Industry Interaction Keeps Digital Media Program Focused on the Future
Senior year is a tumultuous time for KCAD students. There are major projects to finish, portfolios to tighten up, and finals to cram for. But the biggest challenge is figuring out how to break into the world of working artists and designers post-graduation. That’s why KCAD has developed key partnerships that enable students to directly engage with industry-leading companies and organizations that can help jump-start their careers.
A prime example is Biggs|Gilmore, a Kalamazoo-based advertising agency that was one of the first in the industry to transition from print to interactive and digital media. After winning numerous awards for its work with clients like Kellogg’s, Heinz, and Kimberly Clark, Biggs|Gilmore merged with the larger full-service digital advertising agency VML in late 2013. Of VML’s 1800 employees, 13 are KCAD alumni who came with Biggs|Gilmore and now work in VML’s creative department in Kalamazoo.
KCAD Digital Media students relished the opportunity to hang out at a cutting-edge agency like VML and interact with it's employees, many of whom are KCAD alumni
"I think that what we do here is different than the traditional agency," said Jeremiah Johnson, an Associate Art Director at VML who graduated from KCAD in 2005. "We have Creative Services which does a lot of illustration and animation, things that are typically outsourced. For us to have that facility in-house, I think it caters to that [Digital Media] type of student."
Recently, seniors from KCAD's Digital Media program boarded a bus to pay VML’s Kalamazoo branch a visit. Housed in three floors of a downtown industrial building, the space is teeming with some serious creative energy.
"The agency has a great creative vibe to it," said Josh Schimke, a Digital Design senior. "I've just been working in a grocery store, so this is a great change of pace for me. It's great to come to these events because it reminds you what you're working toward."
Hanging in VML's modern workspace gave the students a taste of what life in leading digital advertising agency is like
The day began with VML staff doling out ample advice on landing a gig, including the importance of being prepared to show your work, taking care to apply for positions you are genuinely interested in, and crafting quality cover letters. Doug Berger, Creative Services Supervisor at VML and a 1979 KCAD alum also took a moment to share some of VML's case studies, designed to show potential clients previous successful campaigns.
Two years prior to the merger with VML, Biggs|Gilmore was focusing on Flash-based web games designed to interactively engage its client's customers. Today, the firm creates interactive experiences across social platforms, using campaigns designed to boost its clients’ social media presence. Beyond showing students the current trends in digital advertising, Berger stressed the importance of adaptability, both in the industry and as a professional.
"The nature of advertising changes so rapidly," said Berger. "In two years, we might be going in a completely different direction. The best employees are those that can quickly pick up new skills and are passionate about learning new programs."
The students soaked up valuable advice from VML employees who have already made the journey from the classroom to the workforce
For the rest of the day, the students spent time with VML creative department employees reviewing their portfolios and getting additional advice for professional life after graduation. Individual students were able to meet with multiple team members who critically engaged their portfolios and shared different perspectives on their work.
"The portfolio reviews are great," said Ed Kindsvater, a senior who looks forward to being a digital storyboard artist. "Jeremiah used to be a character designer in the industry, and he had a lot of good tips, like making looser designed boards with better timing to show potential employers how fast you can work."
Student Ed Kindsvater (right) has his portfolio reviewed by VML Associate Art Director and KCAD alum Jerimiah Johnson
KCAD's relationship with VML benefits the Digital Media faculty as well. Experiencing the pace, methodology, and creative direction of the agency gives the faculty a window into the industry and allows them to shape their curriculum in a way that keeps the Digital Media program and its students ahead of the curve.
"This agency has national accounts that make them a great resource for information," remarked KCAD Digital Media Professor Bill Fischer. "It's like going to a supermarket of media and finding all the things that are going on right now because they are into all of it. Even today, seeing how everything has shifted through being delivered from websites to social media has helped. We'll take that information back, and that will actually drive our projects and shift our curriculum a little bit."