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Blugold finds success as a digital artist making popular GIFs

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

Alissa Salzwedel is among the millions of people who enjoy using GIFs — popular animated visual elements — to tell stories or illustrate points in their social media, texts or other online communications.

While she says it’s fun to search for a just-right GIF, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graphic design major thought it might be even more fun to make her own.

“I haven’t taken any animation classes so I was wondering if I could teach myself how to do it,” says Salzwedel, a senior from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “I have a lot of confidence to try things that I’m wondering if I can do. I know nothing bad can happen if doesn’t work and, if it does work, then I have this cool new thing. So, I looked up a tutorial and I got it right away.”

A talented illustrator, Salzwedel enjoys making drawings of small characters, illustrations that turned out to be perfect for creating her first GIFs.

“I started by taking illustrations I had already made and making them move,” Salzwedel says. “I experimented with turning my drawings into moving stickers that people can use on their social media posts. It was cool so I thought, ‘What can I do with it now?’”

Alissa Salzwedel GIFs.

UW-Eau Claire art & design student Alissa Salzwedel is making a name for herself through the GIFs she’s creating as an artist for GIPHY. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

A GIPHY artist

Salzwedel knew that GIPHY powers all GIF sources for Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms, so, on a whim, she applied to become a GIPHY artist. To apply, she had to make and submit five GIFs for review.

She made the GIFs, submitted them and went to sleep not expecting much to come of it. When she woke up, she was surprised to find a message inviting her to be a GIPHY artist.

“Then the next morning, I saw the first GIF I ever made had hit the trending page; it already had 27 million views,” Salzwedel says. “It was unbelievable. I thought it was fake or that something wrong had happened. I could not believe it. Forty-eight hours before I didn’t know how to animate and now, I had 27 million views.”

Her second GIF also hit the trend page, and the number of views for her creations keep climbing, a sign of relevance and popularity in the GIF world.

Since becoming a GIPHY artist in 2019, Salzwedel has learned enough to know what GIFs are most likely to generate interest. Her seasonal — think animated pumpkins or "Let it Snow" slogans — GIFs and those she creates using words or phrases have been especially popular. A GIF using the word “dummy” generated more than 30 million views, for example.

She also creates GIFs when she sees a demand for something that doesn’t exist. So, when she realized there were no Wisconsin GIFs on GIPHY, she created some, which became popular.

“I look for something that either doesn’t exist or something I just really want to do,” Salzwedel says of her GIF strategy. “I love making illustrations that mirror my art style, but I also like to make stickers that are more likely to be used by the public.

“Right now, I am at more than 423 million views, which is crazy. I just passed Coca-Cola and I feel really good about that. A YouTube channel I watched as a kid has my art on it.”

Finding support on campus

While she has never taken an animation class, Salzwedel has gotten plenty of advice about her GIFs from faculty in UW-Eau Claire’s art & design department. Her fellow Blugolds also are supportive of her work as a GIF creator.

At the time she was learning to animate, she was taking an art class taught by Steve Korinek, an associate lecturer in graphic design. A class project required students to create branding for a made-up business. For her project, Salzwedel shared the work she was doing with GIPHY. Her professor and classmates’ enthusiastic reactions made her feel even better about what she was doing.

“Lots of people use GIFs but not many people know who made them,” Salzwedel says. “So, I got a lot of recognition from my class for what I was doing, which was awesome. The art department doesn’t have an animation class, but Steve Korinek pushed me to keep doing it on my own. He was really supportive of what I was doing with GIPHY.”

Korinek also offered advice about how she could turn her work with GIFs into a potential career if she wanted to go in that direction.

“He got the ball rolling for me to think about what I could do with it,” Salzwedel says. “I’m still doing it for fun, but I’m also strategizing about how to make this into something more. He pushed me to try to combine my animation skills with what I've learned about branding so I can help organizations advertise through GIFs. He helped me take this hobby and see how I can do it as a career.”

Korinek credits Salzwedel with expanding his understanding of how animated GIFs meet a real-world communications need.

“I knew about animated GIFs, however, Alissa demonstrated that custom-designed animated GIFs are sought after across social media channels,” says Korinek, who taught Salzwedel in graphic, digital and web design classes. “People, organizations and companies will pay to have this hybrid form of communications created for them. Social media animated GIFs are expanding into disciplines like branding, marketing and public relations because of their unique ability to visually communicate ideas, emotions  and feelings — without limitations or barriers.”

Creating and designing this kind of digital art is potentially another way for creatives to express their ideas, get paid and be seen by millions of people, Korinek says, adding that digital design like this on social media channels has the potential for extensive reach.

“I’m always excited when designers find new media ways to express themselves,” Korinek says. “And I'm especially excited when we as creatives can be compensated for our work and be seen in the larger marketplace of ideas.”

Korinek is eager to see where his student’s talent and ideas might take her in the future..

“As her instructor, I’m excited to see the creative work Alissa designs and animates,” Korinek says. “However, I’m more excited to see where her bold ideas lead her next!”

Finding her future at UW-Eau Claire

The support she gets from faculty like Korinek and the opportunities she’s found on and off campus is exactly what Salzwedel was looking for when she came to UW-Eau Claire as a transfer student.

After teaching art and studying art at a community college in Minnesota, Salzwedel was burned out and not quite sure what she wanted to do with her life. While art always was part of her world, she didn’t know if she wanted to make it her career.

So, she decided to transfer to UW-Eau Claire, a college she knew encourages students to pursue multiple areas of interests. She was eager to study art, music or one of her many other interests, and then decide on a path that feels right.

Once on campus, she quickly found what she was looking for in graphic design, an academic program that prepares graduates to follow a variety of creative paths.

“I fell in love with the design program here,” Salzwedel says. “I love creating art in general, but I especially love working with others to create design solutions. Through this program, I've learned the importance of not only making an awesome looking design, but also acknowledging the importance of the audience's reaction and their takeaway from that design.”

In addition to her core graphic design classes, she’s also studied everything from brand design to typography to webpage design. And, just as she’d hoped would happen when she came to UW-Eau Claire, she has taken many interesting classes outside of the art & design department. Some of her favorite classes have been in the sciences and in communication and journalism.

“It wasn’t a hard transition,” Salzwedel says of transferring to UW-Eau Claire. “I got along with my professors really well and formed awesome connections. I sometimes forget I’m a transfer because it feels like I’ve always been here.”

Looking ahead

While Salzwedel is not yet sure of her exact path after she graduates, she does know now that she will keep doing art, including creating GIFs.

One potential career path that interests her is creating art for video games. The best video games make players feel completely immersed in the game, and art plays a big part in creating that feeling, she says.

“I’m a huge nerd, so when I see the art in video games I get really excited,” Salzwedel says. “There is so much art that goes into a video game that people don’t realize. You have to nail the aesthetics down, there are background visuals, animations. The color pallets, drawings and styles of art can completely change the game. I love seeing how that all comes together.”

For now, in addition to her studies and GIFs, she will continue managing her Etsy store, where she sells her paintings, prints and stickers (search “artxalissa” to find her stickers). She also does commission work for podcasts and other entities in need of art and design work.

“I don’t want to get connected to just one path,” Salzwedel says. “I want to keep trying new things. UW-Eau Claire is a good fit for me because I knew if I came here, I could not just do art but do other things that I’m interested in. I’m going to keep doing art, but I have so many interests.”