Taking the skills learned in college and applying them to a career outside of the academic setting has typically represented a challenging transition for students, particularly in the context of a real-world assignment. At New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a series of programs is hoping to prepare some of their sophomore students for exactly that experience by offering a practical and collaborative way of applying what they’ve learned in class to a design assignment involving a popular school landmark. “What we’ve been looking to create has been an inter-disciplinary project where the school’s design students have been able to collaborate with packaging and fashion business management classes and have their efforts evaluated by actual clients,” says FIT’s Associate Professor of Interior Design, Susan Forbes.
To help provide the real-life assignment subject, Forbes looked for a place that her students had access to and familiarity with, yet could still offer plenty of scope for their creativity. The answer was a resource close to home — FIT’s own campus bookstore.
“The bookstore was always an obvious choice,” Forbes explains. “It represents a real anchor on the campus, and it’s a building that our students know and visit all the time,” she says. Throughout the course, students would become even more familiar with the bookstore, learning about its purpose, mission and people while exploring everything from the placement of fixtures, layouts and furniture to the configuration of lighting and store displays — all to inform their own design ideas. “The students took time to interview me and learn a store manager’s ‘wish list’ perspective when it comes to the function and operation of our store and, in turn, I attended several classes where they shared their initial ideas,” says Barnes & Noble at FIT Bookstore Manager, Carla Bowens.
Working as individuals or as part of a team, the students took their knowledge of the store and projected onto it their design ideas, which also had to meet certain design criteria. “An important objective for our students was to follow the example Barnes & Noble College has established of sustainability, and their designs emphasized the use of materials in everything from wall coverings, ceilings, floor finishes and types of fixtures — all selected with the emphasis on sustainable design,” Forbes explains.
Another task the designers had to address in their design ideas was how they might provide the bookstore with a stronger appeal as a destination point, as Greg Candee, Barnes & Noble College’s Vice President of Design & Construction, explains. “All of our bookstores are different, and at FIT, we wanted to set the task of improving the store’s exterior visibility. How do you get customers to appreciate coming down into a dynamic retail environment in a basement level, with no natural light?” he says.
Candee and Bowens were invited to participate and serve on a panel as ‘clients,’ which also included three FIT faculty members, to offer professional feedback and critique the designs. “I was very, very impressed with the creativity the students displayed in their design solutions,” Candee says. “They did such a remarkable job with the solutions they designed, and their many different approaches to the bookstore showed a level of understanding that represented each of their projects in a really great way,” he adds.
Bowens, too, was impressed with the students’ designs. “You could tell they had really thought about the way we do business here, and that was really reflected in their beautiful designs,” she says, adding, “I really had to ask myself, am I cool enough to work in this store!”
An FIT motto is, ‘Where Creativity Gets Down to Business,’ and this program is just one example of that commitment. Now in its second year, the course seems to be providing a learning opportunity for more than just the students in class. “What they designed was a bookstore they could call their own, a place to be proud of, and that really reflects the brand of their college,” Candee says, “and that’s reflective of exactly our thinking at Barnes & Noble College.”
Bowens also enjoyed the interaction with her students. “As they learned about our world, I had the opportunity to learn more about theirs, to sit in on their lessons, I realized I was learning about design from the viewpoint of my store’s own customers,” she says. In the present day environment where employers are looking for strong, work-related experiences to back their employees’ academic qualifications, the program at FIT is providing its students with firsthand experience of the design problems, objectives, and aspirations of their future clients.
As FIT’s Forbes points out, “It’s been designed to provide not only the opportunity for our students to work with real clients, but also the chance for them to work together in an interdisciplinary design experience,” she says. “Today’s students at FIT have such amazing access to information, it’s really our job to teach them how to go out into the world and apply it.”