For Julie Dery it came down to her portfolio. Over the course of several months the PCC graphic design student created then revised then revised again about 10 pieces of her best work.
By last June, after the portfolio class at PCC ended and her layouts were showcased exactly to her liking, she embarked on the job search circuit. One of the first potential employers to see her portfolio was a designer at Wieden + Kennedy, Portland’s own advertising giant that handles accounts for some of the nation’s biggest businesses.
“One of the main reasons I went to PCC was to come out with a great portfolio,” said Dery, who believes her portfolio played a part in getting her hired by W + K last August.
With a downturn economy continuing to put a stranglehold on well-paid professional jobs, some PCC graduates are finding work with advertising agencies, media publications, marketing companies and in-house design departments with sports companies Nike, Adidas, Columbia and Nautilus.
“By the time they graduate our students love and have a passion for graphic design,” said CeCe Cutsforth, a full-time faculty member and program chair. “And once the passion is there, the learning is amazing,”
The Sylvania-based graphic design program runs its students through a rigorous set of classes, fashioning introductory courses into a boot camp as a way to push even the most determined students. Of the 100 new students enrolled during the fall term, only about 60 return.
With at-home design programs so easy to master that even a “dummy” can use them and photo shopping no longer an art but a necessity, students in these beginning graphic design classes go back to the basics. During the first term of classes they never touch a keyboard or mouse and never look at a computer screen. They focus on freehand drawing. And they must earn a grade of a B or higher for each class or their place in the program is in jeopardy.
“Just because you know how to use a computer, doesn’t mean you know how to design,” said recent design graduate Windie Chao, who recalls those first classes centered on the history of graphic design as well as typography.
By the start of the second year the number of student has trickled down to 35. Students treat the program as a job, not just a class. They call in sick to the instructor when they’re absent from class. Missed deadlines are not accepted and there is no extra credit.
“We train you the way we want you on the job,” said Cutsforth. “It’s a waste of time to go through the classes and get Cs because those students are not doing work that is marketable and they won’t get hired.”
While there is competition from other private and public four-year universities, PCC’s solid program has received praise from employers looking for well-trained new hires. With mostly part-time instructors who work in the field and stay current with the trends, PCC students master their skills in state-of-the-art facilities.
“You get a great education for a quarter of the price of a four-year university,” said Dery, 29, the W + K designer now working on Target ads.
Many of the more recent successful graphic design students went back to school for a second career. They left jobs as accountants, pharmacists and lawyers, among others, to basically learn graphic design. Most will earn an associate degree and find work. There is limited interest within the students to transfer to four-year universities although PCC has an articulation agreement with Portland State University.
Lee Benson moved to Portland several years after graduating with a film degree from a University of California campus but soon found that graphic design was a better career fit for him.
After checking out other universities and institutes, he came to PCC in 2008. “I was surprised how in-depth the program is for a community college. I never felt like I was getting a second-rate education and I was so excited about my classes.”
Benson, 28, finished the program last spring and now as a freelancer designs book covers, business cards and letterhead for local businesses as well as posters promoting clubs and other nightlife events.
His biggest thrill so far was helping to brand the Vancouver, B.C. International Improv Festival and produce collateral for the event last fall.
Chao emigrated to Oregon from Taipei in 2007. With a business degree on her resume, she wanted to stretch her creativity. After taking English classes at PCC, she enrolled in the graphic design program where the workload was intense and invigorating.
“These classes are for people who are serious about graphic design,” she said.
Chao is now interning at Portland Monthly magazine, where she recently designed the popular feature “The Perfect Party” for the January 2011 issue.
“This is really exciting for me as I learn from other professional graphic designers,” said Chao, 26. “I ask a lot of questions.”
What also made an impression on Chao, Dery and Benson was the camaraderie in PCC’s department and how classmates cheered on each other. They were energized by their fellow students as they talked about design and improving layouts.
“We wanted everyone to get As,” said Dery, adding that the biggest critics were the students themselves with their own work.
For more information, visit the Graphic Design Program on the web, or call (971) 722-4790.