Written by Brett Levine
Photo by Jerry Siegel
For Doug Barrett, the dot com bubble may have burst, but it didn’t necessarily put a pin in his opportunities. Instead, it created new ones. “I was 42 years old, and I had worked in advertising for 20 years,” Barrett says, “when the idea of going to graduate school actually seemed a possibility.” For someone whose agency’s clients had included major corporate credit providers, the thought of immersing himself in theory as much as practice was a little daunting. “The faculty warned me,” he says with a laugh. “Well, warned isn’t really the right word—they told me that being in a master’s program would mean that my work would be critiqued as much on its theoretical or conceptual content as it was on its ability to meet a client’s brief.”
Barrett actually found the prospect exciting. “I saw it as an opportunity to reconsider what I thought I could do,” he explains. “In essence, it was a place where I could explore how I saw the line between what people consider the differences between fine art and graphic design.” He immersed himself in what seemed like the simple idea of the visual culture that surrounded him every day. “I passed through the town of Fort White, Florida, every day on my way to school. So I started to think about ideas surrounding how we visualize or represent the ideas of commuting, of walking, of documenting movement through the city. I was reading John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic and Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and really trying to understand how something as universal as graphic design really was applied to how we lived day to day.”
This led him to make the decision to travel to Japan for two weeks, where he immersed himself in visual culture. The experience would have a lasting impact after he began his university teaching career. “For three years I took students to Japan for six weeks at a time. It really created an opportunity for them to refresh their perspective on art and design.” Now, as a full-time faculty member in graphic design at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Barrett also directs an unusual project geared toward providing students with opportunities for real-world experience. “We have a class—it just became formalized this year—that is called Bloom Studio. Bloom Studio is a professionally-structured framework through which students work with local nonprofits to provide graphic design services they might not otherwise be able to access,” he shares. The idea stemmed from Barrett’s belief that design could facilitate change, a belief developed after two consecutive years of taking students to work with Mayan villagers as part of a project through the University of Florida. “I had a colleague/mentor who had received a Fulbright to work in Mexico, so I would take students to work short-term on developing solutions to assist them in leveraging the products they were already producing into goods more marketable in the nearby tourist markets,” he explains.
This led to a perception that well-researched, thoughtful, and engaged design had the capacity to make a difference. “I see Bloom Studio as a way we can facilitate a student’s experience at UAB into allowing them to have a seat at the big table, if you understand what I mean,” he says. “Through presenting teams of students as engaged professionals, they have the opportunity to work with interested clients in developing solutions to real-world problems. Fundamentally, that should be the goal of graphic design.”
More personally, Barrett creates work that he describes as straddling the divide between design and art. “I am interested in typography as art, but as much for the form of a line as for the content it conveys,” he says. “These ideas carry over into the way I teach. I always expect my students to have concepts, content, and current design practices in everything they do. Making good design formally is not enough.”
His interests in mapping, moving, and commuting remain. “I plan to do more work exploring the ideas of transportation as communication,” he says. “I love the idea of visualizing how objects relate to people, places, and ideas.”