Speaking Through Graphic Design: Meet Karyn Jimenez-Elliott

For Associate Professor Karyn Jimenez-Elliott, graphic design serves as an outlet to channel her emotions. She is inspired to design for social impact both in and out the classroom, and with so much happening in the world right now she’s doing her part to make a wider impact — people have noticed.

Associate Professor Karyn Jimenez-Elliott.

This past August, Jimenez-Elliott was invited to create a poster to help commemorate the centennial of the 19thAmendment’s passage for an exhibit at the Haight Street Art Center in San Francisco, California — she was one of only 22 artists across the nation included in the show. In September, her portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was featured in the Washington Post along with the work of 16 other artists from around the world in a special edition of the publication paying tribute to the justice’s life. In addition, some of her work is currently on display at the We the Women exhibit at Moore College of Art & Design, her alma mater. The same exhibit was also shown at the African American Museum in Philadelphia last year. And just last month, her illustration of U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, had an overwhelming positive response on social media with more than 56,000 likes.

Poster Design: 19th Amendment by Karyn Jimenez-Elliott

“I’ve always been drawn to, although I didn’t always know the term for it, designing for social impact. When I take a job on [freelance or not], I want it to be more than just a cool logo or designing a cool poster for an event. I want it to be more meaningful, so I started taking on clients that meant more to me,” she says.

Her work covers a variety of causes including, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, get out the vote, human rights, gun control and more. And she’s worked with a diverse list of clients over the years, among them: Crayola, IGT, The Potter League for Animals, We the Women, Welch’s, Raising Smart Girls, The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, Granny Squibb’s Iced Tea and FM Global. In 2014, after the birth of her son Greyson, she also illustrated, designed and co-wrote (with husband Brandon Elliott) a children’s book, “The Adventures of Greyson & His Tiny Greys.”

First Comes Design, Then Teaching
Although Jimenez-Elliott fell in love with graphic design early in her life, she enrolled at Wilkes University to study anthropology and art. A couple of years into it however, she changed her mind and transferred to Moore College to study graphic design. “I’ve always been fascinated with society and everything related to it,” she says about why she wanted to study anthropology. “But shortly after, I realized [what] I really wanted to do was graphic design, so I transferred to Moore.”

Soon after graduating from Moore, she went on to work for a package design company outside Philadelphia — and that’s when her life changed unexpectedly.

“I happened to get a call one day, actually I was working at my desk, and it was the chair at Philadelphia University's design department,” Jimenez-Elliott says. “He told me he had seen [some of my work] and asked me if I would be interested in teaching an adjunct package design class — I was like 23 at the time.

Honestly, he changed my life. And as cliché as it sounds, I left my first night of teaching — I was so nervous — and I called my boyfriend at the time and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I need to figure out how to do this.’ So, I ended up giving my notice at my job within like three weeks, and applied to an MFA program at the University of the Arts to get my masters and started teaching,” she adds.

Jimenez-Elliot’s portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was featured in The Washington Post.

Before then, Jimenez-Elliott had never considered becoming a teacher. And she recognizes that if it hadn’t been for that one person seeing something in her she hadn’t yet seen; her life might be different now.

“I fell in love with design first, and then when I stepped into a classroom at Philly U, I absolutely fell in love with being in the classroom,” she adds.

In 2007, she moved to Rhode Island and started working as an adjunct professor at JWU. She quickly transitioned to full-time status and has been contributing to the department’s growth and development ever since. In her classes, she draws on her industry experiences by creating a project-based environment where she assigns students projects similar in nature to what she might work on with her freelance clients. Students learn all about the client-designer dynamic through these challenging assignments that mimic what it’s like to be a working graphic designer in the real world. 

Jimenez-Elliott transitioned to full-time faculty quickly, and every year since then has made an impact on students at all levels, from first-year students to graduating seniors.   

Jimenez-Elliott teaches a class in the gallery space at the Bowen Center.

“I really love watching students grow in the program, grow as individuals and grow as designers. It's always during sophomore year when something clicks, and it's just awesome to watch that in students and to see their passion grow. I mean, for me what I love about the classroom is honestly the students and just, I get to teach something that I'm passionate about — I love design,” she says.

Her teaching style is very hands-on and, in her classroom, students are exposed to deadlines and design project parameters similar to what they’ll find when they leave JWU.

“I am a project-based teacher, I don't teach out of a textbook,” she says. “I find that students learn and retain more knowledge in the software and everything else when they're invested in the projects. Because I'm so involved in freelance work, I tend to [assign] projects that I've been asked to design, I obviously reformat them, and I create a project write up for the classroom.”

You can't get lost in my classroom.

In her experience, her students thrive in this environment. “You can’t get lost in my classroom. I always meet with students one-on-one after class.” 

Students appreciate this relationship too, with many staying in contact with Jimenez-Elliott beyond graduation. “I see them as future colleagues in the design world, and there’s an element of mutual respect in my classroom.”

She adds that she’s developed a reputation for being tough in the classroom. “It’s funny, when I talk to my seniors, they tell me how everyone felt in freshman and sophomore year, that I have a reputation of just being a hard-ass,” she says laughing. “They just say that I’m a really tough professor, but then are quick to tell me [that] that’s why they like me, because I challenge them to give their best.

I feel like I’m a really fair teacher in the classroom. I have a good rapport with my students, but they also know that just because we’re friendly it doesn’t mean they’re not going to hand something in on time or that I’m going to lower the bar of my expectations,” she says adding that they’ll find the same expectations at a design firm. 

In addition to giving her students the technical skills to succeed in the graphic design world, Jimenez-Elliott encourages them to express themselves through their work. While classroom assignments might be similar to personal design work she takes on, she says she is careful to keep her personal or political beliefs in check. 

In our profession we’re really fortunate to have a really healthy way of expressing our opinions and creating and using art for change.

“In our profession we’re really fortunate to have a really healthy way of expressing our opinions and creating and using art for change,” she says. “What they’re learning about graphic design is that it can be for more than just creating a cool logo or a cool poster, that it can really make a change — it can help people. It’s important they use that skill set for something larger than just themselves,” she adds. 

This is the kind of passion Jimenez-Elliott brings into her graphic design work every time she sits down to work.

Speaking Through Graphic Design
Today Jimenez-Elliot’s work reflects causes she’s passionate about and which are close to her heart. But she believes her experiences growing up played an important role in her development as a graphic artist. 

“I was born in New Jersey and moved to a very rural, non-diverse, farming community in Pennsylvania when I was eight. I believe that my background and life experience of growing up in such an isolated community directly impacted me as an individual and designer.” Her father, originally from Puerto Rico, and her mother, who is of English/Irish descent, met in upstate New York. “They married at 18 in a very white town during a time when you didn’t marry others that didn’t look like you,” she adds. 

I try to be inclusive in representing those that don’t get fair representation.

“[In my work] I try to be inclusive in representing those that don’t get fair representation. I also feel passionately about all people having equal rights. I tend to design many of my personal projects while trying to process feelings towards current events. Many tend to promote the concept of equality and unity, whether in racial injustice, LGBTQ, immigration or women’s rights.” 

She notes that her graphic design work allows her to get into a mindset where it becomes easier for her to process the many things happening in the world, and in the U.S., lately. “Some people write and that’s how they flesh out their emotions. Design is my version of that, and most of my projects are my personal responses to things for myself, not anyone else.”

Visit Jimenez-Elliott's website to see her latest work.