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MSU Denver’s Daisy Corso begins moving signs to the location where the class wants them mounted in the courtyard of Cheltenham Elementary School. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Not all heroes wear capes

Mild-mannered students by day, Roadrunner interns transformed into an elite design team to save a school’s branding efforts.

August 23, 2017

By Cory Phare

Felicia Manzanares had a dilemma. As principal of Cheltenham Elementary, she was tasked with turning around the challenged school, including a complete visual redesign to engage the community.

And to top it off, she didn’t have a budget for the overhaul.

“When you’re driving by on Colfax, you don’t realize it’s a school right there,” Manzanares said. “We really wanted to draw families in from the neighborhood and stand out. We needed to tell our story.”

Facing overwhelming odds, she had to get creative. So she sent out a signal for help – the M signal.

Studio M is an alternative internship experience of MSU Denver’s communication design program housed within the Department of Art. It operates as a functioning design studio where students collaborate with peers, faculty, university staff and members of the Denver community.

By working with real clients on real-world challenges, students not only do good in surrounding communities, they hone their own applied design abilities – a true win-win.

Senior Daisy Corso (left) and alumna Stephanie Vecchiarelli carry the comic book-inspired thought bubbles to hang on the fence outside of Cheltenham Elementary.

Studio M team, assemble!

When communication design instructor and graphic designer Heidi Cies got the call from Manzanares, she jumped into action. Having worked together on another project at Ashley Elementary School, it was clear what needed to happen.

“We had to market our partner through design for people to get the message,” Cies said. “It’s about telling their story to a broader audience of the neighborhood – and beyond.”

That story is one where every student is a hero, able to leap tall homework assignments in a single bound. And where individual superpowers like reading, writing and arithmetic are used to stop evil-doers in their tracks.

Cies assembled the Studio M team – a group of Roadrunners with their own set of design superpowers.

Take, for instance, senior communication-design major Daisy Corso. She’s specifically interested in environmental design to make spaces engaging and maximize the connection of people to place.

“Everything is designed,” she said. “It’s been amazing to do this meaningful work and bring positivity to children’s lives.”

Or Kathie Häusle, who graduated in May with a BFA in communication design. A self-described comic-book geek, she was able to literally draw on her interests and applied background as a print-shop employee for more than 19 years.

“We had to combine a broad range of colors and typefaces and make them both outlandish and professional,” Häusle said. “The communication design program here really drew on my skill set and helped me do those things.”

Communication design instructor, Heidi Cies, reviews the proofs on top of shirts that were designed with a logo made by MSU Denver alumni Kathie Häusle. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Up, up and (finding) a way

Rounded out by fellow students Stephanie Vecchiarelli, Ryan Schafer, Jade Gallegos and Ethan Cassidy, Studio M was on the case. Using the superhero motif, they had to navigate the same graphic identity that exploded out of a comic-book panel for vibrant signage that could also be used on business cards and letterheads.

Arriving at these design solutions required client relations and applied critical thinking to deliver them, Cies said.

“The principal doesn’t come to us and say, ‘I want a banner’ – it’s up to the designer to deliver a solution and stay within the budget to do it,” she said.

That required a comprehensive process, bespoke at each step of the way. After the first meeting, Manzanares was left feeling like she was working with a professional firm. And after the second and third meetings, she knew she had called in the right team.

“They worked with us to create custom deliverables beyond our expectations, and the students’ drive was better than anything I’ve seen,” she said. “Everyone who’s seen their work has been blown away.”

Cars pass by new art that MSU Denver’s communication design department’s former and current students help design and mount along Colfax Ave.

The (super)power of place

It’s evident now that everyday avengers roam the halls of Cheltenham Elementary. But what is it about these fantastical figures that inspired the institution to adopt the hero as their official mascot?

“There’s a duality to superheroes that resonates with our kids’ lives,” Manzanares said. “After a school day, they go home and might not always have stable environments. How can we meaningfully connect with them in those situations?”

For her, it’s a mission that’s close to home. Returning to the area where she grew up, she noted how schools are a common connection to rapidly gentrifying localities and can help celebrate the stories of a place across generations.

When told effectively, these stories lead to the chance to enroll more students, ultimately helping a school – and a neighborhood – succeed.

“We want people to see what’s possible in their own communities ? to cultivate what it means to give back,” Manzanares said. “And we see MSU Denver as a partner in that process.”

A tall task, to be sure. But for the Studio M squad, it’s all in a day’s work.

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