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Lis Charman
Lis Charman

Signs of Success

Designing big for small business

Lis Charman directs PSU’s growing program in graphic design, which matches its 600+ undergraduates with Portland micro-entrepreneurs, including small shops and food carts. The students design anything and everything their clients need to increase customer volume and improve sales—websites, logos, signage, advertisements and more.

The business owners selected are part of a program run by Microenterprise Services of Oregon, an organization focusing on the needs of minorities and other under-served groups.

Charman, whose own work recently appeared on the cover of the architecture and design magazine Metropolis, says that her students benefit from working with actual clients who have specific needs and opinions and often very real budget constraints. "It's an immersive design assignment," she says. "Students have real world clients and are challenged to come up with working solutions."

Instead of hypothetical classroom scenarios, students take their cues from their clients. "We're learning to tell the best story for a specific business owner whose livelihood depends on this business," Charman says. "It's really satisfying when we design measurable solutions." Limited funds force the designers to be resourceful in finding no-cost ways to promote the business—an important lesson for students to learn early on. "Often the best solution isn't the most expensive one, it's the most creative one," Charman says.

The students, and their teacher, get the satisfaction of seeing the effects of their work make a real difference. And when the designers go out to look for jobs, Charman says, "they can speak from the position of experience, from having effectively solved a real problem for a real business."

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