It is not every day that undergraduate students get projects and in-person critiques from a global brand leader, but that’s exactly what happened in the third-year “Applied Communications” Graphic Design class. Adam Cohn, vice president of global brand design at Converse, presented a challenge to the Penn State GD 302 class to create a campaign for Converse’s Chuck 70 shoe, including: brand identity, retail and digital experience, social media content, and product storytelling. Over the course of the spring semester, guided by Cohn, students worked in teams of 3-5 to develop their unique concepts, design language, and deliverables for their ‘mock’ project.
On April 11, 2018, Cohn traveled from Converse’s Boston headquarters and the teams presented their pitches to him while he gave them focused and personal reviews. He followed up the critique with a well-attended public talk in the Stuckeman Jury Space, entitled: “It’s not about you. But it is.”
Cohn reached out to associate professor of graphic design, Ryan Russell, and proposed that the students create a brand design campaign that would give them an experience close to the ‘real world’. As an alumnus of Penn State, Cohn said he has been wanting to do something like this for a long time and finally found the time to dedicate to Penn State. “It is a really, really great design program and deserves a lot of credit, more than it gets on the national scale.”
Cohn graduated in 1993 from Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture with a BA in art and a focus on graphic design. When reflecting on his time as a student, he said, “It was a tremendous experience. I would say that a lot of the success that I have today as a designer, communicator and strategist comes from the three years spent in the arts and architecture college at Penn State.” He was part of a small class similar to today’s classes of 20-24 students. “Everybody was competitive but also collaborative at the same time.” He said his teacher, Lanny Sommese, “challenged the students mentally and creatively – and that challenge and desire to be the best really motivated everybody.”
Five of the participating graphic design students – Kathleen Mensing, Hannah Scibetta, Dana Lipshutz, Eleanor Wing, and Daniel Ziegler – talked about the project and process.
The Chuck 70 was designed in 1970 and it is a premium version of the Chuck. There are a number of details that make them stand out including extra cushioning and chrome eyelets for the shoelaces. They are an overall sturdier product. Eleanor Wing described, “it’s kind of like getting the iPhone X – or the upgrade to the Tesla. It’s the shoe that costs a little bit more, but it has features that make it just a little better.” Kathleen Mensing added, “the fine-tuned details are better than the original Chuck. It is a little more expensive, and it is geared towards people around the target age of twenty-one, people who care about what they wear and are influencers. So, we are trying to pinpoint those kinds of people to market the shoe.” Hannah Scibetta said that the shoe is for those people “who are going to wait in line for a shoe release or the launch of a new product.” Cohn concluded, “It is one of the best designed Chucks of all time.”
To this day, Cohn’s core design question is always ‘what is the main point?’ for a creative goal. “I always knew Penn State had a high focus on concept. I think that was why I was so successful.” He added, “Everything you do can’t just be pretty - it has got to have a reason. It has to have a point, and a function.” The Chuck 70 project extends beyond aesthetics and style and provides focus on concept development and story development. “I wanted to bring my process to the students to see if they could benefit from it.”
In February, the class divided up into five small teams and Cohn guided the students through the brand and product storytelling process as they would typically do at Converse. Cohn briefed the students on what it means to tell the story visually, verbally, and experientially to a potential consumer. Cohn described, “their goal became to convince their [fictional] consumers that Chuck 70 is the product for the people who obsess with details and want the best of a thing.” Wing added “this is not just about selling the shoes, there is the idea to distinguish them as a separate thing. There is a lot of complexity in the project.”
The project had several phases. During the first phase, the teams developed their basic concept and presented the pitches in front of the class and via web conferences with Cohn. The second phase was to translate the concept into copyrighting, graphic design, and image generation (photography or illustration). The third phase was to present their final concept and deliverables in-person to Cohn, at which point he gave each team focused, personal feedback.
