“It’s a laser show”: behind the scenes at Yale School of Art’s Graphic Design MFA thesis show


Tim Schutsky
30 May 2017


The Yale School of Art was founded in 1869, becoming the first professional fine arts school in the United States. The school’s MFA programme grants students access to a two year course in graphic design, painting/printmaking, photography or sculpture. With a limited number of places available each year, a stellar line-up of professors and visiting tutors, as well as access to all of Yale’s resources and network, the graphic design programme especially, has become unique in the way it approaches the discipline.

The graphic design programme only admits 18 students per year, and all years sit together in the same space, working together. “We do our best to support confidence in our students and acquisition of the skills needed to do their own work,” explains Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, director of the Graduate programme in Graphic Design since 1990 and a key figure who’s “made the school what it is today” according to the many students that flock to Yale. “The course remains committed to each student making a body of work that bears their own stamp. New students come for the diversity and strength of this large and diverse faculty, and because they believe they will have the freedom to find their own visual method.” With access to all of Yale University’s offerings, students are also required to take at least two classes beyond the School of Art, allowing them to “explore other ways of thinking about the world beyond graphic design and how it supports and enriches what they can think and make”.

The two year course culminates in a thesis exhibition, where students can voluntarily enrol in a class that essentially teaches them how to plan and execute the final show, this year just six out the 18 students took the class to organise the exhibition. “A gallery setting is not the place most graphic design engages its audience,” says Sheila. “And yet, each year our graduating MFA class tries a new method of making the most salient aspect of their individual works evident to a participating public.”

In a unique, if not bold, move, this year’s show was made entirely of laser projectors in the gallery space, with the thesis books in a separate room. “Part of the motivation for using lasers was that it’s not a natural vehicle for graphic design,” says Chase Booker, who graduates this year. “Some people figured out ways to adapt work they’ve done over the past few years, others have gone into the laser controller software and used its tools, drawing direct in the program or setting type with it.”

Chase originally studied art history as an undergraduate in San Francisco and did the preliminary programme at Yale, which provides the opportunity to acquire more traditional training before getting stuck into the MFA course. “At Yale, you’re encouraged to figure out exactly what you mean to do with graphic design – it’s a moment to step outside and work out why exactly one designs in the first place,” he explains. The past few years have been intense and frenetic for Chase but it’s taught him to trust himself more. “I’ve become a little more able to just pump things out intuitively – if you don’t have time to plan, you have to work on instinct on some level.”

He sees the thesis show as a “re-evaluation of what it means to do this work at all”, and while it’s the only exhibition the students get during their time at Yale, Chase and his classmates saw it as an opportunity to “have some fun and not take the whole thing too seriously – it’s a laser show”.

The class arrived at lasers by looking through years and years of previous thesis exhibitions. “We found the ones that were focussing on one medium, made the most convincing ones,” says Franci Virgili, who moved from Germany after studying graphic design at an undergraduate level to take the course. “But we didn’t want to give anyone in the class an advantage or disadvantage. We decided on lasers, because it’s not a medium at home with graphic design, but can easily function in a way that is interesting. Also none of us had ever operated a laser before, so we were all new to it.”

With lasers being new territory for everyone involved, the students rented lasers from a Maryland-based company called X-Laser and used 18 of their smallest lasers – each of which contained three laser beams, one red, one green and one blue, which make any colour in their RGB combination. The show’s title was Beyond Advanced, the name of the laser show projection software they used to program the show and the installation took the team around one and a half weeks, with the exhibition class beginning in February to develop initial concepts. “We all went through cycles of laughing together then arguing – pushing ourselves and each other to the extent of our capabilities,” says New York-based designer Laura Coombs.

Franci came to Yale, after coming to the conclusion that she “wasted her time and never really experimented or tried to find my ‘own’ thing” during her undergraduate course. She was awarded two scholarships which made it possible to look outside of Germany and quickly realised Yale would be the best fit, as the course offered the small community feeling she was after, but was seduced by the fact that it was also part of a “larger university community with tonnes of other professions”.

The show is significant for Franci because it shows the “ability of graphic design to make itself a home in every medium you can think of”. Laura agrees: “The only typical moment of graphic design in the show was the first room that had all our thesis books in it. The rest was all lasers – a dark sequence of spaces with neon flickery images appearing and disappearing,” she explains. “By placing the only hardcopy graphic design in one room in the form of our books, it made them more important. Our books were poured over. That’s exciting to me – seeing people so interested in books.”

Laura chose to study the MFA Graphic Design programme after studying architecture at Cornell University and then going on to work in a fabrication shop in Brooklyn, where she juggled being a manager, engineer, builder, installer, architect and designer in one role. Laura looked into the graphic design programme after a friend was looking at Yale’s MFA Sculpture course – she realised she wanted to explore different ways of approaching her already varied work. “The programme allows each person to develop a methodology and body of work that is their own and no one else’s,” she explains. “Yale is unique in that there is ample room for us to try things that haven’t been tried.”

“For me, the show was important because it taught me how to work with people in a way I had never learned in a professional setting,” says classmate Chris Rypkema, who previously worked for five years at several design agencies and organisations in New York City before joining the programme. “We didn’t have any designated roles or hierarchies and so it came down to trusting in people to help make something work.”

After needing a change of pace from the commercial work he had grown familiar with, Chris wanted to study at Yale “to focus on what motivates me to make work as a graphic designer”. Over the course of two years, he has since completely changed his approach: “I’ve learned that nothing I make will ever feel finished,” he says. “Each project I work on is just another component that helps inform the next thing I’m going to make. I never thought that way before I came here.”

The Yale School of Art graphic design thesis show encapsulates the hard work, dedication and passion the students have invested into the course. From looking at the work created and hearing the students speak about their practice, it’s clear the course isn’t there to teach students the fundamentals of graphic design or show them one way of approaching things, but rather it gives its students purpose. “I really feel I’m a ‘graphic designer’ now,” says Laura. “The interactions, conversations and relationships I’ve experienced in the past three years are the memories I’ll most take away.” Similarly for Franci, the course has taught her to open her eyes and she’s “learnt how to talk about my ideas and projects”. Fellow designer Benjamin Ganz agrees and summarises his last two years very matter-of-factly: “exhausting as fuck, met lots of great people, learned a lot, smoked a lot, worked a lot and drank many Narragansett beers”.

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About the Author

Rebecca Fulleylove

Rebecca Fulleylove is a freelance writer and editor specialising in art, design and culture. She is also senior writer at Creative Review, having previously worked at Elephant, Google Arts & Culture, and It’s Nice That.

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