On leaving Vassar
Nice Web Type readers know I like to stay very much on-topic. You may be wondering what this post has to do with web typography. I’d like to explain the working environment at Vassar College that encouraged me to grow my passion and practice typography daily, and also reflect on my time there.
My title at Vassar was Web Designer, and as web designers know that can mean many different things. At Vassar, it meant I had to have a good design sense and be able to hand-code websites with web standards — mostly markup and CSS, but also some JS and enough PHP to weave markup in and out without breaking a sweat.
Beyond those basics, my role was mine to shape. Typography has always been my passion, and Vassar encouraged me to pursue my interests for the benefit of my routine work. I was chosen for particular projects based on my interests, and I often collaborated with coworkers. I always felt respected for my contributions.
My freedom to learn and grow was supported in many ways, most notably: a staff of three other web designers, several super-human tech/content folks, and an art director with years of wisdom about web culture and web writing.
All of that in one place — within the college’s central communications office. Not part of IT, but working in partnership with IT for support and institutional stability. For Vassar’s web group, being within the communications office means collaboration with inventive writers, savvy media folks, and print designers with substantial art direction and production experience.
Vassar’s web group is responsible for over 130 uniquely designed websites. Unlike many colleges and universities, they do not use a design template. And unlike many design agencies, they continue to own the sites they’ve designed. This arrangement, Vassar’s approach to websites since the mid-90s, has led to rich, diverse design and meticulous, handcrafted code.
Carefully designed websites sit atop an infrastructure of institutional data. News, faculty bios, course descriptions, major requirements, etc., are stored in a single place, backed up, versioned, and distributed to any part of Vassar’s web presence where it makes communication sense. Wherever this information appears, it adapts visually to its context. Megg Brown gave a presentation on this infrastructure at HighEdWeb 2009.
How is this about typography?
Institutional priority toward a healthy web group and support for the ideas of tailored web design and smart content management equals lots of creative opportunity. For me that meant exploring web typography, keeping up with evolving web standards, and taking opportunities to think about the web in new ways.
I wish more places were like Vassar. Having worked elsewhere and having heard stories about other workplaces, I know it’s hard to find such respect, such creative potential, and such a close long-term relationship with the things you make.
Finally, many thanks
I could fill a book with nice things to say about Vassar, but here are just a few words of thanks to my excellent friends and colleagues in the web group:
Megg, thanks for always making time for me. When I was an intern, you taught me the intangibles that books couldn’t, and gave me productivity tips that I still use today. You made me a pro, and I wouldn’t be where I am without you. You are the hardest working person I know, not only in terms of volume and efficiency but because your resolve to do excellent work is unparalleled. On top of that you make conceptually difficult stuff seem easy as you apply it in real life, and you teach everyone else as you go. I hope you continue to write and speak, because people will love listening.
Chris, you’re an awesome designer. Evidenced by the care you show toward your work is the empathy with which you approach everything in life. Your rare mix of honesty, patience, friendliness, and open-mindedness, paired with your remarkable artistic talent, makes me believe the things you make will always matter to people. That should be wonderfully satisfying, and you deserve it. Thanks for being my friend.
Ray, I’ve told you how good you are at things most other people either overlook or choose to ignore. In part, that’s your natural aptitude for being thorough; but, it’s also a matter of responsibility. People can depend on you. I sure did, and you never let me down. I also have profound respect for your personal strength in battling, and overcoming, cancer. What incredible determination. I will always have you in mind when I face trials in my life. Thanks DUDE.
Kevin, you and I just talked about your growth as a designer. “You may rely on it.” “Signs point to yes.” ;) Thing is, your design work is already stunning, popular, and defining Vassar’s identity. I admire your will to improve, your speed, your resourcefulness, and your amiability even in the face of tedious challenges. You have yet to hit your stride, and I’ll have my popcorn ready when you do.
Tamar, your value to Vassar is inestimable. It has been my pleasure to learn from your decisions about color and composition, and to absorb your excellent photography in as much of my work as I could. You make us all look good, and you handle an assorted, urgent, arduous workload that would ruin lesser folks.
David, I guess I should write to you too. You do attend the web meetings. Come on, man! Despite the plain fact of your genius, I doubt you understand how important you are to everyone in our group, professionally and personally. You bring answers to problems, levity to stress, and common sense where it is scarce and needed. I will really miss working with you.
Carolyn, I can’t thank you enough for these years of guidance, conversation, editing, art direction, trust, patience, respect, and support. Everything I’ve said here in this post, you made possible by directing our group from its earliest days with prescience and fairness, and you continue to shape Vassar’s future by encouraging the group to grow and listening to them when they share what they know. You have helped me to be a more confident, capable person, and have shielded us all from the cynicism and monotony that corrode careers. I will always be grateful for your leadership.
Everyone, thanks for a wonderful five years. I’ll still be here.