Skip to Main Content

WWU / Fairhaven College of Interdiscipinary Studies

Rod Burton in Paris, standing over a river


Designing a Life

Rod Burton (74) was born and raised in the small town of Washougal on the Washington side of the Columbia River. While he recalls most of his friends growing up aspired to work in the mills like their parents before them; like his parents, Rod knew he was headed to college.


Nearing the end of high school in the late 60’s, Rod began receiving promotional flyers in his mailbox. One place he’d never heard of, a small experimental college up in Bellingham, sent him a brochure touting “an exciting, imaginative approach to higher education.” It promoted a small, “Cluster College” concept to ease the pressures of a large institution. It read:


"The Cluster College concept grew out of the pressures that accompany massive growth…If a college were an industrial enterprise, education would be classed as a growth industry. But a college is not an industry…and because students are not interchangeable units, education does not readily lend itself to mass production."


According to the mailer, Fairhaven would contain the best features of a small college while taking advantage of the

resources of a larger institution. It would provide a superior quality liberal education at the cost of a public state school, and create an experimental atmosphere in curriculum, teaching, and governance. Intrigued, Rod went up for a visit.


“Fairhaven didn’t really even exist at the time,” he said, “students were going to live in Edens Hall dorms, but there was no real college built.” Not only that, but when he arrived, Fairhaven didn’t yet have governing documents for deciding curriculum, tenure review, or college policies.


He remembers that academics at Fairhaven began with a structure of learning through the classical, historical context. Students learned about stone tools, Greek plays, classic literature, and moved forward in time as the quarters progressed. This was called the “Great Periods Sequence,” which integrated humanities, mathematics, and science into a series of seminars on Greece, Caesar and Christ, Renaissance and Discovery, Reformation and Revolution, and the 19th and 20th Centuries.


“That lasted only a couple of quarters,” Rod noted. Soon, with student input, the curriculum changed to adopt a structure more as it is now, in 2010, with a set of core classes, self-designed “concentrations,” narrative evaluations, and a model of interdisciplinary study based partly on gaining experience outside of Fairhaven - usually on main campus.


Students at Fairhaven influenced not only to the curricular structure, but to the social environment as well. Western was growing rapidly from an enrollment of 3,000 students in 1960, to 10,000 by 1970, and the advent of Fairhaven’s birth in the late 60s meant for some discomfort at Western Washington State College (in 1977 it became a University). There was a dress code, for example, that required students to wear semi-formal “church-style” clothes to the dining halls on Sundays. Not surprisingly, Fairhaven students questioned Western's need for a dress code. Burton recalls hearing about one student who showed up to the dining hall wearing a dress shirt and tie, except with the butt ripped out of his jeans. Soon, students all over Western’s campus noticed and began to question Western's Sunday dress code.


“I think Fairhaven really stretched Western socially,” Burton said.


Burton as a Fairhaven student, 1970s
Burton as a student in the 1970's

Burton was accustomed to stretching. In Washougal, he felt like a big frog in a small pond, but when he became a Fairhaven student, he felt like his confidence in his academic ability didn’t measure up to the academic rigor of college. Specifically, he remembers how he went to his advisor, Tom Sherwood, and handed him a paper he’d written. “He basically told me I was nearly illiterate! And I thought, wow, if I ever get to the point where I impress him, then I’ll know I’ve gotten somewhere.”


Rod stuck with him as his advisor, and ironically, this was one of Rod’s best memories of Fairhaven, and he remains close friends with Tom to this day.


Burton's focus at Fairhaven centered on art, and he quickly became a student of Western's Visual Communications Education program, called “VICOED” for short. The VICOED program included courses in graphic design, screen printing, photography, offset printing and book arts. Students worked with their hands, cutting, drawing, and printing in the pre-computer days when a pen and paper were the most important tools a designer used.


