University of Minnesota
December 12, 2011
The 2011 greeting from University President Eric Kaler and Karen Kaler was the work of undergraduate Mari Mihai and graduate student Adam Zahller Brown.
Two U students design the Kalers' greeting
By Deane Morrison
In this, their first winter as the U of M presidential couple, Karen and Eric Kaler sent a colorful, animated seasonal ecard to the extended University community.
If you've seen it, you may have assumed the design was professionally done.
In fact, it was the work of two U of M students: Mari Mihai, a third-year graphic design undergrad, and Adam Zahller Brown, a first-year grad student in music composition.
The 30-second ecard gave the two a real chance to shine. Complete with falling snow, a snow globe, a crackling fire, and a crescendo of holiday-evoking music, it went out to faculty, staff, students, and selected friends—more than 100,000 people in all.
Born to draw
Mihai's story begins in Romania, where she was born about 10 months after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. When she was 8, her mother won a visa lottery for the United States or Canada. Her father picked the Twin Cities as "a great place to raise a family," which by then included a younger sister, Oana.
Mari Mihai. Photo: Patrick O'Leary
Today her father is an electronic design engineer at Sensata Technologies. Design must run in the family, as his father was a painter and Oana is also studying graphic design at the U.
Mihai chose the U for two reasons: reputation and location.
"I knew I wanted graphic design, but I didn't want to go out of state. I wanted to be near my family because we've shared so much," says Mihai, who has a College of Design Legacy Scholarship, among others, and is in the honors program.
She began the card design by sketching an interior scene with a fireplace and mantel and scanning it into a computer. She then painted it and, on a suggestion from the Kalers, added images of all five University campus mascots as mantel portraits.
"I got advice from lots of people [from around the University]," she says. "It's exciting because the card goes to so many people."
Sounds of the season
When he met with Mihai about the project, Zahller Brown's first question was about the timing of events in the multimedia sequence as the card zoomed out from a block "M" on the snow globe and culminated with a text greeting. Then, in a studio at the School of Music, he went to work creating sounds that evoked a magical holiday mood.
Adam Zahller Brown. Photo: Patrick O'Leary
Along the way, he discovered elements of "holiday music" by thinking about the common elements of holidays in general.
"I asked myself what sounds cross cultures," Zahller Brown says. "Bells often connote the mystical, the spiritual, beyond the tangible universe. Trumpets mean celebration. Holidays are mystical and celebratory."
To create a unique sound while still evoking a "bells and trumpets" mood, he drew on some unorthodox instruments. For example, he made the card's shimmery sound by dragging a metal comb across the edge of a cymbal. And the tinkling sound came from a celesta, which he describes as "a keyboard glockenspiel with metal bars instead of strings." (Think "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from the Nutcracker Suite.) He also used a Navajo cedar flute and recorders.
"It was fun and challenging. It's good to write outside what you're used to," says Zahller Brown, who aspires "to write challenging concert music." A graduate assistant in the music theory program, he came to the U of M to work with composer and professor James Dillon, whose music he has long liked and admired.
But the project got him to think about "how cool holiday music is as an abstract concept. Music can get people in touch with inexplicable things and bring people together."