Richard Helfrich, a practicing graphic designer and assistant professor of art at
Youngstown State University, said he believes that while graphic design is a pursuit separate and distinct from fine art, the two categories share common roots and complement each other.
Helfrich said that when he is working with a commercial client to design a logo or label, he is not afforded much of an opportunity for self-expression because the client controls the content.
“I explain it to my students this way: Fine art is about self. The artist dictates what the message is. Graphic design is about the client dictating the message and the medium,” Helfrich said.
He said he hopes to teach the same lesson to the general public with his art, which is on display in the McDonough Museum of Art as a part of the Biennial Faculty Art Exhibition.
Helfrich holds a Master of Fine Arts and a Master of Arts in graphic design from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He came to YSU after teaching at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, where he served as chairman of the department of graphic and communication design.
He said he finds the artistic climate at YSU much more exciting than the equivalent climates at other schools he has experienced. He said he believes this is due to YSU’s strong fine arts program and its emphasis on art.
“I try to emphasize to my students the importance of fine art and how to use it from a graphic design standpoint,” Helfrich said. “I think one of the reasons I naturally gravitated to YSU was the strength of the fine art program.”
The work in Helfrich’s current display showcases pieces he created while working as a graphic designer for a client. He said he anticipates growth as an artist while at YSU.
He added that the work he submits for the next faculty art exhibit will be different from his pieces now on display.
“Working closely with other artists in the department, and seeing the kind of work they create, will certainly change me and the type of work that I pursue,” Helfrich said. “Two years from now, I’m sure I’ll have a much different exhibition.”
When Helfrich works with a client, he may not have a choice in the medium he will be working in, but his primary interest is typography, the artistic arrangement of type or font and the message that type communicates.
With so many images available from so many different sources, Helfrich said he feels that type can be more expressive than pictures.
It can be difficult to convince clients about the importance of type, Helfrich said, partially because of the ubiquitous nature and availability of digital images.
“Everyone is using stock images from various websites, and the images are often repeated or not very distinct,” Helfrich said. “Type, to me, is much more interesting in the message it conveys than a stock photo we’ve all seen a hundred times.”
Helfrich operates his own graphic design company — which works closely with Echo Strategies and Zola Design, two consulting companies in Pittsburgh — to promote graphic arts and design corporate logos for Fortune 500 companies like Bayer.
Helfrich served on the board of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, a professional association of design, Pittsburgh chapter, from 2009 to 2011. Since coming to YSU in August, he has remained active with AIGA, serving as a faculty co-adviser for the organization’s student chapter at YSU.
“One of the things I noticed when I first arrived at YSU was that I didn’t get a strong feeling of community from the art students,” Helfrich said.
Helfrich collaborated with Charmaine Banach, another recent addition to the department of art, to establish a student chapter of AIGA on campus.
“It’s been pretty successful so far. The students have gone to Pittsburgh for studio tours, they have their own meetings, they pursue their own fundraising opportunities and they network as designers,” Helfrich said.
The program’s strongest success comes from fostering a climate of camaraderie amongst the design students, he said.
“It’s starting to nurture a culture of designers hanging out with other designers and
getting to know each other,” Helfrich said.