St. Lawrence students connect with clients beyond the classroom for 'Design Your Community' project

Case study by Andrew McLachlan RGD, Professor of Graphic Design, St. Lawrence College

Image: Joe Pelow / Loving Spoonful / food redistribution information graphic


Industry professionals, advisory committees and employers all stress the importance of critical thinking and communication skills for graphic design graduates. Technical and design skills alone are not enough to succeed. This project connects student work with professional practice by investigating the following questions:

  • How do we teach design as a problem-solving process, not just a product?
  • How do we foster critical professionalism and greater engagement in our students?
  • How do we integrate opportunities to design solutions for actual clients, real users and complex problems?

Project: Design Your Community (8 WEEKS)

This project connects students directly to actual client problems, providing the opportunity to develop and demonstrate design ability, technical understanding and management skills at an advanced level. Three clients are invited to share a project with the entire class explaining their design problems, after which the designers organize themselves into groups based on the client they choose to work with. 


All three clients present not-for-profit projects, which I have selected to appeal to a range of student interests and ability levels. Each design challenge requires students to design for a real design need, either clearly defined by the client or discovered through research and exploratory questioning.


The three clients each present a 20 minute slideshow that details the mission statement and goals of their organization. This introduction establishes the context for the students who previously knew nothing about the client and also provides an opportunity for Q&A. 


Working in groups, the students communicate directly with their clients, both face to face and through the use of online tools (Basecamp, Skype, email). 


Client projects pictured: 

  • Waterkeeper needed an identity for their annual Gala fundraising event in Toronto. The identity would also be extended to all Gala communications materials (guide, ads, video, etc.)
  • Kingston Canadian Film Festival (KCFF) develops a new visual theme each year based on different interpretations of the festival. They needed a visual theme to convey the unique nature of the festival and connect with creative audiences and Kingston's 'arts and culture' community. 
  • Loving Spoonful presented a very challenging project for the designers because the client didn't have a clearly defined problem to be resolved. The challenge was to work with the client using 'design thinking' strategies to clearly define a problem that could be addressed through design solutions. 

Potential clients are contacted through networking from within the College and through other community connections. The process is relatively informal - if I hear of an organization that I think would be a good fit, like the Loving Spoonful, I will reach out to them directly and see if they are interested in taking part. KCFF has been invited back for 9 years in a row because they are a client with a clearly defined design problem that needs to be revisited annually. This type of project has great appeal for students looking to develop their illustration / photography portfolios and really think outside the box.  


Amy Hamilton, Student RGD / Kingston Canadian Film Festival / poster and collateral material


The Design Your Community project is introduced in the 5th semester of St. Lawrence College's three-year program, presented to students within the first 30 minutes of their first 3rd year class. It is essential that the students drive the process themselves, though I present lectures at various stages of the project.  


The lectures align with broad themes: design research, client management, anticipating production challenges and design critiques. These are all common subjects that influence every designer's work and have been touched on by projects the students completed earlier in the program. The difference in 3rd year is that they're working professionally with real clients, audiences and production challenges. The lectures are delivered with the assumption that they're now working at an 'advanced' level with rigorous detailing of all stages of the project.


Groups are divided based on which of the 3 clients each student wants to work with, and group members must work together to develop and share research for the chosen project. 


Each student develops a production timetable and participates in scheduled group critique sessions. We encourage professional dialogue with the client to be conducted in group forums, with private exchanges with the client kept to a minimum.


Elements / Expectations

  • Students submit a detailed production schedule identifying key milestones working backwards from the final presentation deadline.
  • Students are expected to collaborate with group members during the research phase of the project.
  • Each student is responsible for an individual 5-minute presentation to the client's selection committee explaining their final design solution.
  • Design solutions must be of professional quality and must be technically viable. Each student produces their unique design solution which is portfolio ready. The winning designer works closely with the client to deliver final designs.


As the instructor, I don't take part in the client's selection process until the very end of the project. The selection committee makes a list of 3 finalists and I offer my opinion only as it relates to the designer’s ability to fulfill the technical and production requirements. If one of the students has weak production skills, I'll let the client know. 


