Brad Pitt nearly drove Professor Nancy Bernardo crazy last winter. But the new full-time faculty member, now embarking on her second year in the program, was not caught up in any typical US Weekly “Brangelina” hype. On the contrary—Pitt was the subject of a series of clever collage illustrations Bernardo was crafting for Deconstructing Brad Pitt, a film and media visual studies title recently released by Bloomsbury Press.
This has been a busy year for Bernardo, who relocated to Rochester in the summer of 2013 from New Orleans, where she taught at Loyola University. Balancing professional projects with her academic work has long been a part of her regular routine, ever since she started teaching in 2006 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). In 2012, while teaching at Loyola, Bernardo became the designer for The New Orleans Review, a biannual literary magazine that is a joint effort of Loyola’s Department of English and the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing.
It was in the same semester that she interviewed for her current position at Rochester Institute of Technology—Spring 2013—that she designed the fateful Volume 39.1. Bernardo did not realize at the time that 39.1, an anthology of seven writers’ works, would be an award-winning issue. It took her by complete surprise this fall as a regional triple threat, earning the Judges Choice award from AIGA Upstate New York’s “New York State of Design” competition, Best of the Region Winner (East) for Print Magazine Regional Design Annual 2014, and a HOW Magazine In-House Design Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Nonprofit category.
Coincidentally, Bernardo had just put the most recent issue to bed when she learned about the awards for Volume 39.1. Her friendly face, framed by her wild scarlet curls, conveyed a look of sincere surprise as she told the story of the awards. “When I found out, I just didn’t believe it,” she recounted with a shy smile. “I got the emails and thought it was some kind of scam!”
“Every time I finish designing something, I think it’s better than the last one,” she continued. “I’m always excited while working on a job or piece, especially seeing it after it’s first printed, but then I get over it pretty quickly, because I’ve looked at it for so long.” Bernardo had put Volume 39.1 out of her mind because she designed it a year before the awards were granted. The editor of New Orleans Review was equally surprised when he received her phone call with the good news. “He said, ‘Oh! I love that issue,'” she recalled, “‘But the one that you just finished is so kick-ass!'”
Each cover design takes Bernardo about a week of intensive conceptual development. She spends another month designing the rest of the magazine. “It goes back and forth between me, the editors, and the writers so much,” she said as she explained the process. “Getting it printed usually takes about a month, too.”
The design of Volume 39.1 addresses the age-old challenge of designing an anthology cover that somehow takes into account all of the contributors without being predictable or boring. “I was thinking of a typographic solution, but I also wanted to have imagery, and I was trying to figure out how to incorporate the feel of all of the writers,” Bernardo said of the award-winning issue.
For the cover design, “I ended up taking all of their initials and used old typefaces from the Victorian era that integrated in with the imagery.” Inside the book, “each author’s frontispiece uses their initials on the title page, along with other components from the cover collage,” she explained. “That’s how I tried to tie it all together.” Because it was a summer issue, Bernardo found a vintage image of the Jersey Shore to use in the background. “You wouldn’t necessarily know that’s where it’s from,” she said of the image. “I cropped and enlarged it, so you can’t really tell.” Like the design of Volume 39.1,
Bernardo’s other work also conveys her dynamic wit as well as her love of letters. “I was actually an English major in college,” she said. “I came to design through a love of typography that stemmed from my love of words.” That love affair began during her undergraduate experience at Valparaiso University in Indiana. “My senior year, I took a graphic design class. I knew text was involved, and that interested me because of my English major. I fell in love with type immediately. I read so much, and I loved words,” she recalled. “My professor in that class had suggested graphic design, either to go back to school or to pursue it in some other way.”
Bernardo’s meandering path from that first design class to her current professorship saw many surprising turns—and geographic locations. “I didn’t know what to do with my life after college, so I moved to Alaska for a year and did art stuff in Anchorage with kids and teenagers who had emotional issues.”
She returned to the contiguous states the following year, settling in Chicago this time to work at Rizzoli. “They’re an Italian publisher that creates beautiful art, coffee table, design and architecture books,” Bernardo said, wistfully describing her time there. Though she enjoyed the experience of being surrounded by so many gorgeous books, she knew she did not want to spend the rest of her life working in a bookstore.
Her next stop was a certificate program in Desktop Publishing at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, PA. “It was the late 90s, and everything in the design industry was starting to change,” she said. Following that program, her first “real” design job was at Bell Atlantic. “It wasn’t glamorous, but it definitely taught me solid production skills and the nitty-gritty aspects of design that you might not actually learn if you were in an amazing job right out of school,” she said.
Chicago beckoned her back, however, and there she first found an in-house design job with a local real estate development company, and later ended up at Rotary International. “I loved doing the annual reports at Rotary,” she said. “I would make these really artsy-fartsy looking things, but they would want a photo of white guys shaking hands on the cover. And colleagues would say, ‘Nancy, these are beautiful but they’re not going to go for that.’ I’d tell them, ‘Yeah, I know—I’m just trying to sneak one through.'”
And occasionally, she did. But soon, Bernardo didn’t have to try to sneak her designs through approvals anymore. “I started making all the swag for their huge fundraising and donor dinners—books with all the donors’ names, invitations and reply cards—I could always highly design these things, and play with paper. I think that’s when I became obsessed with paper.”
Bernardo’s creations were not limited to two dimensions. She began designing elaborate centerpieces for these important dinners—all from paper. Many of the events featuring the centerpieces were held overseas, but the ever-imaginative Bernardo found an ingenious way to transport them. “I started designing them as pop-up centerpieces,” she said. “I had a lot of freedom to mess around.”
She keeps that spirit of experimentation alive in her classes in the Graphic Design program at RIT, where she teaches History of Graphic Design, Design Imagery and Typography. She has also taught Information Design and Interactive Media Design. RIT is her third full-time teaching post, following positions in Missouri and New Orleans.
In fact, teaching History of Graphic Design is the primary reason Bernardo applied for her current position at RIT. “I absolutely love Graphic Design history and teaching that class. Looking at the past to help inform my work is a key component to my practice as a designer. I also love to see how contemporary designers have been influenced by historic movements and styles.”
She has an equal passion for typography and image-making. “They are my other favorite topics, and relate so well to the work I do,” she explained. “I think it’s important for me as an educator to also be a practicing designer which allows me to bring my experience into class. My classes are built around my own personal processes for working and creating. I don’t believe my way is the only way to create, but my hope is that it will help students find their own methods of creating and exploring.”