Senior University/Community Projects


At the Minneapolis School of Art, graduating Seniors in all departments had to mount a thesis show which was reviewed by the entire faculty from all departments. The show had to be approved by a majority for the student to graduate. Within a year or two, it was apparent to me that Graphic Design graduates were routinely doing the same thing each year; a poster, corporate mark, album cover or some similar work. This bothered me as I felt the work was not particularly challenging and students were not learning much from the show. In 1959, I told the Seniors to go out into the community, to find a non-profit organization that was not using design but needed it who would provide time and expertise to work with a student doing a design demonstration.

Students found projects with the Chamber of Commerce, public television, zoo, an organization promoting people to vote, and other similar clients. Students had to work with people, propose design solutions, make presentations and there were no precedents that they could turn to for imagery. All the work was mounted as an exhibit and clients were invited to an opening. I found the entire experience beneficial for students. The student involvement was also good for the school as it promoted a positive image of the institution participating in community affairs.


Finding Projects, Funding and Outside Expertise
Each year there were refinements in how community projects were handled. Instead of each student finding their own client, I searched out several potential clients and contacted them to explore the possibilities. An important consideration was whether we could find outside funding for the project and this was also investigated. One client was chosen and all the students focused on that project. One important incentive for clients was that all work produced by students would be turned over to the sponsoring organization. Students knew that they either had to make duplicates of the work for themselves or make slide records. They usually did the latter. By working with a local non-profit organization, and because whatever we produced would be given to that body, we were in a position to approach local foundations, corporations or relevant organizations for funds to implement the project. We could also go to a variety of local suppliers such as printing establishments, photographic suppliers, typesetting shops or paper houses for donations of services or materials. This permitted students to do design work that they probably could not afford to do on an individual basis.

When we started the procedure of funding community projects, it was necessary to have some kind of prospectus describing the purpose, scope and objectives of the project. I found that it was necessary for me to spend considerable time during the summer months meeting with the client, familiarizing myself with the subject, defining the project structure and setting goals. When the students were ready to begin work on the project, my prospective was distributed as a hand-out. The client would come to school and meet with students or we would go to the client. There would be many questions and much discussion. Some part of the project, such as an identity system or posters, was assigned to every student. Concurrently, students were doing research on the client’s operation and the subject. Students then identified what part of the project they would work on individually, and what part they would work on as a team member. Sometimes we would identify expertise in the community which would be contacted to see if they would work with us on the project. For example, when working with the Kansas City Zoo, we contacted the statistical division at Midwest Research Institute and they assigned one staff member to work with students on preparing and interpreting a statistical survey. On the same project, we hired a young teacher who taught writing composition on campus.

She worked in the studios with students on writing text for their design work. One group of students would be responsible for designing the final exhibition. Sometimes students would define their own area within the project, and most worked on several parts of the project simultaneously.

Student Teams
Each student team elected its leadership who had responsibility to overview work, schedule meetings and coordinate with the other teams. It was interesting to see how the teams were chosen. Initially, the groups were determined by social relationships, but as the work progressed, there was some shifting of students from one group to another based on abilities and skills. In the final hours of one project, I remember hearing one team leader trying to trade two photographers for one typographer.

The community projects were either one or two semesters. Often I would give the initial stages of the project to all students during the first semester, and in the second semester, we would break up into teams. In order to keep students moving, we scheduled work in progress reviews about every four to six weeks where clients and interested parties would come to the school to review progress. Usually we notified newspapers and television stations, and generally they would cover these events. The publicity was good for the client, students and school.

Usually one faculty member would be in charge of the project but all faculty members were used wherever their expertise was appropriate. These community projects resulted in an incredible amount of work, and by the end, the students were exhausted. Near the end of projects when students are working nights and weekends, it is imperative that there be a faculty presence in the studios. Teachers cannot expect students to do this much work without being available themselves. The learning experience for most students was excellent. Most students did not want to work in teams, and when they did, they often argued and fought like brothers and sisters. Many students felt that working as part of a team meant sacrificing individuality and that teachers would not recognize their creative effort and identify their work on the project. Students did not realize that following graduation and working professionally would require abilities to function as a team member on numerous occasions. Team projects were a valuable learning experience.

Some students ducked responsibilities, others stepped in and picked up the slack. However, when the final show was up, most students were amazed at what they had accomplished collectively. Some students became expert in the project content and continued to pursue it later in their career.


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work by the students of James Rowley
Arizona State University
signage for the Children's Zoo
at the Phoenix Zoo

More of the Zoo Project

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