Q&A: Kevin Grasty, American University

If you’re a college senior, the countdown to graduation has begun. In the spirit of commencement (and a hat tip to the graduating class of 2014), we wanted to see what was going on behind the scenes at one of DC’s university campuses. AIGA DC’s Rica Rosario sat down with Kevin Grasty, assistant vice president for creative services within the publications department at American University. Kevin’s full team comprises about 16 communication specialists who deliver integrated copywriting, editorial, design, photography, production, and procurement services for their clients.

Give us a little background on the University Publications Department. What do you do? What’s the culture like?

We provide a full range of services to the university community. We provide consultation and planning, writing and editorial, design, photography, and production services. We partner with our colleagues in our sister unit, University Marketing, to support strategic and brand integration objectives. These services are provided at no charge, but our customers are responsible for all commercial printing costs associated with their project. If there’s a shortage of resources in-house, we do help clients find a designer or firm to work with, and provide brand guidelines, files, and a list of university approved vendors they need to produce successful work.

Your team developed the WONK campaign. How did that come about? Can you tell us about that what that creative process was like? Is your team pleased with the results and impacts?

In 2008, AU initiated a plan to strengthen our academic and research reputation, and enhance the quality and diversity of our student population. After an extensive stakeholder study, our division was tasked with succinctly expressing the university’s distinctive qualities. The creative process was focused, collaborative, and on a very aggressive timeline. We came upon a single word used to describe experts and Washington insiders alike: WONK. The concept was bold enough to capture attention and original enough to set AU apart. We set out to elevate our profile as we tell the story of American University to the world.

The results have been generally positive. The campaign is recognizable, the concept is strong, and does a great job conveying the major brand points of AU. We have ongoing work to do internally with current students and staff, because every year new students, staff and faculty need to be socialized to understand the campaign and help steward the work. Our partnership with the Washington Nationals has been extremely well received, especially with alumni who have had the opportunity to connect and re-engage with AU.

What makes working at a university unique? Any particular benefits or challenges?

Colleges and universities tend to be a bit conservative because there is a delicate balance to be achieved between creative design, marketing, scholarly work, and academics. But in some ways, our challenges at AU are probably no different than other segments of the marketplace. One difference is that we don’t charge for our services, so we are sometimes taken for granted by clients because they aren’t on the clock from a billable perspective. There is also the occasional perception that commercial creative firms are better than our internal talent. Another challenge is preserving the primary position of the university when working with clients whose strategy may run counter to our brand strategy.

AU is a great place to work because there are many opportunities for our in-house team to gain experience and contribute to positive outcomes for AU. We can also leverage resources from our colleagues in the Office of Information Technology for online and developer support, University Archives for historic documents and photography, and our colleagues within our own division have special skills (web, social media, media relations, marketing, and strategy). Collectively, it makes telling the AU story easier.

How would you describe the general design philosophy of higher education in general? What is your design philosophy at AU?

Design in higher ed is catching up to other sectors, like corporations and large non-profits. Differentiation is more important than ever. Firms like Pentagram are now routinely being commissioned by universities to redesign their magazines and web sites. Prospective audiences are expecting a great user experience and information about schools they are researching and applying to. Audiences must immediately get a sense of place, fit, and value, to make decisions about making a major commitment and investment of money and time to a university.

How do you keep your designers inspired?

We’ve had retreats where we’ve broken into groups and spent the day in DC going to museums and walking around the city gathering photos of textures, colors, patterns and shapes for inspiration. For our magazine, we’ve looked at all sorts of magazines, ripped out pages, and created visual briefs or Pinterest boards with covers, spreads and ideas to consider. We also subscribe to various design related listservs, websites, blogs, and attend design related events and conferences to network with others in our industry who share common problems and create excellent work.

Rica Rosario is an AIGA DC board member, design strategist for FHI 360, and MBA Candidate at American University’s Kogod School of Business.

Jel Evangeline Montoya-Reed contributed to this blog post. She is a designer and web specialist at AU’s University Publications department and member of AIGA.

Photos: AU University Publications

By Rica Rosario
Published April 19, 2014