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Professor Mike Wirth proves ‘design is all around us’

Drawing Made It HappenMike Wirth encourages students to find innovative ways to present information in his new media and design courses.

The bold lines and bright colors of graffiti in New York City set Mike Wirth's imagination on fire during his childhood in the 1980s.

The Long Island native was awed by the power of the images, and took inspiration from the individuality he observed within the street genre.

"I started emulating graffiti lettering, and then moved on to copying fonts I saw like Times New Roman," he remembers.  "I sort of fell into design in high school... I was never a good student in the traditional academic way.  When a teacher introduced me to 'thought bubbles' as a way to map out stories in English class everything clicked, and I understood that I was a visual learner.  Drawing made it happen."

He had always been a chronic doodler, taking inspiration from comic books and video games as well as fine art.

"Art was always a part of my family's life," he says. "A relative I'm close to is an art dealer, and she had things at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.  So we were always visiting those places, and I was lucky to be exposed to that level of work."

Wirth got serious about becoming a professional artist and went on to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree at Long Island University, and a master's in fine arts in design and technology from the prestigious Parsons School of Design.

He was an instructor at Parsons, Sage College in Albany, N.Y., ITT Tech, The Art Institutes, and finally at UNC Charlotte before coming to Queens in 2009.  He's also been a freelance designer since 2001.

"I love teaching the history of graphic design and I try to make it fun," he says.  Students in all of his classes say they enjoy the diverse challenges he gives them including exercises as basic as creating diagrams to illustrate how to build a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and as complex as using Flash and photography to tell ghost stories.

It's not uncommon to hear laughter resonating down the hallways of Watkins Hall as his students play design Jeopardy (with Powerpoint slides) and pull out their mobile phones to see whether he's posted clues on Twitter.

Wirth is also a prolific artist. Some recent works include graphics that show the evolution of the American flag and one that explains how bills becomes laws. The latter, created in partnership with Dr. Suzanne Cooper-Guasco, associate professor and Chair of the History Department, won the top prize in a contest sponsored by The Sunlight Foundation. See the graphic here:

Wirth and Cooper-Guasco received $5,000, and the project is earning media buzz via The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic and Comedy Central.

"My work uses design to present information," he says. "Some people would love to read a book about the history of the flag, how it came to be the image we recognize and the purpose of each of its symbols and so forth. But, for me, there is great beauty in using visual language to present that information. Instead of paint or oils, typography is my palette."

Wirth has won awards before for working including a film, "Finger: The History of the most notorious gesture" which earned Best Picture at the Ed Wood Film Festival, and an award at the Digit New Media Festival in 2005. You can watch it here:

He also won a grant from the National Science Foundation for Dance.Draw, a project that explores the kinetics of dancers and digital interactivity in dance performance. He was an art director and wrote software applications that rendered visuals to interpret the motions of dancers tracked by a custom designed sensor system.

Most recently, he earned funding from the Arts and Sciences Council to participate in River Docs in 2008. The exhibit documents the Catawba River in various mediums in works by six artists.

"When personal computers took off and people got to change fonts themselves it influenced new generations to pay more attention to the look and feel of their words in print," he says. "Now design is all around us."

He lives in Charlotte with his wife Brittany, their daughter Addie, and Winston, a handsome Great Dane.  In his free time he enjoys homebrewing, playing drums at open mic nights and trying to master the art of cooking out.

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