Unique design course allows students to gain hands-on experience while serving local nonprofits

Students taking a “community design” course worked with real-world clients as they designed marketing materials for two local nonprofits. The organizations are now using materials created by the students, including advertisements on buses, 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 nonprofits. This 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 connecting with real-world customers.

Puff, a graphic design student, and his classmates worked with the West Haven Community Housewhich offers a Head Start program, and Greater New Haven Literacy Volunteers. He was involved in the creation of a billboard and advertisement for Head Start buses, as well as a ‘rack card’ brochure. He also worked on flyers for Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven that said “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 used within the community,” Puff said. “I also enjoyed learning about the process of working with clients outside of the University.”

“Design concepts for real customers”

Designed to provide students with the opportunity to gain experience working directly with real-world clients, “Community Design” helps local nonprofits meet their marketing and design needs while empowering students to develop their skills.

The students designed flyers for Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven.
The students designed flyers for Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven.

Students begin by researching their clients. They worked directly with organizations to determine their marketing goals and better understand the challenges they face in connecting with their target audiences. They then use this information to identify possible strategies to help organizations achieve their goals through design initiatives. Working as a team, the students developed their ideas and presented them to their clients via Zoom. They used customer feedback and recommendations to adjust their presentations and develop their final products.

Professor Gene Mayer, Practitioner-in-Residence at the University, was the students’ instructor. He says it’s a great way for students to learn how to work in a team while adapting their designs to their clients’ needs. It also allows them to practice what they have learned in their art and design classes.

“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, students are responsible for developing and presenting their ideas to clients. This gives them the opportunity to practice the presentation skills and visual vocabulary we have taught through critiques and class discussion.”

“A Good Neighbor”

In addition to ensuring that their work met their clients’ needs, students also had to ensure that their designs met a set of specifications for size, image quality, and color integrity. They worked with the media kit specifications required for bus and billboard ads.

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

“Students’ interaction with these organizations helps create a stronger bond between the University and the local community,” Professor Mayer said. “It helps make the University a good neighbor – a neighbor who can have a positive impact in the region.”

“Enriching to see our work displayed”

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

Card holder.
Students created a sheet for the Head Start program at West Haven Community House.

Graphic design major Puff says Professor Mayer has been very helpful in guiding him and his classmates as they navigate the process of working with clients.

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