It’s an age-old conundrum for students hitting the job market – how do you get the real-world experience needed to land a job in your field without first landing a job? For students studying graphic design, where portfolios and demonstrated abilities are crucial to break into the industry, it’s especially tough.
But in a special wing of Henderson Hall that looks and feels like a big-city design firm, a group of Virginia Tech students participate in an innovative educational experience in the School of Visual Arts (SOVA) within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
SOVA has a way to give these students real-world agency experience while they’re undergraduates. It’s called FourDesign, a student-run graphic design firm that has landed paying clients along with plenty of professional accolades.
FourDesign got its start in 2001, when, according to Truman Capone, Professor Emeritus of Art and the former director of SOVA, faculty within the school wanted to find a way to integrate professional experiences into the students’ time at Virginia Tech in a way that went beyond traditional internships and independent studies.
That same year, Papa John’s Pizza signed on as their first major client and asked for help redesigning its visual identity. Capone said, the project quickly gained momentum. By 2004, FourDesign was generating enough revenue to operate in the black and moved to new offices to accommodate its expanding list of student workers and clients. By 2007, more than 50 students had benefited from the FourDesign experience, and graduates were finding strong starting positions in the industry.
FourDesign now provides design and expertise for affiliates and departments at Virginia Tech, private businesses, and organizations across Virginia and beyond. The team offers design services including product and company branding, logos, concept development, multimedia presentations, printed publications, packaging, and font and Web design.
“FourDesign is an extraordinary opportunity for School of Visual Art students to share their skills to professional and community organizations,” said A. Jack Davis, dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Given that opportunity, students now compete for coveted slots within the program. Although most FourDesign students are visual art majors, students from other programs, such as the Pamplin College of Business, typically work at the group as project and business managers.
On a recent visit to the FourDesign studio, students were discussing a visual identity project the firm had been hired to prepare for a small technology company. The group, mostly juniors and seniors, reviewed the company’s current visual designs as Meaghan Dee, a visiting instructor within SOVA who is advising FourDesign in the 2011-12 academic year, discussed the client’s needs in a conference room filled with examples of past client work. After tossing around ideas and reviewing production schedules, the students went back to their production rooms and got to work.
Dee said she believes that you can see the impact FourDesign has on students even while they’re still undergraduates. “The experience they get working with clients and doing presentations is huge,” she said. “You can see it in other classes they take, where they are much more poised and comfortable presenting and talking about their work.”
FourDesign’s work is getting some major recognition. The team won Best in Show in the 2011 Western Virginia Addy Awards from the AAF Roanoke for its "CAUS For Innovation" book and also won a cash prize from the Eastman Chemical company for its packaging redesign for Dr. Enuf, a Tennessee-based soft drink brand. “They enter as a design studio, not individual students,” Dee said. “They are very competitive with other professional studios.”
Ashley Marlowe, a junior from Roanoke, Va., majoring in visual communication design, said working on a project like Dr. Enuf provides opportunities not available in the classroom. “It was pretty cool actually to have an actual product already made to look at and try to understand how consumers see it,” Marlowe said. “And then we tried to figure out what they would like to see as a change or other ways to expand their market.”
In a time when newly minted college graduates face a tough job market, the hands-on experience Virginia Tech students receive from FourDesign may just be helping them design their ideal career. FourDesign students have a 100 percent job placement rate after graduation.
Given the success FourDesign alums have had in landing jobs in the industry, competition is typically tight for the eight student positions available each semester. Even existing FourDesign participants must reapply to stay on board.
Just like any other design agency, each applicant must submit a portfolio of their work and be interviewed. Students generally specialize in branding and print design, but there is typically at least one Web designer on staff as well.
FourDesign has done graphic design work for a number of interesting clients in the past 10 years, including the following:
Within Virginia Tech
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