"Just make something cool."
That freedom helped Brown discover her own style, which has been evolving ever since. Brown is now one of the best graphic designers in America, at least according to the 2011 WorldSkills Competition, where she's representing her country in London, battling 26 other young designers from around the globe.
That graphic design teacher noticed Brown's burgeoning talent, and selected her to compete in Nevada's SkillsUSA contest. The first time, she came home empty-handed, but she returned the next year and won the bronze. On her third try, Brown won the whole thing, went to Nationals, and is now taking on the world.
"It just kind of snowballed," she says. "I didn't think four days in Reno would lead to two weeks in London."
But with Brown's love of her craft, it's not surprising that her success has come so quickly. She talks about her process breathlessly, peppered with references to artists as diverse as pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein, the great impressionist Claude Monet, and the film-noir-style comic book creator Frank Miller.
"Like Van Gogh -- he sees a star in the sky, and he showed it how he saw it," she says. "I really like seeing things in real life and being able to interpret them in my own way on the computer."
Brown is able to take other art forms in which she's inept, like dance or music, and translate her passion for them into shapes and color. "Graphic design lends itself to smooth, clean lines," she says. "It's so identifiable. I know if it was made in "Illustrator." I know if they used a pin tool. You can see the movement. It's like music."
In one of the sections of the competition, Brown will be given a task with most likely a commercial bent, like designing a mascot, ticket or flier for a museum. With this kind of work, communicating a concept is key.
"Sometimes you get people who are really really outstanding artists and it's missing the communication part," she explains. "Billboards do it a lot. If there are eight lines of text, what are the chances of you reading it all?"
In another part, she'll be given three photographs and will have to create another photograph using elements of each. This is her weakest area, she thinks.
"I don't like having to rely on an image. I like starting from a blank canvas."
While practicing, she became so frustrated using other people's photos that she thought: Why don't I just start taking my own? So Brown became an amateur photographer, too. That's the kind of girl she is.
Brown is always looking to expand her arsenal of skills. These days she's working on patterns. "I drew this really weird hand flicking this fly," she says. "I put it into 'Illustrator,' and copy-and-pasted it -- repeated it over and over, so it ended up looking like lace. But if you zoom in really close, it's spiders and bugs. You can add that as a background and make something 100 times more interesting."
It takes a special mind to transform an unthinking doodle of an invertebrate into an image of unusual beauty. But for Brown, that is what makes her chosen craft so fun. "Graphic design makes everything look really crisp, really clean," she says. "It makes it so much easier to play with sarcasm."
It's also one of the more marketable art forms. While just a sophomore in college, Brown is already doing freelance work for a handful of clients. But "the ultimate dream," she says, "is to make whatever the hell I want and sell it for a lot of money."
More realistically, though, Brown hopes to lead a design team and push other designers to unlock new things.
"I love helping people," she says. "Teaching is in my bones."
Everyone on the WorldSkills U.S.A. team is apparently just as gracious and passionate. Brown only met them all one time, but the chance to spend another four days with them, she says, is one of the greatest blessings of this whole experience.
"I don't know what it is," she ponders. "It might be that they have a direction, that they know what they want to do, or that they're doing something they enjoy."
She thinks for another moment. "Or maybe they're just excited and proud of where they are."
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