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Design Education: From the Classroom to the Workplace

by Lauren Hernandez | February 12, 2024

One important motto for any aspiring artist or designer is: follow your passions. If you do the kind of work that inspires or interests you, you’ll more likely to generate high-quality work, and get more clients in the process!

BFA in Graphic Design student Dena Irby turned her passions into a position recently. Inspired by her political interests, Dena contacted a non-profit organization called Secular Houston to do work for them during her Internship course. They liked her work so much, they hired her as a graphic designer!

In this interview we chatted with Dena about her internship experience.

Q: Dena, can you tell us about your background and why you decided to pursue graphic design?

I have been in corporate training for over 17 years and worked as an Instructional Designer for 4 years. In 2017, I decided to pursue a few different certifications in eLearning and instructional design to help advance my career from facilitating to designing.

I was about to sign up for another certification for work when it dawned on me, if I’m going to be investing in myself, why not pursue something that I absolutely love? I’ve always been an artist, I’ve always wanted to go to art school, but it was never in the cards for me. That’s when I found Sessions. I initially signed up for an Associate Degree but when Sessions started offering the BFA program, I jumped on the opportunity to continue my education.

Q: What inspired you to explore the topic of secular voting in your Special Topics I course?

The separation of church and state is something that I am passionate about. I believe in the freedom of religion (all religions), but I also believe in the freedom from religion. With recent laws being influenced by Christian nationalism, and people’s rights being stripped away, I decided to get involved.

The Special Topics I project called for informational poster designs so I thought it would be informative for people to know how to recognize Christian nationalism in politicians, campaigns, and government. It being an election year, I hoped that perhaps my pieces could be used in real life to help with the cause.

Q: How did you end up working with Secular Houston and can you talk about your experience designing for them?

I told our activism group about my project for Special Topics I and the head of Secular Houston gave me a list with different “get out the vote” suggestions, which ultimately ended up becoming the brochure. I showed him my designs as they progressed, and he gave me permission to use the Secular Houston logo. Once class was complete, I printed out the final flyer and brochure designs and gave them to him. He asked me then and there if I wanted to be the Graphic Designer for Secular Houston.

With primary elections just around the corner, I’ve been tasked with designing endorsement posts for the candidates we’re endorsing. These will be used on our website as well as posted on social media. We mainly communicate through text and email since we’re both so busy and it’s gone well so far. I can always reach him if I need to chat or have a question and we see each other at in-person meetings & events. Getting to know him through the different groups has helped me feel more comfortable working with him.

Q: What has it been like working with a real client while attending school?

Juggling a full-time job, school, and my first client has been a hectic experience but it hasn’t been too bad. It helps right now that the Internship and Entrepreneurship class is focused on my work for Secular Houston and gives me the time I need in class. That will change next semester when I’ll have to squeeze additional time into my schedule. I will be putting in some extra hours to make sure I meet all my commitments, but it will be worth it! As long as I manage my time effectively, I can stay on top of everything.

Q: How has your BFA program prepared you for working with clients?

The BFA program has helped me feel a lot more confident about my work. While I was nervous at first, once I started designing, it all just seemed to fall into place, and I felt good about my design decisions. I was able to think back to different lessons and know that I was on the right path. And that confidence comes out during presentations with the client as well. I was so nervous at our first meeting that I started rambling about the weather, but once I started talking about the designs I was presenting, I felt reassured and the graphic designer in me took over the conversation.

Q: Now that you’ve had a chance to work with a client, do you have any advice for those who haven’t worked with clients yet?

Some advice I would give is to use the same workflow that you learned and used in school and apply it to the client’s work. For instance, I start by brainstorming, then sketching, then drafting in digital, and refining until it’s complete. The same applies to the real world and it helps to have that structure already in place. And always remember that you’re human and so is your client, so try to relax. It will be nerve-wracking working with a client for the first time so take some deep breaths and take it slow.

To find out more about the online BFA in Graphic Design program, visit the Bachelors Degree in Graphic Design page. Find out more about the impact of Sessions BFA students in the workplace in these interviews: Kristin Weidemann, Zach Haselow, Oscar Merritt, and Sally Alawadi.

Lauren Hernandez is the Manager, Faculty and Curriculum Development at Sessions College. Lauren is an artist, educator, and former middle-school teacher with a passion for everything art-related. Outside of work, Lauren likes to take care of her plants and hang out with her bird.