At Sputnik, a small pack of students juggles the pressure of art school with the responsibilities of a working design studio
Inside a cramped conference room on the California College of Art's San Francisco campus, six students and three instructors sit shoulder-to-shoulder around a table. On her MacBook, senior Heidi Berg is presenting her idea for a high school recruitment poster. The class presentation is called a "bakeoff," and Berg is one of three students competing for the assignment. Her idea is simple and effective: a distressed page with old-fashioned line drawings and an eye-catching splash of CMYK.
Her peers, even her competitors, are supportive. "I really like the colors," one says, and the rest murmur assent. Bob Aufuldish, the class's adviser this semester, squints across the table. "Where's the CCA logo, though?" Turns out it's flipped up on its side, in one corner of the poster, in a 10 point font. "Better make it bigger," he says.
This is Sputnik, CCA's prestigious, upper-division design course in which students are given responsibility for creating and producing most of the 100 year old art school's collateral. These half dozen fledgling designers make posters, postcards, brochures, books, magazines, invitations, and other materials—50 or 60 projects per term—for the school's admissions, financial aid, architecture, fashion design, extended education, and other departments. And although the class reboots with eight new students each semester, Sputnik has proven itself a windfall for CCA's communication needs. Equal parts internship, classroom, and working studio, this crowded room may represent the best idea for an art school since Photoshop.
Sputnik started 12 years ago, shortly after CCA hired publicist Chris Bliss to oversee a capital campaign. "In 1995, I did an audit of our printed materials and [almost] everything looked terrible," says Bliss, now CCA's VP of communications. "It didn't reflect the quality of the program." Bliss discovered that while the school had money to print projects, it couldn't afford designers to actually design them. So, with the help of Aufuldish, professor David Meckel, and design department dean Michael Vanderbyl, she launched Sputnik, where students would do the work. "They were volunteers, really," Bliss recalls. "I bought the print and coordinated with their clients, and Bob supervised their work and production. Part of the challenge was getting clients to buy into the idea, but once we had printed materials to show, it made my job easier."
One of the first Sputnik students, Eric Heiman, now a partner at Volume Inc. in San Francisco, remembers it began modestly. "We co-designed the alumni magazine and maybe two other projects," he recalls. "My big lesson was to get out of my graphic design bubble and actually learn to deal with limits. With Sputnik, you didn't have time to waste—it was, 'I need this magazine in two weeks.'"
The first few Sputniks, as the chosen students are called, were selected by faculty; these days, a nomination process precedes an extensive interview and portfolio review. "We look for meticulous, well-rounded designers, not hotshots," says Erin Lampe, CCA's director of publications and Sputnik's faculty liaison, along with Aufuldish. "We choose students based on a combination of faculty recommendation, design talent, interview, and pure responsibility." Still, Sputnik has always had serious cachet:
G. Daniel Covert, who roared out of the program into a gig at MTV before founding Dresscode, his own New York studio, with Andre Andreeve (another former Sputnik) says making the class was one of his major goals at CCA. "I saw all this great work come out of Sputnik and said, 'I need to be a part of this,'" he recalls.
Once they're accepted, Sputniks enjoy a variety of educational opportunities beyond the typical class. For Jon Sueda (1997), it was at the print shop: "I learned one of my big lessons during a press check," Sueda says. "The job was supposed to be in red, and the printout looked red, but I was too nervous to double check anything. I signed off, and when the piece came back it was magenta. With Sputnik, I had the benefit of making my mistakes in a safe environment."
As Sueda suggests, Sputnik students get an opportunity for something rare at CCA: hands-on experience. "It's our program policy not to art direct students," explains Doug Akagi, who advises Sputnik when Aufuldish is on sabbatical. "Unfortunately, our students are not known for being good production artists." Sputnik, he says, is a way to rectify that. "It's a crash course in seeing something through from beginning to end," says Heidi Berg, the recruitment poster presenter, later in the day. "That's definitely missing at CCA." Advisor Erin Lampe agrees: "Sputnik prepares them for the real world."
For years now, art schools have bridged this gap between classroom and career with internships, and CCA offers a strong program for all its students. (Sputniks can opt to receive internship credit.) But few support a high volume, student-run graphic studio. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee offers limited programs with three or four students and a small number of projects; Rhode Island School of Design students only design specific publications or sections of them; at the University of Cincinnati, design professors typically supervise a student designer for a project or two, collaborating as schedules allow. Sputnik, however, designs 90 percent of CCA's print and web materials. "Our program is the largest, both in class size and volume of work," says Lampe.
The class teaches another key concept to the participants: client relations. "I'd done small projects here and there, and my Sputnik client was pretty smooth," recalls Sam Wick, who took the class last year and graduates this May. "But other students' [clients] were much more demanding. They want things done well, but they also understand we're not professional designers—yet." Eric Heiman, who has also advised the class, says he urges inexperienced designers to cultivate good client relationships. "I went to school when David Carson was big, when we were encouraged to have antagonistic relationships with our clients," he says. "I never bought into that. My philosophy has always been that clients can be great collaborators."
These clients are now scrambling to get their projects on Sputnik's boards. Nina Sadek, CCA's dean of special programs, uses the class for five or six projects every term. "I like working with students because they're willing to rework things; they're eager to please," she says. "They're genuinely excited about having real pieces in their portfolios." Chris Bliss heads Sputnik's largest project, Glance, CCA's elegant, twice-yearly magazine. "As a client for so long, I feel confident with what works and doesn't work," Bliss says. "The students are very earnest, and there's lots of substance. Whether or not you always agree with that substance is another thing."
With all it has to offer its members, Sputnik's value to the college can be measured in two ways. First, according to Lampe, it has saved CCA nearly $300,000 in designers' costs over the past decade. Second, it has jumpstarted the careers of the nearly 200 student designers who have participated. Former Sputniks can be found working at Chronicle Books, Digital Kitchen, SFMOMA, KQED, MTV, and VH1, as well as McGinty, modernhouse, TreeAxis, fuseproject, Chemistry Design, and other studios. Many Sputniks continue to work for CCA, including Jon Sueda, who designed the new identity for the Wattis Institute, CCA's progressive art gallery.
Former Sputniks looking to employ up-and-coming designers often return to their old classroom as well: Zaldy Serrano, now an art director at KQED, recently hired Carlo Flores, another Sputnik, who graduated last year. Finally, many students can now find their finished pieces in museum displays: "Artists of Invention: A Century of CCA," an exhibition held this winter at the Oakland Museum of California, includes works by several former Sputniks.
What's next? For starters, eSputnik: "A lot of our communications could be done with email postcards," Akagi says. "We're looking at a list of projects we can do electronically rather than offset printed." Such internet and interactive designs will demand more creative types with those skills; last year, for the first time, CCA's website was designed by students who called themselves Laika (after the Russian space dog). "We've found that certain students really shine with web design," says Bliss.
After 11 years, Aufuldish says the hard work is worth it. "The energy it takes to reinvent the wheel every 15 weeks is amplified when it comes back," he says. "Young designers don't lack experience, they just lack opportunity, and Sputnik is a chaperoned environment where we set things up for them to succeed."
Still, neither Sputnik's advisers nor its roster of happy clients can ever fully forget that the group of designers upon whom they lean so heavily are here to get educated, not merely offer free labor. Back in the conference room, a week later, Berg finds herself "awarded" the job for her colorful recruitment campaign; now, she has to come up with three new posters and five new ads. She looks pleased, if a little besieged. "It was an honor to be chosen, but at the same time, I was like, 'Crap!'" she says, sotto voce. Berg's schedule is as tight as any undergraduate's—even more so as the semester comes to a close. She is, after all, still a student, and Sputnik, for all its prestige, is just one class.