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Creating sustainable community partnerships in design academia

Additional thoughts from Civically-driven design curriculum grounded in sustainable community partnerships given Saturday, September 27, 2018, at the AIGA Decipher poster session, University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design.

Client-based design work is not always intertwined in the foundation of traditional undergraduate design education. After all, the logistics and variables that come along with this type of work are time intensive for faculty to manage. If your institutional goals are not community focused this may not be a key priority. If community engagement is a key priority to you and your institution, here are a few tips to consider when creating a sustainable partnership.

1. Don’t create chaos. Build a design team.

In my experience, a class or “Team” of 12-16 students with one 15-week semester is ideal for one community partner project. There is simply too much risk allowing only one student to offer a community partner deliverables. Even in upper-level design research courses, students have a strong work ethic and the ability to do the work. But, life happens, health emergencies, family tragedies; all have the ability to take students completely off the radar in the middle of key deadlines. Choosing one project and delivering great design materials is much more beneficial then under delivering an unfinished product and feeling compelled to continue the work another semester.

2. Work with a memorandum as a partner agreement

This document is necessary to create piece of mind for you as the faculty mentor, the client and for the students working on the project. It doesn’t need to be a long document but should outline the parameters of client expectations, student expectations, and basic “rules” for the project.

3. Find a way to deliver usable materials no matter the student experience or background

There is time involved in clarifying what the student team wishes to create versus what the client can actually use. Students often propose technology tools that the client cannot maintain or manage following the completion of the project. Onsite visits and meetings with the staff help to clarify the capacity and technology skills available for post-project management.

4. Invite students to participate from other areas of education

If possible, allow students from areas of education outside of design can make an impact by sharing differing perspectives. Education majors, for instance, will bring questions and identify issues that may not otherwise be considered.

Jake Markey worked with the Huntingdon Community Center in the Spring of 2018 to wrap up additional client needs that were not met during the Fall 2017 semester.


5. Follow through for the sake of client relations, the end student experience, and the institutions’ image

Offering a nonprofit client a completed, polished website with a functioning donation option is a game changer. For nonprofit clients that work primarily with volunteers in a rural community environment, this deliverable has the potential to drastically impact their bottom line. If you propose a deliverable it is key to be sure that this deliverable can be completed within the constraints of the semester and the student talent.

6. Consider the sustainability of the project from the start

Once the semester ends what happens with this work, the design files, the client meetings? To the outside world, the semester is imaginary. Community partners function year round and need to know that they have support outside of the standard academic timeframe. Finding ways to make the work sustainable from the beginning of the project is key. The creation of client tutorials and clearly documenting notes should be an additional “deliverable” students invest time into creating.

7. Create a clear scope for the project to drive the students and guide the partner

We are design professionals, not psychologists. By clearly identifying the scope of the project as new visual identity and brand elements for example the client and students are able to work concisely in a guided direction. In the past when the scope of the project was simply too large and fluid students and community partners meandered through the semester without direction.

8. Not all students are made to work in this environment.

Over the last few years, one thing that has become evident is that not all students are made for client relations. In addition, the level of the students (second year, third year) drastically has the potential to impact the end deliverables. Throughout this creative process, depending on the client and the student the final outcome can be very different than the original goals. Students may be hoping to work on visuals and signage and ended up strictly focusing on design research and file management. In the real world, this harsh reality happens daily as client needs change and the design team adjusts to meet those needs.

A portion of the fall 2018 interdisciplinary design team were invited to present the progress to the Huntingdon House board of directors at their monthly meeting.

Post Client Presentation: Colin Powers, Sierra Waite, and Vinnie Caroselli successfully presented their work receiving board approval to implement the new design materials created in the IMA Labs course Fall 2018.


At Juniata College in the Integrated Media Arts program, we work primarily with local nonprofit organizations. These organizations offer essential services to the local community but have limited budgets for marketing and design materials. For organizations run primarily by volunteers and a board, one semester worth of design work can leave a positive long term impact.

At the end of the day by creating additional pressure for students to produce work that is not only visually appealing but also useful to the client, students engage in a higher level of professional expectations. This work isn’t solely for a grade or to please their faculty mentors, or even just another portfolio contribution.  Rather than agreeing to do this work simply for professional development or to make our institutions look great in the local community, I encourage you to choose to do this work knowing that you are giving your students the experience they need and the best opportunity to be prepared to enter the real world.


Ryan Gibboney, is an Assistant Professor of Integrated Media Arts at Juniata College in central Pennsylvania. She teaches Community Engaged Learning designated courses focused on Client Based design research. Ryan challenges her interdisciplinary creative students to approach each Client-Based projects with sustainable, long term solutions that meet complex and challenging needs within the community. She earned a BFA in graphic design from Savannah College of Art and Design and earned an MFA in visual communications design from Purdue University.

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