In terms of evaluation for the project, the grade is generally broken down as follows: 40% for ongoing process work (including critiques), 50% for final deliverables and 10% for client presentation (assessed by the client only).


Clients are encouraged to offer a $300-500 honourarium to the designer whose work is selected at the end of the assignment - so far we have never had a client refuse to do this.

Dakota Gilchrist / Loving Spoonful / food redistribution information graphic



Regarding the client's selection, there has only been one occasion where the client wanted to work with more than one designer. After discussing it with the two students, we determined that each would work on a different phase of the project. Generally, the client selection committee is very clear about choosing one designer's work, which works best for the goal of this assignment. 


Unlike other assignments with a clearly defined end-result, the focus of this project is to encourage the students to work independently as professional designers solving problems for an actual client. The students sometimes struggle with defining specific deliverables that will reflect the strategy they've developed. Defining an achievable production schedule also presents a challenge for students, often revealing shortcomings in their ability to manage time and resources. 


Students consistently report that they learn more from this one project than any other project in the program, though sometimes it can be a painful learning experience. 


Over the years of conducting this project, I've worked with about 25 different clients and have only encountered one who I feel did not embrace the spirit of the project; they were simply too busy to make adequate time for dialogue with the students. On the positive side, this resulted in students working harder to understand the audience's needs, resulting in a great variety of innovative design solutions with which the client was very pleased.  


Ashley King, Student RGD / Kingston Canadian Film Festival / poster and collateral material


Outcome / Results 

This project generates enormous interest from the students. Invariably, it is difficult for students who rely too strongly on the guiding hand of their instructors. Working with an actual client introduces a challenging learning experience for them.


Each student's final presentation includes accurate, portfolio ready prototypes of the design solution. The designer selected by the client also has the opportunity to take their work into final production after accommodating any changes the client requires. 


Often the results of this project represent two extremes. Some students end up producing wildly experimental work that doesn't really address the needs of the client. Others respond strictly to the design preferences of the client, making it difficult for them to take on a leadership role. No matter what the outcome, all students come away with strong portfolio pieces.


Jordan Macmillan / Loving Spoonful / food redistribution information graphic


Next Steps 

The next stage is to really extend the design process to online design communities. Educators need to push student learning experiences away from formal classroom settings, where students naturally become dependent upon the teacher and classroom. The students need to establish rich peer to peer communities and to independently engage with other design professionals wherever they may be located geographically.


The coming year marks the 10th anniversary of this project and we will be collaborating with three Canadian non-profit organizations at the local, national and international level. By inviting international clients to take part, we plan to make use of online tools and communication platforms to help students to establish meaningful connections and workflows beyond the comfort of the classroom.  

Tina Tran / Waterkeeper Gala / program guide and collateral material


Educator Takeaways

1. Contact a variety of clients. 

Our students have a wide range of interests and abilities as designers, and it's important to provide them with the opportunity to apply these strengths and produce great work. I typically try to have one client that needs a fairly straightforward solution (i.e. large display poster with support collateral material) and others whose projects rely more on creative design research and strategy (i.e. clients looking for branding solutions or looking to address problems in their communication strategy). 


2. Assist in the process.
If the student and client are clear on how the process works, the project will essentially unfold on its own. As the instructor, providing relevant information at key points (ex. tips for delivering effective client presentations) helps keep things on track and maintain momentum.


Student Takeaways 

The students are always taken aback by how quickly this project moves along. The most important thing is to be disciplined in following a process.

1. Dig Deep.
Initially, the students may not probe too deeply into questioning the client. This is mostly due to lack of experience dealing with actual clients. Don't be afraid to ask probing questions.


2. Emphasize concept iteration.
It's important to keep pushing for a range of initial concepts. The more the merrier. This is nothing new, but the first idea is rarely the best. It's an iterative process, and getting the client involved is essential.

3. Practice the final presentation

The client's final choice doesn't come down to one design - it's about selecting a designer with whom they can establish a successful relationship and who understands their design needs. Students should practice selling their design solution by stressing how it solves the communication problem, focusing on user needs rather than individual preferences. 


For more information on the Design Your Community Project, email Andrew McLachlan RGD, Professor of Graphic Design at St. Lawrence College: 


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