Staff Spotlight: Derek Ford
November 26, 2021
My name is Derek Ford, and I’m an instructor with the creative media programs at Assiniboine.
I started out learning graphic design in high school, which got me interested enough to try an art class in the evenings during my university days. Originally, I was studying English, but I liked the art class so much that I decided to change my study to fine arts. I primarily studied photography and sculpture during my four years at the University of Manitoba. It wasn’t until the graphic design program at the university brought in a Macintosh computer and a scanner, which were very new at the time (during the early 90s), that I really got interested in digitizing my photographs. I had studied traditional photography, but now being able to work digitally with my photography was quite novel and fascinating. I remember working in Photoshop version 1. It was brutal, you had only one undo while working with files, but it was still full of incredible potential. I have never stopped being fascinated with what you could do with these computers.
After university, I was working as a cook in a few different restaurants. I was creating big showcase cakes and stuff; it was interesting and allowed me to keep being creative while making a living. The hours weren’t great—super early mornings—and the pay wasn’t the greatest either. I did that for a while until I got accepted into a pilot program focusing on 3D animation at Red River College. When I got there, it was filled with a lot of the same people that I had attended university and studied fine arts with so it felt great to be with creative people again.
It was a really intensive one-year program that focused strictly on 3D. At the time, the software only ran on expensive, custom machines and there was specific software needed and not many people at the time were specializing in it. After the program, and even during the program, I was able to work for the actual companies that were selling the software and hardware. I would get hired to go to tradeshows to demo their products. That was very valuable and I was very fortunate; it led me to make connections and pick up some freelancing jobs. I eventually got hired to work for Manitoba Lotteries. I worked there for four years creating animated titles, segments; pieces that they used only within the casinos. My work was limited and only showcased in the casino for legal reasons since advertising wasn’t allowed. But, I did get the opportunity to produce some short animations for the Winnipeg Goldeyes that were used on their jumbotron. It was a pretty big deal at the time; the first Toy Story was released around this time, so 3D was just starting to take off. It was intoxicating to see my work up on this big screen with a few thousand people viewing it. Later on, I got another opportunity to create similar animations for the Manitoba Moose.
My background and work experience eventually led me to a new opportunity at Assiniboine to begin teaching a computer generalist program at Parkland Campus in Dauphin on a one-year contract. Once my contract was up, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, convinced me to teach English overseas. I spent a year teaching English in Taiwan, which was a very cool experience. It was an interesting challenge and an awesome place to live for a year. When the year was up, I returned to Dauphin to teach another year and then eventually was offered a position as an instructor in the Web Design program at Assiniboine’s Victoria Avenue East Campus in Brandon. I was excited for this opportunity; it let me get back to my creative roots. I’ve been an instructor since, although the program has changed a bit and has been restructured now. I’m now an instructor for our three creative media programs which are Media and Communications, Web and Interactive Development, and Digital Art and Design programs.
As an instructor in the three creative media programs. I primarily focus on software training, things like Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects. I also teach photography, visual design, animation, 3D modeling, game development, and virtual reality. I’ve started developing and teaching skills in 3D printers, physical printing and using a lot of other new mediums like Augmented Reality. Many of our courses in the programs touch on those skills, and I get to teach the fundamentals that carry over from course to course. So, when you learn fundamental visual creation skills in something like Photoshop in the first-year, it carries over and is used in many of our other courses and projects going forward in the program. I always compare it to writing. When you go into an English class you’re going to learn grammar, and something like those fundamental creation skills are going to be used going forward in almost everything else that you learn.
I’ve enjoyed having the ability as a creative person to try out many different things and explore new technology in order to use it in the classroom. That’s why, in a lot of ways, this job has been a dream for a creative person like myself. I’m constantly learning, which I then get to share with my students and explore new technology as it comes out. I feel extremely privileged to be here and be in an environment that fosters the idea of life-long learning and constant development. If I had stayed in the industry, I may have had more of a specialized job or career, but as an instructor in this program I get to constantly learn, play, and explore the potential of new technology. It’s fast paced and always changing; you’re always problem solving. I can’t imagine another work environment outside of education where I’d be able to do what I do.
I interact with people all the time that I’ve had the pleasure of teaching over the years. Past students are in so many different roles: senior animators, artists, designers, educators, and they are all doing incredible stuff within the industry. Some work for really interesting companies, others have started their own companies. It might sound corny, but it’s satisfying to know that I’ve had a positive impact on so many people’s lives. My most fond memories are classroom experiences, times when things go well and you know that the students take away something from the lesson you're teaching. Hearing stories about them doing well or just seeing it indirectly through social media is so great.
My connection to the college goes back a really long time, almost 45 years. My mom was an instructor at the Parkland campus in Dauphin and eventually the Director of Parkland. I remember going to the college with her in the evenings as a kid. My brothers and I would play in the classroom while she prepped for her classes. So, I’ve kind of always had this life-long connection to the college in one way or another, a complete part of my life with some great relationships made over the years.
Eight years ago, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. It was a difficult time in my life and for my family. I had to go through eight weeks of chemotherapy in Winnipeg, and I didn’t know if I was going to get better. This job means a lot to me, and how I wanted to leave it really mattered to me. My family, my wife and two girls, is what kept me going. I fought for them, but also having a future at Assiniboine, something to work and progress towards, something to help me get back to some sort of normalcy, felt good. I knew that I could step away from the job and felt like the college had my back. You always hear people say, the job doesn’t care about you, to look after yourself first, but you know, in a lot of ways the job gave me something to sort of pull towards. I was able to get back to my role as an instructor with the support provided by not only my family but also the community here at Assiniboine—it really is a community.