Auburn's graphic design students receive hands-on design education in a professional studio environment, where they are taught by full-time faculty who are seasoned designers and artists.
When Auburn University departments need to hire a graphic designer, they don’t have to look far to find the best.
The graphic design program (GDES) in Auburn’s School of Industrial and Graphic Design is a hotbed of up-and-coming designers ready to take the world by storm. Great designers are produced right here on campus, and some of them stay beyond graduation to help promote a brand they love.
Accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, Auburn’s graphic design program offers a nationally regarded Bachelor of Fine Arts. Students receive hands-on design education in a professional studio environment, where they are taught by full-time faculty who are seasoned designers and artists. The School of Industrial and Graphic Design consistently earns top spots in national rankings, and leading industry publication Graphic Design USA has named Auburn to its annual list of top-ranked design schools every year since 2013.
There are more than two dozen GDES graduates employed in various roles on campus. These alumni put their education and skills to work elevating the Auburn brand and promoting their alma mater.
“We are so proud of the graduates who are working here on campus,” said school head Wei Wang. “They are all talented designers who use their skills to promote the Auburn brand daily. While we love sending our graduates out into the world, it's also nice to have some finding success here at home, too.”
Mary Huddleston, senior communications and marketing manager, Office of Communications and Marketing
"You can’t have a bad day when you have a photo shoot with Aubie,” said graphic designer Mary Huddleston.
Mary Huddleston always wanted to be a graphic designer, but she wasn't always aware of it.
“I originally came to Auburn to go into anthropology,” she said. “I had a friend who was majoring in graphic design, and I would ask him questions about the program. When he showed me some of his work, I recognized this was something I had already been doing, but I didn’t know what it was called!”
After graduating from GDES, Huddleston worked as a designer for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System for a year and a half before landing in the Office of Communications and Marketing (OCM). She spent several years working closely with the Office of Admissions before moving to OCM’s brand management team.
She now works with the marketing staff to design campaigns that reach across all media platforms and audiences. Huddleston feels the biggest benefit of working on campus is the resources available to designers.
“I always have access to new technology, and we always know what is new and different,” she said. “We are an Adobe campus, so we’re in touch with all their products and technology. As designers, we have plenty of resources for learning.”
While the technological landscape is changing rapidly for designers, it’s changing for design students as well, and Huddleston enjoys being able to observe how that translates to student work.
“Watching how the graphic design senior shows have evolved has been amazing,” she said. “There is so much they can do now for their final projects and so many different displays that were not possible when I was in school.”
Since Huddleston designs a variety of products for a wide range of consumers, every day at work is different. The best days, though, are spent with Aubie.
“I remember driving around campus in the office minivan, just me and Aubie,” she said. “The whole van is moving because he’s hanging out the window waving to everyone, blowing kisses and just being Aubie. You can’t have a bad day when you have a photo shoot with Aubie.”
Julie Barnhill, graphic designer, Auburn Advancement
After graduating from GDES, Julie Barnhill started a design services firm with several business partners. That work gave her a full-scale creative outlet and allowed her to expand her skills in strategy, design concepts and marketing materials, but it also had some downsides.
Julie Barnhill is a graphic designer for Auburn Advancement.
“Six years of entrepreneurship taught me so much about business, customer service, client management and how hard I can push myself, but as is often the case with startups, it also taught me about burnout,” she said. “I loved that I spent my days creating, but I wanted to find a way to do that sustainably. When I saw the opening for a graphic design position with Auburn, I knew it was the next step in my career.”
As a designer in Advancement, one of her favorite projects is designing Auburn Magazine. She enjoys hearing feedback from readers after each issue is printed, and their positive reactions make her job fun and rewarding. After spending time marketing other people’s products and ideas, Barnhill is happy to be in a position that lets her share her own enthusiasm for her alma mater.
“I love my job because I believe in what I sell,” she said. “I can whole-heartedly and authentically market Auburn to the audience because I believe in the product.”
Barnhill remembers how it felt to spend many hours in the studio as a student, but she recognizes those long days are what helped her build a solid design foundation. She recalls a turning point during an internship at a Nashville, Tennessee, publishing house when she realized her design education from Auburn had more than prepared her for the job.
“I saw that not only could I keep up, but I could add to the conversation in this environment with seasoned professionals,” she said. “After that, I understood I was getting quality training that would translate to a career.”
With technology more accessible than ever to broad audiences, Barnhill encourages students interested in creative fields to utilize online tools but to understand they are no replacement for a formal education like the one she received at Auburn. As an active alumna, she is involved with the GDES internship program, where she brings design alumni back to campus for roundtable sessions aimed at offering advice and feedback to current students.
