YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It’s fair to assume that art-related careers are few and far between in a manufacturing-centric region like the Mahoning Valley.
But Michelle Nelson, professor of graphic and interactive design at Youngstown State University, says otherwise.
“Graphic design is all about evaluating who you’re trying to connect with and getting them to notice you. Every business needs that,” Nelson says.
Graphic design is an integral part of every business in every industry. From company logos to street safety signs, graphic design is a part of daily life – even if not everyone recognizes it.
“People don’t really know that term: graphic design,” Nelson says. “It’s funny because you need a graphic designer to design a dictionary but the last time I checked graphic design is not in the dictionary.”
Nelson is one of five members of the faculty in the graphic and interactive design program at YSU that has 115 students and boasts an even longer list of successful alumni.
Jenna Byler, a 2011 graduate, is now the director of design at Millwood Inc. in Vienna. Byler began as a graphic designer for the company 10 years ago and worked her way up the ranks. As director, she decided to call an old friend to see if there were any YSU students ready and willing to join her team and take over some of her workload.
“I reached out to Michelle [Nelson] to see if she knew anyone. She thought she had the perfect person in mind and so far, she isn’t wrong,” Byler says in reference to Evan Von Thaer, a fellow YSU graphic design graduate.
Von Thaer joined her team two years ago as a graphic designer and Byler says he’s a talented designer and a great asset to the company.
Byler says she wanted a YSU graduate on her team because of the respect she has for the graphic design program.
“I have such a high level of respect for them. I really valued their input. And I knew that I would value Michelle’s input,” Byler says.
Byler says she didn’t have to do a lot of looking when she began her job search because there are plenty of career opportunities in the area for designers. Every business needs graphic design in some capacity, she says.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
While trying to move up the career ladder to a full-time position at his corporate graphic design job, Abraham Perez ran into a roadblock. “One of the biggest hurdles that I came across was not having a degree,” Perez says.
He falls under the nontraditional student umbrella at YSU where he’s pursuing a degree in graphic and interactive design. He attended a community college in his home state of Texas but switched tracks after unexpectedly nailing an audition for Disney World.
Perez performed at the park for nearly a decade as Winnie the Pooh, King Louie and Chip and Dale before leaving the Sunshine State for Girard after meeting his now husband.
Perez previously dabbled in Photoshop in college and decided to enter the design world. He worked with a startup and got absorbed into a bigger company. A bigger company then absorbed it before he hit a wall while working for Nissan. He worked part-time for the company but its “corporate culture designates that you have to have a bachelor’s degree to be hired full-time,” he says.
Determined to achieve a personal goal and land a steady job, Perez enrolled at YSU to finish his degree. As a sophomore, Perez has a few years before he decides the age-old question: to stay or to find a job elsewhere. He’s confident, however, that he’ll find a job that allows him to remain in the area.
“The business probably isn’t going to be here. All of my positions have been remote,” Perez says.
The population of the Youngstown area continues to dwindle, according to the 2020 Census, adding to decades of massive population loss. The drop might suggest that young adults are choosing jobs elsewhere. But the recent switch toward remote work in some industries might keep the younger generation in the Mahoning Valley.
Avery Sandy, a sophomore from the village of Poland, says he might take advantage of the remote work options available to graphic designers but he values the experience of leaving one’s hometown. “I think I’d rather go to get the experience and get myself out there.”
Sandy wants to work in the music industry and design posters, merchandise and promotional materials for artists.
Sandy already has 75 international clients. He says, “more and more companies are popping up and they can’t just start without graphics. There’s always going to be a need for it.”
THE ART STUDENT STIGMA
Many students find themselves under pressure by family when they choose their majors, especially those interested in art no matter how practical it may be in reality. Nelson was told to get a secretarial degree when she announced her plans to pursue graphic design over 30 years ago; today she’s a full-time professor and has designed her own typeface.
Nelson believes that the stigma stems from a lack of understanding. She says parents are often skeptical of the field when their children show interest.
She says many students who have graduated the program are now working for large corporations, including Disney, Sherwin Williams and major airlines. While many pursue jobs at national and international companies, she says many obtain regional and local jobs.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 204,040 people were employed as graphic designers as of May 2021. Ohio reported 7,910 graphic designers, putting it among the higher ranking states. Specialized design services is the sector with the highest concentration of graphic designers, followed by advertising and public relations, according to BLS data.
There is a large demand for graduates, Nelson says, even more so as a result of the pandemic. She says YSU often receives requests for recommendations from companies wanting to fill design positions.
“We’ve ended up putting students who are earlier in their [education] into internships because we have so much demand,” Nelson says.
Internships are a great entry into the workforce and many interns are kept until graduation, she says. The internship class usually has 12 students a year but far more students are in internships not for class credit.
The graphic and interactive design program turns out well-rounded employees with design, illustration and photography skills. Students take everything from typography 1 to logo and branding.
“Our students leave here being really competent illustrators and photographers and designers because we filter that all in through the program,” Nelson says.
Pictured at top: Michelle Nelson stands next to the font she created: Modern Poise.