Mastering the nuances of working with a client takes more than instinct. Whether understanding how to match a target audience to a desired goal, or pitching an idea that will simultaneously engage and serve, dealing with clientele is a skill developed over time.

Illinois State University’s Design Streak Studio provides undergraduate graphic design students the chance to work in a professional environment, from development meetings and creative teamwork to pitching to real-world clients.

Four people gathered around a laptop

Design Streak Director Archana Shekara, second from left, engages students Kayla Berg (left), Kataryna McDonald, Derek Dressler, and Cedric Wilder as they prepare for their client pitch.

“We have elevated this class into a working design studio,” said Professor of Graphic Design Archana Shekara, who teaches ART 396, the Design Streak Studio course that offers creative services to area businesses and not-for-profit organizations. Shekara has been practicing design for more than 20 years and joined the faculty at Illinois State in 2009. “Graphic design is more than just learning software programs. Design Streak helps them think conceptually about design, and introduces them to the professional design process,” said Shekara. “And once they walk in the door, I tell them to throw the ego out. Success or failure is shared because everyone is contributing.”

Celebrating nearly four decades at Illinois State, the Design Streak class began with students designing internal projects for the College of Fine Arts. Under Shekara’s tutelage, the course has grown into serving clients across Illinois as well as Missouri and Ohio.

Gabe Gonzalez standing by the Chicago River

Gabe Gonzalez

Illinois State alumnus Gabe Gonzalez noted the variety of projects at Design Streak added a competitive edge to his degree. “This was honestly the premier internship,” said Gonzalez, who graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in sculpture before earning a second bachelor’s at Illinois State in graphic design in 2017. “It wasn’t like the corporate internships I had where an art director would come and give me production piece work. Design Streak placed us with the client from start to finish, and really gave us the chance to flex our creative muscles.”

Currently working as a graphic designer at Number Project in Chicago, Gonzalez attributed his elevation to a senior position at the creative agency to the experience he gained with Design Streak. “We talked with the clients, did research, fleshed out ideas, and then collaborated with one another as we pitched to the client,” he said. “It was an amazing way to work toward understanding and aligning your vision with others.”

Men standing in front of a sculpture in Chicago

Luke Galambos (far right) with fellow Illinois State graphic design and Design Streak alumni who work for his company, Galambos + Associates in Chicago. Pictured left to right are Brooks Bankord, Andrew Bybee, and Ryan Tinsley.

Luke Galambos, a 2002 Illinois State alumnus and owner of the marketing and design firm Galambos and Associates in Chicago, noted the experience he sees from students who have taken the Design Streak course is palpable. “A course with client interaction is extremely valuable for a student, and in turn for an employer,” said Galambos, who hired several Illinois State graduates for his firm. “A class like Design Streak offers a glimpse of the professional world—giving them real-life experiences that will expand their knowledge, build their confidence, and enable them to adapt quicker in their first full-time position.”

Design is a philosophy of life in which designers have to empathize and respect the diverse communities of people they serve.
—Archana Shekara

With a short turn-around time of two and half weeks, students in the Design Streak course create the projects that can range from a logo to a full brand redesign. “They learn to conceptualize as they collaborate,” said Shekara of the small groups working together to meet client needs.

Though the idea of the final pitch can make students nervous, Shekara added it is vital to the process. “From the beginning of class, I tell the students that you are professionals here. There is no getting away with a weak presentation because you are students,” said Shekara. “We want them to take you seriously from day one.” She remembered the best compliment the class received. “After a presentation, a client asked me if the students were finishing up their doctoral degrees in design. I told her they are all undergrads, and she was floored.”

People seated at a table listing to ideas

Design Streak client, the YWCA, listens to a professional pitch from students.

Students in Design Streak also take on one pro-bono project from a not-for-profit client each semester. In the past, Design Streak has worked with such groups as YWCA McLean County and the Autism McLean. Students have also created exhibits relating to their impressions of current political, social and cultural issues in the United States.

The latest exhibit, This is America, is on display until May 3 at the Rachel Cooper Gallery on campus. “Design is a philosophy of life in which designers have to empathize with and respect the diverse communities of people they serve,” said Shekara. “It’s important to empower them to become agents of social change.”