Drummond: Meeting The Needs Of An Evolving Design Student Population

Photo credit: FotosByFlee

Gordon Drummond is the President of Sessions College, a fully online, accredited college of visual arts offering degree and certificate programs in Graphic Design, Digital Media, Illustration, Photography, and more. Gordon joined Sessions College in 2001 and has overseen its evolution from a boutique e-learning provider based in Soho, New York, to an institution of higher education with a wide range of Associate and Bachelor’s degree programs. Outside of Sessions College, Gordon is a veteran in school and college accreditation, serving as a member of the Middle States Commission on Secondary Schools from 2007-2015, and as a member of the Distance Education Accrediting Commissions (DEAC) since 2017.

President Drummond spoke recently with GDUSA about the objectives of the fully online Sessions College Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design program and about his background as an educator.

GDUSA: Tell us about the Sessions College graphic design program.

GD: We are inordinately proud of the program, which is accredited, accessible, and affordable, and which students can complete in under four years. In a program delivered entirely online, students build a broad foundation in design and software in their first two years, gaining confidence in both industry relevant software (Photoshop, Illustrator, et al) and in traditional design concepts and image making (color, typography, layout, drawing, and photography.) In their upper-level classes, students work with senior faculty on a 1-to-1 basis, customizing an educational plan to meet their creative career goals. Upper level courses are open-ended, providing a structure for developing multi-faceted projects aligned with a student’s portfolio objectives. Our faculty are focused on giving students the chance to put together powerful work and create a compelling graduating portfolio.

GDUSA: What industry trends are you noticing and how is your institution preparing students to address those trends?

GD: The Sessions College BFA in Graphic Design program is designed to respond to trends not only in graphic design but also in higher education. For the graphic design field, we feel that the BFA program offers a training in the expanded range of skills that design employers are looking for, which include not only traditional print design but also interactive design and digital marketing. While print will always be a cornerstone of graphic design, we recognize that a design degree is a terrific foundation for a wide range of in-demand careers, including web design, digital and social media marketing, and UX/UI design.

Thinking about higher education more broadly, as an online school we aim to provide programs to meet the evolving needs of a diverse and evolving student population. More than 50% of college students today are non-traditional students who enter college later and pursue a degree or other credential while working or starting a family. Studies show that adult learners demand education that is practical, relevant, and self-directed. And so, our program is project-based; students learn by applying techniques and concepts to art design projects that simulate real-world scenarios, receiving detailed feedback and critique from a faculty of professionals. Delivering a program in this way makes it accessible to students across a wide range of time zones, allowing them the flexibility to balance their classes with work, family, or other responsibilities. One of our graduating students this year founded her own digital marketing agency in her final term, all while running two businesses and raising three children. Anyone who can accomplish that is not just creative, but some kind of hero.

Another essential goal for our program with respect to higher education is affordability. The college debt crisis has worsened over the last ten years, with the average college student now graduating with more than $30K in loan debt. Unfortunately, our sector is playing a role, as some of the most expensive colleges in the U.S. are the vaunted art/design schools we all love. As an online school, what can we do? Because we do not have the overheads of a traditional college campus, we can focus on delivering a program with affordable tuition. Sessions College has been recognized by the USDE College Affordability Center as among the most affordable colleges in our class for seven years in a row.

GDUSA: How did you become interested in art and design education?

GD: Art education must be genetic, as my first introduction to the arts was through my Scottish father who was (and is) a talented painter. Our house in Scotland was full of sprawling abstract colorist paintings, landscapes, and portraits of working-class people. Also, my father was an educator who taught art at K12 and college level, ultimately becoming the head of art at our local technical college. In a deep sense, my father showed me what care, craft, and creativity looked like in an artist. And by teaching me that, he also showed that art could be taught. The influence was inescapable: my whole family, my mother, father, and my aunt and uncle on my mother’s side, were teachers.

At a professional level, I became interested in instructional design when I graduated college. I was looking for a career that combined the arts, technology, and education. As an aspiring musician, I studied in the New School Jazz program in New York City. NYC is a box of chocolates for any aspiring artist – and an incredible place to learn what the peak in any art form is. While in New York, I gained an invaluable training at Kaplan, Inc., designing books, courses, and tests to prepare students for college tests, an experience that gave me a foundation in instructional design and assessment. This led me to Sessions, which I joined in 2001, after a period designing educational websites at a dotcom. At the time, the web was absolutely primed to explode as a viable medium for education, and Sessions was already showing tremendous promise in delivering engaging and effective programs. There was an educational model that combined some of the best attributes of an art school education with a focus on digital skills and technology that is constantly changing.

GDUSA: What skills are most important to teach college students these days?

GD: We’ve also put a lot of thought into helping students develop skills for the workplace of today and tomorrow. For example, two critical areas of focus in the BFA program are research and presentation. Students need to show that they can conduct research and develop business solutions based on industry, client, and audience research. The ability to present your creative process and your final artwork is a major emphasis. Delivering and explaining your work professionally in any meeting format (online, F2F, or board room) will only become more essential going forward.

At a more holistic level, the program has a focus on building the cultural and business skills that any creative graduate should have. Courses on cultural anthropology and global design attune students to a wider world that is rich in cultures and subcultures. In a sense, any creative who is developing a message or campaign, whether it is local, national, or international, needs to be an anthropologist who can research and decipher the semiotics of a target audience. From a business perspective, the program prepares students for realities of beginning a creative career, through an internship/entrepreneurship course where students gain real work experience  for credit, and through interactive marketing and accounting courses that help you conceptualize how to promote and monetize your talents. It is important that creative types develop the confidence in a business environment that enables them to thrive in the real world.