Unique Design Course Enables Students to Gain Hands-On Experience While Serving Local Nonprofits

Students taking a “Community Design” class worked with real-world clients as they designed marketing materials for two local nonprofit organizations. The organizations are now using the materials the students created, including bus ads, a billboard, and printed brochures.

May 26, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

The West Haven Community House billboard on Campbell Avenue in West Haven.
Jake Puff '23.
Jake Puff ’23.

Jake Puff ’23 was part of a team that helped create marketing materials – including a prominent billboard – for two local nonprofit organizations. That billboard, installed on Campbell Avenue in West Haven near the University, was part of a project for their “Community Design” class. It was a unique way for students to gain hands-on design experience while building connections with real-world clients.

Puff, a graphic design major, and his classmates worked with the West Haven Community House, which offers a Head Start program, and Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven. He helped create a Head Start billboard and bus ad, as well as a “rack card” brochure. He also collaborated on advertising flyers for Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven that read “learn to read for free” in multiple languages.

“The most meaningful part of working on these projects with these clients was the opportunity to do real graphic design work that would be utilized within the community,” said Puff. “I also enjoyed learning what the process of working with clients outside of the University is like.”

‘Design concepts for actual clients’

Designed to offer students the opportunity to gain experience working directly with real-world clients, “Community Design” helps local nonprofit organizations with their marketing and design needs while enabling students to develop their skills.

Students designed flyers for Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven.
Students designed flyers for Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven.

Students begin by researching their clients. They worked directly with the organizations to ascertain their marketing goals and to better understand the audience challenges they face in connecting with their targets. They then use this information to identify possible strategies to help the organizations reach their goals through design initiatives. Working in teams, students developed their ideas and presented them to their clients via Zoom. They used the clients’ feedback and recommendations to adjust their presentations and develop their final products.

Prof. Gene Mayer, a practitioner in residence at the University, was the students’ instructor. He says it is a great way for students to learn to work as part of a team while making their designs fit their clients’ needs. It also enables them to practice what they’ve been learning in their art and design courses.

“Unlike typical course assignments, which are mostly hypothetical, students must develop and present design concepts for actual clients,” he said. “The way we structure the course, the students are responsible for developing and presenting their ideas to the clients. This gives them the opportunity to put into practice the presentation skills and visual vocabulary we’ve been teaching through classroom critiques and discussions.”

‘A good neighbor’

In addition to making sure their work fits their clients’ needs, students also had to make sure their designs fit a set of specifications for size, image quality, and color integrity. They worked with the media kit specifications required for bus and billboard ads.

Students also designed a series of printed pieces, such as “rack cards,” flyers, and small posters for Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven. The production files were delivered to the printer, and the organization is now using the materials.

“The students’ interaction with these organizations helps create a stronger bond between the University and the local community,” said Prof. Mayer. “It helps make the University a good neighbor – a neighbor that can have a positive impact in the area.”

‘Rewarding to see our work displayed’

In addition to gaining meaningful experience working with clients, students also developed important skills, such as interpersonal, teamwork, and presentation skills. They also finished the course with samples they can include in their own portfolios.

Card rack.
Students created a rack card for the Head Start program at The West Haven Community House.

Puff, the graphic design major, says Prof. Mayer was very helpful in guiding him and his classmates as they navigated the process of working with clients.

“Working with these outside clients was a great learning experience that helped us understand the entire process – from presenting our preliminary designs to working with their feedback and producing a final product,” he said. “It was also rewarding to see our work displayed in West Haven on the billboard and the bus ad.”

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