Educator Case Study: Cambrian Design students apply skills to real client projects with website designs for local businesses

Case Study by Sean Grant RGD, Professor, Cambrian College of Applied Arts & Technology

One of the most valuable experiences in a designer's education is the opportunity to work directly with a client. The classroom can simulate this experience, but let's face it, we're navel gazing - graphic designers celebrating and critiquing graphic design. Without the client, we become the chef who only makes food for his friends, never thinking about what our customer may actually want or need. Being a graphic designer is about more than making things pretty. It's about helping clients work through unique problems, and this is difficult to teach without a real-life client.


Project: Voucher for E-Business (VEB)

From October through December, nine Cambrian College third year graphic design students were given the opportunity to work directly with local small businesses to help improve their online presence. The VEB (Voucher for E-Business) program was made possible by a $25,000 grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence, coordination from Cambrian Innovates and business sourcing from the Sudbury Regional Business Centre. Students received the majority of this funding in two segments ($1000 retainer and $500 upon completion).


In addition to the payment, the project was in line with an assignment in our Website Design 3 course, and counted as credited work. In our inaugural year, students with an A or B final grade in Website Design 2 were able to sign up to participate in this assignment. Next year enrolment will be limited to A-level students only.  


Process and Tools

The process started with each student attending an initial briefing with all stakeholders: the clients, Applied Research, Regional Business Centre, and supervising faculty. During this meeting, the scope and deliverables for the project were discussed and determined. Allowing the student to partake in the negotiation process - navigating the client's agenda and determining what objectives can be achieved within the time limits - provided an experience that often isn't possible in the classroom setting.


In most cases, the deliverable identified at this initial meeting was the design and development of the client's website. To complete the project, the student would use a range of skills, including: photography, web design, HTML, CSS, PHP, jQuery, and a range of software, including: Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, FTP, CMS and presentation software.


Featured Student Project: by Tina Hatzioannidis



After the initial meeting, students were on their own. They had been given the project scope, deadlines and the client's contact information, and I provided support as needed. It was up to them to work with the client and figure out the specific needs.


During the semester, students were required to present their work in a succession of checkpoints (proposal, design, development) every two weeks. After each class presentation, I recommended that the student  make necessary revisions and present to the client within the week. This allowed me to keep on top of the projects and deal with any issues. After the client signed off on the project, I went through each student's work to ensure it was sound, making any revisions as required before the official launch. 


Featured Student Project: by Gates Godin




After the projects were complete, a survey was distributed to all of the student participants. An overwhelming majority of the students enjoyed the experience, were thrilled to be paid for completing school work and found the client experience very valuable. 


"Knowing that I had my professor's support was helpful and reassuring. Earning money via the VEB program was great. More importantly, knowing that I was able to deliver a website project that will help a local business was very empowering. Overall, VEB and Cambrian College provided a rewarding and fruitful learning experience and I'm grateful to have been part of it" - Tim Yeung, Cambrian Design Student


In hindsight, there are a few elements of the project that can be improved upon:

  • Some clients were not appropriate for the project. Vetting businesses more thoroughly will help eliminate projects outside our expertise (such as basic data entry, online content population, e-commerce development).
  • Some students were not appropriate for the project. The most appropriate student is generally an A-level student - well-rounded individuals who have demonstrated their ability and dedication to complete projects. A-level students usually work well with others, are good problem solvers with strong creative ability, follow instructions, meet deadlines and communicate well. On the other hand, many of the B-level student projects were lacking in one (or more) areas, and the only way to salvage the project was for me to get deeply involved in the process, which was time consuming.

This might sound like a nightmare to overworked profs, but I assure you it was worth it! In the end, nine local businesses have a better online presence and have certainly increased their ability to communicate with customers. As part of each project, we made sure to offer sound SEO (search engine optimization), cost effective online solutions, a professional appearance and accessible content. For these clients, it was exactly what they needed to help take their businesses online.


Featured Student Project: by Tim Yeung


Educator Takeaways

  1. Offering free services to local businesses is unethical and bad for the industry, but if you target businesses that can't afford professional design and find funding for the students, you're providing an invaluable opportunity for both your community and your students. Talk to people in your college. They're often more equipped to set up funding and organize the necessary resources and connections.
  2. Choose your students wisely. Giving everyone the chance to complete a project like this will take too much time. Not all students are ready to manage this level of responsibility.
  3. Work closely with each student. Be accessible to them and take extra care in helping their projects succeed. Think of yourself as a Creative Director working with a Junior Designer. Don't be afraid to put in some work if a student is stuck or struggling. After all, if the project fails, it's likely your name and the college that the client will remember, not the student's.


Student Takeaways

  1. This project goes beyond a regular school assignment. There is no option to be lazy; your work needs to be stellar! And if it is, you may have just landed your first freelance client. Half of my students now have paying clients. If you want to be a successful graphic designer, start by making a client happy.
  2. This type of project has the potential to be a valuable portfolio piece. Students often exit college without a "real" example of design work. They have done plenty of class assignments, but have no examples of projects that dealt with real clients, real budgets and real time constraints. This type of portfolio piece shows not only your technical skills, but your ability to work well with others, manage your time and meet the needs of a client. That's something you don't often see in a student portfolio.
  3. Finally, make sure to put forward your best effort and be open to accepting guidance from supervising faculty. They are there to help you through the good and bad. They have experience dealing with difficult clients and succeeding. Be aware that what you're doing - the work you produce and the way you interact with the other people involved - affects your professional reputation. 



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