Meet Vanessa Correa, UC’s Creative Director

Vanessa Correa, creative director for the University of California (UC), led the design team that unveiled the rebranding of the UC system last month. With a background in graphic design, Correa is a force in the art world. In an email interview, she provided insight into her job, her goals in creating the UC logo and how powerful good design can be.

The Aggie: What does your job as creative director of UC Office of the President entail?

Correa: I work closely with UC’s creative team and other creative partners to set the overall tone and look of our systemwide materials. I often act as the primary advocate to internal and external audiences for the concepts and work that our group produces. I’m both the coach and the cheerleader.

What was your vision for the new visual identity of the UC?

When we started, our goals were two-fold: first, to reinstate the systemwide seal’s authority and gravitas after years of casual, indiscriminate use; and second, to create a coherent identity that would help us tell the UC story in an authentic, distinctive, memorable and thoughtful way.

We knew that to be successful, we’d have to capture the essential qualities of California — qualities that are also essential to UC, such as being pioneering and innovative. We kept in mind the distinctive visual culture found here in California. Our state is not only a national leader but an international leader as well, so our focus on expressing the “California-ness” of the university meant thinking about how we could lead with our visual identity, too.

What are three adjectives you would use to describe the look and feel of the UC system as a whole?

Optimistic. Visionary. Essential.

In 2010, a book you designed to present to then Gov. Schwarzenegger led to restored funding of $305 million to the UC system. Can you tell us about the concept and design behind the book?

The design work we did was just one piece of very complex, long-standing and deliberate work done on the part of not just UC’s administrators, but also the students, faculty and staff. That said, we can engage decision-makers with great design, and it’s a powerful tool for changing hearts and minds.

The 2010 brochure we developed was on behalf of all three segments of California’s public higher education system, and it was created on a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, it was greeted enthusiastically by state lawmakers and went on to receive regional and national design accolades. It proves that good design doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective. It just needs to be thoughtful.

In general, how do you think good graphic design works with today’s communication and technology to influence decisions?

Design is the driver and the motivator. Design is the shape of our cares. It signals our values. Some argue that design is the icing on the cake, the “make-it-pretty” moment. But this ignores the fact that shaping “content” is an expression of your (or your organization’s) point of view. It’s the language of priorities, and it influences everything from politics to commerce to personal relationships.

Tell us a little about your background and how you’ve gotten to where you are today.

My trajectory is a bit unconventional. I have a bachelor of arts degree in humanities and a master’s degree in design. I worked as a photographer, educator and designer at a small museum in New York, and then spent a few years in Chicago as vice president and creative director at a public affairs firm before starting my own design studio.

I’ve always been extremely motivated by working for cultural and educational institutions and not-for-profit organizations; design can be an effective avenue for prompting significant cultural and social changes. So, when I got the opportunity in 2009 to work with UC — the best higher education system in the world — of course I said yes.

With a recent feature in Rue Magazine, a collaboration with Moda Operandi, and over 500,000 followers on Pinterest, your influence as a taste-maker is impressive. How has your background in graphic design and creative direction allowed you to wield influence in other fields, such as fashion?

Successful creative direction is frequently an exercise in quick and accurate curation. Which ideas are worth pursuing? What is aesthetically successful? Honing my ability to answer these questions, educating my eye and exercising the curatorial skill on platforms like Pinterest has allowed me to think about design in a more holistic way.

But while graphic design has been important in developing that “curatorial stance,” I’d also say that my background in the humanities has been even more important. Understanding the historical context of objects, being able to situate a design — whether fashion, architecture or graphics — provides a frame to evaluate work. I’m more comfortable in a broader “curatorial” space than with the more limited title of “creative director.”

Where do you find inspiration and what/whom do you find inspirational?

As most people will say, you can find inspiration anywhere. Inspiration is simply a result of curiosity. Curiosity prompts creativity.

But if I must answer: Myrna Loy in the original “The Thin Man,” Axel Vervoordt’s interiors, Paris, Lucia van der Post’s style advice, Frida Kahlo’s self-presentation, fashion designer Jason Wu, Jane Austen, anything by Giacometti — and while we’re thinking about it — Brancusi, Agatha Christie, Marcel Duchamp, Antonioni, current “It Girl” Giovanna Battaglia (does she ever look bad?), everything made by Hermes, Man Ray’s photos of Lee Miller, Joao Gilberto’s music, Tilda Swinton, the novels of Paul Bowles, cellist Pablo Casals, desert explorer Isabelle Eberhardt.

And, of course, my family.

STEPHANIE B. NGUYEN can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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