By Day by Night – Meighan Ellis, AUT
By Day By Night is an interview series that profiles graphic design tutors from design schools throughout New Zealand. We learn about their role as a teacher and their own personal design practice.
Today we hear from Meighan Ellis who works in the Communication Design Department at the School of Art + Design at AUT.
What is your official title?
I am Senior Lecturer in the Communication Design department at the School of Art + Design at AUT.
What does a typical day at AUT look like for you?
The day-to-day is always in a state of flux but the constants involve preparing for studio tutorials and lectures, gathering resources and materials, dipping in and out of research projects, prototyping and testing, recalibrating content and curriculum, face-to-face and online meetings with students, colleagues and collaborators. And it goes without saying––the inbox.
In an online paradigm (as we currently now find ourselves once more) a typical day does not quite exist. Time is very strange teaching remotely––as it is both slowed down and sped up. My WFH daily groove involves translating face-to-face studio curriculum to the virtual classroom; connecting with students, keeping them engaged, motivated and inspired with their design process and projects they are working on at home and to coordinate and align with our team teaching across a diverse, fast-paced programme.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your career path, and how you got into teaching?
I graduated from the School of Architecture + Design, Victoria University in 1999, majoring in Photographic Design and Time Based Media as my minor within a four year design degree programme. It was an extremely interesting period as we were required to master analogue photography––often shooting colour transparency on large format cameras either in the studio or on location, with both available light and strobe lighting systems. We did all our own darkroom processing and printing and in our final year digital printing and Photoshop became the new tools, so we had to upskill very quickly to enter the commercial market and industry.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this haptic, technical and methodical training, to learn to take, make and craft images, slowly and deliberately as analogue affords.
The first paper I ever taught on was The Portrait, Figure and Fashion in Photography. I was asked to lecture after I graduated as I had started shooting editorial, fashion portraits and fine art commissions. It was dangerously fun, the students made work that was exceptionally inventive as there was no Pinterest or Instagram, so their concepts, processes and final work came from highly creative, intuitive states, lived experiences and unspoiled imagination. They were unencumbered and untainted by social conventions or online trends.
I have since lectured and coordinated a multitude of courses in photography, visual communication design, fine art, professional practice and research at tertiary level for over two decades in Aotearoa, alongside my multidisciplinary practice.
Outside of work hours what creative projects and/or research are you involved with?
I have always had a pot of photographic shoots or collaborative projects simmering away or boiling over in the background––from portrait, fashion, still life, location shoots et al, alongside making work for research outputs or exhibitions. I am working on a new body of work, some tests for my PhD research proposal, and I recently assisted with the curation for my partner’s solo exhibition, contributing also as a photo editor and writer for his self-published photo book (unfortunately now both postponed due to lock-down). He is a senior designer and accomplished photographer and we have often ‘worked’ together or assisted each other on creative or commercial ventures in the twenty plus years of being together. Like many––I’ve had quite a few exciting projects come to a standstill due to Delta.
What are you currently exploring in your design practice right now?
A couple of upcoming projects (currently paused) will feature work from my extensive archive and another will be recreating hyper-real, artificial and fictitious sites. I am on the cusp of stepping into a PhD project which will focus on practice based research––which I am extremely excited about as I get to think, dream, test, read, make, write on rotation which is the ultimate pleasure and privilege as a creative practitioner. It is something that I have wanted to do since completing my Master’s degree but the timing was never right. I am in quite a reflective mode, somewhat forced by this recent lockdown–––currently looking back over my practice and wanting to go deeper, and push it forward to the next level.
How does your personal practice feed into your role as an educator?
Finding the magic, pioneering a new path, being authentic and having a point of view are important values I try to impart. Nourishing curiosity and looking carefully at the details are also principles I champion. A favourite phase in the creative process is the research, testing and identifying connections, to discover anomalies and the unexpected, to take risks. I love solving a good (design) mystery.
