From the Spoon to the City

How BYU design students are making a name for themselves

By Sarah Ostler Hill

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very spring, professors of graphic design take the junior class to New York City to meet with studios and agencies in preparation for internships that summer. BYU’s students are so well regarded that often the design department receives more requests for interns than they can fill.

Coming to BYU

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drian Pulfer, professor of graphic design, is the well-connected, exceptionally talented, yet disarmingly humble, founder of this program, the envy of graphic design programs across the country.

Several decades ago, Pulfer left his native Australia to pursue his love of design at BYU. There, he petitioned his art professor and mentor, William Whitaker, for a private design space in the old campus building (now the restored Provo library). Whitaker granted his request on the condition that Pulfer share space with Parry Merkley, a classmate. Pulfer and Merkley agreed, and a lifelong partnership was born.

Together, Pulfer and Merkley started a studio, and within a few years, they had caught the eye of Martin Pedersen, a leading designer from New York City who offered them a partnership at his firm. Pulfer joined the partnership, and Merkley joined Macy’s as a design director. Their careers were taking off, and the design community was taking notice.

Parry Merkley

Parry Merkley

After a few years, tragedy struck as Pulfer’s wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he moved them and their four small children back to her native Utah to be near family. While Pulfer intended to return to New York after his wife’s death, he accepted a one-year teaching contract with BYU. When he was offered a second year, he accepted it. And then a third.

And that’s when he told his New York offices he wasn’t going to return. He was a single father, raising four children, but that wasn’t his only incentive for staying in Utah.

“I fell in love with the classroom,” Pulfer says. “I love teaching, and I love design. I get to do both. I’ve become a better designer by being around students because I have to refine the principles I understand so I can articulate them clearly.”

Starting the New York City Tradition

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oon after joining the teaching staff at BYU, Pulfer decided to capitalize on his connections. He began taking students on field trips to New York City visit the top people in the industries of design, advertising, architecture and textiles.

“It was so unusual, back in the 80s, to be doing something like that,” Pulfer remembers. “We became known for our tour group. Out of that I started to see opportunities for internships.”

Friends and professional associates began to petition Pulfer for help in finding junior designers or filling other positions. He began recommending students for summer internships. Before long, word began to spread that students from BYU were talented, skilled and dedicated.

Merkley, now creative director at Bonneville Communications, went from Macy’s to Estee Lauder and on to Ogilvy & Mather before forming his own firm. He recalls the wide variety of summer interns with whom he associated over the years.

“I’d get assigned interns from other schools and they’d often be more trouble than they were worth because it was faster and easier to do it yourself,” Merkley remembers. “You could let them observe, but you couldn’t get any real work out of them because they weren’t prepared well enough.”

BYU students, he says, were the exception. They would arrive ready to hit the ground running, eager to learn, and having a great attitude and work ethic.

“You can’t get through the BYU program without being tested and proven,” Merkley remembers. “You knew when you got a BYU intern they were not only talented, but they’d deliver. The graphic design program does an exceptional job of preparing them and giving them real world experience.”

Pulfer with a group of his students

Preparing Students to Succeed

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ulfer is known as a demanding critic, but students are grateful for that rigor because they are prepared to hold their own in a professional setting. He says the program has a reputation for turning out students with professional-level portfolios.

Perhaps this outcome arises because he and the other faculty are constantly working on their own projects as well. As part of their annual contractual arrangement, BYU professors of design are required to produce creative scholarly work. To that end, Pulfer has done work for American Express, Crate & Barrel and the 2002 Olympic bid books. He also collaborated with his friend Merkley on the wildly successful “I’m a Mormon” campaign. He continues to work for the Multiple Myeloma Research Society.

While he shares his expertise with students, he also credits them for improving his talent, a symbiosis that raises the level of both his and his students’ portfolios.

Emma Vidmar, a graphic design student, knows exactly how much work goes into those portfolios. For a year she labored over hers, refining it, taking guidance and incorporating correction. When she got to her interviews in New York City, she was pleasantly surprised by the compliments her book received. Within an hour of her first interview, she was offered an internship position at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Emma Vidmar

Emma Vidmar

“This is a really competitive program and very time-consuming,” Vidmar says. “But that’s invaluable because when it came to the internship, I was used to a demanding schedule and tough critiques.”

When she arrived for the summer, Vidmar was immediately placed on a team with a project doing actual work on the recently released Martha Stewart Whim Collection. She felt like she was a valuable asset to the team.

“I took critique really well,” she says. “When my senior art director gave advice, I could easily accept it. Our program prepared me for that.”

Chad Losser, also a design student, interned at MKG Marketing Agency. He credits his professors at BYU for giving him a solid understanding of basic design principles and his internship experience at MKG with providing him the opportunity to interact with clients directly.

“It’s been instilled in all of us the need to stay away from mediocrity,” Losser recalls. “Every one of [the faculty] does a great job of fostering an atmosphere where we can all get really involved with critiques. Then when we’re actually talking to clients we can consider their desires and meet their needs.”

The graphic design program teaches students how to work on projects from beginning to end. Starting from the early stages of building a creative brief, moving into thumbnail sketching and ideation, and culminating in execution and the final product, students gain a firm understanding of the creative process.

Losser says he uses these patterns he was taught for every project.

“I’ve learned that an understanding of the basic rules of graphic design are essential,” Losser says. “And those principles can be applied across the board to all forms of design.”

Pulfer teaches this very principle using a quote by the famous Italian designer Massimo Vignelli: “We believe that a designer should be able to design anything, from the spoon to the city, because the basic discipline of design is one, the only things that change are the specifics.”

SOMA Design

Student Work

Student Work

Affecting the World for Good

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Vignelli’s ideal appeals to Pulfer in large part because of his passionate belief in how designers can affect the world for good.

“As designers,” he says, “we are the disseminators of information and we have great power and influence over that information. We have a responsibility to be disseminating truth.”

Vidmar sees her professors reflect this responsibility in the conversations where they discuss how design principles interweave with the gospel.

“We talk about how design relates to the gospel,” she shares. “We have this creator, and the idea that God has designed this world and we are learning basic principles that deity follows.”

Pulfer is quick to note that, just as the professors and students draw out the best in each other’s portfolio work, they also strengthen one another in this combination of spiritual and secular learning.

“These students come eager to learn and they quickly become very good at what they do,” he says. “They come with a good moral and ethical foundation because of their upbringing and the environment BYU provides. The program continues to instill those in them.”

Pulfer believes this combination of moral integrity and a traditional grounding in the fundamental principles of design is why so many leading agencies and talent recruiters pursue BYU students. Among its admirers, the design program counts leading design talent recruiter Michelle Stuhl. Every year, Stuhl comes out to BYU to do a workshop for students. Pulfer points out that she goes to no other school, but she loves the BYU design program and the students.

“Michelle has become a resource for our students,” he says. “She gets frequent requests and likes filling them with our students because of their skillsets and integrity.”

That integrity is something that Merkley says is BYU’s hallmark.

“You can find talent anywhere, though BYU is very talented,” Merkley says. “But to find personal standards is really wonderful. There is a consistency with all the BYU interns, being totally trustworthy and reliable.”

Pulfer and the professors of design continue to encourage and push students to do their best. Students continue to follow their advice and are consistently being placed at top agencies and firms for internships and careers, all because they learn the basic fundamentals of design, from the spoon to the city.

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