Reflection: VCFA and the MFA Program that Graphic Designers Deserve

Jessica Bellamy
Nov 2 · 5 min read

As a nomadic design educator, I have been given the incredible opportunity to visit several universities, conferences, and meetups internationally over the last few years. For all my travels, I can’t think of a design program that’s quite like Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA in Graphic Design program.

Accessible Program Structure

To start off, the MFA in Graphic Design program at Vermont College of Fine Art (VCFA) stands out due to its uncommon structure and tractability. It is a low-residency program that is built around each students’ specific values, interests, and creative goals. This MFA program model allows self-motivated students to work on their masters from anywhere in the country. In this program, students and faculty predominantly communicate electronically but work in-person for a week each semester. Traditional MFA models that require students to relocate create a set of challenges that this VCFA program directly confronts. Traditional program models are negatively associated with added expenses (i.e. travel, lodging, food, transportation, etc.), lost/missed work opportunities, disconnection from familiar resources and personal networks, and so on. All these obstacles associated with traditional programs lengthen the period of adjustment for those that can opt-in. These obstacles also deter potential students that can’t make the financial and/or time commitment due to varying circumstances. VCFA’s MFA program in Graphic Design offers a level of flexibility and genuine compassion for students that feels both owed and necessary for the field.

Working with Students: Seeing the Full Creative Narrative

Generally, when I teach at a university or at a conference, I give a lecture/presentation, do a workshop, and sometimes I do one-on-ones. When I give critiques or do a one-on-one with a creative or group of creatives, I’m shown a few items of work (if any at all). That’s fine. We make it work. My experience at VCFA was much different. I have never been asked to participate in as many critiques as VCFA requested, let alone had the privilege to look at vast amounts of work from nearly every student. For each non-graduating student, I was able to view a wonderfully exhaustive amount of preliminary as well as finished work. I looked at writings, sketches, experiments, side projects, interactive pieces, test-paintings, Lego creations, and so much more. I was able to listen to the thread of thought that tied each intimate item together. I got to hear about home lives, frustrations, joys, anxieties, and other artifacts of emotional truth that you don’t normally get access to when you’re a teaching nomad like me. With each presentation and discussion, I felt so full! I could see all paths of thinking, which allowed me to better absorb the full narrative. The artist’s narrative that exists at the intersection of process, practice, and product.

In seeing the full creative narrative of student work, I realized how unbound each master thesis truly was. Graphic Design as a field of study is a broad spectrum. It ranges from commercial graphic design to more expressive and looser visual interpretations. The student work demonstrated the true bandwidth of that spectrum. The exploratory pinup work of the non-graduating students felt incredibly refreshing. Many setups had a story of work as well as fun things that viewers could take with them. All things considered; their exhibit space felt more like a design playground than a gallery space.

Off Hours

I loved that during times of rest faculty and staff — though exhausted — would have the energy for ice cream or a trip to town. Though most conversations during this time were light and playful, we’d somehow slip back into deeper discussions. Faculty seemed to summon large amounts of intellectual and emotional longevity despite the mentally demanding daily schedule. One night, we spent hours in the library going through thesis book after thesis book from past graduates. I was in heaven, to say the least. Every passing dialogue in these in-between times felt constructive (as opposed to merely productive), legitimate, and essential to the week.

The Teaching Culture

The transformative effect of this program’s structure, methods, principles, and practices have grown and nurtured a warm culture of exceptional and near tireless design scholars. Esteemed design professionals from around the world guide this MFA program. Working among them and watching them counsel students, facilitate activities, and deliberate was a marvel. In critiques, faculty delicately balanced constructive notes with generous amounts of supportive language and insightful commentary. Student presentations were always met with attentiveness, tactful discourse, loving consideration, and the experience of rigorous scholarship and practice from faculty. I really enjoy watching other design educators teach, and it was no different at VCFA. While in this space I’ve developed an even deeper sense reverence on the subject.

VCFA Student piece

All in All….

I felt invigorated by the design endeavors of the students, the admirable graces of each faculty member, and the unprecedented progressive culture of this institutional program. Bravo VCFA! Thank you so much for hosting me. I hope to visit again in the future!

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