October 16, 2008
Ohm Creative Group | Marvin Shaouni
Featured Story

Talent By Design

By: Erika-Marie S. Geiss, 9/25/2008

Look around. Chances are, a product you've seen or used, a commercial or ad campaign that you've seen, or a car that you've driven has been designed by a CCS alumnus. Ranked second in the nation for its design programs, and attracting an international student body, the College for Creative Studies is an incubator for design leaders and innovators in a broad range of industries including advertising, automotive, education, film, and fine/creative-arts.

From working in big, national and international companies such as Mars Advertising, Honda, Nike, Polaris, Disney-Pixar, Industrial Light and Magic, and, of course, Detroit's Big Three, to opening their own design companies, studios and agencies, there is no question that CCS graduates are designing the way we live, work, play, and in some cases, think.

Case in point, earlier this month Auto Week reported that Ralph Gilles (CSS '92), at just 38, became the head of Chrysler's design operations, after Trevor Creed, senior vice president of design retired. Gilles' body of work has included design work on the Dodge Charger and Viper, overseeing design of Chrysler's MY2008 minivans, and he leads the company’s Mopar Underground, a group of automotive design enthusiasts that create concepts for SEMA

Their influence is transparent (and translucent)

Meanwhile, in Dearborn, Chris Nordin, who owns and runs Furnace Design Studio with his wife Michelle Plucinsky calls CCS a "hub for the creative industry." Both Nordin and Plucinsky are CCS alumni and opened the studio in 1991, the same year that they graduated from the school. CSS gave them the foundation and tools to translate their creative work into a lucrative glass blowing career and lead to the Glass Academy, which they founded 13 years later.  The Glass Academy is one of the only state-certified proprietary trade schools for the glass industry.

Always evolving, Nordin and Plucinsky are working to create a joint program with Henry Ford Community College. The program is designed to provide high school students and others interested in glass-work with a two-year associate's degree. This will provide them with both the foundational tools and portfolio to get accepted into four-year accredited design and creative programs such as CSS.

The Nordins are well-known in the Detroit area, not just for Furnace, but also for the work that brothers, and fellow CSS alumni, Erik and Israel do at their company, the Detroit Design Center.  While many schools boast impressive lists of successful alumni who rarely return, CCS' alumni often stay in the Metro Detroit area and remain involved with their alma mater, which Chris says is one of the school's strengths.

"Having strong alumni bonds and people working in the creative industry is part of what makes CCS a hub for the local creative community, which is very small in Detroit," says Nordin.

Success by design

Another CCS alumnus-entrepreneur is Doug Struble, who owns Designs of Future Worlds, LLC in Taylor, Mich.  Struble, who graduated in 2005 with a degree in animation, provides a variety of services including web design, advertising campaigns, digital work, photography, film work and other graphic design creative work for private clients and some pretty impressive companies. Among his bigger clients are Magic Windows, Mr. Roof and Yazaki Automotive—names you probably know, but probably never realized involved a CCS alumnus. 

When it comes to advertising, Struble likes to pair aesthetics with function, and his background in both animation and graphic design allows him to do this successfully. Struble works closely with cable companies such as Comcast and WOW and ad agencies such as Via Media, the advertising/sales arm of WOW. Struble says the difference between his CCS training and other production companies is that "most people in production [work] went through trade school to learn the technical stuff, but CCS also gives you a strong fine arts background, so [students] learn color, composition, and the other fine arts fundamentals in addition to the technical work."

Struble started his career in graphic design while working for Acuform when he was still a CCS student. Thinking that he would go West to work for one of the major production companies, he instead chose to stay in Michigan, which offered him the ability to not only go off on his own, but to reinvest in his community.

"The impact on the local creative community is huge," Struble says of his alma matter. "There's no other art school that offers the same level of academic excellence, access to industry leaders and hands-on experience outside of the Coasts."

First- and second-year students take fundamental courses, but they also get to work hands-on right away with the liberal arts classes that include writing and art history and theory.

"When I was a student, between my fundamental classes which taught composition, orientation and layout [for example] along with 2-D graphic design, I was able to get my first job with a design company," he says.

College of Creative Studies also attracts big talent with real life industry experience in their fields to the faculty. Such faculty members include Stephen Wilkonski, an adjunct faculty member in the Industrial Design department. Wilkonski has been at CCS for eight years and has witnessed the transition of CCS becoming an accredited institution—one that since receiving accreditation, has been propelled to one of the top tier design schools in the nation (second to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.).

An expanding vision

Always looking forward, beginning in 2009, CCS will offer two MFA programs — one each in design and transportation design, and will include a business component not unlike many MBA programs. Brian Fitzpatrick (now retired) attracted and hired some of the top people in the industry to expand on CCS' reputation and to place students in other industries beyond advertising and studio/fine arts work. One such example is Stephen Bogoniewski, Associate Professor and Chair of the Entertainment Arts Department, who over the past seven years has worked on major motion pictures.

With CCS faculty "making sure that [students] have the skills to enter the market to succeed," as Wilkonski says, CCS is bound to edge the Art Center out of its top spot. "If you start to scratch the surface, you realize a lot of companies hire CCS alumni, and not just in the automotive/transportation industry, but in the supporting industries as well on both the global and local levels," he continues. Such companies include Hyundai, the Detroit Three, Sony, Proctor and Gamble, and GTN, a local post-production company that does local and national advertising as well as the major Hollywood and Indy motion picture industries for both design and post-production work.

With Hollywood's interest in Michigan due to the recent tax incentive legislation, these skills become paramount in crafting a film-savvy workforce.

CCS is also looking forward to emerging markets and now offers programs in computer gaming, which itself is a field that, like the automotive/transportation sector, is driving other industries—for example, the medical field and military (think joystick technology and computer simulation)

Because CCS faculty are deeply connected to and continue to work in their respective industries, they are on top of trends and momentum and can help shape the direction of students’ paths by being responsive to industry needs.

And it’s working. Each year companies visit CCS before the end of the semester to look at portfolios and select interns. Often, those interns end up working for the same local companies after graduation. A few even end up working for them before officially receiving that piece of parchment.

Faculty passion and commitment to CCS students extends well beyond their four years at the school—as faculty members offer the kind of mentorship that cannot occur in a lecture hall, studio or from books alone. An example is the friendship that Wilkonski and Struble established long after Struble was one of Wilkonski's students. In fact, the two have collaborated on professional projects. And as Chris Nordin asserted, the commitment of CCS alumni to the school is equally as strong. As Wilkonski commented, there is no doubt that "the people influencing design today are the people who graduated from CCS."

Erika-Marie Geiss is a work-at-home 'mompreneur.' She runs Red Pencil Editing Services and is the editor-in-chief and publisher of theWAHMmagazine. Her previous article for Metromode was Oakwood's Expanding Cultural Mission.


CCS Campus

Furnace Hot Glass designs

Chris Nordin, co owner of Furnace Design Studio

Doug Struble, who owns Designs of Future Worlds, LLC

Offices and studios of Designs of Future Worlds, LLC in Taylor, Mich.

CCS student studying Digital Advertising

CCS animation class