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Branded for good

Projects that were completed by the Texas State University Communication Design students for the 2017 and 2018 CreatAthon.

Branded for good

by Michael Agresta

At CreateAthon, communication design students get crash course in design for social good 

As a rule, college students are discouraged from waiting to begin work on an important assignment until the night before it’s due. But in the real world, and particularly in the fast-paced design industry, sometimes things require immediate turn-around. 

In the midst of an academic calendar of meticulously planned and revised assignment work, Texas State University communication design students find a thrill in the annual CreateAthon — a 24-hour, all-hands-on-deck, real-world practicum, where teams of students pair with professional designers at Austin’s Alchemy Design Co. in April to create promotional design work for local nonprofits.

“Sometimes students in class will complain that they have only two or three weeks to complete a project,” says Claudia Roeschmann, associate professor and coordinator of the communication design program at Texas State. “Well, now they have a day. That’s a very real-life scenario.”

CreateAthon is not unique to Texas State. The format came to Alchemy, an international design firm with an office in Austin, via a nonprofit also called CreateAthon. Texas State’s program also bears some similarities to the Design Jam, a global collaborative design initiative out of the Netherlands that Texas State will participate in this fall. 

CreateAthon was introduced to Texas State by Josh Cunningham
(B.F. A. ’05), senior art director and creative lead for the Austin office of Alchemy. “We wanted to do something charitable for the community but also be able to use design as the means to that end,” Cunningham says. “I wanted to use it as an opportunity to get more involved with my former college, and to also meet new up-and-coming talent.”

For two years, Alchemy has been all-in on the collaboration. “They’ve literally shut down parts of their office in North Austin for two days to work on these projects,” Roeschmann says. “If you’re inviting 40 students to use your studio and even put out sleeping bags, that’s amazing.” 

A limited number of students are selected to join the design teams for each nonprofit. Every student participant must have been accepted into either the B.F.A. or the M.F.A. degree program. To date, 75 percent of the participants have been undergraduates. “We have a lot of students who want to participate, but we have to cap it,” Roeschmann says. “We did increase the number of participating students this year, knowing we had a larger pool of clients that wanted help.” 

Six weeks before the event, the communication design program hosts a kickoff on the San Marcos Campus. Students are introduced to the selected nonprofits and decide which team they want to join. Then, teams receive research about their nonprofit and review a creative brief from Alchemy. This information identifies design elements the nonprofits need. These may include logos, websites, printed promotional materials, or videos. In 2018, participating nonprofits included the Trinity Child Development Center and the Austin Black Cultural District.

Finally, the big day arrives. Teams meet at Alchemy at noon on a Thursday and work, almost without interruption, until 10 p.m. Students take a brief break at 6 p.m. for presentations and to show how far they’ve gotten. Overnight, Alchemy employees mock up the projects as designed, using in-house video and editing teams. Then, on Friday morning, nonprofit  representatives arrive for the final presentations — led in part by Texas State students.

“Having the opportunity to present to the client on Friday, and meeting potentially even the CEO or marketing director of the client, is a big moment for our students,” Roeschmann says.

Students come away from CreateAthon with a renewed understanding of what they’re capable of as budding professional designers. “They are exhausted, and they are beyond shocked by what they can accomplish in a short time frame,” Roeschmann says. “It’s a rewarding experience and they appreciate the opportunity to put this on their resume or to say in an interview, ‘Yes, I’ve worked with a nonprofit client. Yes, I’ve worked with a team, and I’ve worked with a tight deadline.’”

Students also come out of CreateAthon with a larger professional network, including alumni, designers in the field, and classmates. “As important as this experience is to our students, we like to think that the main beneficiaries of CreateAthon are the nonprofit s and the communities they serve.”