VCOM Instructor Helps Students Harness Creativity

VCOM Instructor Helps Students Harness Creativity

Carl Nelson brings 35 years of design experience to DCTC

For Carl Nelson, an adjunct instructor in the Visual Communications department at Dakota County Technical College, and for countless other battle-tested designers across the multitude of design disciplines, creativity isn’t a random, mystical bolt from the Pantone Cerulean Blue. Unlike life and other substances, it doesn’t just happen. Creativity is an achievement with a process that can be expedited and enhanced.

“I am very interested in the modes and methodology designers use to activate creativity,” Nelson said. “Good designers should be able to turn creativity on at will.”

Epiphanies, aha! moments, light bulbs and revelations can arrive when designers are out to lunch or on the ball. But even if they don’t know how it works, they’ve probably been following some sort of process. Theories and psychological techniques for boosting creativity are all over the design mindscape, from absurdist stimulation to combining opposites to fast forwarding in time. The trick is finding the one that works best for you.

“I use a process of loading up my brain,” Nelson said, referring to how he sometimes pores over projects and design problems right before going to bed. This process gives his subconscious mind the chance to work things out while he sleeps. Subconscious-driven creativity, or incubation, is a time-honored method of harnessing the built-in muse or, in this case, the ghost designer. “My thoughts are much more free and clear in the morning,” Nelson added. “I’ve solved many creative problems or small design issues using this process.”

Creativity is a continual surprise.” — Ray Bradbury | 1920–2012 | Author of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man

A native of Moline, Ill., Carl Nelson grew up in a family bursting with artistic talent. His dad was a commercial artist; his mom taught art to junior high students. Art was at the center of the Nelson family lifestyle. On family excursions, including camping trips to state parks, parents and children would play a game that involved one of them drawing something and then passing the drawing to the next person, who would add something new and so on. They often ended up with a unique work of collaborative art.

“I’m the second eldest of four brothers,” Nelson said. “All four of us launched careers in design. Tom, the youngest, was an advertising art director turned designer in the construction industry. Dave, the oldest, is an industrial designer. Paul is a graphic designer in the packaging industry.”

Carl Nelson on typography: “Typography is working with the printed word to best communicate your message. Typography is also commensurate with any art medium. When working with typography, designers need to evaluate a font’s readability, how it translates into text and the way its characteristics relate to the printed message. The way typographical nuances are used in a composition is critically important.”

After graduating in a class of 800 from Moline Senior High School, Nelson started what became a family tradition by heading for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study design. While at the U of I, he belonged to the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity Skull and Crescent Honor Society and the Varsity Men’s Glee Club. Through Glee Club, he co-founded The Other Guys, an a capella octet that is still active today. In 1971, he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design.

Shortly after graduating from the U of I, Nelson headed for Missoula, Mont., to court his future wife, Marsha, a girl he had known since the second grade. “I drove a dealer car to Missoula and showed up on Marsha’s doorstep wearing a mask on Halloween night,” he said. “I’m not sure what she thought of my unexpected arrival at the time, but I was there to stay. I went to work for a local newspaper and eventually founded a small ad agency in town. Marsha and I returned to Moline to spend the Christmas holidays and were married the day before New Year’s Eve. Montana is a beautiful place and we loved living there.”

Building the confidence and polish of student designers is one of Carl Nelson’s essential goals. Developing a professional attitude and the ability to communicate visually are the keys to breaking into any design field. “Creative communications companies are everywhere these days,” Nelson said. “They are smaller, multifaceted firms that carve specific chunks of consulting and design business. Opportunities for designers are expanding and our graduates need to be prepared to stay abreast of ongoing changes in technology and the industry. That’s a given. Our graduates must also be ready to think strategically and contribute creatively.”

As it turned out, Montana’s beauty was linked to vast traveling distances that made conducting business difficult. Nelson opted to relocate back to the Midwest, working first in Appleton, Wis., and then Minnesota at an advertising agency based in Minneapolis. There he met Russ Chance, the supervisor of his creative team at the agency. In 1980, Nelson and Chance established their own full-service ad agency, Chance/Nelson & Associates, in Eden Prairie, Minn.