What are you inspired by, and how do you keep the momentum for your personal work alive?
My extremely talented and diverse creative community and their projects (when I get to see them)––they are also incredibly supportive and encouraging. Leaving the city and journeying on roads or seas less travelled is essential. I used to joke that I was born in a tent as my Dad was a surfer and I have beautiful memories of endless summers at the beach. Camping is in my DNA, so going off the grid, sleeping under the stars, being on/under water and getting feral for at least a month each year is how I reset my cache.
My partner is also a surfer and mountain man so we are often adventuring and discovering new vistas and horizon lines. We’re obsessed with finding thermal water when we’re on the road shooting or rock hounding. After working online throughout the lockdowns last year, they healed, repaired and filled us with so much wonder and gratitude. So we’re now once more planning our next soak and emersion as soon as we are out of this lockdown. But I do also love the bright lights, big cities; live music, galleries, museums and other bourgeois pursuits––and which now feel like a parallel universe.
How do you balance these two roles – educator and practitioner? Are there any particular benefits and/or challenges?
The juggle is real! Working as a freelance hybrid for many years taught me how to focus, manage and value my time, to be efficient, pragmatic and prioritise. Teaching is an opportunity to be reflective of your practice, respond to industry and introduce some of the ‘wicked problems’ that are in front of us, and a practice is an opportunity to test, distil and refine––essential for expanding and evolving.
What are the best bits about working at AUT?
Our students are wonderfully talented, smart and caring––I learn so much from them on a daily basis and I love watching their journey from first year to stepping out into industry and embarking on their creative careers.
I am so fortunate to work in a collegial environment where we all speak the same language and can have a daily dialogue about all things relating to visual communication. We spend hours a week talking about paper or ink or light or ligatures or research praxis––super nerdy stuff but compelling for us. It is such a privilege and a pleasure to be able to share what we’ve spent decades building upon as practitioners, researchers and educators and to have the opportunities to collaborate, learn, test ideas and processes on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis alongside our colleagues and students.
The printmaking, book bindery and photographic facilities in the Art + Design department are on par with some of the best in world. The senior technicians that support and run these facilities have incredible specialist knowledge and are very generous sharing this with both students and teaching staff. We are all really missing these resources, spaces and the hands-on expertise and technical assistance that face-to-face learning affords.
What advice do you have for students emerging into industry this year?
The world is so hungry for content and good content is worth a premium–-communication design is in a golden epoch, so it’s a magical time to be studying the discipline and producing work.
So I would say: be open, lean in and embrace the challenges ahead. Work hard, ask all the questions. Keep learning––as a creative the learning doesn’t stop once you get the job. Be adaptable and flexible, learn how to compromise and contribute in a team environment. Celebrate your strengths and learn from your weaknesses. Identify what makes you––you. Step outside your comfort zone.
I also advocate finding your tribe as a necessity to survive as a creative, to find your community and collaborate––especially if you’re freelancing as you cannot create and connect on an island of one. Also nurture your side hustles––these can lead to exciting, rewarding opportunities and unexpected career twists and turns.
Previously, I would have advocated resilience, but learning in a COVID context: studying online and designing for digital formats, our students have learnt this first hand and have risen above so many complex challenges and obstacles with grace, resourcefulness and professionalism. It’s been very inspiring and encouraging to witness.
To add: a sense of humour is worth its weight in gold, as is a good accountant or a love for spreadsheets (if you’re going out on your own).
What are a few top resources that you might recommend to a new design educator?
So many! I am a photo and design book addict, so I wouldn’t say these are specifically my ‘top’ but a small selection of online resources for different occasions and contexts I dip in and out of:
And, finally, where can we see more of your own work (links to websites, portfolios, etc)?
I am quite sporadic but I do ’feed’ my Instagram with WIP and more regularly than updating my website. My fine art photography can be viewed via Sanderson (my gallerist). I used to love Twitter, but something had to give during the pandemic in regards to screen fatigue and doom scrolling.