Interview with Joel Mason, NYC College of Technology
With nearly half of its 13,
By Patrick Henry
Published: November 8, 2006
With nearly half of its 13,370 students born outside the U.S., it has a campus population representing 134 countries. More than 60 percent of its students report that a language other than English is spoken at home. There’s no surprise in learning that New York City College of Technology (NYCCT), a unit of the City University of New York (CUNY), probably is the nation’s most ethnically diversified institution of higher learning. What may come as a revelation is that the college, located in downtown Brooklyn near the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, also is home to one of the country’s most substantial college-level education programs for graphic communications. Last month, an article in Advertising Age noted NYCCT’s importance as an incubator of design talent for New York City’s advertising industry. In fact, the college’s department of Advertising Design and Graphic Arts has an even broader educational mission, offering two- and four-year degrees in graphic arts production management as well as in art and design for advertising.
Leading the mission is the department’s chair, Joel Mason, who has held the post since 1988. Trained as a graphic designer himself, Mason has been a full-time member of the college’s graphic arts teaching staff since 1979. As a part of this week’s focus on industry education, WhatTheyThink asked him to describe the department, its curricula, its students, and the role that it plays in the graphic communications industry in the New York City metropolitan area.
WTT: Please tell us about the history and the present status of the Department of Advertising Design and Graphic Arts at NYCCT.
JM: Ours was one of four founding departments when the College opened in 1946. Today, with an enrollment of 1,127 students, we’re the largest academic department at NYCCT. Last year, we graduated 149 students from our four degree programs. The faculty consists of 19 full-time members and 64 part-time adjuncts. Our adjunct instructors come from many areas of the graphic communications industry, and they include artists, photographers, graphic designers, production specialists, journalists, and consultants.
WTT: Has the department expanded or upgraded its facilities and teaching resources recently?
JM: We’ll be moving about half of our facilities into a 17,000-sq.-ft space in a new building that will begin construction across the street in about six months. We’ll also renovate another 6,000 sq. ft. to accommodate our binding/finishing and computer labs. Our pressroom currently has three Heidelberg single-color presses, four small Chief presses, a Xerox DocuColor 2060 digital color press, and three HP wide-format inkjet printers. All of this equipment was donated by vendors and printers that support the department and the work we do.
WTT: What makes the department different from other graphics studies programs in the NYC-metro area?
JM: I think that what makes us exceptional is the opportunity we provide for students of design and students of production to work together. The degree programs are structured so that design students can interact with the production workflow at all three stages of prepress, press, and postpress.
It’s clear to us from all of our conversations with people in the industry that design students must have a better understanding of how the things they create will be produced. So, for example, in the Print Production for Design course, the students start with a finished piece and "reverse engineer" its development from finished production to the creative stage. In another class, a design team works with a production team on projects for not-for-profit organizations. The design team does the creative work, and the production team does the estimating—all within the school.
WTT: In general, what kinds of skills and knowledge do the degree programs aim to provide?
JM: At the associate-degree level, the objective is to give students a fundamental understanding of design subjects including drawing, typography, desktop publishing, digital photography, and vector-based art. It’s important to point out that we are not teaching applications in these courses—we are teaching concepts. At the two-year mark, all candidates for associate degrees must pass an academic proficiency exam required by CUNY. They then are eligible for a "2 + 2" program that enables them to take 60 more credits for a bachelor’s degree, including one of four 15-credit specialization tracks in advertising design, graphic design, Web design, and digital multimedia. Everyone takes the design team class, completes an internship, and creates a portfolio for his or her senior project.
Our production studies program also is unique in the New York City area because of all of the things we teach our production students to do. They learn estimating, digital asset management, platemaking, print on demand, ink mixing, quality assurance, and many other subjects that make them well prepared to enter the industry after graduation. Our approach to teaching these subjects is not just "chalk and talk"—when students complete these courses, they really understand how to operate a press or a folder. We’re also preparing to increase the number of electives with classes that will introduce students to workflow analysis, systems management, and project management.
WTT: What attracts students to the department of Advertising Design and Graphic Arts at NYCCT? How do they find out about it?
JM: Many hear about us in high school from their guidance counselors or by word-of-mouth from family and friends. Some transfer in from other colleges including other branches of CUNY, and sometimes they come from other departments of NYCCT. The Internet is quite an effective recruiting tool for us—when students find our Web site, they contact us for information. The college also invites CUNY applicants to attend the department’s open-house recruiting events in the spring and fall.
