For the last 30-plus years, Dana Arnett, a 1983 BFA graduate of NIU’s School of Art and Design, has been a driving force behind one of the most successful creative agencies in the nation, VSA Partners. He returned to campus to be honored at the Second Annual College of Visual and Performing Arts Convocation with the first-ever Excellence in the Arts award.
As he reflects back on his time at NIU he thinks that, just maybe, what started him on his path to success was a setback in his sophomore year at NIU.
“The biggest lesson I learned at Northern was the lesson of failure and how much more you learn when you don’t succeed. How do you apply that to overcome obstacles and become successful?”
Arnett’s interest in graphic design was piqued as a high school student in Morton, Ill., a small town located between Bloomington and Springfield about three and a half hours south of NIU.
“Like many kids, I would suspect, who have a passion and a talent for art, I started around my junior year looking at schools, ” Arnett said. “At the time, I was doing a lot of graphic arts in my high school. Our school had a full printing shop and I was doing the posters for the plays, and logos for the sports teams. My counselor provided some insights and I also saw some literature. I saw a book in the high school library on “The Best of Advertising for the ‘70s.” That’s when I put two and two together and I saw that you could make a living out of it.”
NIU was one of “six or seven” schools that Arnett applied to, and after submitting a portfolio to the chair of the School of Art and Design he was awarded a sponsored admission.
“I was all set. I arrived here in the fall of 1979,” he said. “It went swimmingly, well the first year and a half.”
Despite good grades and recognition from visiting experts on his work, Arnett’s portfolio submission in his sophomore year did not earn him admission into the school’s visual communications program. He suspects that it wasn’t a question of his talent that denied him entry into the program, but rather that his work was deemed by the review committee to be too experimental and didn’t fit into the rigid style of design that was common, and popular, at the time. He found himself at a crossroads, and at a very fortuitous time, a mentor emerged.
“That’s how I got to know Manny Hernandez,” Arnett said. “He was a professor who ended up coaching me through that little bump in the road.”
Hernandez encouraged Arnett to pursue another course of study in the school, and in hindsight, Arnett contends he was ultimately better off for it.
“It was a turning point for me,” Arnett said. “I found a degree program called comprehensive design. Instead of focusing on visual communications, it had a multi-disciplinary tract where I took various courses on graphic design, interior design, product design, and at the time, computer-aided design. That really gave me a fantastic, diverse and comprehensive portfolio. It also made my portfolio unique when I went out and interviewed in Chicago.”
Arnett encountered a second mentor at NIU when he attended a talk by visiting lecturer, Robert Vogel during his junior year.
“[Vogel] was an internationally recognized designer in Chicago,” Arnett said. “He had come out to do an event here on campus and I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, I really like what I heard today, and is it OK if I stay in touch with you or contact you when I come to Chicago?'”
Bob was really my professional mentor coming out of school and he really showed me the way. From understanding the meaningful role design has in business all the way to how you create a sustainable company. That’s not the strong suit of many creative folks.”
“How do you design a company that is as enduring and powerful as the work you design?”
“He was very much a person who steeped my early career in that kind of sensibility and that kind of entrepreneurial strive for excellence.”
After graduation, Arnett worked what he deems two “journeyman-type” jobs in Chicago before another fateful encounter with Vogel.
“I started to become antsy to do something different. I took a lunch with Bob. About two weeks later he said, ‘I’m starting over, and starting a new little firm. Do you want to be a part of it?’ And so, from 1985 to his present day, I’ve been on this journey called VSA Partners.”
VSA Partners has grown to have offices in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Arnett is the last of the four original creators still with the company, and serves as Founding Partner and Vice Chairman.
He helps lead a group of 250 associates in the creation of design, marketing, digital and interactive initiatives for a diverse roster of clients, including: Harley-Davidson, IBM, McDonald’s, Nike, Anheuser Busch and Google, to name a few.
His career has been steeped in design leadership, business and brand consulting, and industry policymaking. He and the firm have been globally recognized by numerous competitions and designations. Under the Obama Administration, he served as the team branding lead for the State Department’s global entrepreneurial initiative: SPARK. He was a 1999 inductee into the Alliance Graphique Internationale, and holds the honor of being named to the ID40—who has cited him as one of the 40 most important people shaping design internationally.
In 2018, Arnett will become the 54th President of AIGA. He currently serves as a board member of the Architecture and Design Society of the Art Institute of Chicago,
All of that success, Arnett contends, stems back to lessons learned in college.
“The biggest lesson I learned at Northern was the lesson of failure and how much more you learn when you don’t succeed,” he said. ” Then, how do you apply that to overcome obstacles and become successful?”
Because, to some degree, I swam against the grain at Northern, I learned a lot of lessons around how and when to flex your muscles and be different within a structural setting. Albeit, I think there’s always that tension within the art world, or the design world.”
The other thing that I take away, and I’m happy that my very vibrant 80-year old mentor (Hernandez) is still here—he’s retired, but he’s still here—I learned a lot from my teachers, and in particular the ones, like Manny Hernandez, who would take the extra time to connect with me on a one-to-one level.”
I think anybody can get thrown into a competitive situation, and something new and larger than they grew up with, which was the environment here, coming from a small town, and be intimidated or challenged in ways that they probably don’t expect and might not overcome. Those are some of the lessons I learned from failing, those are all parts of my formative experience here.”
“Just coming to a place that was full of art and people doing art and making art was just incredible. I think that’s one thing professionals miss. If you walk into the art building you can see almost every type of art being made or discussed. That, in and of itself just lit the flame for me.”
Top photo: Dana Arnett (center) with fellow VSA Partners leadership team members William Rosen, CEO (left) and Bob Silverman, CFO. Silverman is an alumnus of the NIU College of Business.