10 Questions for our alumni

Ryan Fitzgibbon, BFA, Graphic Design, 2009

Ryan Fitzgibbon, BFA, Graphic Design, 2009

1. Why did you choose to attend Grand Valley?

I toured a handful of schools before visiting Grand Valley’s campus in Allendale. Driving through the arches I knew this oasis in the middle of the cornfield was going to be a challenge, but at the same time a perfect place to focus and pour myself into this newfound obsession with design. There were a little distractions from outside world that allowed me to take this major seriously. The VMA faculty specifically were so inviting and interesting and involved in the local art community in Grand Rapids, which was encouraging and allowed me to see the potential of myself exploring similar path.


2. How or why did you choose your major or main emphasis area?

When I was a junior at Dow High School in Midland, Michigan, I took a commercial art program learning the ins and outs of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. I didn’t know what design was, but I was mesmerized by the new tools at my fingertips. My art teacher suggested that I get involved with the school newspaper, “The Update” to explore more commercial aspects of design. The year I joined the staff, they were transitioning from QuarkXpress to InDesign and the capabilities of seeing my ideas expressed on the page were so exciting and powerful to be part of. When I started looking at design schools I discovered Grand Valley’s Visual and Media Arts program and recognized that graphic design would be my career path.


3. What advice do you have for future students thinking about colleges?

They are all kinds of schools for different needs and motivations. For people who don’t have a clear focus when they’re applying for colleges it’s great to choose a school that allows you to take your time exploring — somewhere that affords you the time to discover your personal track. I was lucky enough to know what my discipline would be from the get-go, so my choice was based on the facilities and the reputation. There’s no rush and there’s no wrong answer, so I would encourage anyone that’s overwhelmed by the decisions ahead of them to just try something, but be honest with yourself by having regular check-in’s to help keep you on forward momentum. That’s what faculty are there for — to help you succeed and align your interests with your education.


4. What advice do you have for current students thinking about careers?

Hustle. There’s a lot of competition out there, and more and more jobs are being automated (especially in art and design fields). Define what makes you unique, and get good at telling that story. I graduated before Instagram allowed me to develop a following around my work. So I started the student group of AIGA to network and help shine more light on the incredible work coming out of the Calder Art Center. Make the resources you have work for you, and if they don’t, then create your own.


5. What did you do after graduating?

In my final months at Grand Valley, I was applying for internships to bridge the transition from diploma to the working world. I landed an incredible opportunity at the design consultancy IDEO in San Francisco. So not long after walking across the stage, I moved across the country to start as a communication design intern for three months. I had such a great experience and showed enough dedication to be hired, staying for the ensuing three years. As a design consultant, I helped restructure organizations, redesign brands, and build on existing strategies. The projects I worked on ranged from enriching teacher effectiveness in the K-12 education system to understanding the emotional behaviors behind our financial decisions./I spent the greater part of my time traveling, which at IDEO means immersing yourself in a culture and uncovering meaningful stories. Singapore, Chicago, São Paulo, Mumbai, Boston, LA, London, NYC, Sydney, and Melbourne were all explored with this journalistic lens./

And in 2012, I left to pursue my own business and launched the magazine about men who date men, Hello Mr. Over the last seven years, we shipped over 65,000 magazines around the globe, amplifying the voices of over 500 queer artists, writers, and photographers. From the start, it was a place to connect our community and discover new possibilities.


6. What are you doing now?

After a lot of consideration, I closed Hello Mr. this Fall of 2018 to pursue new opportunities in my career (and coincidentally my next decade of life as well). I’m currently consulting as a brand designer and content strategist for various brands in New York, using every skill that I’ve acquired over the past decade since graduating.


7. How have you used the skills you developed in your field of study in your life and/or career after GVSU?

Much of my success is attributed to my education and work studies at GVSU. During my four years I was employed by the University Promotion’s Office, University Marketing, the Art Gallery, and even one semester as an RA for the Calder Art dorm. Oh, and I had an internship at People Design in Grand Rapids. I was h-u-s-t-l-i-n-g. All of it gave me the work ethic that I have today. Enjoy college, but remember why you’re there and make the most of it.


8. What is the best advice you got from an instructor at Grand Valley?

Actually, I think the best sound bite I remember from Grand Valley came during my commencement ceremony. The speaker quoted Seneca, saying “Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity." That was the summation of my entire education. When you work hard, opportunities come to you. Not always immediately, or in the form you intended, but the effort you put out always always always comes back to reward you.


9. What is your favorite memory of being a student at Grand Valley?

Many of my life’s foundational memories happened while I was at Grand Valley. It wasn’t an easy time for me, as I spent three of the four years in the closet. I attribute much of my hard work to the avoidance of being honest about my sexuality. But when I started to really look around, I noticed that I was surrounded by incredibly loving and insightful people. Henry Matthews, the Director of Galleries and Collections at GVSU was my mentor and boss for the entire four years of my education. He also happened to be the first person I came out as gay to. The courage he, and so many of the staff at GVSU gave me, inspired me to create a book as a senior project that highlighted the state of marriage equality in the US (back in 2008) as a means of coming out to my family and classmates. This empowering act set the direction for the rest of my life, and I’m forever grateful for the encouragement to express my truth through the practice of my art.


10. Anything else you would like to share with our Visual and Media Arts Community?

Go for long walks as often as possible.


Image credit: Ryan Fitzgibbon. You can follow Ryan on Instagram at  https://www.instagram.com/ryanfitzgibbon/

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Page last modified April 16, 2019