It takes quite the visionary skill set to pack gaining real-world experience, fostering community, and helping nonprofits into a single Saturday.

But that is exactly what students and faculty in the School of Visual Arts’ graphic design program sketched out with DesignUP, an all-day, philanthropic design-a-thon on April 2.

“We just knew we wanted to get everyone in same room and create cool things,” said Kelly Wiegand, a senior studying graphic design and president of the university’s student chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) association.

“We thought helping nonprofits was a great way to do that because a lot of times they don’t have the funds to do great design work, and we don’t want that to limit their ability to help their cause,” Wiegand said.

Sponsored by the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and organized in partnership with Virginia Tech AIGA, 54 graphic design students took part in the event that helped 11 nonprofits across the state. Students created new designs, refreshed existing graphics, and even helped lay the groundwork for a new race in Blacksburg.

“A new event we are hosting this year is a Runway 5K, which is just as it sounds, a 5K race at the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport,” said Hunter Gresham, project coordinator for the Blacksburg Partnership. “We wanted a vibrant and fresh event logo representative of the event and of Blacksburg, as well as ideas for how it might translate to T-shirts, runner bibs, merchandise, etc. They provided all of the above.”

The “UP” in DesignUP reflects the university motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), and the event’s roots reach back to the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the 2020 spring semester, Patrick Finley, assistant professor of graphic design, saw community members volunteering to help one another on social media platforms and decided to volunteer his own design skills to local small businesses. When the requests for help poured in, he turned it into a project for the capstone course he was teaching.

“I really think if you can combine design with volunteering, it’s a win-win,” Finley said.

A similar project was repeated during the 2021 spring semester, and with in-person gatherings becoming less of a risk, he decided to take a different approach this year.

“Basically, it’s now a one-day, fast-paced event where you try to do as much as possible to help these nonprofits,” Finley said. “It’s a great opportunity for students to get to work on a real project with a real client while also helping to build relationships between one another.”

People sitting at a desk, looking at a computer.
Rebecca Miller (at left) was one of the Virginia Tech alumni who returned to Blacksburg to help with DesignUP. Photo by Pippi Miller for Virginia Tech.

Divided into 11 teams of mixed class years to help facilitate those connections, each group was led by design professionals recruited by Finley. The pros, who included Virginia Tech alumni and faculty, provided insights from the working world and helped the students navigate what for some was a first time working with clients.

“That client-designer relationship is something you can lose sight of while you’re in school,” said Rebecca Miller, a 2021 graduate of the program who volunteered that day. “You can become very focused on designing for yourself and building portfolios, rather than designing for someone else’s needs.”

Miller, now a graphic designer for Watermark Design in Charlottesville, said she encouraged the students to be courageous in asking questions and diligent about developing their individual work process.

“Learning how to develop a process to get your best ideas out in a timely fashion is really important because I think time management is something every designer will struggle with at some point,” Miller said.   

Access to such insights was very helpful to students such as Devina Bawa, a sophomore in the graphic design program.

“I feel like I already gained so much just from the process of brainstorming" with a professional, Bawa said. “It’s such an interesting process to learn their techniques and skills and then apply them to your own work.”

Bawa said working with real clients on real projects also added a layer of experience and excitement to her more traditional course work.

“In school, we’re mostly working on design projects that are based on imagination, something that could be in the real world but that’s not exactly going to be used in the real world,” she said. “So it’s completely different to know your work will be implemented. To know you're designing not purely for aesthetic, but for an audience and to gain more traction for a program that’s going to help your community.”

Gresham said the help came at a much-needed time for the Blacksburg Partnership, which is currently in the midst of bringing back two of its long-standing events — Brew Do and Fork and Cork — while also introducing the run and another new event, Croquet Soiree, or as she described it, “traditional croquet in an unconventional way.” Because the group’s design needs are generally filled by either herself navigating design software or soliciting help from professionals in the community, turning to DesignUP was a near-perfect solution.

“I appreciate the opportunity presented to us as an organization and to the students as a ‘real-world’ project, but ultimately being able to participate with little actual time commitment on the organization’s end was what was so appealing,” Gresham said. “And it was fantastic. It was a total time commitment of less than three hours for our organization, and what they produced was nothing short of phenomenal.”

Finley said he hopes the experience of working together to help others creates ripple effects felt in both the individuals and the program for years to come.

“Moving forward, I hope this builds that sense of community and helps to grow our design community and I hope moving forward our students continue to do pro bono work for good,” Finley said.

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