From Gouache to Google

The creative technologies masters program gives alumni the diverse skills needed to succeed in a competitive job market.

Christina Lidwin visiting Mt. Rainier in Washington. Photo taken prior to COVID-19 and courtesy of Christina Lidwin.

Who knew that a fine arts program could help you end up in a hybrid designer and software engineer role at one of the biggest technology companies in the word?

That’s exactly how School of Visual Arts alumna Christina Lidwin found success as a user experience engineer at Google. The interdisciplinary skills she learned in the master in fine arts in creative technologies program helped Lidwin fill a hybrid role of utilizing her computer science background to build prototypes of software, but then also using her artistic skills to design the graphic interface of those programs.

“Without the creative technologies program, I would not even know the words to describe what I wanted to do with my career,” Lidwin said. “Being in creative technologies allowed me to learn that vocabulary, to become competent in the basic skills and then explore job opportunities within that domain. I really found my passion for user experience through the graduate program.”

In the program, Lidwin learned how to recognize and design for the decisions a user makes when they experience technology. These skills help her combine an artistic background with a technology background to uniquely prototype design and engineering concepts for the next generation of software interfaces.

Lidwin credits her success with Google to the program’s ability to provide interdisciplinary skills. Students in the creative technologies program are able to take a wide variety of courses ranging from art history, ethics, and history of computing, to virtual reality and game design, installation and sculpture to photography, and even coding as a form of creative expression to develop 2D or 3D animation.

“Interdisciplinary programs like ours allow students to learn both technical and conceptual skills that they wouldn’t learn outside of an environment like this one,” said Rachel Lin Weaver, assistant professor and chair of creative technologies. “We’re not training our students to work in a single pipeline. Our graduate students can learn a broad variety of practice and skills at a level that they can take out to be nimble in a job market where almost nobody has one focused skill anymore.”

With the competitive advantage of having the flexibility and openness of multiple skills, the creative technologies program has attracted the same kind of students that come from diverse disciplines. While some have traditional fine art backgrounds, just as many come from computer science, liberal arts and other fields, which provide a wide spectrum of making in a very small, intimate community.

Creative technology graduate student Eric Schoenborn works on a project in the Art & Design Learning Center on Virginia Tech’s campus.

One of those diverse students is current creative technology graduate student Eric Schoenborn, who comes from a coding background, earning his bachelor’s degree in telecommunications and working in various roles at the ACLU and Knight Foundation, among other organizations. Schoenborn was never a trained artist, but he scratched a creative itch over the years by creating art through technology as a “creative technologist.” Looking to find a way to develop and expand his artistic skills, he found the creative technologies program.

“At Virginia Tech, we have the space to work on things in a timeline that you never do as a working artist or professional, and the amount of expertise looking at your work is just something you can’t get elsewhere,” said Schoenborn. “The fact that Virginia Tech allows someone like me to exist and not be one thing one discipline or another is why I’m here.”

After graduating from the program, Schoenborn plans to continue with his art and storytelling by submitting work into festivals and freelance work. However, he has also considered potential avenues of teaching or creating a studio that highlights creativity through technology.

Thanks to the plethora of skills and courses offered to Schoenborn and other students in the program, there will be plenty of options to consider when looking to the future.

“Our creative technologies program, from a job standpoint, gives students the flexibility to think about a career in academia, social media trajectory, or just deepen their individual creative expression if they want to. Our students can do all of that with the resources that Virginia Tech has at its disposal,” Weaver said.

 

– Written by Jared Cole