“Russ taught me about efficiency and time management, which are crucial to the success of any advertising design firm,” Nelson said. “My own strengths are in conceptual thinking that comprises writing, designing and creative direction. One of the most important things I learned early in my career is the immense power of collaboration in the creative design process.”

You can view Nelson’s paintings by clicking the link below:

Carl Nelson Creative LLC Portfolio

Today, Nelson heads his own creative consultation and design agency, Carl Nelson Creative LLC, in Eden Prairie. He specializes in finding creative solutions to visual communications problems while working closely with clients to develop strategies for brand development and retention. In fall 2004, after more than two decades of making a great living as a consultant and designer, he began teaching at DCTC as an adjunct instructor. He saw the opportunity as a great way to give back to his profession. His classes at the college have included Visual Design Fundamentals, Typography & Layout I and II, Creative Problem Solving, and Design Drawing.

“What I like best about teaching is the satisfaction of seeing students apply what you are communicating…when they get it,” Nelson said. “As an instructor, I enjoy watching my students grow as they learn. As a designer, I find that coursework preparation and teaching allows me to review the tenets of good design. That keeps me a little sharper for when I apply those same tenets to my own design work and consulting.”

A successful landscape artist who works in oil, watercolor and pastel, Nelson has shown his work at many local venues, including the Reedy Gallery at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. His next showing is scheduled for July and August 2013 at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center Gallery. See below for examples of his paintings. You can see more of Nelson’s work by visiting Natural Surroundings: Landscape Art by Carl S. Nelson.

Nelson resides with his wife, Marsha, a dental hygienist and dental hygiene instructor at Herzing University, at the couple’s home in Eden Prairie. They have three grown children. Luke is a pilot for Delta Airlines. “He’s a pretty good acrylic painter—as are all three of my children,” Nelson said, high praise from an admiring father. Emily has a degree in art education from the UW River Falls and works as an early learning art teacher at Wooddale Church’s Eden Prairie campus. Jeffrey is the assistant production manager for Alive & Kickin, a well-known senior rock ensemble in the Twin Cities founded by Jeffrey’s partner, Michael Matthew Ferrell. The Nelsons also have two grandchildren, Luke’s son, 18-month-old Henrik, and Emily’s daughter, 9-month-old Evelyn.

12 Questions
  1. What brought you to DCTC?
    I answered an ad in the Star Tribune. The job sounded interesting. I had always enjoyed working with the young staffers we employed at our agency.
  2. What skill set or knack makes you good at your job?
    I believe I am patient, a necessary ingredient for teaching and especially in nurturing creativity and creative solutions from students. I have a good methodology to applying design in a practical way. Successful solutions need to be found efficiently.
  3. What’s the hardest part of your job?
    To some degree, grading student work. You communicate so much by the grade and the explanation. You want to be fair, encouraging and yet challenging in the process.
  4. What is your favorite pastime or hobby?
    Painting (more than just a pastime), reading, biking, swimming and tennis.
  5. What is your greatest accomplishment to date?
    • Helping to run a successful advertising agency with a partner for many years
    • Achieving success with commissioned art and gallery showings
    • Designing and coordinating sacred art, banners and chancel furniture for my church
  6. What is the one thing you have not done that you would really like to do?
    Learn to play the guitar. Painting every day. More travel.
  7. Where in the world would you go if you could go anywhere?
    Spain and other Mediterranean locations; also Costa Rica, Brazil and inland Alaska.
  8. What is your favorite season of the year?
    Spring! Everything is yet to come.
  9. If you could learn to do anything, what would you learn to do?
    Sculpt in stone.
  10. If you had to change your first name, what name would you pick?
  11. If you could be any kind of animal for a day or even a year, what kind of animal would you be?
    Great blue heron (graceful, patient, enduring)
  12. What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
    My wife and family.
For more information about VCOM programs at DCTC, contact: