll be broadening my creative skills, and my leadership skills are being developed.”
Another MFA student, Tou Xiong, whose creative interests are in video editing, 3D modeling and animation, is enthused about continuing his education after graduating from UW-Stout last May in multimedia design. “I hope to develop an understanding of what it takes to be a great designer and transfer that into the workforce,” he said.
“Design is everywhere now. Just about everything has some kind of design aspect,” said Xiong, from Appleton. “The idea is to create, but we’re studying more than just how to make an object look a certain way.”
UW-Stout began offering an undergraduate art degree in 1965. Now, with popular undergraduate majors in four design disciplines — graphic, industrial, interior and entertainment — the infrastructure for an MFA in Design was in place. The university also has a strong studio art component.
The School of Art and Design within the university has about 900 undergraduate majors, making it one of the largest art programs in the Midwest.
“The MFA program had been talked about for quite some time with our School of Design Professional Advisory Board. Why not take it to the next level and build beyond our already strong undergraduate programs?” said Peterson, adding that it fills a void in the region. The nearest other design MFA programs are in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago.
Students also will have opportunities to engage in industry-sponsored projects through UW-Stout’s Design Research Center and Discovery Center.
Studying theory and creating
MFA student Andrew Murphy works full time as an art director at Target corporate headquarters in Minneapolis.
“I’m really looking to hone my skills, and I’m interested in design leadership,” said Murphy, noting that design is an important part of the culture at Target. “I like the cross-disciplinary approach of the program and the theoretical issues we tackle.”
Theory is studied, but designing is a major part of the program. In an MFA course taught by Associate Professor Nagesh Shinde, department of design chair, students developed their own concepts for a Trader Joe’s breakfast food. The project highlighted the importance of using research, scholarly and creative, as a basis for design.
“Students’ projects are very creative, visual and hands-on,” Peterson said, noting that “their experiences will be cultivated” into a six-credit creative thesis project.
The creative aspect of the program appeals to student Sai Xiong, who started Povhaum Studio after graduating from UW-Stout in 2010 with a multimedia design concentration. He does graphic design, illustration and photography but also is interested in eventually doing philanthropic work to make a difference in his community, he said.
“Design is a discipline that can make a very powerful impact in the world we live in today,” Sai Xiong said.
To learn more about the MFA in Design program, which is accepting applications until April 12 for the fall, click here.