Student-run design firm brings entrepreneurial spirit to campus
When word quickly spread about a budding women’s design group within RIT’s Graphic Design program, demand for its work skyrocketed.
It set the founding students on an entrepreneurial path that has remained fruitful for their successors.
Under the guidance of Assistant Professor Keli DiRisio and Associate Professor Nancy Bernardo in 2018, four female Graphic Design students — Ezra Boyd, Trista Finch, Shannon O’Grady and Morsal Sahar — co-founded Command+g Design Lab, a full-service design studio based right on RIT’s campus.
Since forming, the student-run firm has executed design work for numerous clients, with a specific focus on community-minded initiatives that assist nonprofit organizations. A signature project was a rebranding of Foodlink, which provides food assistance to food pantries across Rochester and upstate New York.
Command+g — appropriately named for the design software keyboard shortcut that groups items together — provides a platform for students to execute client projects while learning the intricacies of running a professional design firm.
“I loved the idea of having something that promoted the Graphic Design program at RIT, and the incredibly talented students in it,” said DiRisio, who serves as a Command+g faculty advisor along with Professor Lorrie Frear and Associate Professor Carol Fillip, Graphic Design program director. “This was a great opportunity to showcase what they could do, in addition to teaching them about what it takes to start and run a business.”
Kat Ward ’21 (Graphic Design), from just outside Philadelphia, Pa., began working for Command+g in late 2019. In spring 2020, she designed a logo for Protection Connection — a youth program run by Reach CNY, a nonprofit organization focused on improving health and reducing health inequity.
For the project, Ward communicated directly with Reach CNY administration and youth program members. Her final design of intertwined hearts with the “PC” acronym reflected conversations with and feedback from the client.
The ability to work directly with real-world clients, especially nonprofit ones, originally drew Ward to apply for a position with Command+g. She found it invaluable to have access to industry experience right on campus.
“The direction I want to go in professionally is leaning toward working with nonprofits and grassroots organizations,” she said. “So that was a big incentive for me.
“It was nice in the sense that it felt like a real design job and I got actual agency experience.”
Other Command+g clients include Artists Unlimited, Cyma Furniture, Inclusivity, Inc., Mr. Grey’s Strays, NC Events and various departments on RIT’s campus.
This spring, three Command+g employees worked with Common Ground Health to design resources connected to the local nonprofit’s ongoing effort to implement a youth mental health literacy program. The program is designed to provide mental health awareness and youth mentorship for middle and high school-aged students in the City of Rochester.
Another group of students completed work focused on constructing a social media, membership and website strategy for Big Springs Museum in nearby Caledonia, N.Y.
Command+g’s business plan has been supported by the College of Art and Design Dean’s Office and donations.
Kat Bassney, director of advancement for the College of Art and Design and College of Liberal Arts, assisted with developing Command+g’s business plan, but said it moved forward successfully due to a deep commitment by the students.
“They really did their homework,” Bassney said. “They benchmarked against other universities. That’s what was so impressive. They intended it to be a living, existing business within RIT and had a long-term vision about the sustainability of it.”
The business has empowered students to grow professionally while using their united efforts to bring design for the greater good to the community. An alumni advisory committee was also established to better connect students with industry professionals.
“The support we’ve received from our administration and from alumni and industry leaders has been amazing,” DiRisio said. “It’s been a rewarding experience to see all of this hard work come to fruition.”
Any students interested in learning more or joining the Command+g team should contact DiRisio at firstname.lastname@example.org.