Retiring Graphic Design Professor Angela Dow Reflects on 25 Years at KCAD

Posted June 27, 2024 in Faculty, Graphic Design

Twenty-five years after beginning her teaching career, Angela Dow, M. Ed. is retiring as a professor of Graphic Design at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University. Her foray into education began when she started working as an adjunct instructor in 1998. The program hired her as an instructor in 2000, and she soon rose through the ranks, earning tenure in 2006, becoming a full professor in 2013, and twice serving as program chair for a total of 12 years. 

Professional headshot of a woman with shoulder length brown hair and a gray sweaterAngela Dow

Teaching in higher ed was not always in Dow’s plan, but her go-getter spirit opened multiple doors throughout her career.  

“Maybe I’m more tenacious than I give myself credit for, as I’ve always seemed to go after things that I have very little prior experience with,” she says. “Usually, it happens that someone asks me to do something and I say yes, confident that I learn quickly and will give it my best. But sometimes, I’m just really curious about something and teach myself how to do it.” 

For example, while studying advertising at Michigan State University, Dow decided that it wasn’t enough to come up with the concepts and headlines for her ads; she wanted to design them, too. It wasn’t part of the curriculum, so she started hanging out in the computer lab, asking other students to help her learn the Adobe software, and soon found herself adept at designing ad layouts. 

After landing a college internship writing and designing ads for a trade magazine, she asked her mentor to teach her what was involved in designing the rest of the publication, and she soon found herself helping to lay out the entire magazine. Not long after graduating, she began a robust freelance practice that evolved into her own creative agency, where she continued to build her art direction, copywriting, and design experience and learned more about client management, strategy development, and production.   

She later moved to West Michigan and began to wonder if design students were learning the crucial production skills that she had worked so hard to master on her own, so she took initiative once again, reaching out to KCAD, where she was offered a position in the Visual Communications program as adjunct instructor of the Digital Prepress course. 

When a full-time instructor position opened at the college just 18 months later, the program chair asked Dow if she would apply. KCAD hired her that year, allowing her six years to complete her master’s degree—an accomplishment she finished in four. Less than two years into the job, she accepted the program chair position. Since joining KCAD, Dow has taught junior- and senior-level courses focused on advertising and strategy, design research, social design, branding, publication design, portfolio production, and career preparation. She has also taught master’s level courses in the design and innovation process as well as in design communication and leadership. 

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After completing her Master of Education degree, Dow presented her graduate thesis at the International Conference of Knowledge, Culture, and Change in Organizations in London in 2004 (above) and at the AIGA Educator Conference in Pasadena, Calif. in 2005 (below)

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Beyond the classroom walls, Dow also worked to expand her students’ worldview through a study away program in New York that she originally developed with graphic design colleague Christopher Graves and continued teaching with her husband, Jim Dow, an adjunct professor in the General Education program. She earmarked places she thought would be great learning experiences for her students, and once again, relied on her courage and tenacity to reach out and arrange a visit with people she’d never met.  

Often, she was amazed at how open other professionals were, even those at the top of their game like Milton Glaser, designer of the I Love New York logo, and Steven Heller, the art director of The New York Times Book Review.  The study away program ran every summer but one from 2001 to 2013, inspiring several students to pursue their own careers in New York and forging relationships with working creatives and designers who would visit Grand Rapids to speak to KCAD students or at local Ad Fed meetings.  

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(above and below) Dow leading groups of KCAD students on summer study away trips to New York City 

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Dow says the most rewarding part of her career has been her relationships with students. “In the classroom, we are a team, and we’re all in it together,” she says. “We help each other and build each other up, we root for each other. One of the best parts of getting to share what I know and have experienced with students is to be a part of their growth and development, to get to be there when the light comes on and the aha moment happens, when the connections are made, when they finally see all they are and can be and do. When they see what I see.” 

By setting high expectations, taking time to work with students individually, and helping them apply the lessons they learn in class directly to their work, she found that she could help them learn effectively while being honest about the ways they need to grow.   

“My students have always been so resilient, so determined and committed, it’s really inspiring how they keep at it and don’t give up. I have great respect for them and am constantly in awe of their talent and optimism.” 

Former student Jon Czeranna, who now serves as Executive Creative Director and Partner at Wit & Craft, says, “It was because of her encouragement, mentorship, and overall positive mindset that I fell in love with graphic design. As an instructor, she was hard on us but never unfair and always encouraged us to push our ideas beyond the ordinary. It is because of her influence and inspiration that I value putting in the hard work, approaching problems with a sense of wonder and curiosity, and having a mentality of continuous improvement. I have brought these values with me to each stop throughout my career and now to be the guiding principles of my branding and design studio.”  

Through the years, Dow’s students have won many awards with projects from her classes, including local, regional and national ADDYs and placement in the CMYK Top 100 and CA 2019 Photo Annual. Their success and the combination of trust, caring, and motivation that Dow nurtured in the classroom has led to ongoing relationships with many students even after they graduate.  

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(above): Dow connecting with a Graphic Design student during class; (below) Dow celebrating with students at a West Michigan ADDY Awards event
 

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Former student Chloe Jones, now content designer at Omaha-based firm Schupan, says, “Angie was not only a compassionate and supportive professor, but she was an even better mentor for every aspect of life. She encouraged my growth and curiosity regarding the class projects and pushed me to see my potential, which led to my winning an ADDY. Due to my entrance into the ADDYs, multiple agencies and alums contacted me to interview with them, proving that even though I won a minor award, it led to more significant opportunities. Someday, I hope to return to KCAD or as a professor somewhere else to do the same thing that Angie did for me — leading the next wave of designers into the field with support, love, and confidence to achieve their dreams.”

