On December 1, 2014, the School of Visual Concepts begins offering classes in advertising, graphic design, and interactive design at its new location at 2300 7th Avenue in Seattle, near the intersection of Dexter Avenue N and Denny Way. Founded 43 years earlier at 500 Aurora Avenue N as the New School of Visual Concepts by local artist and illustrator Dick Brown (1929-1985) and his wife Cherry Brown (1931-1994), a fashion illustrator and watercolorist, it was the Northwest's only professional advertising-art school. The 7th Avenue site offers classrooms, a commons area, and floor-to-ceiling windows that help connect the school to the surrounding community. Linda Hunt and Larry Asher, co-owners of the school since 1994, oversee the move to the new site.
A Hands-On Approach
When co-founders Dick and Cherry Brown started the New School of Visual Concepts at 500 Aurora Avenue N, they envisioned a place where the teachers were also top professionals in their fields.
"1971 was a good year for Seattle. Starbucks was founded, and so was the New School of Visual Concepts, as it was called back then. Located on the corner of Mercer and Highway 99, this school for commercial arts was built on the premise that designers, illustrators, and advertising students learn best from working professionals in their industries" (Neylan).
The school was billed as the first professional advertising art school in the Northwest, and the Browns put their heart and soul into it. They were known for their dedication to their students, freely sharing their industry knowledge and professional contacts to help people further their careers in the marketing, communications, and design industries.
Dick Brown was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the early 1980s and died in 1985 at age 56. His wife Cherry ran the school herself for the next nine years, until she died of cancer in 1994. Her assistant, Linda Hunt, and a colleague, Larry Asher, took over school ownership in 1994 and expanded the curriculum to embrace skills that grew out of the computer era, such as web design, digital communications, and user experience. Certificate programs and customized corporate training classes were added to the mix.
Search for a New Home
Callie Neylan, a former SVC student, attended classes at the Aurora Avenue location in 1998 and recalled its gritty setting.
"I walked under the 99 overpass to the School of Visual Concepts ... There was no swanky South Lake Union back then, just empty warehouses, Bucca di Beppo and the old J. T. Hardeman hat factory that housed the school. I was working in labor relations, my first job out of college, but was far more passionate about typography than workplace safety. My artsy side drew me to SVC. ... The school offers no degrees ... avoiding academic bureaucracy and keeping the barrier to entry low. At SVC you come as you are but leave as you want to be" (Neylan).
In January 2013, SVC management put out the word: The school, with its enrollment having grown to about 650 students, needed a new home. The Aurora Avenue building had fallen into disrepair and was slated for redevelopment. A short item in The Stranger asked readers to be on the alert for an appropriate site:
"After 42 years in its modest building abutting Highway 99 in South Lake Union, the School of Visual Concepts -- whose logo is in fact a silhouette of its modest building -- has finally been priced out of its neighborhood ... SVC is looking for space north of downtown to avoid contending with sports-arena parking in the south. Send an email to [co-director Larry] Asher if you know of any" (Graves).
From Jaguars to Interactive Design
The concrete-and-glass building at 2300 7th Avenue, built in 1965 in the Modernist style, was originally a showroom for British Motor Car Distributors, a company that imported high-end sports cars, in particular, Jaguars. In 1994, the building was extensively remodeled into offices, maintaining its 14-foot-high ceilings, expansive glass walls, and terrazzo flooring. The tenant before SVC was the architectural firm of Arai-Jackson. "'We like the idea that this space had had a creative design business in it before,' Asher said ("School of Visual Concepts Has ... "). SVC began offering winter classes in the new location on December 1, 2014.
The 7th Avenue building offered many advantages.
"SVC staff members are enjoying the cleaner, better-maintained space of the new location ... At the old space, you had to go outside and down a breezeway to access your classroom. Here, all the students can mingle and network in our common space before going off to their class. Another big plus is having floor to ceiling windows with great sidewalk visibility for our incredible letterpress shop with its vintage presses and typesetting equipment" ("School of Visual Concepts Has ... ").
Classes, Workshops, Rocky and Bullwinkle
In fall 2018, SVC offered about 70 classes in seven core areas that included web design, graphic design and art direction, and content. There were classes devoted to typography, portfolio building, brand strategy, and storytelling in the digital age. Tuition for one-day classes was $235 to $365, while the cost for multi-session courses ranged from $455 to $595. Classes averaged 12 to 16 students and were offered in the evenings or on weekends to accommodate the schedules of working adults.
Two certificate programs were available: user experience and user interface/digital design. A corporate training program started about seven years earlier, attracting clients such as REI, T-Mobile and Microsoft.
"SVC has built a popular corporate training program from the ground up. It started when working professionals would attend SVC's workshops. 'Inevitably, someone would say: My whole team needs this, and [we] decided to build some corporate programs. ... In June, we've done more than a dozen and hope to increase our offerings,' [co-director Larry] Asher says. The corporate program includes an up-front audit, specialized instruction, and live training at the company's offices or at SVC's SLU [South Lake Union] campus" (Chung).
When not in use, classrooms and other spaces could be rented for meetings, lectures, or events. In the school's trademark creative style, each classroom was named for a character from the 1960s cartoon series, "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle." The larger classroom was Rocky; the smaller one was Bullwinkle. A 20-seat boardroom space was known as Sherman and a 16-station computer lab was Mr. Peabody.
Ongoing Community Outreach
SVC faculty and students frequently participated in local events such as Bumbershoot and the South Lake Union Block Party. The students have also partnered with Seattle Children's Hospital, Mary's Place, and Seattle Arts & Lectures. The school reached into the community in other ways. In 2018, during a round of layoffs at Starbucks, SVC offered employees who had recently lost their jobs one of their workshops free of charge.
One of the school's most popular events has been the Steamroller Smackdown, part of the annual South Lake Union Block Party. The competition pits teams of artists who create oversized posters that are printed on the street with a steamroller rather than a traditional printing press. The event called attention to the school's letterpress classes and also promoted its distinctive hands-on teaching style.
Several weeks before the Steamroller Smackdown, more than a dozen companies develop and cut their designs from large sheets of linoleum. "The day of the event, the competition runs in five one-hour heats of four teams ... There are three criteria for judging: the creative interpretation of the theme, aesthetic merit and team spirit" (Chung).
At the time of the school's move, co-owner Larry Asher expressed pride in its history of community involvement:
"We started in this area 44 years ago, and as it's become more of a hub for creative and technology firms, it's turned into an even better fit for our business ... Needless to say, we've had a ringside seat to all the many, many changes that have been going on in South Lake Union over the years" ("School of Visual Concepts Has ... ").