Reinvented in Japan

Digital design students study 'wabi-sabi'

September 11, 2015

 Tregg Frank says he was reinvented in Japan. At some point, between roaming the exhibits in the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills and practicing the art of calligraphy with a Japanese master in Tokyo, his perception of design and of himself was transformed.

As a digital design student at CU Denver, Frank was able to enroll in the College of Arts and Media (CAM) summer international program in Japan this past May. International courses like this one are offered every year through the Office of Global Education. By stepping out of the classroom and into the world, students have the opportunity to broaden their perspectives and define their futures at the same time. That’s exactly what happened to Frank.

The program

Traditionally, the Digital Design and Illustration programs of CAM have had an annual study abroad program in Denmark, a course focusing on design to create systemic change. Brian DeLevie, associate professor and chair of the Visual Arts Department, founded the Japan study abroad course in order to broaden the school’s foreign study offerings.

“This particular trip to Japan was about “wabi-sabi,” which is a design principal in Japanese culture focused on the acceptance of imperfection,” DeLevie said. “We wanted to look at how the country’s past currently impacts design, in terms of branding, marketing and communication. The program also focused on methodologies, such as the design process, aspects of calligraphy and typography.

In four cities across three different islands in 17 days, this trip was designed to push the boundaries of an illustration and design education. With 18 students enrolled, the course exceeded expectations. “It took a lot of effort to put this new program together, but these courses change a student,” DeLevie said. “They change the way they think, and they are empowered to be better designers. We notice this in their level of production and their pursuit of new ideas and themes when they come back. These programs are well worth the effort.”

Behind the scenes

International courses like the CAM trip to Japan exist for all students with varied destinations—from studying architecture in Thailand, to business in Brazil and nursing in Nepal. During the 2014-15 school year, CU Denver had approximately 30 different international programs with an average of 12 students enrolled in each.

To participate, a student must have a minimum GPA of 2.5 and an essay, statement of purpose, or interview, depending on the course. “It was a really simple process,” Frank said. “I applied, interviewed and was accepted in no time. The coordinators in the Office of Global Studies answered all of my questions, and I really felt like they had my back in the process.”

Jessica Tharp, a coordinator within the Office of Global Education, works with students and faculty to organize each program. “There is research showing that students who study abroad are more likely to stay in school. They are more likely to persist from year to year, with increased confidence and a higher GPA,” Tharp said. “They become more worldly, with a greater perspective on life, not to mention the boost in their resume. We want students to study abroad for these reasons and more. It will change the way they look at their education.”

The results

Tregg FRank in Japan
Tregg Frank in Tokyo.

Frank left Japan with a new fervor for design. He had spent the majority of his academic year in a computer lab or a lecture hall. This trip allowed him to break the boundaries of his passion and experience another culture’s viewpoint on design.

“This trip changed my life and it wasn’t just because of the knowledge and experience we all gained,” Frank said. “It was the culture, the food, and the people we encountered. Because of this trip, I made life-long friends, countless memories, and plans to study design in a Japanese graduate school.”

DeLevie believes that the Design and Illustration students benefited from the variety of experiences, which included round-the-clock visits to design schools and commercial sites in Tokyo, tea ceremonies and shrines and cultural centers in Kyoto. “We toured many of the significant museums in the country,” Delevie said. “The students had so many unusual opportunities that they would never be able to experience on their own.”

What lies ahead

CAM offers more than six study abroad programs, including ones in Italy, Ireland, Denmark and Spain for sculpture, painting, photography, and animation students. A program set in Istanbul is in the works for the Digital Design program in years to come, so interested students should keep their eye out for more information.

Currently, approximately 400 CU Denver students travel abroad each year, but the Office of Global Education has pledged to double that number of students to 800 by 2020. These plans include providing more scholarships and funding for students, a higher social media presence and more diverse courses.