After spending more than you budgeted for fall clothes, you may find it hard to believe Rire Nakpodia ’93 when he says, “It’s not easy to get someone to walk into a store and pay for something.”

But he knows. He spends his working hours designing images that will draw customers to the wildly popular clothing company Aéropostale.

“It all began in Edgar Boevé’s art history class,” he said. “I came to Calvin as an engineering student, but I was a fish out of water there. So I switched to architecture, and in that program you had to take an art history course. I really enjoyed it, so I took another one with Charles Young, then drawing with Anna Greidanus and Robin Jensen. I became less interested in what I was going to do, career-wise, and I started to enjoy what I was actually doing.”

While studying with Chris Overvoorde, “my mentor,” Nakpodia said, “painting became my passion.”

He painted in California for a few years after graduation, his shows meeting with moderate success. “I was able to squeak by,” he said, “but I wasn’t making a living.”

So in 1997 Nakpodia moved to New York City and got a job as the media lab manager at the School of Visual Arts. There he took a class with Milton Glaser, designer of the much imitated I ♥ NY logo.

“He gave me the nudge and became a mentor,” Nakpodia said, “but to be honest, I still didn’t really know what the profession of graphic designer was all about. That didn’t come until my job with The New York Times.”

At the paper for two years, he worked on its magazine The Sophisticated Traveler.

“It was the perfect little moment to learn the basics of design,” he said. “And I started to see not only the creativity of design, but more importantly, the influence of design. That magazine went out around the world.”

That job gave Nakpodia the skill set needed when iconic department store chain Lord & Taylor hired him to redesign its catalogs with a more fashion-magazine feel.

“I thought newspaper was fast-paced,” he said, “but retail is faster. It responds to weekly business changes. People come into the store on a weekend and your promotion either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you change everything.”

In 2007 Nakpodia moved to clothing company New York & Co., a job that gave him opportunities in all aspects of retail design—store windows, websites, print ads, packaging, logos and label design—to create “brand ownership.”

“Brands are living, organic things,” he explained. “People feel a brand is either who they are or who they aspire to be. That image doesn’t just happen; it’s created, designed. The image is what people buy. They don’t buy a jacket because it’s cold outside.”

Now at Aéropostale as web art director, Nakpodia works out how that company presents its image online. But he’s quick to point out that it’s not a one-way street. While brands sell an image to the public, the public, through social media, now talks back.

“Social media like Facebook are really opening up the playing field. People are posting opinions about a company’s clothing and ad campaigns, and the companies have to respond. For example, they all have social responsibility initiatives now, like Aéropostale’s ‘Teens for Jeans’ program. There’s more of a two-way street. It’s the beginning of a great thing.”