We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Noel Dolan a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.
Noel, looking forward to hearing all of your stories today. Let’s start with education – we’d love to hear your thoughts about how we can better prepare students for a more fulfilling life and career.
I can only speak to education in graphic design both as a current instructor and former student, but I think in any education field, there is room for improvement. For the curriculum side in design programs, there’s not enough emphasis on layout and typographic skills. A lot of energy is devoted to Photoshop and Illustrator, but those only make components for the layout work that is so prominent in the design field. The other area for growth is branding. So many student projects focus on logo design, but never expand it to create full branding manuals and systems. In the advanced classes, I’d have assignments based on real world scenarios—specific creative brief, targeted demographic, and working within parameters of the brand and client’s wishes.
I also think there needs to be a focus on make a diverse portfolio with all types of work, learning how to talk about the concepts behind your work (as opposed to the typical “real estate tour” students often fall into), and how to curate your portfolio on the jobs you’re applying for.
From a career preparation side, there needs to be more information about what is out there in the industry. When I was in school, I wasn’t made aware that there were options beyond “graphic designer.” There are positions in production, apparel and packaging, environmental design, in-house, agency, and freelance. However, I will say many students graduate thinking they want to freelance right away. While that’s not necessarily a bad decision, the best advice is to work for someone else for several years. Learn the ropes, have a mentor to help you improve, learn business practicies. Students should graduate armed with knowledge of the numerous options available to them. Guest speakers from those in the industry can offer insight to what it’s like to get a job and day-to-day responsibilities.
Graphic design is an amazing field and the ability to get paid for being creative is extremely fulfilling. There is endless room for growth both in jobs and perfecting your craft. Like any job, it has its ups and downs, clients can be amazing and awful at the same time, and the field is highly competitive. This is why it’s important to make those improvements to curriculum to give graduates the best opportunities for success.
As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your back background and context?
Noel Dolan is an award-winning graphic designer and calligrapher who calls Colorado Springs home. She started her graphic design journey in elementary school with a bootleg copy of the original Photoshop. Once she became a grown up, Noel attended Colorado State University and The Art Institute of Colorado. Her 19-year professional career is rooted in in-house design for non-profit organizations.
Noel began her profession as an intern at the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and later became the Art Director. In 2017, Noel joined the marketing team at Pikes Peak Community College as the Art & Graphic Design Coordinator. In 2022, Noel was promoted to Art & Graphic Design Manager. In addition to her full-time job, Noel also runs Noel Dolan Creative, teaches multimedia graphic design at Pikes Peak Community College, teaches calligraphy at Ladyfingers Letterpress, and served on the board of AIGA Colorado Springs for 5 years, including 2 years as the Field Director.
Throughout her career, Noel has earned over 30 professional awards on the local, regional, and national level from the American Advertising Federation (AAF) and the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations (NCMPR). In 2019, she was named the American Advertising Federation (AAF) Colorado Springs Designer of the Year.
In 2021, Noel received the American Advertising Federation (AAF) Silver Medal, which is the highest honor from AAF. The Silver Medal honors professionals in design and advertising who’ve produced excellent work and have made significant contributions in their community to the field of advertising and design.
Noel Dolan Creative, her part-time freelance business, specializes in print projects—primarily layout and branding. Her strengths are creativity, organization, problem solving, and seeing the big picture to create effective systems. Noel’s next project is to venture into the world of UI/UX design, which still incorporates her love of type and layout, but conquers a new medium.
Noel believes in giving back to the creative community’s next generation. While at Pikes Peak Community College, she has mentored numerous design students and marketing interns, hosted free InDesign workshops for graphic design students, and teaches two classes: Typography I and Typography II. Additionally, she reviews student portfolios yearly as a part of the AIGA COS annual portfolio review. Her passion for education and mentorship blossomed after getting the opportunity to work at the college.
Noel am most proud of consistently improving her craft through self-study. She’s never had an art director to mentor her. Noel worked really hard to study design in her spare time, try new things, watch tutorials, and push herself creatively. The best client project Noel has ever worked on was designing a new line of packaging for Sakura’s relaunch of their Permapaque marker line. Noel used Sakura products throughout her career, and to land them as a client was a serious fan girl moment.
When Noel isn’t designing, she’s lettering, cooking, reading, watching reruns of Friends and The Office, snuggling her cats, and traveling the world. She’s been lucky enough to visit 30 countries on 4 continents, and these adventures serve as the greatest inspiration for her work and rejuvenating her creativity.
Can you share a story from your journey that illustrates your resilience?
The last 5 years working for my previous employer were an immense creative challenge. It was under new leadership, and my design work was belittled and boxed into standards that weren’t the best solution for the audience group. It was a battle met with endless brick walls that was discouraging. I was even told I’d wasted my life pursuing a career no one cared about. It was heartbreaking. I wanted to leave, but unfortunately, the job market in Colorado Springs is a tough one and I made good money with great benefits. As a single person, I didn’t have another income to fall back on with a partner, so I had to wait to find the right opportunity. I kept fighting, and I refused to give up. Eventually the hard work paid off, and I landed my dream job at Pikes Peak Community College.
While I would have preferred to ended my time with my previous employer on a positive note, especially since it had been good experience in the beginning, the adversity I faced made me a better designer and made me strong enough to face the hard things in life and my career.
For you, what’s the most rewarding aspect of being a creative?
Being a creative is an amazing thing. I get paid to to manifest wild ideas and spend all day perfecting them. Every day in the creative world is different, there’s never the monotony that comes with so many jobs. I have a passion and a craft for what I do, Learning never ends—there are new trends, new software, and new things to learn all the time. I can still do this career 20 years from now, and while it will use the bones I learned in school, it can be dramatically different. I’ve always said that if I won the PowerBall today, I’d still be a designer tomorrow. Sure, it’d be on a beach in the French Riviera, but I cannot imagine a life where I don’t get to create every day.