Graphic design student Drew Gaerlan is looking forward to helping shape future trends and inspiring creativity in others
By Caroline Andrade
Drew Gaerlan was around 19 years old when he began studying to become a computer programmer in San Francisco. Every day, Gaerlan would take BART from Daly City, where he resided, to the Montgomery Street station and walk down New Montgomery Street to get to his classes on Howard Street, where he would pass by an Academy of Art University building every single day. “That was maybe foreshadowing the future that 20 years later you’re going to go here,” said Gaerlan, laughing.
Gaerlan joined the Armed Forces in 1997 as an Air Force Intelligence Analyst, where he spent the majority of his time analyzing intelligence from multiple sources and compiling the information into a visual format for briefings given to military leadership. He was creating visuals from the information and research, something he said went right along with graphic design. During his 20-year career in the Air Force, he also attended the Associate of Science (AAS) program from the Community College of the Air Force. He explained that the Air Force was the only branch of service which had their own accredited community college for “whatever the career field may be. In my case it was intelligence.”
He continued, “They have a degree program that’s similar to what you’re doing for your job, so the degree that I acquired was in communications. Since you can view graphic design as a form of visual communication, it kind of goes along the lines of the academic path that I already had started.”
Fast forward to 2017, Gaerlan enrolled in the School of Graphic Design (GR) and started taking his first semester online with the Academy during his last posting at Barksdale Air Force base in Shreveport, Louisiana. He retired that same year as a Technical Sergeant, with his last duty title as Target Intelligence Analyst. Gaerlan returned to Daly City upon retirement at the age of 41 to spend his grandfather’s final years with him.
Now instead of doing research on the country’s adversaries, the GR student researches companies, brands, and products. “The thought process involved in creating visuals from the gathered information 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,” explained Gaerlan.
Unsure of his direction after returning home from the Air Force, Gaerlan thought about going to school so he could pursue a new career. Back in Daly City, he thought to himself, “Hey, the [Academy] campus is right here,” so he enrolled in on-site courses. “I saw that graphic design was something I could do to exercise my creativity because 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,” he said. “The Academy helped me adjust by giving me a completely different opportunity and a different outlook on life.”
What attracted him the most about graphic design was going back in time and seeing the history of design and being able to follow trends. “Once you are able to see where design was, you can kind of get a sense of where it’s going, so you’re able to throw in your creativity and kind of forge the new path by throwing out your designs,” Gaerlan said. “Maybe you can have some influences as to what the future design trends will be.”
To be in on that forefront of change is one of the things about graphic design that excites Gaerlan the most. “You are in the present and now you have all of this information behind you and you can kind of shape the future.”
Earlier this year, the GR student was awarded a $1,000 scholarship from nonprofit organization InspirASIAN at AT&T during Spring Show for a “good scholastic record,” according to GR Chair Emerita Mary Scott.
“I am very much honored to be selected,” expressed Gaerlan. “The Academy’s programs and classes are extremely challenging, especially since the field of design can be very subjective as to what is successful and what is not, as 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.”
He credits his typography instructor Nita Ybarra and Undergraduate Associate Director Thomas McNulty for their insight and pushing him to find the elements that make his designs successful.
“Drew was an outstanding student,” said Ybarra. “He really went above and beyond what was asked of him.”
Although 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 said. “Some freelance work can be done on the road as long as there’s available 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.”