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Meet Terry Dobson, Professor of Graphic Design and Former Disney Imagineer

by Bethany Wagner

After a dream career designing for Disney, Terry Dobson joins APU’s Department of Art and Design, where he teaches the next generation of graphic designers to use their art to make a difference in the world.

Following a move to the United States from England, Dobson earned his MFA in graphic design from Yale University in 1990. Facing an extremely competitive job market, he put his creativity to work designing cleverly unique résumés. Tiny tea chests containing his miniaturized portfolio—sent to coincide with the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party and stamped with the words “The British are Coming Back”—earned him an internship in Boston. Then, to bait the big cheese and snag a job with Disney, he sent boxes with mousetraps that read, “To build a better mousetrap, choose the best cheese.”

Dobson’s originality landed him a position in 1991 with Walt Disney Imagineering, where he designed the shows, rides, pavilions, and attractions for Disney’s theme parks worldwide and online. His first attraction as creative director was a pavilion called Innoventions at Epcot theme park. Its success led Disney to appoint Dobson creative director for the design of the Innoventions pavilion at Disneyland. This time, the building itself was a piece of history—Walt Disney’s original Carousel of Progress pavilion from the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

“To design an attraction in Disneyland—the only park that Walt Disney ever saw—was an incredible honor,” said Dobson. “Just like Sleeping Beauty’s Castle is an icon of Fantasyland, and Tarzan’s Tree House is an icon of Adventureland, I got to be a part of Disney history by designing an icon for Tomorrowland—The Treehouse of Technology inside Innoventions.” This massive tree-shaped structure made of recycled computer parts still stands today at the center of the Innoventions building, surrounded by futuristic technologies delivering messages of environmental stewardship.

Dobson’s success with Innoventions led to the project that he describes as the pinnacle of his career with Disney: the Millennium Village Pavilion at Epcot. “Designing the Millennium Village was the end of a decade-long journey,” said Dobson. “I was ultimately able to create the attraction that I’d first pitched to Disney when I was still at Yale in grad school 10 years before.”

The Millennium Village Pavilion celebrated the stories of more than 50 countries together under one roof, so Dobson assumed the delicate role of diplomat of design as he collaborated with international governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), The World Bank, and The United Nations. The attraction ran for 18 months and won a Themed Entertainment Award (THEA)—the equivalent of an Academy Award in the themed entertainment industry.

Dobson’s wide range of projects during his time at Disney included Villain’s Revenge, a children’s computer game that won an Interactive Academy Award in 2000. He also designed Disney’s first massively multiplayer online theme park called Virtual Magic Kingdom, which featured an online economy in which treasures in the virtual world could only be won by playing adventures at Disney theme parks in the real world. Another project with Disney was a series of web-based educational programs for children. Online games revealing the science behind the “magic” of Disneyland rides encouraged kids to become the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.

During his last five years with Disney, Dobson also taught graphic design part time at Loyola Marymount University. “LMU’s focus on social justice led my design projects, both inside and outside the classroom, to answer the question, ‘How can design make a positive difference in the world?’” said Dobson. “Both seeking a higher purpose for design and teaching rekindled my love of academia, and I knew that’s where my heart really wanted to be.”

This awakening led Dobson to Azusa Pacific, where he now teaches Introduction to Computer Graphics, Senior Portfolio, and Graphic Design IV. He encourages and inspires his students to design work that will stand out to potential employers and make a difference in the world. In Graphic Design IV, he implements his work experience in a unique way by challenging students to design their own theme park attractions with a mission.

“My students are designing attractions befitting of a world’s fair, based on the idea of making the Kingdom of God your family’s passion,” said Dobson. “Now is their chance to turn their entire time at APU and their beliefs as Christian designers into experiences with the ability to transform lives.”

After a remarkable career at the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Dobson is enjoying his role as an APU professor. “I am doing what I’ve always wanted to do. I get to apply my diverse experiences from Yale and Disney—a true rollercoaster ride of a career—and share them with my students.”