On a snowy day in February, a team of eight Calvin students, accompanied by their professor, drove to Herman Miller—a major American manufacturer of modern office furniture, equipment and home furnishings—for a creative briefing with their new client.

Situated around an elongated table in a contemporary, glassed-in conference room, the students were handed a 119-page discovery document, complemented with a PowerPoint presentation, detailing every aspect of a Herman Miller-owned wood-furniture line, Geiger, the company is hoping to rebrand.

“The goal is to evaluate the current brand expression and create a new identity to position Geiger as a best-in-class category leader,” said Jenelle Kelsch, specialty and consumer marketing lead at Herman Miller, during the presentation. “We have an identity crisis, unclear brand product positioning and weak design recognition.

“What we have to offer is quality craftsmanship, wood mastery, beautiful and timeless designs,” she continued. “We want the beauty to manifest itself. We need storytelling for the brand.”

Two days later, the upper-level graphic design students were ready to take on that challenge, this time in the classroom.

“Before I got there, knowing we were working with a big company, it was really intimidating thinking about working with a client like that,” said junior Jacob Meyer. “Being in the environment was scary at first, but then it turned into a really exciting opportunity.”

Added sophomore Matheu Hoekwater: “This gives me an insight into the workforce to understand what it would be like to work for a client like this and get a feel for an in-depth design brief. It’s as close to the real thing as possible.”

Real clients

An opportunity to work with a real client is something Calvin art professor Frank Speyers has been providing to students for years now, but it has become an even more critical piece of learning since the approval of the graphic design major last year. High demand from students and prospective students is what prompted the major, which is a compilation of courses in art, computer science, business, and communication arts and sciences.

Many of the previous “Brand Design” students worked with nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army, American Red Cross, the Grand Rapids Ballet or the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“My orientation is usually towards nonprofits because these are organizations that are competing for our attention without the financial capability that places like Steelcase and Herman Miller have,” Speyers said. “But this work for Herman Miller seemed like a distinctively unique opportunity to see how branding works. The realism in this case seemed like an extraordinarily exciting pedagogical tool.”

Graphic design and liberal arts

Many graphic designers learned their trade at an institution focusing on art. Speyers said that Calvin’s liberal arts focus and Christian foundation make its program stand out among those of major art institutions.

“The liberal arts thrust of the college singularly equips our students better than anything any secular art college can,” he said. “Graphic designers draw on all of life.”

Rachel Hyde, director of Hyde Creative, attested to that: “Liberal arts really helped me because I know a little bit about a lot of things and that has been really helpful. My clients are super diverse, so if I need to know a little bit about chemistry for a pharmaceutical client, I’ve taken a little chemistry.”

Speyers believes that “disinterested learning” is what “stretches the mind.” “Students will come to me and say, ‘How can I learn if I’m not interested in the subject?’ Forcing your mind to learn is what prepares you for life,” he said.

It also exposes you to all kinds of thinking, according to Hyde.

“It helped me because I was going to school with nurses and engineers and teachers. There’s a lot of value in being exposed to different skill sets. I didn’t go to school only with artists, and that’s the only thinking I know,” she said. “I deal with engineers and nurses and businesspeople, and I’ve interacted with all of them before. I know how they think.”

Combining the liberal arts with Calvin’s Christian foundation prepares students with a solid footing, Speyers said.

“If you send out students who are really visually literate, who understand the power of images, how they work and how they can be influential,” he said, “you can take the message of Calvin and spread it.”

Real professionals

As students labored over mood boards (spaces where images and text are collected that reflect the look and feel of the brand they are trying to create), imaginings and conceptualizations throughout the following class periods, Speyers brought in another dose of reality: professional graphic designers.

Mike Muller ’92, executive vice president of Stevens Advertising, is one of Speyers’ former students.

“I kind of stepped into the visual communication world at Calvin,” he said. “I had to make my own major because this major didn’t exist back then. While I was here I needed to tap the expertise of as many people in the field as possible, and they were helpful to me. I always had the desire to give back because real-world experience was really helpful to me.”

During the class he offered some helpful advice while reviewing the students’ designs: “It’s about tapping into an emotional hot button for your target audience,” he said to one student. “The emotion is more important than the product.”

And to another: “What is the one thing you are trying to get across here? Is it about how you feel when you’re in your space?”

On another day another former student, Rachel Hyde ’98, director of Hyde Creative, paid a visit.

“What they are doing in this class is so valuable,” she said. “It’s real. It’s intense to start with nothing and explore all of the options and eventually get to that one thing and then sell that one thing. Artists don’t usually think of that. You have to tell somebody about why you’ve done what you’ve done, and someone has to find value in what you’ve done—if you want to get paid for it.”

And the students appreciated the opportunity to substantiate the rationale behind their work.

“All of the advice is helpful,” said junior Mikaela Mannes. “Then you get to the point where you have to go with your gut. You have to have a reason for doing what you’re doing stick with it and believe in it.”

“I’ve had the opportunity to flex my design muscles,” added Meyer. “And I’m learning humility. You can’t attach your ego to a design. In order to take criticism well you have to listen to other ideas, and then somewhere between what you think is right and what other people think is right you come up with something. Graphic design is very collaborative.”

The graphic design major at Calvin goes beyond just design principles though, said Speyers. Because of the graphic arts industry’s growing prevalence in an increasingly image-driven world, he believes that offering this program fits directly with Calvin’s mission.

“These are students who want to study art and design as a vocation rather than as an avocation,” he said. “They want to shape culture rather than be shaped by culture.

“Calvin, like most academic institutions of higher learning, is generally textually driven. Outside of academia, however, our culture is largely image-driven. This is why we genuinely need graduates who want to work redemptively with images and resist the presuppositions of Madison Avenue that views people as mere commodities and not as Imago Dei.

That message isn’t missed by alumni either. “We live in an image-driven world,” said Hyde, “and if we (Calvin) are not cultivating students that can shape the world, we are completely missing out.

“A lot of people are making images that don’t have anything to say; sex, money and power will win if there’s no discernment. Some people see what’s going on in culture and then help people think differently. It’s not always about satisfying a client. It’s often about influencing how people think; it’s about using a platform to speak louder.”

Real-world experience

On a spring day in mid-May, the students presented their completed work. While the students gained some professional pieces to add to their portfolio, their biggest takeaways were the things they learned.

“I learned that there are so many parallels between graphic design and the other business classes I’m taking,” said junior Maggie Kamp, “like it’s all about communicating.”

“I’ve learned to trust myself,” added junior Ariel Hettinga, “and to be OK with the possibility of failing as long as you are trusting your instincts.”

“My takeaway is that design entails so much more from so many fields,” said junior Erin Barents. “It made me value the liberal arts aspect of Calvin more. I have had so many classes that related to what we are doing.”

Hyde is excited about the passion she sees in the students: “Every year I come back to Frank’s classes and what I find now is that students are more hopeful about their opportunities. They’re confident that they can actually achieve it. Students used to say that they hoped to be a graphic designer maybe, but now they say that they are a graphic design major and that is what I’m going to do.”

Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark.