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Updated 9:30 AM September 8, 2009

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Spotlight: Graphic designer discovered love of art in childhood

The boyhood dreams of Dale Austin featured art and boat building. As he celebrates nearly 26 years with the university as a graphic artist, those dreams have been realized. And Austin learned a few things along the way.

His love for art was stirred at age 8. "When I was a kid, instead of piano lessons, I got art lessons," Austin says. "I've always been more visual than verbal. I remember liking a lot of Van Gogh, surprisingly enough. Also, my dad was an accomplished goldsmith."
Dale Austin volunteers as an instructor for the American Red Cross, Washtenaw Chapter. (Photo by Julie Dean, Washtenaw County Red Cross)

But while he concentrated on art through high school, Austin chose to study English and archaeology as a U-M student. "I'd always had a secondary interest in archaeology. That struck me as slightly more employable than art per se. I found out they were about the same, actually."

After graduation, a friend from the Division of Research Development and Administration, part of the Office of the Vice President for Research, remembered Austin's affinity for art and approached him about a graphic design job. Austin accepted, and says he still "finds the work interesting, even after so many years," as he creates anything from posters advertising classes and events, to Web graphics and PowerPoint presentations.

In 1991 he switched departments to become a graphic artist for the Department of Geological Sciences. "I never thought I would learn so much geology" Austin says about the new position.

"It's a day-to-day production job. Sometimes I'll get a project that takes 10 minutes, something simple, and sometimes these things can take a month or two of work," Austin says. The hardest part of his job is the rush season, which occurs in fall and spring. "You get good at balancing the workload."

What is satisfying about producing art is taking a verbal description and turning it into a picture, he says. "In some ways I'm a words-to-pictures translator."

Austin, who at the beginning of his career used pen and ink on drawing paper, says, "I love computer technology. The quality has gone up, speed has gone way up. I threw away my drafting pens 15 years ago and never looked back."

He tries to "read as much as I can on as many different topics" to keep up with the latest trends and attends presentations in science, the arts, and humanities on campus.

It was after years of deferring his dream to build a boat that Austin — who earlier applied some basic carpentry training to building cabinets and furniture around his house — set out to bring his childhood reverie to life in 2003.

The biggest challenge, Austin says, "is building an object that essentially has no right angles." Austin started small, laboring over a small dinghy to "practice and be sure I had the patience" for a larger model. His 28-foot sailboat almost is completed, save for some final painting. He has used up two vacations and years of weekends building it, and plans to use many more to enjoy it.

Austin anticipates exploring the Lake Erie marshes north of the Ottawa River at the Michigan-Ohio border. He says the boat will be launched "this fall, or early next year at the latest."

The weekly Spotlight features staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at

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