Designing students

Sophomore Ale Cordero and senior Carissa Moore collaborate on a graphic design assignment in their first-period graphic design class.  - Jennifer Conway
Sophomore Ale Cordero and senior Carissa Moore collaborate on a graphic design assignment in their first-period graphic design class.
— image credit: Jennifer Conway

Few companies, outside of the occasional failing dot-com, can say they lose all of their employees twice a year. When this happens, it is typically a disaster.

But for Watermark Designs, a South Whidbey graphic design company, shedding its entire workforce every summer is just part of doing business. It's a good thing this is one business that doesn't need to make a profit.

The company, which is part of a graphic design class at South Whidbey High School, gives students between the ages of 14 and 18 design experience on real projects for real clients. The work they do is not just another class project.

High school art teacher Gene Koffkin, who teaches the graphic design class and essentially heads Watermark, said he doesn't know if the South Whidbey business community is aware of the company's capabilities.

"Whatever a customer needs," he said, "we like them to come to us."

Watermark doesn't pay its employees or give benefits -- unless employees count the satisfaction of seeing their hard work displayed.

Because the class lasts only a semester Watermark Design employees have only 18 weeks to become professionals.

On their way to becoming pros, there is a lot of work to do. One of the larger projects the fall class completed was for the Washington State Liquor Control Board. The agency sponsored a 2003 Drug Free Washington poster design contest to promote drug-free environments.

Class members designed three posters and sent them to the liquor board. Contest winners will have their poster designs with the theme "Do amazing things, not drugs" displayed prominently throughout Washington schools. The class has not yet heard whether any of their designs have been selected.

Another large project was an advertising package for China City restaurant in Freeland. Each student worked throughout the semester on a design. China City management picked its favorite designs for new menus and advertising. Some of the designs are now in backlit advertising boxes, and on four Washington State ferries and in two ferries terminals.

In his classroom this week, Koffkin pointed to a Watermark Designs logo, smaller than a dime, on the corner of a student's project. He said work done for customers display the logo as well, because the piece represents hard work and input from many students in the class. And, since Watermark doesn't charge for the work it does, its members settle for recognition.

"We get fame but no fortune," Koffkin said with a smile.

Much of the work in the class is done with computers. That's a new angle for freshman Matt Statz, who said he enjoys graphic design because it broadened his scope of what he can do with art.

"I enjoy art and this something new," Statz said.

The homework for the class is difficult to do without the specific computer programs the high school owns, but he is happy to do as much work as possible at school.

"It really opened it up with what I could do to pictures," he said. "Practice makes you good."

The students use a variety mediums to make their creations. While some of the class' new, second-semester students sat at tables and sketched out ideas on paper with pencils this week, other students worked on computers. Digital cameras, scanners, and software programs Photoshop and Appleworks are all part of the process.

This early in the semester, each student is working on making personal logos, which will be used on their future projects.

Koffkin grades each completed piece, but an "A" project doesn't guarantee customers will like a design. Standing in his classroom, he turned over a fall project with an "A" marked on the back.

"For some reason the customer didn't like this," he said.

While he might like a design, Koffkin said his taste may not match that of a customer.

Students this term are working on a large project for the South Whidbey Commons project. Koffkin said Watermark Designs was approached to create everything for the project from logos meant to be used on the exterior of the planned combination youth and senior center, to letterheads.

Koffkin said he expects students to leave the class prepared to work in as graphic designers.

"They should be able to function in an entry-level position at a graphics design firm after taking this class."

For the remainder of the school year, Watermark Designs has several projects lined up. In addition to the Commons project, the class is designing the high school student planner and course catalog.

"We're starting to get noticed," Koffkin said.

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