Ten years ago Philadelphia University launched Design Expo, a career fair that provides college juniors and seniors the opportunity to meet and present their portfolio work to prospective employers. Design Expo is the brainchild of Trish Schafer (Director, Career Services Center) and Sherman Finch, Director of M.S. and B.S. Interactive Design and Media. Sherman felt a large segment of the University's students (design majors are 60% of the student body) weren't benefiting from traditional career fairs, and felt the University could play a greater role in introducing employers to their graduating creative student body.

While Sherman preps junior and senior students to launch their professional career, Trish and her team play a vital role in attracting business partners to join the show. Hopefully by sharing this case study, we can encourage more universities and employers to set up similar events.

Matt: How many students and companies participated in the first expo in 2004 and how does that compare to 2013?
Trish: The first Expo featured over 100 students presenting their portfolios to 36 potential employers representing companies within advertising, architectural & design, textile and manufacturing. In 2013, Design Expo hosted 80 companies with 243 students presenting their work.

Matt: How has the expo evolved since your launch to where it is today?
Trish & Sherman Finch: The Expo continually evolves in its structure and process to better meet the needs of both its students and prospective employment matches. In 2011, the school re-purposed a Word Press site to host students' portfolio work. This now offered companies the opportunity to review work prior to the expo and allowed for deeper conversations with the students during the interview. Future plans include the possibility of migrating the portfolios to a site that the designer can then maintain and revise after graduation and through their professional career. Also in 2011, the University decided to create a more structured interview process to allow for more students interactions and the ability [for companies] to meet with more candidates. The interviews are now 15 minutes and resemble a sort of speed dating for design. While the structured interviews help the continued flow of interviews, the University also added an open networking event that immediately follows the Expo and allows for more free flowing conversation and a deeper understanding of the company or student.

Matt: What design disciplines were first featured and how has that changed?
Trish: The disciplines featured at the Expo include: animation, architecture, graphic design, industrial design, identity, interior design, interior architecture, landscape architecture, sustainable design, fashion and textiles. Due to the growth and wide array of design at Design Expo, in 2011 we decided to create a mirror expo specifically for fashion & textile majors.

Matt: In recruiting companies for the Expo, what challenges have they expressed about finding design talent for their firm?
Trish: Due to the timing of the Design Expo (held in April for preparation of May graduation) many companies may not have specific employment needs or, for larger companies, may not have access to the new year's budget at that time. However, in order to attend the Expo they must commit to hiring interns or full-time staff. Other challenges include time away from the office as this is a full day of portfolio reviews and interviews, and hiring managers can rarely spend that much time away.

Matt: What has been the participation of companies prior to, and during the latest recession? Is there a greater interest now that companies are in a better position for expansion?
Trish: Yes, this year we were able to match 2008's company attendance of 80, however during the downturn many companies were not able to commit to adding headcount and, therefore, did not attend.

Matt: What types of companies have been the most successful at recruiting talent from the expo?
Trish: External design firms and architectural firms seem to be the most successful recruiters from the Design Expo, whether this is a product of large company budget season and/or staffing initiatives remains to be determined.

Matt: Design is a constant evolution and without the interjection of fresh perspectives and ideas the creative can grow stale, what recommendations would you have for companies who are struggling to get new talent on their team?
Sherman: Just as we recommend students to continuously network and hone their design and communication, I think companies need to stay active with their recruitment process and networking. It's amazing to see how fast some designers and developers land a job and have their choice of companies too. In order to attract these candidates, companies cannot be complacent or hesitate when they find potential matches.

Matt: Has the transition in design mediums (print to digital) shifted the guidance you provide to design students?
Sherman: Yes, to a degree. I lead the interactive and design and media department so many of my students are consistently evolving their knowledge of software and programs. While I stress the need for continual education, I feel the students within program don't necessarily miss that element. However, for some fine art and traditional design students it's necessary to keep up with industry trends and be relevant to employers needs.

Matt: What type of coaching is offered to the students to be most successful when presenting and interviewing at the expo?
Trish and Sherman: Prior to the Design Expo, students receive interview practice sheets that give suggestions on professional dress, portfolio guidance and networking guidance. In addition, the students have peer review sessions, which provide the opportunity to receive and provide feedback on designs to further reach their potential.

As a follow up to our conversation, Trish was kind enough to share the outcomes from the latest 2013 Design Expo:

  • 16 companies have returned to the Expo 5-10 years since it first started in 2003
  • The Expo had 64% returning companies and 36% new to the program.
  • Employers scheduled 628 timed reviews and met with an estimated 375 students via the Open Networking Session. It's estimated that well over 1,000 employer/student interactions occurred at Design Expo this year.

I want to thank Trish and Sherman for sharing the background, challenges and growth of Design Expo. Not only have they assisted their students in launching their professional careers, but they've also provided a valuable forum for local and regional businesses to learn first hand about up and coming talent that will be the future of their businesses-something I'm certain many of our blog readers wish was available to them.
As the Business Development Manager for Cella Consulting, and a former Account Manager/Recruiter with The BOSS Group, Matt Lang has worked with hundreds of marketing and creative leaders to help them improve their organizations' effectiveness. With a wide breadth of experience and sharp business acumen, Matt is focused on providing top consulting solutions for in-house creative departments.