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Alumni in Print – Where Are They Now? - Katie Gao

June 15, 2017

The Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation is publishing profiles featuring some of their more than 6000 former scholarship recipients. This series gives you an up close and personal insight into the thoughts and motivations of the former students who are a part of our industry today. As our current employees reach retirement and leave, replacing them becomes an increasingly important factor for many companies. Here is one story…

A Profile

Katie GaoKatie Gao (formerly Katie Butler) attended the University of Central Arkansas where she gained her BA in Mass Communication and Journalism (2010). She then went on to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she received an MA and PhD in Linguistics (2017).

How did you first get interested in the graphic arts, or decide to focus on graphic communications in school?

Although I planned to major in graphic arts in school, I quickly changed to journalism, where I had the opportunity to be a writer, publication designer, and photographer all in one role. When I decided to go to graduate school for a more academic field, I found that the practical skills I learned in college (especially in publication design) were much needed in the academic publishing industry.

Did you take any courses in high school that were related to graphic communications, or that prepared you for your planned career?

Not in particular, my school didn’t have access to much technical equipment. But, I was editor of the yearbook.

How do you think going through your education process prepared you for the workforce?

I’ve been a student for a long time, but I also have held part time and full time jobs throughout the entirety of my education. My degree in Mass Communication required a certain number of credit hours in “practical experience”, and it was those experiences––like working as an editor for the university newspaper and being staff writer for my hometown’s local newspaper during the summers––that really prepared me for the more professional work I’m doing now.

In the Workforce Today

What company are you working for now and what types of products and services do they provide to their customers?

Most recently, I am working as a publication and graphic designer for a non-profit program called STEMD2 (www.stemd2.org) based at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in Honolulu, Hawaii. Our team is currently working on a mathematics curriculum book series for Hawaii middle school students, with the goal of providing materials that are culturally relevant and practical for diverse groups of students that don’t typically move on to careers in STEM fields.

I am neither a mathematician nor an engineer, like the other members of my team, but as the publication designer, I’m responsible for making sure the materials we produce (including the graphics printed in the books) are professional and fitting for our teacher and student audiences. In addition to that job, I am a freelance editor and designer, offering services such as copy editing, publication formatting, program advertisements, etc.

PGSF Donate NowWhat job did you first have with the company when you started, what position do you have now, and/or what else have you done since joining the company?

This question is hard because although my employment has been through the University of Hawaii the past seven years while I’ve been in graduate school, I have worked in a variety of positions and programs giving me a diverse portfolio of professional experience. The most important advancements I’ve made professionally are the contacts I’ve made, and the client base I’ve built. Since I’ve been freelancing, I’ve been fortunate to have a steady flow of clients and referrals that make it a worthwhile side business.

What do you think employers are looking for in today’s workforce and the current industry environment?

I cannot speak from the graphics industry perspective, additionally, the industry environment in Hawaii is certainly different from the rest of the Mainland U.S. One thing to keep in mind as you make career decisions is how your skills will be valued in an increasingly mechanical and “smart” (as in computers and robots) world. We must keep on top of our skills, and move with the times because technology is advancing faster than we are. This requires thinking ahead and proving your value in the workforce now.

Is there anything that you have found to be particularly different from what you initially expected, now that you’ve progressed through your work career for a period of time?

Design is a strange industry because by the outside it’s often judged at as “art” and a “waste of time”. Yet people who run businesses and present multimedia materials to the public realize that the design of their materials is the first thing that the public judges them by. What I’ve found to be particularly different from my initial expectations is that design work is often undervalued by companies/programs who are looking at rebranding or joining the digital world. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received (from a cartographer professor at UHM) is don't work for free. Yes, there might be a few people who you want to do a favor for, but your time and skills are far too valuable to be asked for favors all the time––which often happens when friends or colleagues not in the design industry need some help.

Have you changed your plans or ideas about what area or type of job you might like to have since you first considered the graphic communications field and began studying for a career in it?

I think a better word than changing plans is evolving plans. I did not have a set goal when I first started school, but rather pursuing my interests, keeping in mind the professional industry in which I could contribute. Being in Academia as a student and teacher, I can see the value in many different kinds of skills (not just what your diploma says). This is attractive for an employer looking for someone who can take on different roles in their organization.

What do you see yourself doing a few years from now?

I’d like to be working professionally in Honolulu, perhaps at the university as a program coordinator or even as a full time freelance editor and publication designer.

Was being a recipient of a PGSF scholarship important, or did it have an impact on your future or ability to succeed in the industry?

The PGSF scholarship was the first scholarship I received after I decided where I would go to college. It gave me a lot of confidence that someone in the industry thought my education was a worthwhile investment.


Print and Graphics Scholarship FoundationPGSF works to inform young people about the opportunities that are available in the graphic arts industry and then support them during their educational phase. To learn more about PGSF, or how you can support its work, visit www.pgsf.org or contact John Berthelsen at jberthelsen@printing.org. PGSF is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

I have no plans to change my current situation, but wherever God leads, I follow

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