Eighteen months ago, University of Wisconsin-Stout and Great Northern Corporation set out to create a collaborative experience that would strengthen its long-standing partnership and directly impact graphic design and interactive media and packaging students’ education.
With the support of Great Northern Corp. CEO John Davis, Chippewa Falls staff Kris Johnson and Sarah Murawski, along with UW-Stout faculty members Robert Meisner and Nagesh Shinde, conceptualized the Great Northern Corporation Collaboration Experience, a sponsored course taken by students in the two disciplines.
“UW-Stout is an ideal partner for Great Northern,” Davis said. “As a polytechnic university, UW-Stout is committed to an experiential learning environment. I can’t imagine a better learning environment in which to bring two disciplines together to simulate the real-world challenges of creative problem-solving.”
Great Northern, which manufactures packaging and retail displays, has operations in ﬁve states, with locations in Appleton, Chippewa Falls and Racine. It employs more than 1,700 people nationwide, including 30 UW-Stout alumni.
The company provided $100,000 in funding toward the sponsored course, to be held four times over four years. Funding supported a co-teaching model, course approval and course development, including objectives and outline, evaluation methodology, registration criteria and promotion.
Chancellor Katherine Frank and Davis met recently at Great Northern’s headquarters in Appleton to discuss the experience. They also met with Jeff Michels, president of Great Northern’s packaging and in-store business units, and Brad Cain, UW-Stout intern and recent hire, who gave a tour of the facility’s Design and Testing Lab.
“Our relationship with Great Northern and ability to design curriculum in collaboration with our industry and business partners intended to best prepare our students for what they will encounter in their professional lives and make them most competitive on the job market exemplify what is distinct about a UW-Stout education,” Frank said. “We are incredibly thankful to John Davis and Great Northern for their generosity and ongoing support of students, faculty, and the UW-Stout learning experience.”
The inaugural collaborative experience kicked off this fall, as 24 students sat down together to work in cross-disciplinary teams. The course serves as an advanced design selective for graphic design students and a senior capstone for packaging students.
“It’s an opportunity for students to better understand and grow in appreciation of each other’s majors, skills and methodologies. It’s a chance for them to challenge each other and compromise in order to develop a package that meets the needs of the customer, just like in industry,” said Meisner, packaging program director.
He compared it to a right-brain-meets-left-brain approach to solving a problem. “It’s structure versus free form. It’s learning ‘how do you make a great idea work.’”
Collaborating on a common objective
The Great Northern course is co-taught by Meisner and Shinde, professor of graphic design in the School of Art and Design. Meisner has taught at UW-Stout for 15 years, and Shinde for 20 years, and both have more than 25 years of experience in their fields.
“This partnership is making an essential difference in improving the quality of education for our students,” Shinde said. “It supports applied learning, career focus and interdisciplinary collaboration, the core components of UW-Stout's DNA.”
Although this is their first formal collaborative course, Meisner and Shinde have taught similar courses, where students designed packaging for Great Northern, 3M and Target. The Great Northern course, however, allows them to work toward a common objective with shared lectures and labs.
Great Northern structural design manager Johnson and graphic design manager Murawski are UW-Stout alums: Johnson graduated with a packaging degree in 1994 and Murawski in graphic design in 2000.
They want students to see the big picture before they start their careers. They believe the collaborative experience will boost students’ abilities and prepare them for industry better, even before graduation.
They visited class the first week for the project kick-off, sharing the company’s structure and processes and how they function as a professional team. They introduced the project scope for this semester, as identified by their client, Reckitt: to create a prototype for Reckitt’s Air Wick packaging.
Six teams of students have researched trend forecasting, interviewed in-store customers and investigated emerging retail experiences. They are working toward designing a single package, following Sam’s Club, Costco and Amazon’s complex packaging requirements for in-store display and online retail.
“The different backgrounds, skill sets and approaches to problem-solving each team member brings to the team can be a challenge but will almost always result in a stronger solution,” Murawski said. “The success of each team’s final presentation is the culmination of all of their talents.
Johnson believes that as students see the projects through the eyes of their team members, it will expand their thinking. “The collaborative culture and creative problem solving this class promotes gives them something they can model their entire career,” he said. “No matter what career path these students choose to follow, they will need to collaborate with team members across many different disciplines to achieve the best possible outcomes.”
A mesh of talents
Elliott Nelson, a packaging senior from Franklin, is enjoying the hands-on experiential learning aspect of the Great Northern course. Within his major, he has an emphasis in research and development and is interested in design and testing.
“The course is helping prepare me for my career by showing me the full scope of a collaborative project – from design and testing to mock-ups and graphics,” he said.
Malorie Mackie, a packaging senior from Circle Pines, Minn., started out in graphic design. But her adviser thought packaging would be a good fit for her. After checking out the program video, Mackie “hasn’t looked back since. Packaging gives me the ability to use my creative and technical side at the same time and mesh them together.”
Mackie and Nelson are working in a team with Mike Cops, a packaging senior with an emphasis in manufacturing and quality; and Vaughn Vande Walle, a graphic design junior concentrating in communication design.
They are collaborating on an Air Wick nine-pack diffuser refill package to meet Costco’s packaging requirements. With his focus on the design of physical projects, including packaging, Vande Walle, of Milwaukee, is open to ideas as the team works toward its prototype.
“We’re going to try to be as forward in our thinking as possible,” he said. “We’re reinventing the wheel in our packaging and graphics work.”
Cops, of Appleton, said sustainability is key to their project. “Sustainability is important to all companies,” he said. “The cost of the end product may be the same or even more than a company’s current design. But they may be willing to pay for the production using sustainable materials, knowing this is what their customers prefer.”
Cops, Mackie and Nelson will graduate in December.
‘This is where education is going’
Recently, the student teams presented on Phase 1 of the project, stating their project goals, critical success factors and identifying the competitive environment. Each team received feedback from faculty and other teams. Johnson and Murawski will review the recorded presentations, and they are available to the teams throughout the semester.
“Many students have commented that they had no idea students in the other major had to know so much about so many things,” Meisner said, “proving the collaborative effort is already meeting one of its objectives – for students to gain an appreciation for the skills and knowledge of students in other majors.”
“These invaluable experiences prepare our students to learn to leverage each other's knowledge base to get the best possible outcomes,” Shinde said. “Honestly, I have not seen this kind of excitement and zeal to outperform in a studio course by our students. This is where education is going – face to face, across disciplines and degrees.
“This unique educational experience would not have been possible without Great Northern,” he added. “We are looking forward to continuing our partnership, which gives even more depth to our national and international award-winning programs.”