Full circle: A conversation with alumna, creative director, graphic design lecturer Jessie Irwin

Jessie Irwin

This fall semester, graphic design alumna Jessie Irwin returns to Fresno State as a lecturer to teach “History of Graphic Design” while also working as the Creative Director at Jeffrey Scott Agency (JSA) in downtown Fresno. By working in a prominent position in one of the premier advertising agencies in Fresno and teaching students who will seek jobs in that industry, it allows her to give back and prepare them with real-world scenarios and solutions. 

“Along with her artistic skills, Jessica Irwin brings her expert knowledge of the graphic design industry’s expectations as well as understanding of our local market. We’re delighted that she is now sharing all of this with our aspiring artists who look forward to entering the job market in the near future,” said Dr. Honora Chapman, interim dean, College of Arts and Humanities. 

We caught up with Irwin and asked her about her roles. 

Q: Can you take me step by step through your career since you graduated? 

A: The stack of business cards with my name on them is pretty thin. I guess that’s a good thing—we don’t have a high turnover at JSA. JSA picked me up as an intern while I was still a student. I started as a junior graphic designer after I graduated.

If you’re reading this, you know that at Fresno State, networking with the business community is sort of built-in; in the graphic design department, meeting and listening to guest presenters like print vendors, art directors and instructors who have been in the industry was just as important to me as memorizing dates. 

After working at JSA as a junior designer, then senior designer—I earned the opportunity to grow my role. The president of JSA, and fellow Fresno State alum, Bruce Batti gave me every opportunity to make things—and then make things better; I think there’s something in the creative brain that looks at everything and thinks of ways to make it better or smarter or more accessible. 

Q: As a student, why did you choose Fresno State?

A: Fresno State introduced me to a community and culture I didn’t find at San Jose State (I went there prior to coming to Fresno State). Martin Valencia was bringing in artists like Luba Lukova; the campus had a book signing with Deigo Rivera’s daughter Guadalupe; and my class actually hung out with each other. Mentors, like Martin, cared about why you were there, where you were going—and how to get there.

Q: Why did you come back to teach at Fresno State? What are you excited about?

A: I came back to Fresno State because of the community that brought me there in the first place. There’s a sense of service that comes with being a creative; this may sound lofty for a second but, I feel like it’s our duty as someone who can show people, visually, different ways to see the world; it’s the idea that art is a service to humanity. Historically, art is what changed opinions and guided people.

This goes back to things like printing and woodcuts in 15th century Europe—when religion was a huge part of people’s existence—showing the world, and the majority of people in it who weren’t artists, a visual representation of the Apocalypse or the place where you would spend all of eternity was freaking mind-blowing. I’m not talking about Thomas Kincade. I’m talking about helping people understand politics or religion or data or activism or feelings. I want the artists I’m teaching to understand that. 

It really helps when you’re artistically “stuck” to realize how much responsibility you have to humankind. That was sarcastic. It doesn’t. It makes it worse. But my class does help teach you how to get “unstuck.” I read somewhere that it’s like learning foreign language; it gives you a dictionary and it is slow at first to remember all of the words—but when you’ve practiced, it will flow. Flow is the key to creativity, making new things, and making new things better. We all need this visual dictionary to call on.

Q: What does a creative director at an advertising agency do? What does your typical day look like?

A: As the creative director, I lead a team of writers, graphic designers, artists, videographers, motion graphics artists; manage projects with account managers and executives, production companies with a common goal to serve our clients and the community. On any day I could be shooting a commercial, watching focus groups, meeting with clients, naming a new brand, writing scripts, photographing a set—or actually spray mounting printed paper to black matboard for a presentation (Yes, we still do this. Yes, it is still an important skill. Yes, all artists should know how to do this without glueing their hair/dog hair in it). 

Each day starts out with a handful of jokes and a few meetings; a lot of the time I’m laughing really hard and I’m afraid people think I’m not working.

Jessie Irwin at work at Jeffrey Scott Agency
Jessie Irwin at work at Jeffrey Scott Agency

Q: How do your students benefit from your agency experience? How do you bridge the worlds of business and education for the benefit of the students?

A: I can explain the benefits from my agency experience like this: remember when you were in high school trigonometry and the teacher could never answer the question, “When am I ever going to use this?”

Whether that’s drawing in flat planes or just learning to mount your project correctly for a presentation. I try to show them my own design challenges and real world presentations (with real world, blistering deadlines) and how inspiration was found in between.

Q: Where do you draw creative inspiration from?

A: I’ve read a lot about “sparking creativity” and different methods to try and bottle inspiration. Everyone is so different; I personally don’t think there’s methodology (or if there is I haven’t found it yet). I think the most inspiration comes from not knowing anything. If you assume you don’t already know the answer—that your solution or your style isn’t perfect—you allow yourself room to grow. It’s okay to not have the answer; it forces you to research: listen to a Podcast or collaborate with people who are smarter than you or read a few articles or find data or find more data or listen to a song or find a good instagram account. I don’t want anything I make to be predictable.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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