UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It is not every day that undergraduate students get projects and in-person critique from a global brand leader, but that’s exactly what happened in a third-year applied communications graphic design (GD) class at Penn State.
Penn State College of Arts and Architecture alumnus Adam Cohn, vice president of global brand design at Converse, presented a challenge to the 2018 spring semester 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, students — guided by Cohn — worked in teams of three to five to develop their unique concepts, design language and deliverables for their “mock” project.
On April 11, Cohn traveled to University Park from Converse’s Boston headquarters and the teams presented their pitches to him while he gave them focused and personal reviews.
Cohn, who previously worked at Nike, had long wanted to work with Penn State students and give them a “real world” experience. He collaborated with the course instructor, Ryan Russell, associate professor of graphic design, to develop the project.
“Penn State has a really, really great design program and deserves a lot of credit, more than it gets on the national scale,” said Cohn.
Cohn graduated in 1993 with a bachelor of arts in art and a focus on graphic design. “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 College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State.”
The Converse 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.
The students were developing a campaign for a shoe designed in 1970 and considered the premium version of Converse’s “Chuck” line of shoes. There are a number of details that make the shoe stand out, including extra cushioning and chrome eyelets for the shoelaces. In addition, the Chuck 70 is an overall sturdier project.
“It’s one of the best-designed Chucks of all time,” said Cohn, noting that distinction guided students in their work. “I always knew Penn State had a high focus on concept," he said. "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 extended beyond aesthetics and style and provided focus on concept development and story development. “I wanted to bring my process to the students to see if they could benefit from it,” Cohn said.
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.
"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,” he said.
The students appreciated gleaning from Cohn’s expertise and working with him in person.
“His 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,” said Eleanor Wing, one of the students in the class.
Classmate Hannah Scibetta agreed. “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. … 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.”
Wing said she appreciated the assignment’s comprehensiveness, and the opportunity to take on leadership roles as part of the project. “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,” she explained, adding that the team members shared leadership roles. “It is an accurate microcosm of how the industry works in terms of people taking initiative, delegating and working that relationship out.”
According to Russell, the students displayed professionalism and effective time-management and project-management skills, as well as the ability to see a project through from beginning to end. “I felt like the groups’ projects didn’t overlap. They had a similar objective, but the outcomes and deliverables were drastically different. … 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.”
Cohn said he enjoyed the process. “It’s been very rewarding to work with the graphic design students at Penn State. … 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 that it is a catalyst for them.”
To learn more about each team's projects and the feedback from Cohn, visit the Graphic Design Facebook photo album.