Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dordt Alumni in Design: Sarah Franken

I graduated from Dordt in 2006 with a degree in Graphic Design and Art History. Almost immediately after graduation, I moved to Chicago to work as a graphic designer for The Field Museum. The Field Museum is one of the premier Natural History Museums in the country and is home to more than 20 million artifacts, the most famous of which is SUE, the largest, most complete T. rex fossil ever discovered.

There are currently seven full time graphic designers who make up the Graphic Design division of the Exhibitions Department. Our main job is to design and produce graphics for all permanent and temporary exhibitions developed by The Field Museum.

Since I started here, I’ve been involved in the design of over a dozen exhibitions, three of which are permanent. Most recently, I was lead designer on a temporary exhibition currently on display called, Lasting Impressions: Chinese Rubbings from The Field Museum. As lead designer, my work included comprehensive campaign design for the exhibition identity, all exhibition graphics and artifact identification. Depending on the size of the exhibition my work also includes exterior building banners, street banners, press kit materials, invitations, directional signage, and store merchandise. I’m currently co-designer on an upcoming permanent exhibition that will open in the fall of 2011.

Designing for exhibitions has been a challenging and exciting direction for my career. Environmental Graphic Design, as it’s known, is similar to print design but requires the additional understanding of architecture, interior design, landscape design, and industrial design. A successfully designed exhibition utilizes each of these parts to affect the space, the message and the visitor’s experience. As graphic designers it’s our job to organize the hierarchy of information in such a way that key messages are clear yet work with all other elements in the space and contribute to the overall mood. This can be a very challenging design task when scientists are dictating the content.

The exhibition design process is extensive (a permanent exhibition can take up to five years to develop and build). Being able to work, as part of a larger team is crucial. Coming to a final design solution that everyone agrees on requires a unified vision, patience, and several rounds of edits, but the pay-off in the end (watching visitors interact with your work and maybe even getting excited about DNA, for example), makes it all worth it.

As part of an in-house design department, my tasks also extend beyond designing exhibitions. On a daily basis I fulfill graphic design needs for various museum clients such as Education, Human Resources, Membership, Institutional Advancement, Guest Relations, and Marketing. Projects include event invitations, annual reports, educator newsletters, brochures, flyers, museum maps, educator guides and catalogs, signs, and banners.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to work at a museum. While at Dordt, people would ask me what I planned on doing with a degree in Graphic Design and Art History. At the time, I actually had no idea how these two branches would work together to form my career; I just knew that I loved both. I think it’s important to start with something that you love and follow it through. My career has plenty more paths ahead but I’m fortunate to have started where I did.

Besides my work at the Museum, I’ve had the opportunity to do some freelance work for a few non-profit organizations around Chicago. So far, these projects have included annual reports, announcements, signage and invitations. I’m hoping to expand my freelance work even more and can be contacted at

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