Designing Students

Park Design House gives students professional marketing experience — agita and all. by Chelsea Theis ’08

It started with a question: “How can we get real-life design experience for interested students?” The answer: Park Design House — a collaborative project between the Park School of Communications and the Office of Marketing Communications, and the newest outlet for campus promotional materials.

The concept was simple: give students the opportunity to design for the College. The logistics weren’t as easy. PDH was created in spring 2007 not only to give students design experience, but also to lessen the non-strategic workload in the marketing communications department. But at first “it was all trial and error,” says Laurie Ward, manager of marketing services, a key initiator and guide of the project. “There were lots of bumps and growing pains.”

But now with its third semester behind it, PDH is going strong and producing professional-quality work. Jill Goldsmith ’96, who was until recently the development officer for the Jewish Studies program, said she was sold after her first experience as a client. Based on budgetary constraints and the quick turnaround needed, Ward had suggested that Goldsmith think about PDH as an alternative producer of posters for the fourth annual Klezmer gala. “I immediately began asking questions about flexibility, control, supervision, and quality,” says Goldsmith. But after the project was finished, Goldsmith says, she no longer had questions. “Everything was handled extremely professionally,” she says. “We felt we had a lot of control, yet we were pleasantly surprised by the ideas of our designer, J. J. Ignotz ’08, on how to make it better.” Jewish studies now uses PDH for every design need.

“When else do you get the opportunity to do something that you love and get paid for it?” asks Simrat Applebaum ’07, a former Park designer. “It’s a symbiotic relationship; I learned those skills from the Park School and then I got to use them to serve the needs of the College community.”

Any student with a major or minor in communications can apply to be a PDH designer. The comprehensive application process includes creating a design for a mock client. “It’s not just about whether they can design,” points out Ward. “It’s the whole package: Do they have people skills? Are they professional? As we grow there is more of a demand, so this raises the standards.” Applebaum didn’t mind the application process; she felt it leveled the playing field. “People have to learn to be cutthroat, especially in this business,” she says. 

Applebaum says PDH has helped her to improve as a designer. “It’s very stimulating creatively. It’s empowering when I reach the high level of work that clients demand.” She says that it has also taught her the importance of listening to and engaging with a client — a lesson she learned the hard way: She’s had to start designs over from scratch more than once. “Sometimes a client would tell me what they envisioned but once they saw it, they’d change their mind. It’s depressing to have to scrap something that you’ve poured your heart and soul into,” when a client rejects a proof, she says. “You have to stay flexible and not get too attached to your work.”

Matt Quintanilla ’07, now employed as a news designer at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis after spending his last semester at IC working for PDH, agrees. “The minute you turn over a poster to a client, they see just the finished product, not the late hours you put into it,” he says. “That’s a lot of pressure.”

Quintanilla points out that being a designer isn’t the same as being an artist: it’s not about the designer’s vision, it’s about the client’s. “Rules are there for a reason,” he says. “Learning how to work within them to make a product that is both compelling and consistent is an essential skill for a designer.”

As a resource that began as a way to get students doing hands-on graphic design work and to take some pressure off the marketing communications office, PDH has a base of more than 20 clients so far. That number is growing, and PDH designers seem ready to handle them all. They like sharing their own ideas of what students want to see.

“My stomach still goes in my throat every time I show my boss a new concept,” says Quintanilla. Even so, he says, “I love that feeling. You have to! PDH made that clear to me.”