Dirk Fowler has taught graphic design at Texas Tech for more than 20 years and is even more fascinated with the art form than ever before.
A few decades ago, going to college to study graphic design may have been considered impractical to some people.
Today, it's a more popular degree than ever. With hundreds of accredited programs across the country, students are graduating into an industry experiencing its own kind of renaissance.
Fowler is an associate professor of art in graphic design at the School of Art, housed in the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts. Fowler has taught at Texas Tech for 22 years.
“There are things you get to see when you've been around for 22 years,” Fowler said. “What keeps me going is seeing the students who graduate out of this program and go do crazy, cool things.”
Some of Fowler's former students currently design Texas Monthly and work for Apple and Instagram. Another recently shot the cover for TIME magazine.
But Fowler doesn't brag on them for his own sake. When you walk into his office, it's clear he is just a guy doing what he loves to do – making posters and sharing that passion with students. None of the art hanging in his office is his own work, and the minute you sit down, it's clear Fowler would much rather learn about you than talk about himself.
It's not false modesty either. Fowler knows he's a good designer, maybe even a great one. But he still gets excited to learn something new. Perhaps that's what makes him such an effective teacher.
“My students go on to do way cooler things than I'm ever going to do,” Fowler said. “I don't take credit for any of their work. But it's cool to see them succeed and know I had some small part in their journey.”
Staying on his toes
As a friend might boast of listening to a band before their big break, in a similar way, Fowler got into graphic design “before it became cool.”
“Graphic design is changing in a way that's difficult to keep up with at times,” he said. “But I'm proud that I'm still excited about it. I am proud that I'm not finished. There are still so many things I want to do.
“This is a fantastic time to get into graphic design. As a society, the way we receive and share information is more digital than ever. That means there have to be great designers.”
Fowler hopes those designers come to Texas Tech.
“I love being around our students,” Fowler said. “They're so creative and have fresh eyes. They bring an enthusiasm with them that gets me excited about this all over again.”
His own journey
Fowler grew up on a cotton farm near Lakeview, Texas, between Childress and Amarillo. He was an only child raised by his grandparents, so he learned to entertain himself. He quickly discovered a love for drawing, so he practiced drawing anything he could see or imagine.
Tractors, hot rods and cotton were real-life inspirations. Then, he practiced sketching his favorite characters from “Star Wars.” When he craved a new challenge, he began to design posters for concerts and gigs his friends were playing.
“I have connected to music just as strongly as visual art throughout my life,” Fowler said. “I can't remember a time when I wasn't listening to music; it's always been a big part of who I am. I grew up on Grand Ole Opry and later got into to rock and punk. Music is a part of everything I do.”
Fowler enjoyed designing artwork for bands. One design led to another and soon, plenty of musicians requested album art and posters for their shows.
“I guess I found my niche as a graphic designer in the music industry,” Fowler said.
He was right. In the years since, he has designed artwork for artists such as Willie Nelson, No Doubt, New York Dolls and Wilco.
“I grew up looking at 12-inch record sleeves,” Fowler said. “I remember sitting crisscross on my living room floor holding The Beatles' “Sgt. Pepper” in my hands for the first time. The visual connected with me just as much as the music. It was all one experience. And that's what album art should do. It should be a visual representation of what we're hearing.”
While Fowler has designed album art, posters are his main medium of expression.
Posters as agents for change
Widely used in the 19th century to advertise new modes of transportation and manufactured goods, posters have grown into their own art form.
“Posters are one of few graphic design mediums that really stand on their own as an art form,” Fowler said. “But that doesn't mean they don't serve a function.”
While some posters are created merely for aesthetics, others are as much about function as they are form.
“From the time of posters being merely advertisements to later becoming an art form, you saw this evolution of posters also serving deeper functions,” Fowler said. “Think of the famous ‘I Want You' poster of Uncle Sam during World War II. That poster influenced thousands of young men to enlist. Something about Uncle Sam pointing at them made it personal.”
Other examples include “Rosie the Riveter” that encouraged American women to work for the war effort, the “Hope” poster used in President Barack Obama's presidential campaign and a chilling image circulated in 1907 by the Women's Suffrage Movement in the U.K. of forced feedings of women in prison for demanding the right to vote.
“I believe that graphic design is visual problem solving,” Fowler said. “That problem may be as simple as directing people to the right restroom. But graphic design also has the power to help solve these big, complicated social problems of our time.”
Fowler says that, to him, posters can influence people in ways words can't.
“You can use a poster to make an impact,” he said. “I do that in a way I could never verbalize. The visual impact is much stronger than what I could put into words. There are things I am very passionate about that I can't always express verbally. That's where graphic design comes in.
“A prime example of this is the Black Lives Matter movement. No matter where you stand regarding it, there is an image that when you see it, you know exactly what is trying to be conveyed. That's the power of good graphic design.”
At its core, graphic design is the embodiment of “show, don't tell.” Maybe that's what makes graphic design such an enticing profession right now. In a world of oversaturated information, opinions and news, perhaps graphic design is a reprieve.