Burton often reflects on how the profession of graphic design has changed since he was in school. Today, the majority of an artist's time can be spent learning about new developments in computer software rather than working through ideas. “Computers have completely changed the nature Graphic Design,” Burton explains. "It used to be a craft, but now people understand it only as a technical skill. I mean, no one goes up to a painter and says, 'What kind of brushes do you use?' However, people will approach a graphic designer and ask, "What kind of software do you use?" Burton learned from his days in VICOED that the root of his profession is in his skills as an artist, not his tools.


Many academic lessons informed Rod Burton's work, but his relationships with other students and faculty at Fairhaven equally affected his career. Burton couldn't have known it at that time - in the early 70s - but as he dangled from a rope off Building 12's top balcony for Bob Keller's course on mountain climbing, he was in fact forming the root of a long-term partnership.


Many years later, in the late 90s, Bob Keller was on the Board of Directors for the Whatcom Land Trust, and contacted Rod to design a book of photographs of distinguished places in Whatcom County. Their hope was to raise awareness about the beautiful places of Whatcom County, and inspire people to preserve them. The images, donated by local photographers, were organized by region, and the book, Whatcom Places, by Ivan Doig, Wendy Walker, Bob Keller, Ira Spring, and Bob Spring, became a bestseller at Village Books. For the second edition a classmates of Rod’s, Bill Dietrich, wrote the introduction ("I was his Dorm Daddy!" Rod noted with a smile).


Other Fairhaven students also changed the course of Burton's work. Rod Del Pozo, a photographer, spent many hours with Burton developing film and prints of their work in the tiny darkroom in the basement of Fairhaven. Once they graduated, they lost access to many of their resource, so they decided to build their own darkroom on what was the back porch of Burton’s home.


Building the darkroom quickly crept into building a business. Burton said, “In order to pay for our darkroom we realized we could do commercial and printing work. It sort of just came together that way.” They called their studio “Pyramid Productions.”


As their business grew, Del Pozo and Burton ventured out into the downtown Bellingham area to look for a studio to set up shop. They soon found a gutted space in a brick building on North State Street above what used to be Fast Eddies (then 3B, now Plan B), and began investing sweat equity. “I’m amazed we finished the place without killing anybody!” Burton exclaimed, referring to a plumbing incident when they cut a pipe that fell through the floor and almost hit a waitress.


Now, Burton runs his own freelance graphic design company. His current work, a mix of traditional and digital media, spans from logo design to publications to book design to posters. Burton's website displays a variety of this work, including some personal work which has been in local shows. “The Islamist Perspective,” a political piece in response to anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11, shows an American bomber headed directly for a Mosque, echoing imagery of the hijacked planes headed for the Twin Towers on 9/11. "The Islamist Perspective" was included in a show at the Blue Horse Gallery, where Burton noted he received lots of positive feedback.


Design & Illustration by Rod Burton

Whatcom Places I Book Cover Whatcom Places II Book Cover Whatcom Museum brochure

Whatcom Places I; "The Islamist Perspective"; Grand Yachts.

See more >


"For the most part, my clients give me the freedom to create what I want,” Burton says about his design process, "so my creative needs get satisfied. I am often able to create illustrations or use other art skills in my design projects. I have a hard time getting inspired to create artwork, in whatever media, without a theme, purpose or goal. The commercial projects give me the impetus I need.”


When asked about how Fairhaven impacted his career and his work life, Burton focuses on how the open, design-your-own education style sort of trained him for life as a freelance artist. “Fairhaven really instilled in me a love of learning and gave me the freedom to pursue my passions.”


Many graduates of Fairhaven carve out their own niche this way. As the current Dean of Fairhaven, Roger Gilman, often says, "If you can design your education, you can design your life."





The Birth of Fairhaven College

model of Fairhaven College, 1960s

1960s model of Fairhaven campus at the south end of WWU campus

Fairhaven College, Groundbreaking 1968


Fairhaven College, foundation, 1968


Fairhaven College, constructed 1969

Completed, 1969

Find out more

Rod Burton can be reached via his website: