For Applied Communications Students, Project With Converse Is First Step Into Real-World Graphic Design
Adam Cohn makes a video call to Penn State’s Graphic Design 302 class every few weeks. He and the 19 junior design students in the applied communications course talk, listen, talk, and listen some more. Sometimes they’ll share a moment that only graphic designers can, bonding over a font choice or professors in the department, the same one Cohn graduated from in 1993.
Cohn, now the vice president of global brand design at Converse, decided at the end of 2017 that it was time to set the collaboration he’d always wanted to do with the program in motion.
“I’d been wanting to collaborate with the design program for a long time at Penn State, I’d just never got around to doing it,” he said. “Seeing a lot of graduates from other schools and Penn State interview over the years, I felt like there was an aspect of what I do for my living, which is brand storytelling and product stories for marketing purposes, that a lot of designers didn’t have.”
His solution: a six-week project focused on telling the product story of Converse’s Chuck 70, a shoe that features what the company calls “vintage details with modern updates.” It’s a project already happening at Converse, but Cohn was interested in seeing what students could come up with on their own.
Penn State graphic design alumnus and associate professor Ryan Russell, who teaches the applied communications class, said the opportunity could give his students “a leg up to go out and set the design world on fire.”
Cohn sent over some pairs of the Chuck 70 for the students to use in their projects, but the shoes were the least important thing to deliver. In some of his first video conferences with the class, he briefed the team on the project. The setup resembles operations at a real-world company or brand, with Cohn serving as the art director for the class and students creating final products that showcase their take on the shoe’s story. Russell knew from the beginning that the Converse project would fit perfectly into the class’s normal layout.
“Applied communications really delves into projects of a larger scope that create more than a single deliverable,” Russell said. “Converse is approaching us right into the lesson plan that we already utilize, but kind of just putting it on steroids.”
The class broke into small teams that are now working on a mix of videos, graphics, print collateral, websites, ads, and design layouts to present as their final project. Each group’s work will be critiqued as if its members were employees, not students.
Frank Kleinsorge’s group focused on a video shot from the knee down to draw focus to the shoe. Its slogan “Can You Show Up To Stand Out?” highlights the Chuck 70 as the best way to stay ahead in style. The video convinces viewers to idolize the characters wearing the shoe.
“The one thing we understood from Adam’s brief is that there’s a specific demographic that we’re trying to hit, and it’s these trendsetters,” Kleinsorge said. “People follow these trendsetters, so our goal…since the beginning has been…trying to create that trendsetter — don’t be a follower.”
Hannah Scibetta’s team and several other groups took a more photo-based approach. Scibetta’s group was in charge of designing, styling, photographing, and recruiting models for a 10-page “zine,” as well a website and social media accounts.
“I feel like it’s crazy to be able to obviously work with a professional and do work that would, in a sense, be work that would actually be presented to [Cohn] and be used, but also being able to work on all different elements of the branding process and doing it as a team,” Scibetta said.
Though the teams work during class and on their own time to finish their projects within six weeks, everyone involved understands Cohn gets little from them in the short-term. Aside from the hope that some of these well-rounded students could end up as rock-star employees at Converse, the experience always is, and always has been, for the graphic design students.
“Right now, it’s really more about Penn State because it’s my alma mater, but also, I feel like a huge part of my success as a designer is because of the unique graphic design education one can get at Penn State,” Cohn said. “I wanted to help contribute to that and help give back to that because I benefited so much from it.”
Russell called the contribution from graphic design “heavyweight” Cohn one of his favorite projects he’s worked on in his near decade teaching at Penn State.
“I would kill to do a project like this [as a student],” he said. “This will be the closest student project that they have that will mimic what things are like when they enter the creative industry: working in groups, defining those problems, getting creative briefs, and creating deliverables that meet those objectives. I mean, this is going to be the closest thing to a professional experience they will have in school.”
For the first time in years, Cohn will return to Happy Valley for a final, on-site critique with the applied communications students and a lecture through the College of Arts and Architecture’s Stuckeman School on Wednesday, April 11. In his description of the event, he sums up the mission of his career and poses a question: “Throughout all of this life of design, I’ve tried to create honestly, lead selflessly, bring diverse perspectives, and always make it about the final result. What the hell does it all mean?”
For Kleinsorge, Scibetta, and their classmates, Cohn’s proactivity and compassionate undertaking means more to them than just a class project. It’s a way to learn beyond a traditional classroom setting, expand their knowledge, test their limits, and get ahead in the graphic design game.
“Did I think that I would have the opportunity as a junior at Penn State in graphic design to be able to actually work with Converse? Absolutely not,” Kleinsorge said. “You can’t pay for an experience like that. You can get an education, but when the education comes to you, that’s where you find the most value.”