Professor Aronson on Pivotal Moments

April 18, 2017

Judith Aronson

Learn more about Professor Judith Aronson and her path to graphic design!

Did a pivotal experience or a particular person in your life inspire you to pursue your academic discipline?

Yes. I was in graduate school at Yale studying for a master’s degree in city planning which was next door to what I now know is graphic design, but then I’d never heard the term and neither had most people in the country. These were the years when chaos existed on university campuses and most programs were pass/fail to placate the rioting students.

I saw students through an open doorway doing what I’d always loved to do: cutting up bits of paper, pasting them down to make a mock-up dummy of a magazine. The teacher, Chis Pullman, waived at me to enter and take a seat and offered that I could audit his class, known to the students as Baby Graphics. It was for graduate students who had no previous experience in graphic design, but had been accepted to Yale to receive an MFA in the discipline. They came for an extra year that included this course, to familiarize themselves with the practice of design. Pullman was an inspiring teacher like few others I’d ever had. I loved my time in the class (and completed all the assignments) and was allowed to audit the next semester and probably the next. After receiving my Master’s of City Planning, I asked the chair of the design department what I’d have to do to get into the MFA design program. 

Within a few days he told me if I came back for a year, I could have a master’s in graphic design. I leaped at the chance. I am still in touch with Chris Pullman, who shortly after my years in his classes became the designer director for WGBH, Boston, where he turned the channel into what we know it as today; he remained there until his retirement just a few years ago. How different things were in those days.

What are your favorite areas of specialization/research in your field?

As a student in graphic design one had to take photography classes. Mine were taught by fabulous teachers, one being Walker Evans. My graphic design thesis was a slide show with musical accompaniment on the garbage crisis in New York City. I was putting myself through graduate school while working as a program analyst/city planner for the Sanitation Department, so I had access to ride the garbage trucks and visit the Fresh Kills landfill site. When I finished graduate school I went to the Far East for almost three years. Finding work as a photojournalist was much easier than finding graphic design jobs. So from those days forward I’ve had this multi-faceted career working at which ever profession – city planning, photography, graphic design – was easiest to find the right job. For 12 years while living in England, I was a photojournalist. Although I’ve now been teaching graphic design for over 20 years, my research/creative work, has been photography. In 2010, Lintott Press/Carcanet Press published LIKENESSES With the Sitters Writing About One Another, a book of my double portraits taken over 30 years, including many when I worked as a photographer for The Sunday Telegraph Magazine in London. Since the publication, I have had five exhibitions of the photographs including a yearlong show in 2015-16 at the Cambridge University Library, England. I will continue with another show in Ireland this year.

My other areas of specialization are typography and wayfinding (one of the newer fields in the environmental graphic design world). I’m particularly interested in sign systems for public spaces such as airports, hospitals, and urban spaces and taught a course on this topic for the Colleges of the Fenway just before I came to Simmons. As for typography, it is essential for graphic designers to become experts so their work looks professional and is recognized. I have made it the core of the design curriculum at Simmons and hope someday to put together a manual on how to teach typography to non-designers. It is easy to learn the basics and transforms the look and readability of all communications.

What is one of the most interesting/provocative topics in your field these days?

The change from static design, of not so long ago, to responsive design (the same design adapted to many different interfaces and formats), with user involvement, of today. In the past, what a designer designed the viewer saw, exactly as it was produced. This is not so today with websites, apps, on-line videos, etc. Now it is understood that the user participates in what they see (by choice), where they see it, and how – in what format (a newspaper, on line on a website, or on a tablet, smart phone, or any other screen). 

At a design conference Adobe made the following comparisons of past and present:

mass media>personal
living room>screen
big things (created by a few)>small things (created by many)
product service>subscription

What do you find most rewarding about your work with Simmons students? 

Their appreciation when they learn something utterly new and truly understand why it is successful. The excitement and pleasure one can see in them/on them is thrilling.

If you had to choose 3 qualities that most consistently describe Simmons students, what would they be?

Engaged, down to earth, socially conscious.

Is participation in internships, study abroad, or conferences important? Do stipends help make those experiences more accessible?

In Graphic Design it is very important to pursue internships and study abroad. Not so essential to attend conferences. This is where they get serious practical experience, and internships often lead to their first job. Yes, stipends would help hugely. Many students cannot afford to go abroad and that experience has really changed many of my students’ outlook on the world. I believe it is essential for Americans, students included, to understand how America is viewed by the outside world; this gives them instantly a certain sense of who they are in the broadest context.

Can you recommend a good current book in your field for a lay reader?

  • Just My Type by Simon Garfield.
  • A World of Questions: 120 Posters on the Human Condition by Chaz Maviyane-Davies.