ArtCenter History

Like many ideas emerging from ArtCenter during our 85-year history, the very concept for such a school was visionary. 

Edward A. “Tink” Adams was an advertising man with a radical idea in education: to teach real-world skills to artists and designers and prepare them for leadership roles in advertising, publishing and industrial design. To achieve that, he would create a faculty of working professionals from those fields. ArtCenter opened in 1930 with Adams serving as its director. 

The viability of the idea he and a small group of colleagues launched was quickly proven. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, ArtCenter graduates quickly found employment. 

In the years since, the caliber of our faculty and visiting artists has been extraordinary: Ansel Adams taught photography here; on a visit to campus, Keith Haring painted a mural; science fiction author Bruce Sterling was the College's first "Visionary in Residence." Our alumni include many of the world’s leading car designers, contemporary filmmakers (Man of Steel, Transformers, The Vow), ad makers (“Thatsa one spicy meatball,” “Got Milk?”), concept illustrators, (The Avengers, Star Wars), artists (The Blue Dog), product designers (Apple monitor, Oakley Zeros, Kikoman soy sauce dispenser) and others who have shaped culture with their talents and vision. 

Our original campus was in a courtyard of buildings on West Seventh Street in Los Angeles, a site sufficient for ArtCenter’s then 12 teachers and eight students. From the beginning, a simple filled-in circle—what has endured as the orange dot—was chosen as a graphic element to add to ArtCenter’s printed materials. By 1940, enrollment had grown to nearly 500 students representing 37 states and several foreign countries. 

After the war, returning veterans pushed enrollment numbers even higher, prompting a move in 1946 to a larger building on Third Street, as well as a commitment to a year-round schedule. In 1948, our renowned Automotive Design Department—now Transportation Design—was founded. 

A year later, ArtCenter became an accredited four-year college, and offered its first bachelor’s degrees in Industrial Design, Photography, Illustration and Advertising. We played a seminal role in the founding of the first advanced-concept design studio for the automotive industry in the 1950s. 

Adams was the first to encourage ArtCenter’s international relationships. One of the turning points came in 1956, when the Japanese External Trade Recovery Organization began sending students to ArtCenter. Adams and faculty members George Jergenson and John Coleman visited Japan and wrote a report, “The Future of Japanese Industrial Design.” 

Adams oversaw ArtCenter for nearly 40 years. When he stepped down, leadership transferred to an alumnus, Don Kubly, who would lead the College for nearly 20 years, including our move to Pasadena. 

Throughout our existence, we continued to grow with, and often anticipate, the many cultural and technological landmarks of the 20th century while refining our educational tools and methodologies to remain on the forefront of art and design education. In 1965, we became ArtCenter College of Design. 

Reflecting the College’s forward-looking momentum, new undergraduate departments would be added each decade: Fine Art in 1967, Film in 1973, Graphic Design in 1984, Product Design in 1991, Environmental Design in 1992, Entertainment Design in 2008, and Interaction Design in 2012. Graduate degree programs were launched in Film in 1975, Art in 1986, Media Design Practices in 2000, Industrial Design in 2004, both Environmental Design and Transportation Design in 2012, and Graphic Design in 2016. Additionally, the College partnered with Claremont University’s Drucker School of Management to offer a dual MS/MBA degree in Innovation Systems Design in 2014.  

Tink Adams was a terrific guy, and he knew exactly what the profession needed in preparing young people to run the world—it needed a school that could address that. We wanted to be leaders in the field, so it wasn’t a matter of training, but a matter of truly understanding. A school like ours was unusual back in those days.

Don KublyArtCenter President

We moved to the Hillside Campus in Pasadena in 1976, into an iconic building designed by the modernist architectural firm Craig Ellwood Associates. In the 1980s, we were the first design school to install computer labs, spearheading the revolution in digital design. More recently, ArtCenter has focused on design’s potential to generate positive social change and improve people’s lives through our groundbreaking Designmatters educational program. In 2003, we became the first design school to receive Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) status by  the United Nations Department of Public Information. 

We have long taken a global view of the importance of design and art, and from 1986 to 1996, had a second campus in Vevey, Switzerland. Today, we continue to leverage opportunities as they arise in the world, sending our students to work on projects across Europe, Asia and Central and South America, in order to address particular design challenges. 

Closer to home, our Public Programs reflect our philosophy of design being integral to all aspects of life and being accessible to the surrounding community. The Public Programs administrative team is based at our South Campus—a former aviation wind tunnel—opened in 2004. South Campus is also home to our Graduate Art and Media Design Practices programs. 

In 2014, ArtCenter expanded South Campus by renovating a neighboring former post office building, effectively doubling the size of our downtown Pasadena location. The new facility provides dedicated space for our Fine Art and Illustration students, with a professional Printmaking Studio, added classrooms, individual studio spaces, shared exhibition spaces and a sculpture yard. 

The most recent acquisition at South Campus, now spanning seven urban acres, is a six-story office building at 1111 S. Arroyo Parkway. The addition of the office building completes an eclectic trio of structures that have found vibrant new life as classroom, studio, exhibition and administrative spaces serving the needs of a growing student body. 

We remain focused on our core educational mission of developing creative leaders and innovators in art and design. We’re leading the way with cross-disciplinary programs and studios that prepare students within and outside their chosen fields. 

Our story is one that continues to unfold—and to be told.