The sun is gone and the leaves are falling, marking the start of education season. In this special feature, the International Examiner goes inside the Univerisity of Washington, interviewing professors of two popular majors — graphic design and architecture. We have a special report on the state of Asian American Studies, a program growing in demand, but not necessarily in financial or administrative support. Also, we present an innovative project involving educational institutions and community media. —ed.
BY DOUG ING
Special to the Examiner
Twenty years ago in the University of Washington Art building with exacto knife in hand, cutting out sections of letters and rearranging them to create an abstract form, I said I would never be a graphic designer. I didn’t like the precision required. Life takes strange twists and turns because currently I teach graphic design at Hawai’i Pacific University in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Karen Cheng, associate professor of graphic design at the University of Washington, also became a graphic designer following a divergent path. She followed the practical path that Asian parents push and studied chemical engineering on a full scholarship at Pennsylvania State University. Both her mother, a physicist, and father, a civil engineer, wanted her to become a doctor like her sister.
“I knew that I would never become a doctor because I didn’t like dissection classes,” said Cheng.
Cheng was always an artist at heart, winning awards in art from K-12. She went to work for Proctor and Gamble, working on liquid Tide. She became involved with the brand management department working on Dash and Downy commercials.
“After that I got more and more interested in working in the creative side,” Cheng said.
This creative interest reawakened her childhood passion. She took night classes earning an undergraduate degree and then an MFA degree from the University of Cincinnati. Cheng, who said she always wanted to teach, taught as an adjunct professor at the Art Institute of Cincinnati before getting hired at UW eight years ago.
It was while teaching that Cheng wrote a book called “Designing Type,” published in North America by Yale University Press.
The book came about because she found that while there are many books on typography, there are perhaps three or four books on designing the letters themselves. Her favorite book by Doyle Young, “Fonts and Logos,” was too expensive for the student at $80. With no appropriate text for her lettering design classes, she created elaborate handouts. A conversation with her university design professor told her that she had the outline for a book.
Cheng’s book proposal stated that with the use of personal computers, people are more aware of fonts. The book, she said, is really geared for the advanced design student; the content is too specific for the general public.
“A font is like a voice; if you see the word ‘house’ in futura type, you think of [the architect] Frank Gehry,” said Cheng.
The book took six years of hard work, which included writing the book and crafting book-publishing proposals. “Designing Type” has now been translated into German, French and Spanish.
Within the pages, you see examples of existing typefaces; the sections of a letter are shown in variations. Angles, curves and percentages of height are all taken into account when one designs a typeface. With careful examination, the casual reader will not look at print the same way again. To graphic designers, who specialize in typography, this book is an invaluable reference guide.
As a visual artist who teaches, I wanted to know how professors balance their time between teaching and their professional work. All visual artists who teach need to figure out how to give time to students and also have the time to develop ideas.
Cheng, who has done campaigns for Seattle Arts & Lectures, finds that working as a designer helps her to be sensitive to a student’s needs during the critique.
As for balancing work with a professional and personal life, Cheng said, “For myself, it’s pretty hard. I’m lucky that I’m married to a fellow workaholic.”