First year design students learn client relations through unique project with Silver Harbour Senior Activity Centre

Case Study by Dominique Walker, Instructor at IDEA School of Design, Capilano University, Affiliate Member of RGD

Image: Poster by Joelle Lawrence, Insight from Dorothy Dormur

This year, students in the IDEA School of Design were given a unique assignment. They were asked to visit Silver Harbour Seniors' Activity Centre in North Vancouver and interview seniors about their experiences and use graphic design to help share an important life lesson. The result provides meaningful learning for the students, the seniors and the community.




The coordinator at Silver Harbour, Annwen, approached seniors she thought might be interested and willing to help with the project: people she identified as being outgoing and social. At a prearranged time, IDEA went to Silver Harbour and met the seniors in the main hall. Seniors sat down first, one per table, and the students randomly chose which tables to join, with a maximum of two students allowed at each table, until everyone was in groups of three. It was fairly organic. 


Students asked, "What is the one key message you’ve learned in life that you would like to pass on?" The project required students to distil the seniors’ responses into a concise, shareable message. After having their concepts approved by the seniors, the students worked to communicate these personal messages on a poster.


Over the course of a few weeks, which included subsequent interviews with the seniors, the students created 30 posters that celebrate sage advice from lifetimes of experience.


Poster by Ashley Loo, Insight from Chris Robertson


Key Learning Outcomes

  1. Listen to a client and correctly interpret what they want to communicate about their brand
  2. Work with a client; make them feel comfortable, conduct a meeting, develop interview skills
  3. Distil information down to a key message
  4. Effective poster design (including hierarchy of information, composition, type, colour, etc.)


Poster by Jessica Peng, Insight from Peg McIsaac



Students were required to submit a 24" x 36" poster in PDF format, but there were no requirements for how the artwork be created. Students were encouraged to use tools that would help support the message, or that would be meaningful to the senior. Final posters used everything from needlepoint to burnt wood, photoshop to illustrator.


Students were required to write a brief and have their brief, along with the lesson they would be communicating, approved by the senior and myself before they started designing the poster. In most cases they came up with a few options, the senior chose which one and I worked with them to refine the message if needed. Requirements ad criteria for the assignment were outlined in an assignment sheet.  


Effective posters captured what the senior wanted to say in a meaningful, interesting, engaging way. Hierarchy of information, colour, typography and composition were considered.


Poster by Natalie Heaman, Insight from Dorothy Murray


The biggest challenge was that I gave the seniors a copy of the assignment sheet before they met with the students. By the time they met, many seniors had already tried to create a message for the students' posters. I really wanted the students to be the ones to distil the message. If I was to run the project again, I'd brief the seniors a head of time and really make the students work by asking the seniors to tell them everything and let the students edit the conversation down to a single message on their own.


The only other issue was that the seniors were responsible for grading part of the assignment. They all thought their students were perfect and gave them 10/10 which skewed my final grades high. One asked me to give her students 13/10 because the senior believed they were better than everyone else's: "They really were truly exceptional you know ... they deserve higher than 10/10 ... how about we give them 13/10". It was more than heartwarming. 



Mixing demographics was great. The more you can introduce groups to each other that wouldn't normally connect, the more they will get out of it. Students loved working with real clients and both seniors and students loved working with a demographic they don't often interact with. All the main learning outcomes were met, but moreover, generations were bridged, stories shared and communities strengthened. The project was also covered by Vancouver is Awesome


Quotes from the seniors included:
- “You hear all these negative things about today’s young people; then you meet a group like this and realize they are all just lovely.
- “This makes me feel good about our future.”


Quotes from the students included:
(They) have done so much in their lives; it is SO inspiring.’
“What an amazing person; that was so much fun.”
I can’t wait till I’m 55. That place and the people are awesome.”


Poster by Daniel Pauhl, Insight from Hugh McCready


Educator Takeaways

  1. Students love real-world projects that are meaningful and not just about learning to sell a product - this project motivated them to work harder. 
  2. The more we can show students the power of design as a tool for benefiting society, the more meaningful their education will be. Projects like this inspire students to view design as a tool for social good. 
  3. Students enjoy being pushed to work with groups / demographics outside of their usual social circles.

Student Takeaways

  1. It is important to recognize that clients have vast amounts of passion for and knowledge about their product. It is the job of the designer to leverage and showcase that knowledge and be the bridge between the client and their target market. 
  2. Brands have to be built in truth. Strong collateral reflects this truth and communicates why the brand is valuable / important.
  3. A good designer will make a client feel comfortable to help get to the root of the design challenge and uncover the best information. Interview / client relations / presentation skills are just as important as design skills. 


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