Student Honors Studio Celebrates Ten Years

By: The Art Institutes

December 22, 2013

Tucked into a quiet corner of the fourth floor of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s historic building on the Boulevard of the Allies, a group of student designers can be found sharing ideas, performing critiques, working diligently at their stations. The classroom appears just like the many others found at AiP.  Once inside, it’s immediately evident that Room 425 is a little different – project charts are scrawled across whiteboards tracking progress, thumbnails are tacked up everywhere and images of countless past projects line the walls.  The Graphic Design students who work inside were appointed to an honors studio that’s celebrating its 10-year anniversary and service to more than 300 community clients.

Honors students have been paired with organizations such as The Fred Rogers Company, Art Expression, The American Red Cross, The Girl Scouts of America, Special Olympics, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, American Cancer Society and The Sickle Cell Foundation and hundreds of others.

The course was established both to challenge strong students and manage a high volume of requests made to the college.  “Students naturally embrace the opportunity to make a difference and the idea of designing for social change,” said Tamara L. Pavlock, Academic Chair. “Equally important are the skills gained along the way, often leading to greater earning potential and employability.”

The Art Institute of Pittsburgh piloted its client-based curriculum in a lab exclusive to students selected for the class.  Students must have faculty recommendation and maintain cumulative GPA above 3.2 to be eligible for the course, typically taken by about 10 students per quarter who are approaching graduation.

According to Associate Professor and Design Studio manager Shawn O’Mara, the studio operates much like a small agency. “We meet weekly to report on our progress for each project and student designers give one another important feedback and inspire ideas,” said O’Mara. Students are evaluated and graded on client and instructor communication, concepts, design, production and teamwork.

Clients visit the Design Studio on the second day of class, with new sessions beginning quarterly in January, April, July and October. “From day one, students are paired with their client and are expected to manage a project from assignment to completion in 11 weeks or less,” said O’Mara.

Results are brochures, advertising, custom illustration, print and digital publications, branding, clothing designs and countless other design applications.

Graphic Design graduate Kari Evans (2010) recalls visiting the Design Studio before she enrolled while on a tour of the college. “The immersive atmosphere in the studio really stuck with me,” said Evans. “I wanted to be part of that.” According to Evans, “It’s one thing to hear about what it's like to work in the real design world, it's another thing completely to put those ideas into practice.” Evans said she and her classmates learned critical communication skills, how to take responsibility for progress, deadlines and client satisfaction.  Evans, of Ohio, landed her first position at American Eagle Outfitters in Pittsburgh. She’s since relocated to Southern California for a graphic design position with Pacific Sunwear (Pacsun).

Shawn O’Mara believes that the client interaction his students have can’t be simulated in a traditional classroom situation.  The pressure is realistic, too. 

Alexa Melone is a 2012 Graphic Design graduate now working for Visit Pittsburgh.  She took Design Studio in her final term at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh and worked on packaging, branding and digital illustrations for several clients including the Veterans Leadership Program of Pittsburgh and American Art and Music Crossroads. “One of my clients didn't approve their piece until the morning of the last day of class. I had to focus and finalize the design hours before graduation,” said Melone. “The important thing is that the client was happy. Learning to work under pressure prepared me for my career today.”

The Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s Design Studio has been the subject of academic research conducted by Dr. Stephen Butler, who began the Design Studio in 2003 and currently serves as Director of Curriculum Development and Learning Resources for The Art Institutes system of schools.  According to Butler, approximately 86% of clients report a favorable experience, 92% would work with the Design Studio again. Students view the experience as an employment edge with 95% of survey responders reporting that they felt taking the class offered an advantage that other classes did not provide.

“The most pronounced benefits for students include interpersonal skill development, strategic time management and professional confidence,” said Butler. “We had anticipated students would be primarily interested in the portfolio work, but surveys consistently suggest that the work is secondary to client intercessions.”

Community clients consider student talent a valuable resource. Margy Whitmer, a producer at The Fred Rogers Company recently turned to The Art Institute of Pittsburgh for help on a recent project.  WORD PLAY is a “while you wait” game developed by The Fred Rogers Company for parents and children to play together while waiting for the bus.  WORD PLAY encourages verbal interaction between parents and young children based on evidence that parent-child communication has a significant impact on the development of a child's pre-literacy skills, self-esteem, imagination, and overall approach to learning.  Students in the Design Studio were assigned to work on eye-catching, child-friendly posters to be placed in the advertising windows of East End bus shelters – prompting parents with young children to text for a clue. “From my perspective, students in the class had a real life experience from beginning to end,” said Whitmer. “We didn’t have a huge budget for this project, so The Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s Design Studio was a great gift to the project and helped us to further fulfill our goals by getting the posters into more bus shelters.” 

The Art Institute of Pittsburgh offers Bachelor of Science, Associate of Science and Diploma programs in Graphic Design are offered at. Graduates are prepared for entry-level positions as graphic designer, production artist and junior art director in the advertising, publishing, business, healthcare, retail, education, government and entertainment industries worldwide.

The Art Institute of Pittsburgh is one of The Art Institutes (, a system of more than 50 schools located throughout North America. The Art Institutes schools provide an important source of education for design, media arts, fashion and culinary professionals. Several institutions of The Art Institutes system are campuses of South University or Argosy University. The Art Institute of Pittsburgh is located at 420 Boulevard of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15219. See for program duration, tuition, fees, and other costs, median debt, federal salary data, alumni success, and other important info.

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By: The Art Institutes

December 22, 2013