a thousand words: tri-c's graphic design program gives students a story to tell

Graphic design is a form of visual storytelling, where a few well-crafted images can speak to the viewer in a language more powerful than words. Cuyahoga Community College's graphic design program helps students to harness that power for themselves, with the story they're telling going straight into their portfolios.
While Tri-C's program gives students the general knowledge and studio skills needed for a career in a challenging and competitive space, that's just a small part of the tale graduates are going to convey, says Suzanne Meola, assistant professor with the school's visual communication and design program. Over the course of earning an associate degree in applied business with an emphasis on design, students are working on real-life marketing campaigns for area nonprofits.
"These projects can be the students' dialogue when they're showing off to employers," Meola says. "They now have a story to share."
Now my tale is told
With a focus on the collaborative atmosphere students will encounter post-graduation, Tri-C supports "live projects" involving charitable organizations like the March of Dimes and Susan G. Komen Northeast Ohio. Program undergrads also have done graphics work for Cleveland City Dance and a high-school robotics competition hosted by Tri-C. Presenters pitch their designs to officials from both Tri-C and the respective organization, with the best of the bunch produced and used in the nonprofit's event.
For March of Dimes, students designed logos, signage color schemes and more for the group's signature chefs auction, which features Cleveland’s top culinary talent raising money by cooking their favorite dishes. One student came out as the winner after integrating a colorful table setting into a program booklet.   
"That became a gorgeous portfolio piece for the student," says Meola.
Achieving some honest-to-goodness, real-world work is just one advantage of the nonprofit project, notes the professor. It also offers participants a chance to show the fruits of their labor in a professional setting away from the school's state-of-the-art facilities, where work is done on high-end equipment and industry standard software among the safety of other students.
"Students don't get many presentation opportunities," says Meola. "They may get nervous, but they're also getting constructive criticism."
The project's competitive nature gives the proceedings an edge, albeit an affable one, while teaching the critical graphic design lesson of always moving a client's agenda forward, she says.
"Our students get inspired by each other's projects," Meola says. "It helps raise the bar."
Meola saw the results of friendly competition first-hand when students created graphics for Cleveland Rocks Against Cancer, an event sponsored by Susan G. Komen Northeast Ohio. Guitar- and music-related designs were the norm for the 60-mile, three-day walk. The winning student's presentation included an homage to a grandmother diagnosed with breast cancer.
"She was talking about [her grandmother's] personal story," says Meola. "It was very poignant."
What about the jobs?
An interesting story is especially compelling when told from various viewpoints. Tri-C's graphic design students range in age from 18 to 80, with a few high-school kids earning college credit mixed in for spice. Whether new to college or embellishing a skill set, students might matriculate to jobs in typography, illustration and brand design. The major carries a further emphasis on "new media" like animation, 3D rendering and game creation.
The degree's visual communication and design concentration has helped students place with global marketing agency Rosetta and furniture seller Arhaus. One grad's art-infused dreams took her all the way to Los Angeles, where she's now working for a marketing/graphic design firm.
Meola, who worked for General Electric, various manufacturing firms and as a freelancer before arriving at Tri-C, knows how convoluted the narrative of a student's career can get before it establishes the right pace. She’s glad to send her charges into the job universe with a robust, interdisciplinary portfolio as compelling to potential employers as any good book.
"What our students need most after graduating is experience," says Meola. "It's great to hear all their stories."

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.