For Red River College instructor James Culleton, one of the most interesting parts of his job is teaching students to problem-solve visually — a topic the award-winning furniture and graphic designer happens to be very well-versed in.
“Most people need graphic designers because they can’t communicate visually,” says Culleton, recent recipient of a prestigious Pinnacle Award from the American Society of Furniture Designers (ASFD). “Being a visual communicator is a key skill for all designers.”
Culleton first got involved with the College while working at Palliser Furniture, where he served as design director for close to 15 years. He launched a partnership between Palliser and RRC’s Residential Decorating program, by enlisting students from the College to design a booth for Palliser.
“It kind of started like that, and then I started teaching an online course on manual design,” he explains. “When the opportunity to teach graphic design came up I jumped at it. Graphic Design is a fusion of art and design, two things I love.”
This year marks Culleton’s third term teaching Graphic Design one night a week; he says he’s fascinated by the range of people who take evening classes at the College.
Some are people who are already employed and looking to learn a different skill, while others are fresh out of high school and seeking tools to become employable.
“Some [people] are in a job where they need the graphic design skills to complete a bigger project,” he said. “It’s a versatile skill and can help in a lot of different areas such as web design, making a flyers or giving presentations.”
And it’s not necessarily about creating that one perfect image, Culleton says, but rather about getting a selection of completion and deciding with a client which image best suits the project.
“One thing that fascinates me about this course is when you give a student the opportunity to problem-solve and seeing all the different approaches,” he says. “It’s like jumping hurdles and at the end of it you have a winning solution”
“I try to encourage students to have a sense of play when they work on designs. I want to help them experience what they will encounter when they work with a real world client. And quite often the design play is between you and the client.”
Culleton was trained as an artist through the University of Manitoba’s Fine Arts program; he started as a furniture designer at Palliser in 1998.
He now works as a freelance designer, gathering inspiration from art deco and mid-century modern design. One of his most popular pieces can be seen on the front end of the West End Cultural Centre.
After being recruited to create art for the building’s façade, he used a waterjet, steel and aluminum to design a series of musical instruments inspired by the shapes of the old stained glass windows.
Recently, Culleton was one of seven Canadian artists chosen through EQ3's Generation Art contest to have their work included as part of a limited edition product line celebrating diversity in Canada.
And last October, he was one of 16 designers to be recognized by the ASFD, from whom he received a Pinnacle Award for an upholstery design commissioned by Palliser.
Culleton won in the motion upholstery category, where he accounted for two of the four nominations.
“I’ve had companies send in my work before, but I’ve never been nominated — let alone twice in one category.”