New Memphis College of Art offering helps makers think inside the box

For makers, attention to detail often goes into the making of their unique products. After the day-to-day labors of production, there is still the leg work of distribution and sales.

With so much on their plate, marketing strategies and other next-level moves for artisans can easily get lost in the wash. A new class offering at Memphis College of Art attempts to unite style with function in teaching practical coursework geared towards the needs of makers.

“We worked very closely the last several months with the Made By Project and there was an identified need for some programming for makers specifically around branding and packaging. So we had this idea to have a series of courses available for makers and we’re starting that here with the Branding and Packaging course,” said CeCe Palazola, director of community education for Memphis College of Art.

The classes, which are open to the Memphis public and not just undergraduate students, are the first of their kind. The offering is among a wave of new programs coming to Memphis to bolster the city’s population of makers and artisans.

Those new initiatives are born out recommendations of the Made By Project, which gathered first-of-its-kind data about the challenges faced by 300 makers, artisans and micro-manufacturers in the greater Memphis area. EPIcenter and Little Bird Innovation spearheaded that effort to better understand Memphis’ community of entrepreneurs who sell physical goods such as food, apparel and crafted items.

Erik Lawriski shows Katie Steed his sketchbook of fashion designs as they discuss font options for the brand he is designing. (Brandon Dahlberg)
“We hope to continue to learn about the entrepreneurial community. We have a pretty broad intersection with that community already because a lot of fine artists are taking part. A lot of our alumni fall into that group. It’s a pretty big intersection between our community and the makers’ community,” said Palazola.

MCA has also been working with the Rising Tide Society to consult on programming and future plans.

“They bring in experts to present a discussion topic around makers. We hope to do some joint programming with them in the fall and next spring,” said Palazola.

MCA’s Branding and Packaging course covers 18 hours of instruction led by three sets of instructors. The students meet five times, and the whole course costs $275.  Throughout the course, entrepreneurs are led through a process of discovering their brand identity, illustrating that identity through design, and implementing it in the packaging of their products.

The first component involves extensive journaling for the student to explore the possibilities and overall vision of their homegrown business.

“Cheers Creative developed this brand journaling exercise that they usually do with their paid clients. It will be available to our participants. They go through a journaling process to go through and identify their business goals, their values, their purpose, to arrive at what their brand is saying,” said Palazola.

Part two of the course applies what was learned through journaling. From that information, a visual identity will take shape. The students work with inspiration boards on logo design to develop brand guidelines.

This part is led by Katie Steed, who is an art director at Archer Malmo. She has worked for the advertising agency since 2011.

“I work with each maker to build a visual identity and either create a new logo or refresh their current brand. Everyone in the course receives individual attention and guidance in the studio,” said Steed.

No stranger to the institution, two years ago the 2009 MCA grad returned to her alma mater. This time to lead a class.

“I was invited to teach the college's personal branding course that equips upper level students with a personal brand, collateral material and skills to navigate the working world after graduation,” said Steed.

Students listen to Katie Steed's lecture on visual brand identity during a class at Memphis College of Art. (Brandon Dahlberg)

If visuals aren’t your thing not everyone is an artist, after all the course will give the maker something to take to a commercial artist, who can complete their vision.

“If you didn’t have the skills to design your own logo, you will leave with something to take to a logo designer that’s visual. It would say this is me, this is my brand,” said Palazola.

After the look is nailed down, it's onto the final part of the course packaging. This will be taught by Adam Hawk. A studio artist, he is professor of metalsmithing and 3-D design at the school.

“They can be very complex and totally depends on the product and how you sell it and where you sell it. If they are selling everything online and have to ship it, then that will look very different than someone taking their things to a local fair,” said Palazola.

Keeping a product safely contained until it is purchased by the consumer is only one benefit of packaging, however.

“If there is nice packaging it’s noticeable and if it’s not, it’s also noticeable,” she added.

While packaging can protect a product and catch an eye, after that it has usually outlived its usefulness. MCA, on the other hand, hopes to play a longer-term role in makers’ goals.

“We want to be an asset to the makers in the community and they have a resource in us,” said Palazola.

While the Branding and Packaging course wraps at the end of April, MCA plans to offer more maker courses in the future.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.