Professor Nick Rock

nick-rock-2To step inside Prof. Nick Rock’s classroom is to enter a world where students are pressed to ponder some of humanity’s great challenges, disciplines are crossed, and concepts of creativity, culture and societal contribution colorfully collide.

A civics course? A political science or international relations seminar? Hardly. Rock, 33, is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design in the College of Fine Arts (CFA). Now in his second year of teaching at BU, he sees his role as helping to produce not only outstanding artists, but individuals who think deeply about their role in the world and the contributions they can make through their craft. “It’s an exciting field to be in and a powerful way to communicate with people and affect how they view the world around them,” he says. “It’s about taking things we believe people ought to know and creating content – finding a more effective way to tell stories.”

For Rock, the connection between art and service is uniquely personal. It was nearly a decade ago that Professor Rock was, in fact, Staff Sergeant Rock, part of the first wave of American servicemen to enter northern Iraq as part of Operation: Enduring Freedom, and charged with providing humanitarian aid, assisting with supply routes, and building diplomatic ties between the military and the local Kurdish governments. The yearlong tour would have a lasting impact on Rock, a reservist who’d come from a family of war veterans and had recently earned his BFA in Studio Art from the University of Rhode Island. “Enlisting just felt like the right thing to do,” says Rock, who first signed up for the service in 1998. “I would say, without doubt, that my time in Iraq made me more worldly, politically aware and societally active. I knew that when I came back, I wanted to do something fulfilling, where I could make a difference.”

Prior to deploying, Rock began to realize where that difference could be made. Drawn since college to the world of design, he’d taken an internship with his uncle, a successful graphic design executive in New York with accounts that included the likes of Lincoln Center, Tiffany and Nike. It was love at first sketch. Rock had thrived in the creative setting and in the challenge of problem solving and designing through different media. So, shortly after returning from Iraq, he took a chance. Unfulfilled by a job with a local aquarium designer, Rock pursued his passion for art. He earned his Master’s from Yale’s elite three-year Graphic Design program – one of only six to get in each year – and plied his trade with established regional firms, like Korn Design and Tank Design, helping lead extensive rebranding efforts for clients like the Palm Restaurant and Harvard Graduate School of Design. He also began adjunct teaching at a pair of New England colleges and working through his own studio, Station (, to advance personal projects and provide design assistance for charitable organizations that needed the marketing help – charities like Jobs for the Future and west Africa’s Cape Verde Children’s Coalition.

It is an approach to art and avocation that Rock brought with him when he joined Boston University in fall of 2011. Today, students in Rock’s Senior Design Studio and Junior Graphic Design Studio are asked to do more than create captivating visuals, instead often approaching and framing an issue or public policy challenge from a variety of viewpoints before presenting it in real-world installations and Internet applications. “I want them to be smart design problem solvers and creative thinkers,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what specific media or field they’re exploring. It’s a very competitive world out there, and so we try to ensure the coursework is rigorous enough and forces them to really think so that our students can stand above the rest. We’re beginning to see promising results. A high percentage of our students are securing jobs right out of school in a very competitive industry.”

They’re also getting a good deal more out of their degrees. With CFA having recently switched its Graphic Design program from a two-year to a three-year degree, students now enter in their sophomore years and leave with considerably more design experience under their belts and a leg up as they enter the job market. Many of those going through Rock’s courses are also often leaving with a healthy dose of public service work, as the ex-serviceman encourages them to embrace social responsibility and volunteer their expertise with charities as part of their profession.  “There are a lot of individuals and organizations out there doing amazing work but need assistance getting their message across,” Rock says. “We have the skills to help. And so I really do believe – and I try to instill it in my students – that designers have a responsibility to get important messages out there. Whether we get compensated for this kind of work is less important and should just be part of what we do.”

The result, Rock says, is a well-rounded artist and citizen invested not only in producing compelling imagery and successful campaigns, but helping through their own unique voice and perspective to improve the lives of others. “I really view what I’m doing today as recruiting a team of talented people and getting them involved in a field that has so many possibilities,” he says. “The students here are really bright and really motivated. It makes it easy for us to come into our classrooms with passion, and really it’s an amazing opportunity to be part of something special.”