An Interview with Michael Liang

During the government shutdown this past October, Michael Liang (BFA '08), Visual Information Specialist with the National Park Service, decided to spend his furlough hiking and drawing in the wilds of Maine. On the road, in the parks, and at his drawing table, this Stamps alum has made his work — as an artist, graphic designer and park ranger — essential work.

Michael started as a U of M student in PitE (Program In The Environment). Determined to be involved in an environmental organization, yet loving drawing and tactile media, Michael started his sophomore year by adding art and design to his toolkit.

Fusing the two, both as a dual degree student at Michigan, and now as an artist/designer with both a professional and a personal practice, Michael Liang integrates the empathetic, observational and organizational skills of a creative environmentalist. As Michael describes it, at first he thought he would do graphic design and drawing on the side. But beginning with his decision to become a dual degree student, he has made it clear to himself and to the next generation of environmentally-alert artists and designers that it is possible (with focus, intent and passion) to fuse your dedication to issues and ideas and to find a home base in a national organization.

“Those 5 years at U-M were the best 5 years of my life. I loved the community of creative peers, access to professors to get feedback, sleeping on the couches, and being in a building where there was work up all the time to respond to.” It is the community of creative peers, Michael notes, that is hardest to replicate after graduating, and something he says will always treasure as the greatest gift we all got from the Stamps School of Art & Design.

Forging his own way with vigor seems to be natural for this intrepid park ranger. As part of an internship opportunity with the Student Conservation Association, Michael began what would be a continuing series of grand western adventures. Summer after summer, first through this internship and then in a full-time position that began ten days after he graduated, Michael created a place for himself at North Cascades National Park in Washington State. He built his position into one that integrated the job as interpretative park guide with visual media.

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Now 3,000 miles away from that first post, Michael is in Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood. There, in a national park regional office around the corner from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, Michael Liang provides 80 national parks with technical and creative support for anything and everything to do with interpretive media—including but not limited to social media, the design and planning of exhibitions, visual and research content for museums, training for employees, finding funding, training future leaders, and developing new audiences.

To help build audiences for parks and cultural sites that are as diverse as Shenendoah and the Statue of Liberty, Michael and his teams help all of us expand the definitions of how and what we see when we think of national parks, expanding from the familiar wilderness and landscape vistas to include the more cultural and historic sites.

As a visual information specialist, Michael sees himself as eternally indebted to school (something, he adds, his co-workers would echo, citing the common refrain “when I was in art school...”). As a facilitator who brings some of his skillsets and knowledge to parks employees, Michael often teaches classes on social media and content management systems for web sites. Most notably, he helps colleagues learn the process of critique. “Most of the time, people bring me a project to look at when they believe that it is 99 percent finished.” Getting involved earlier in the process is critical to a better project, Michael insists, a lesson learned through a Stamps drawing classes he took where the students practiced and worked through a different critique method every week.

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“Encouraging a creative process with dynamic feedback was a huge part of my training” Michael explains, “and I see myself as sort of an ambassador, bringing that art school culture to my position with the national parks. What I learned in school about taking initiative and learning from peers and professors, definitely prepared me for a leadership role that collaborates with different groups of people like law enforcement, scientists, and communication specialists.”

Michael's work traverses a broad spectrum—from micron pen to massive projects. And this range of work reminded Michael recently of something visiting faculty member Richard Pell once said, challenging students to come up with 50 fantastical ideas. As Michael recalled it, Rich offered that he would rather see spectacular failures than mediocre successes. That notion of shooting for the fences has stayed with Michael Liang as he continues to forge new territory with the National Park Service.

A few recent projects from Michael Liang's National Parks Service portfolio:

  • Designed and helped coordinate a series of 570 Civil War to Civil Rights Trading Cards from 94 national parks across the country
  • Reached nearly a million people through a social media campaign during the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg
  • Coordinated photography and video documentation in NYC following Hurricane Sandy (including one very awesome and humbling helicopter ride)
  • Proposed and implemented a "30 Stories in 30 Days" project to highlight successes from national parks
  • Currently evaluating interpretive exhibits for the new visitor center at Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument

For more info on Michael Liang, visit Michael Liang: Design & Illustration.



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