“Graphic design alumni are achieving great levels of success and representing the program so well,” she said. “It’s the design thinking and the emphasis on research and process that is the value of my design education. I utilize a lot of the same methods today that I learned in school.”
Staci Sarkowski, director of communications and marketing, Office of the Provost
GDES grad Staci Sarkowski may have taken the long route back to Auburn, but as a graphic designer for the Office of the Provost, she is glad to be ‘home.’
“When you’re an Auburn person, you're an Auburn person, so the idea of working here is just so full circle,” she said.
After graduating from Auburn in 2000, Sarkowski and her husband moved to Nashville and then to Hilton Head, South Carolina. After another stop in Nashville, they finally landed in Charleston, South Carolina.
Staci Sarkowski is director of communications and marketing in the Office of the Provost.
“I told my husband, ‘I will not leave Charleston for anywhere other than Auburn, and if you ever have an opportunity in Auburn, that is the one place I will go,” she said.
When her husband did have that opportunity, they took the leap and moved back to town. Sarkowski had been working remotely as an art director for a handful of regional magazines, including Michigan Home & Lifestyle and Hilton Head Monthly, but she began to consider opportunities that would place her back on campus. She started working as a temporary employee for the Office of the Provost in 2019 and was hired full-time by the end of the year.
One of Sarkowski’s main duties is designing for the many special events hosted by the Provost’s Office, including awards ceremonies, faculty recognitions, meetings, leadership retreats and graduation. She creates every design component from logos and invitations to slideshows, reports, digital signage and banners displayed on the Haley Center concourse.
“I love everything about my job,” she said. “We are incredibly fast-paced in the Office of the Provost. There is no down time, and when we get word of something happening, we hit the ground running and come together to create great things.”
While Sarkowski always enjoys designing for graduation, her favorite project was the installation of President Roberts as Auburn’s 21st president in May 2022. There were only a few months of advance notice, and an outside company said the timeline was too short to complete a job of that scale. The Provost’s Office worked fast to plan this major event at the Gogue Performing Arts Center, and Sarkowski’s graphics were featured everywhere, including in the programs, on monitors around the theater and on stage during the ceremony.
“It took a lot of conversation and research, and the amount of time we had to pull everything together was really short,” she said. “President Roberts was very pleased with it, so coming up with the mark for that is something I’m super proud of.”
Sarkowski is grateful for her GDES education and her current position on campus, and she counts her blessings daily.
“I truly never take for granted the fact that I work at Auburn,” she said. “When I get out of my car and I walk onto campus every morning, I just think how lucky I am. It sounds cheesy, but I love this place.”
Zach Smith, student graphic designer, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering
Although Zach Smith is only a part-time student worker, he’s an important part of the communications team in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. He works closely with Engineering Research Administration to ensure grant proposals clearly communicate complicated engineering data, and having spent a year as a mechanical engineering major, Smith is particularly adept at his job.
“I can take the exact data they give me and apply an equation to show a specific scale,” he said. “My engineering knowledge really helps me better translate the ideas in the professors’ minds into something that can be read by anyone. It’s a little like speaking both languages.”
Zach Smith is a student graphic designer in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.
He also promotes the university by branding grant proposals with an Auburn design, even when they include faculty from other schools.
“I am trying to give image to Auburn itself so when people see the orange and blue, they relate that back to our university,” he said. “A lot of these graphics I’m working on are in conjunction with multiple universities, but we’re using the Auburn branding, Auburn colors and official Auburn licensing for documents that other schools and engineering colleges are looking at. We’re not just applying for grants, we’re getting Auburn’s name out there, too.”
Smith decided to apply for Auburn’s pre-professional Graphic Design program on a whim. He knew GDES is competitive, so he began his studies under the assumption he would not be admitted to the professional program and would change his major to civil engineering. Getting accepted to GDES turned out to be life-changing.
“In my first couple of semesters at Auburn, design just changed my perspective about everything,” he said. “Now my entire life revolves around design. Getting into the professional program sparked that in me.”
While many design students find a particular area of design on which to focus, Smith has taken a different approach to his academic experience.
“If I have an option between two professors, I’ll chose the one I haven’t taken yet,” he said. “I’m trying to pull as much information from everyone as I can because all the faculty and staff are brilliant. My goal is to get a different perspective from each professor.”
Smith plans on graduating in December 2024 and then moving to Ireland to study for a master’s degree and travel around Europe. Until then, he will continue working on grants while also assisting the College of Engineering’s creative services team with various projects, including t-shirt designs for student support offices and organizations.
“I was walking across campus the other day, and as I passed an engineering event, I saw so many students wearing a shirt I designed,” he said. “There’s something I made, and hundreds of people are wearing it!”