Dow also credits her colleagues at KCAD for helping her succeed and making her career more fulfilling. On the day she arrived, she immediately set out to create opportunities by seeking out people she could learn from.   

“The long-time professors in my program, Ron Riksen, Jan Vonk, and Gary Williams, were my biggest teachers and advocates,” she says. “I still remember how welcoming and generous they were.”  

tesatDow posing with fellow Graphic Design faculty members (left to right) Suzanne Jonkman, Ron Riksen, John Koziatek, and Jason Alger after a KCAD Commencement ceremony

Former KCAD President Dr. Oliver Evans was also a huge support and opened up many unexpected opportunities for her.  She also credits staff members Barb Boltman and Sally Sauer with showing her the ropes, Interior Design Professor Erli Gronberg for introducing her to many people and projects in the design industry, and the faculty in Graphic Design for being a constant example to her of what it means to care about students and provide them with an extraordinary experience in the classroom.  

“I wholeheartedly respect and admire all of the kind and talented people I’ve worked with at KCAD, and what they do as educators and as artists and designers inspires me every day,” she says. “I feel incredibly lucky to have been among their tribe all these years and to be considered one of them.” 

While Dow always encouraged students to collaborate with each other, she also modeled it herself. For example, for several years, she and her Graphic Design students joined Interior Design and Industrial Design students and faculty for special tours and speaking events during KCAD’s annual summer course at NeoCon in Chicago. They also teamed with Interior Design students and a team at Herman Miller on a conceptual branding and design project, worked with Interior, Furniture, and Industrial Design students on conceptual classroom environments for izzydesign, and teamed with Digital Media and Industrial Design students on traveling displays for BASF.  

Czeranna says that the value of these relationships cannot be overstated. “Connecting her students to the creative pros has always been a priority for Angie. Whether it is bringing guest lecturers into the classroom or the annual portfolio review, she knew that these initial connections and networking were and are some of the most important steps in the transition from being a student to becoming a professional. It was at these events that I made two connections that ultimately became the jobs that set the trajectory for my now 20-year career. So, now that I am in a position to give back to our creative community I do. Whenever I can. Especially when Angie sends the invite.” 

Closer to home, Dow has worked with Product Design Professor Jon Moroney to recruit Graphic Design students for projects in KCAD’s Innovation Hub, as well as acting as faculty advisor on two of those projects. She also teamed with former Furniture Design Professor Max Shangle, in partnership with the MBA program at Ferris, to develop and teach a four-course graduate concentration in Design and Innovation Management.  

Dow was also proud to collaborate with KCAD Professor of English Dr. Susanna Engbers, as they tested theories in the classroom, co-authored several scholarly articles on their experiences, and presented them together nationally and internationally.  

“As a research partner, Angie's a curious person, which is a hallmark of both a great teacher and researcher,” Engbers says. “Our research and writing collaborations have been fruitful largely because of Angie's enthusiastic curiosity about the connections we could make between our disciplines.” 

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(above): Dow and KCAD Professor of English Dr. Susanna Engbers presenting on their collaborative pedagogical research during the "Focus on Faculty" exhibition at KCAD; (below): Dow and Dr. Engbers posing at the College English Association Conference, one of the national and international forums where they presented their collaborative research

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Outside of KCAD, Dow has also stayed connected to working artists to make sure that her teaching mirrors what designers are doing every day in the studio.  

“That means touring different studios and agencies, talking to professionals, attending conferences and presentations, reading current publications, and watching whatever I can find on YouTube and other online sources,” she says. “Truth be told, students make these shifts much more quickly and fluidly than I do! Half the time, they’re teaching me.” 

Ingrid Hop, KCAD alum and Designer at Next Creative Co., says the way Dow shares her network with her students is extremely beneficial. 

“I can't say enough positive things about Angie,” she says. “Her connections reach out to her when they are looking for interns or new hires, and through those connections, I was able to secure an internship and a full-time position after graduation.” 

testDow mentoring a Graphic Design student during the fall 2023 semester 

Beyond cultivating her network of working artists, Dow has also stayed involved with industry organizations. Her commitments include serving the academic community as a trained Consultant Evaluator for the Higher Learning Commission for over 15 years, as well as previously serving as Programming Chair and Co-President of the Board of the American Advertising Federation of West Michigan, and Mentorship Chair for West Michigan AIGA.   

She adds, “There are so many extraordinary people, including alumni, who have done great things for our industry, and it’s remarkable how many I’ve gotten to know, work with, and learn from.” 

Looking back, Dow says, “I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been given a number of amazing opportunities to serve my program, the institution, academia as a whole, my industry, and most importantly, the numerous talented emerging designers that have been my students over these many years. Being an educator is a true privilege, and I just want to thank all of my former students and my colleagues and industry friends for all that they’ve done for me in making this an incredibly rewarding 25-plus years of teaching.”  

Czeranna adds, “As Angie moves on to pursue other things, I can only think of the legacy of a creative community inspired by her. And though the thought of her retirement makes me sad for the future kids who won’t have the privilege of her mentorship, I recognize that this puts me in an exclusive club. And, with all of that said, the only thing left to say is thank you.” 

 

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