By Ali Robbins Hyatt
Ten years ago, Denise Korn had a day job running Korn Design, a brand strategy and design firm, and an extracurricular involvement in a New England creative economy initiative. After interacting with the vibrant and engaged community of creative people, Korn had a hunch that she could use the design industry as an untapped resource for mentoring to urban youth.
As far as she saw, however, “nothing was actually taking root as an actionable area,” she said. There was a huge gap between kids’ creative aspirations and their abilities to translate those aspirations into actionable careers. Korn describes herself as a do-er and decided if nothing was taking shape, she would just do it herself. And so, Youth Design was born.
Youth Design offers high school students in at-risk areas the opportunities to have paid summer jobs at firms involved in the design sector while pairing the students with senior-level designers as mentors.
It's is not just a summer internship or an apprenticeship and it’s certainly “not pushing brooms” said Korn. The paid model is critical to the program’s success as students need to have a paid summer job in order to contribute to family needs. Although it took some time, today the student wages are entirely funded by the companies involved themselves.
For Karmaloop, Youth Design was the perfect fit given CEO and Founder Greg Selkoe’s commitment to the city of Boston. Karmaloop is a young company itself, design is key to the brand and the target audience is young. The students have worked within Karmaloop’s departments or with its sister site PLNDR. Currently, one of the employees on the photo editing team is a past Youth Design program graduate, said Alex Haney, Karmaloop design director. Selkoe also serves on Youth Design’s board.
Designer mentors also note the power of the program to open up students’ eyes to a design career. “A lot of students don’t understand that a creative profession is a real profession” said Pete Strutt, a Youth Design mentor and senior designer at global design innovation consultancy Continuum, which has been actively involved in growing the program.
Alex Barbosa, a past Youth Design student, worked at Proverb while at Boston Arts Academy and ended up staying on throughout the year as an intern. Today, he is 22 and completing his degree at Mass Art. It is the real experience creating and presenting designs and getting critiques from mentors that has led many of the students to continue to pursue design as a career.
And it’s not just design they are learning. Mentors help students with communication and how to interpret feedback. Kate Hensley, a design director at Suffolk Construction and Youth Design mentor was paired with a student who was a quiet talker. She would take him to lunch at the loudest restaurants she could find so he would practice speaking up.
“By the end of the summer, he was speaking very confidently!” she said. Hensley still meets up with him for lunch each month.
The students show up nervous and uncertain, but become trusted members of the team, creating work that is actually presented to a client or used commercially. “It’s fun to watch the students really relax and get comfortable here” said Tara Whitla, senior producer at Continuum. “They become pals with people,” said Haney.
Beyond the time spent on the job, students get involved in initiatives across Youth Design, such as designing posters that are displayed around the city. Each week, they travel to a different studio or company to meet with other students and hear talks from others in the design industry, learning about how to make a career out of design.
And what about the parents of the students involved in the program? Linda Deng, 19, is currently finishing her sophomore year at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “I had never taken an art class in high school and I really never considered design as a potential career,” she said. Her mother is a biochemist and her father is a statistician and both parents had no concept of how design could be a career. Now, Deng is majoring in industrial design and wants to use her skills to solve problems for humanitarian purposes. Her parents “have been surprisingly very supportive” and tell her “if you’re happy, we’re happy,” she said.
Photos courtesy of Youth Design
About Ali -- I am a Boston-based strategist and innovator originally from the Metrowest 'burbs. I'm passionate about stellar brand and retail experiences and active in the Boston tech and innovation community. You can find me traveling for fun and searching for spectacular authentic eats or traveling for work and searching for worthwhile airport eats. Find me on Twitter @arrobbins.
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