There’s no shame in opting for the college experience, obviously, but some would say if they knew exactly how to secure their future, if they didn’t need college to guide them towards it, they would cancel their application. Trading the resources of an institution for the absolute freedom to get everything yourself sounds scary. But Michael Murphy has been going his own way since his freshman year at Verona High School, and he’s committed to being just as independent in his next step.
Murphy, known to most as Mike, is an artist. He’s been a recognizable member of the VHS creative community for four years. He has played the leading role in the plays, he’s designed posters for VHS, directed music videos, and assisted in other student-run creative projects in a wide variety of ways. He’s constantly active in something—writing, directing, designing, acting—and he is not going to college.
Instead, Murphy is staying home and studying online for a certificate in visual design from Full Sail University. Named one of the best schools for design in 2022 by Graphic Design USA, Full Sail is a well-known art school in the U.S. recognized for the independence of its curriculums. Murphy will be enrolling in a seven-month course that consists of design theory and hands-on experience with industry-grade software. Tuition for the entire certificate is $10,500, so Murphy will also avoid the major expenses of living at an art school. Each month the course focuses on a different aspect of visual design, and this program’s structure will let him advance his skills even as he branches out in other areas. “I have so many other things that I want to do,” he says.
Murphy is going to be busy. While completing his course with Full Sail, he plans to continue pursuing his clothing company, Utter Confusion Till Infinity, which he started building while still in VHS. Murphy experiments with a range of styles with his clothing and has been designing a recognizable logo for his brand; some of his logo variations have already been printed onto custom shirts that he has worn to school.
On top of fashion design, Murphy is going to use his graphic design skills to create a magazine that corresponds with Utter Confusion Till Infinity, called Utterly Confused, culminating in his ultimate goal of creating a “multilevel lifestyle brand.” He cites Coca-Cola as an example of a lifestyle brand: “They were able to take, not only a drink, that’s one product, but they were able to create merchandise,” Murphy says. “Now they have stores and entire amusement parks.” Murphy’s plan is to use the Utterly Confused magazine to propel his clothing brand into a less defined space of the industry. He doesn’t want his brand to be known only for clothing, but rather a general philosophy of understanding and a way of life centered around creative passion. “The magazine is going to be a collection of thoughts and notations from a lot of people that I’m close with, people that are around me in creative spaces,” he says. “I’m trying to develop a community.”
“Community” is the key word of Murphy’s future plans. Above all else, his commitment is to make a harmonious space for creatives and visual artists, a space to reach out, learn from each other, and know that “it’s okay to be confused.” The magazine will be a freeform sequence of images and designs, altogether pushing the idea that we as people should make an extended effort to understand each other. “It doesn’t have to be huge, but if I create an account, and I’m getting followers just based on what I want to make and want to create, I’m proud of that,” he says.
Murphy has worked a lot to get where he is, but he wasn’t always a graphic designer. He recalls a family party in 7th grade where his cousin introduced the art of graphic design to him. “I was so hooked with it,” he says, “the next party I went to I had like 20 photos to show him of stuff that I was doing.” By freshman year, he had turned it into sort of a business. At first Murphy worked only with his hands, collaging images and text, but as he learned his way around Adobe design software, he found that he could share his work, and even sell it.
He specifically remembers how Christine Sciacchitano, the VHS visual arts teacher known to students as “Shack,” explained that he could pursue a career with his talent. “I didn’t really understand it at first,” he recalls. “I was just showing her artwork every week.” With Shack’s encouragement, Murphy decided to learn everything he could about design software. He credits Helene McKelvey-McLaughlin, a graphics teacher at VHS, with teaching him efficient ways to work. “She showed me some short cuts that saved me hours,” he says.
Through Dwayne Lawson (a.k.a. Zom6IX), a rising hip-hop artist and his best friend and frequent collaborator, Murphy was able to make important connections with local artists in need of cover art for their albums and singles. Since then, Murphy has designed countless album covers, promotion materials, and animated graphics for Lawson and other artists working under their ZomLyfe LLC. For his VHS Capstone, Murphy is working full time as creative art director for ZomLyfe.
Most importantly, Murphy stresses learning the software inside and out. He recommends that a starter should spend a lot of time researching, using YouTube tutorials, and playing with the programs. “Someone that has been doing this for, say, five years, can do it one hundred times faster than you can,” he says, “even if you are doing the same thing and have the same creative vision.”
Communicating design ideas using computer software has unlimited potential and malleability, but you must first master the software itself. Murphy explains that to be a graphic designer, you need to be able to use the software with the same swiftness and instantaneous artistry as a painter with a brush and an easel. “Once I got onto it I was like, ‘I gotta’ figure out what every button does’,” he says. “You’re looking at a software with a million different options. It’s almost like a puzzle every time, because you’re logging in, not only to create art, but also to learn how to make it.”
Habitually, the biggest struggle for an artist is motivation. To learn Adobe, to understand color theory, make connections, lead a brand, all of that is a mountain of work. It isn’t easy for any artist to avoid doubt. You have to push yourself down an uncertain path, commit to your work, even in the face of those around you who don’t believe in your vision, or care to even understand it. “You have people in your ear saying, ‘Have you looked at the median income of what a graphic designer makes in a year?,’” Murphy says. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it was $50,710 in 2021.)
At the beginning of 2020’s quarantine, Murphy started to question the path he was on. He describes a long period of time where he wasn’t acting or designing at all, feeling sick with everything creative, and starting to think about what others would refer to as “reasonable” career paths. However, Murphy believes the time spent home alone during quarantine eventually helped him find himself. The more time he spent away from designing, he felt a growing void in his life, the days felt repetitive and numb, and he found that creating art was the only thing he could do.
It feels as though Murphy’s brand is representative of this struggle. Facing the overwhelming nature of the future, the expectations of high school and whatever comes after with the wisdom that all we can ever do is just work and hope. Work towards what we want, hope that it will go our way, but know that the world is far too confusing to ever predict an outcome. It’s about being confused, together. Holding onto the comfort that we belong to a passionate, resourceful, and utterly confused generation of creative voices. “I’m just really excited to be able to go from high school into this life, that I hope, I hope everything goes well,” Murphy says. “That’s why I’m trying to figure everything out now.”
“What’s Next” is a series of profiles about what members of each Verona High School class do after graduation. MyVeronaNJ has been publishing the series since 2010 and you can read all of them here.