Global Brand Design
Speaking about working at the global brands, Nike and Converse for nine years, and ten years respectively, Cohn described, “It’s been a great experience.” He said there are several reasons he loves it. “At Converse you’re dealing with creative people all day long, because the product itself is very creative. You’re able to make products and tell product stories to people who see Converse as a form of creativity in itself, so it is a two-way street. It’s really invigorating.” He also said “there is so much opportunity at Nike and Converse. I’ve done event design in my time here, I’ve designed for the website, I’ve done package design, tons of retail design. You can really branch out into lots of disciplines of design and within one company or geographic area. There’s lots of opportunity.” Lastly, he added, “there is the stability of a long-standing company that really knows what it’s doing, which is cool.”
The Students’ Experience
The students clearly appreciated gleaning from Cohn’s expertise. Wing reflected, “Cohn’s perspective is really great to get because when we present pitches to him, he has the experience to see where there might be problems in it, or things we have to be concerned about.” Scibetta added, “he gave us really good suggestions that made us think about our idea and our pitch in general – the way we delivered it, and how we could apply it in the real world when we have to pitch an idea for a job.”
As course instructor, Ryan Russell appreciated the opportunity to simulate a real-world project. “It’s super valuable having students work on a project that extends beyond a faculty member, because it gives them insight into the industry a little bit more directly. We have done this in the past, and I think every student should have an opportunity to do this, whether it’s through their internships, through partners in industry, like Converse and this project, or community partners. They are able to start to develop products for their portfolios that are non-school project based. The insight into the industry is hugely valuable for students as they go out into the world and pursue those design jobs.”
The students have done projects for which they handle all aspects without a team: create the concept, conduct model searches, lead photo shoots, and design the set and fashion. They have had experiences where they handled all aspects of branding design, which allowed them to notice their strengths and weaknesses. Daniel Ziegler stated that “this project was a great follow-up, because everything feels easier when you have a team to work with. We now understand all components of the project, the concept, design, logistics, and implementation. We were able to play off the teammates’ strengths and to delegate accordingly. This experience working on a team is more real-world.” Wing added that it was a really helpful experience because, “the scope is much larger than any of our prior school projects. It’s more realistic. In the industry, projects entail a lot of different deliverables. You need to take a concept and translate it to see how it looks on the web, or in print. Experience with that process is something that is super helpful with going forward.”
For this project each student had the opportunity to take control and act as the art director. They had to both conceptualize and execute which is a very important skill set for people who end up in the industry and in positions of creative leadership. Wing described that during this project the team members divvied and shared the leadership roles. “It is an accurate microcosm of how the industry works in terms of people taking initiative, delegating, and working that relationship out.” Mensing added, “we got to choose our own deliverables and what we wanted them to be. So, not only did we have that freedom, but we could gear the project any which way. It was very hands-on. We were 100 percent in charge of what we did.” This will prove useful when applying for jobs she laughed: “it gives us a lot to talk about in an interview.”
Each team presented gorgeous and bold branding with thoughtful details and skillful execution, but most importantly each pitch was entirely unique. The teams surpassed all the milestones despite navigating layers of complexity and a huge amount of work. They demonstrated a mature handle on time management and team work. Russell proudly reflected, “I felt like the groups’ projects didn’t overlap. They had a similar objective, but the outcomes and deliverables were drastically different. This is a testament to the students. It shows their ability not to just do, but to think. To conceptualize and take a project from ideation all the way through execution. It extends to print packaging, video, multimedia, web. The pitches show the gamut of what our students are capable of.”
The students were completely ecstatic to meet Cohn in person and have the chance to work closely in the critique. “It was really nice to connect in person, to communicate face to face. It’s an amazing culmination for the project to give a presentation to Adam Cohn in person,” said Ziegler.
Cohn mutually enjoyed the process: “it’s been very rewarding to work with the graphic design students at Penn State. They are receptive to the project, they seem to be genuinely excited about the challenge, but they are also taking it seriously, which is great. For me, it is all about them. I really hope that they are learning a lot and they see the potential of this learning for their future careers and it is a catalyst for them.” In the end, everyone gained experience working in a group environment, with a team, navigating a new area of design, building their skills and confidence, and they now have a dazzling project in their portfolio as they leap into the career world.
To learn more about each team's outstanding projects and the feedback from Cohn visit the graphic design facebook photo album: http://bit.ly/2Hc1dTr