WTT: What kinds of careers do your graduates go on to pursue?
JM: Our design students become art directors, creative directors, graphic designers, Web designers, and comic book illustrators. It can be hard to keep track of them after graduation because they move around constantly—they can be found in advertising agencies, design studios, media firms, and design departments of corporations. Some start their own design businesses. On the production side, NYCCT graduates are working for companies such as The New York Times, Newsweek, Time Inc., and Hachette Filipacchi. One of our former students is the director of production operations at Hachette; the director of digital development at Time Inc. is another of our graduates. We also have department alumni in senior-level design and production positions at Information Builders, Marriott, and Sony Music. Some of the people in these top positions were my own students, I’m proud to say.
WTT: What is the job market like for your graduates at the moment?
JM: The market is pretty strong—the industry is looking for talent, and there are a lot of jobs out there. We frequently receive calls from companies offering internships that later become full-time jobs. The employment picture definitely is stronger than it was three years ago. The shrinkage in the number of industry firms and positions because of increased efficiency is a fact, but it’s also a fact that for many companies, revenues and volumes are going up. That creates job opportunities for our students.
WTT: What kinds of support is the department receiving from the industry in the NYC-metro area?
JM: The department has the guidance of an advisory commission made up of industry professionals on both the design and the production sides. We also have very good relationships with some of the major equipment vendors, and they have been very generous—one of them, for example, recently donated a $60,000 folder for our binding and finishing lab. One of the ways that printers help is by sending us their overstocks of paper.
Thanks to our friends in the metro area, the department’s internship program has been very active. We’re able to arrange about 100 internships at corporations, not-for-profit organizations, and public agencies every year with sponsors that have included The New York Times, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Daily News, Interior Design magazine, Avon, the American Federation for Age Research, and the CUNY Graduate Center. We’ve even placed a student in an internship at the office of the Brooklyn District Attorney, where the assignment was to create courtroom graphics for felony cases. Internship students earn three credits for working eight to 10 hours per week, or 120 hours in all for the semester. The internships also require them to meet weekly with faculty advisers, keep journals, and make presentations about what they have learned.
WTT: What are the critical skills that students must now acquire in order to prepare for careers in the industry?
JM: The fundamental communications skills of reading, writing, critical thinking, and problem solving will always be essential. In general, though, our educational mantra is "learn, unlearn, relearn." It means helping students to understand that because the industry constantly changes, the purpose of education is to prepare them to accept and cope with change throughout their careers.
WTT: How do you keep your curricula up to date with all of the rapid changes in industry technology?
JM: It’s vital that we interact with industry organizations as much as possible, and we do that by maintaining regular contact with associations like the Partnership in Print Production (P3) here in the metro area. We also meet with employers and attend various industry events. Beyond that, it’s a matter of doing your homework and reading the literature, always keeping your finger in the wind so that you can know which way it’s blowing.
WTT: Do you believe that the industry seriously committed to educating its next generation of employees, or is there more that printers and others could be doing to support programs like yours?
JM: It’s a hard question to answer, but when we meet with the technology vendors to discuss the role that they can play, they often get very interested in partnering with us. Sometimes they do it partly for reasons of self-interest, seeing it as an opportunity to brand the students with their products. But they also recognize that NYCCT and other schools are the sources of future talent for the industry, so their desire to help us is genuine.
WTT: Are your students aware of the assistance that's available to them from the Print & Graphics Scholarship Foundation?
JM: At NYCCT, 80% of incoming freshmen receive needs-based aid, as do 65% of continuing students. PGSF definitely is one of the sources of assistance that we try to acquaint our students with.
WTT: What’s the outlook for education in graphic communications at NYCCT?
JM: I’m very optimistic. When our facilities are fully expanded and upgraded, the Department of Advertising Design and Graphic Arts will be a destination for any student seeking a first-rate education in the field. We’re planning to expand our partnerships with industry, and we’re also looking forward to working more closely with our alumni. We have a lot of success stories out there now, and they are really starting to help us.
Editor’s note: The writer of this article is a member of the adjunct faculty for NYCCT’s Department of Advertising and Graphic Design and currently teaches a section of its course in the foundations of graphic communications.