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Drew Gaerlan: Aiming to Shape the Future in Graphic Design

Drew Gaerlan has taken a nontraditional approach to reinventing himself and his career. From his service in the U.S. Air Force to his current candidacy for a BFA degree in the Academy’s School of Graphic Design, he has employed his experiences and skills for continuous self-improvement.

In addition to studying Graphic Design at the Academy, Drew Gaerlan is a freelance photographer.

A Career Path in Plain View

Gaerlan was 19 years old when he began studying to become a computer programmer in San Francisco. To get to classes, Gaerlan would take public transit to the Montgomery Street station and walk down New Montgomery Street. That meant he passed by an Academy of Art University building every day.

Gaerlan incorporates letterforms into his photography. And he’s clearly inspired by San Francisco’s fog.

“That was maybe foreshadowing the future that 20 years later, you’re going to go here,” says Gaerlan, laughing.

In 1997, he joined the military as an Air Force intelligence analyst. He was creating visuals from information, something he says goes right along with graphic design.

During his 20-year career in the Air Force, he also attended the Associate of Science program offered by the Community College of the Air Force. He explains that the Air Force is the only branch of service with its own accredited community college for whatever a candidate’s career field may be. “In my case it was intelligence,” he says.

“They have a degree program that’s similar to what you’re doing for your job, so the degree that I acquired was in communication. Since you can view graphic design as…visual communication, it kind of goes along the lines of the academic path that I already had started.”

Back to School

In 2017, Gaerlan enrolled in the Academy’s School of Graphic Design. He started his first semester online with the Academy during his last posting at Barksdale Air Force base in Shreveport, La. He retired at age 41 that same year as a technical sergeant. Gaerlan then returned to Daly City to spend his grandfather’s final years with him.

Unsure of his direction, Gaerlan considered the options. In Daly City, he thought to himself, “Hey, the [Academy] campus is right here.” So he took the next step and enrolled in on-site classes.

“I saw that graphic design was something I could do to exercise my creativity. When you’re in the military, you have a strict regimen; you have to do things a certain way. There’s not much room to exercise your creativity. The Academy helped me adjust by giving me a completely different opportunity and a different outlook on life.”

From Gaerlan’s “Fog-Inspired Letterforms” series

Familiar Thought Processes

Today, instead of doing research on the country’s adversaries, Gaerlin researches companies, brands and products. “The thought process…is very similar. Now that I have this information, how do I create visuals that grab the viewer’s attention and clearly communicate the desired message,” he says.

What attracts him most about graphic design is going back in time and seeing history and trends. “Once you are able to see where design was, you can get a sense of where it’s going. So you’re able to throw in your creativity and kind of forge a new path,” Gaerlan says. “Maybe you can have some influence [on] what the future design trends will be.”

To be in in the forefront of change is one of the things about graphic design that excites Gaerlan. “You are in the present, and now you have all of this information behind you. And you can kind of shape the future.”

Honored for Accomplishments

Earlier this year, Gaerlan was awarded a $1,000 scholarship from nonprofit organization InspirASIAN at the Academy’s Spring Show for a “good scholastic record,” according to Graphic Design Chair Emerita Mary Scott.

From Drew Gaerlan’s “Fog-Inspired Letterforms” series

“I am very much honored to be selected,” says Gaerlan. “The Academy’s programs and classes are extremely challenging.… Design trends are constantly changing. Meeting the challenges of the classwork is a reward in itself when you can use what is currently out there as inspiration to create something new and exciting.”

Academy Mentors and Influencers

He credits his typography instructor Nita Ybarra and Undergraduate Associate Director Thomas McNulty for their insights and pushing him to find the elements to make his work successful.

“Drew was an outstanding student,” says Ybarra. “He really went above and beyond what was asked of him.”

Now that he’s retired from his military career, Gaerlan looks to keep moving forward in graphic design…and see the world while he’s at it. “I want to do a lot of travel,” he says. “Some freelance work can be done on the road as long as there’s a Wi-Fi connection.

“I want to be able to create something that someone will see and think, ‘Wow!’ If my creative work can inspire at least one other person to be creative, then that’s enough for me.”

Images courtesy of Drew Gaerlan,

Original article by Caroline Andrade of Academy Art U News,

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