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Steven Burgoon: The Art of Digital Design

Steven Burgoon: The Art of Digital Design


Steven Burgoon is the department chair of Mt. San Antonio College. He was a freelance graphic designer, consulting and teaching part-time for various organizations, including WesTech, WesCorp, Chaffey College and Westwood College. Throughout his career he has created, developed and produced successful, award-winning advertising and design for hundreds of companies including Performance Machine, BMG Entertainment, Citizens Business Bank, Toshiba, Dickey, Freedom Communications, Castrol, Goodwill Industries, Genius, University of La Verne, Biola University, Metroline Industries and many others.

Q: What influenced you to enter the field of digital art and design?

A: I entered the industry at the time when digital tools were beginning to take hold. I had a strong technology background and limited design experience and skills. I sort of entered into the field from a technology perspective and had to learn design pretty much on the fly.

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Q: How much does “thinking outside the box” help people in this field? Are there any kind of set rules going by which is a guarantee to success?

A: Creativity is extremely important. Especially today when people are inundated with marketing from every angle on every smart device. Thinking outside the box is part of the creative process. Connecting things together in a different way. Seeing things from a different point of view. But the rule in commercial art is that no matter how creative your art is, it must communicate an effective message to the target audience. The challenge is to create a visual message that is both creative and clear. It is easy to do one or the other. The best, most effective work does both.

Q: What are the most important qualities a good digital designer should possess?

A: In general, all the things that make someone good in any vocation willing to work hard, desire to learn, integrity, attention to detail. For the designer, he/she needs to master the principles and elements of design. This has nothing to do with hardware and software. Principles and elements of design are the building blocks of effective communication art. 

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Q: When you first realized that teaching was something you absolutely want to do? What were the difficulties you encountered first starting your career as a teacher?

A: I was the owner of a small, 12-person advertising agency. All during that time, I was teaching and mentoring other designers. I really enjoyed that part of the job. During that time, I was asked to do be a guest teacher for a week at a university. That was really fun. When I came back, I immediately sought to teach a class at my local community college. I few years later I sold the agency, did some adjunct teaching for several colleges, then was hired full-time at Mt. San Antonio College. The most difficult part of teaching for me was working out the rigor of a class. Sometimes I made things too easy for the students, other times too hard. Along the same lines, I found it difficult to manage a student population of diverse skills. Especially in the beginning of my teaching career, I would have some students with Photoshop experience and others who didn’t even know how to use a computer.

Q: What is the most difficult thing about teaching now? Describe your teaching philosophy.

A: There are two difficult things about teaching now. One I enjoy and the other I don’t. Even though it is difficult, I enjoy the challenge of keeping current with new technology and new media. It keeps my mind engaged. It keeps me fresh. I don’t enjoy all the administrative responsibilities, requirements, processes all the bureaucratic stuff. A little was fine but now there is so much non-class-related work that it negatively effects my classroom performance. 

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Q: How do you measure the success of a design? Is it more about individual perception or is it something universally perceived?

A: Depends on the design. If you are speaking of fine art, then that will typically be about the individual perception. If an artist creates a piece of fine art that interacts with someone in an individual way, then that art piece is successful. But in commercial art, success is measured in the message. First, is it the right message. Then, is that message communicated effectively to the target audience. So, for the target audience, the message must be objectively perceived. 

Q: Is creative mindset a must for this sphere?

A: Yes, definitely a must. Something that is not different is not noticed. And for any commercial art message to communicate to the target audience, they must first notice it. However, too many people think creativity is some mystical thing that some people have and others don’t. While I would agree that some people are more creative than others, being creative in our industry is much more about the creative process. If someone masters a process that includes research and ideation, that person will produce creative work.

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Q: What advice do you usually give people who want to be successful in the sphere of technology and digital art?

A: The world is full of people who work in this sphere, mostly doing poor to mediocre work. The competition is high and the pay is low for designers who do mediocre work. To really be successful requires paying your dues. Hard work, long hours, low pay. But if you put it in, you will rise above the mediocrity and there is where the real fun and pay is.

Q: Tell us about inspiring projects you have been involved in.

A: One of the projects I have been working on is creating an in-house, media design studio at my college, where students get to do real-world work.

Q: How do you measure the success of a design?

A: Does it work? Does it do what it intended to do.

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