An emerging nonprofit program is giving Iowa State University graphic design and communication students experience with real-world projects for Central Iowa employers, while also providing organizations with a reservoir of fresh ideas and a pool of future workers.

Formed about two years ago as a sister organization to the Iowa State Daily newspaper, Model Farm began by offering its design and copywriting services to ISU organizations. Model Farm has since branched out to contract with companies and nonprofits across Central Iowa.

The 501(c)3 organization partners with Iowa State University to provide a working environment for design and communication students — operating much like a mini creative services agency  where the students are able to work on real-world projects to hone their skills.

“We’re here to bridge the gap between the classroom and the workforce,” said Kim Hinkhouse, director of educational partnerships with Model Farm, who was hired last summer to recruit additional organizations to broaden Model Farm’s client portfolio. “We really provide an environment with a learning outcome where the students can really have a leg up on other grads coming out of school and be more hireable.”

Model Farm derived its name from the “model farm” moniker that was part of the ISU College of Agriculture’s original name, since both programs revolve around the concept of experiential learning, Hinkhouse said. Unlike an internship or apprenticeship approach, however, Model Farm operates like a creative partner in which the students work on clients’ projects from Model Farm’s Lincoln Way office space, which is located adjacent to the ISU campus.

“So companies don’t need to have a desk for them; they don’t come in and work in your environment and you don’t have to supervise them — we do all of that,” said Hinkhouse, who graduated from ISU in 1999 with a degree in graphic design. “It’s very similar to having a creative partner in that you have work that needs to be done — it comes to us and then we manage the process.”

Organizations contract with Model Farm for projects on a fee-for-hire schedule. The students are paid an hourly rate for the work that’s brought in, which can either be charged to the business or organization on an hourly or on a project or retainer basis.

The types of companies that have used Model Farm’s graphics and design services have included manufacturers, health care providers, financial services firms, some nonprofit organizations and restaurants, Hinkhouse said. “It’s really across the board, anybody that needs creative services and potentially talent in the future.”

Among the Greater Des Moines companies that partner with Model Farm is truck accessories manufacturer DeeZee Inc., which has brought on the student teams for a couple of different projects. In one project, a Model Farm team provided an independent assessment of DeeZee’s brand.

“That was interesting for us in a couple of ways,” said Jason Mrachina, vice president of sales and marketing for DeeZee. “One, it gave us a chance to interact with people who weren’t typical truck buyers but were future marketing professionals — that was actually pretty fun.”

Additionally, a Model Farm team is now doing a project in which the students are helping produce a series of short videos about its executives for use on its website, Mrachina said.

“What we like most about dealing with them is the youthful energy that the students have,” he said. “A lot of the product they’re giving us is pretty unique, because I think the students aren’t constrained a lot by previous projects. And they can really mobilize a large number of resources in a short period of time.”

Mrachina said working with Model Farm is cost-effective as well, at probably 30 percent less cost than the normal agency. “If you’re willing to put up with a little more explaining and maybe have a little more patience in working with the kids — which is its own reward — you can save quite a bit of money,” he said. “We found the product to be very professional and up to our standards.”

Overall, nearly 50 ISU students have participated in projects through Model Farm over the past two years, and 100 percent of those students have landed jobs — the majority with Central Iowa employers, Hinkhouse said. “The fact that every one of them is finding a job, and right away, is a great credit to the program,” she said.

Hinkhouse and other key leaders of Model Farm are ISU alumni who have worked at the Iowa State Daily while students, and who each have a broad variety of media industry experience.

Lawrence Cunningham, a 2002 ISU graduate, worked in business development for ad agencies and sports marketing company Learfield before becoming general manager of Iowa State Daily Media, the umbrella organization that houses both the student newspaper and Model Farm.

Model Farm emerged to address a desire by students for more opportunities on the design side of the media business, Cunningham said. At the same time, the organization and its predominantly student board were seeing more ISU departments that needed marketing support.

“In our industry, especially the student media industry, there’s a trend toward moving into what people call the creative services side,” he said. “We already had a lot of those capabilities in-house at the time. So what we did was simply separate some of those services and personnel out to be able to deliver photography, videography, graphic design and copywriting services. From our perspective, the focus was, how do we increase experiential learning opportunities for our students beyond what the print newspaper was doing at the time?”

Although Model Farm may look like a traditional fee-for-service model on the surface, the organization’s primary goal is to provide experiential learning opportunities to students through partners that are willing to work with a professionally guided team that has students at its core, Cunningham noted.

“So when we partner with a company, we help ensure they understand it’s students doing the work and that from time to time we’re going to miss the point on something, and that’s part of the learning process,” he said. “We try to have a lot of upfront communication with partners to make sure they understand that. The businesses that are most successful here are the ones who want to support students staying in the state of Iowa, people who want to hire and retain ISU students, because they value the experiential learning opportunity.”

Participating students are selected through an extensive vetting process, Hinkhouse said.

“They have to come through the system and work for course credit for a little bit until they get to the level we need them to be,” she said. “They’re typically juniors and seniors in the programs because they have the skills that are transferable to real-world work. We go to the colleges of design and journalism and let them know we’re out there. It’s a great gig for students; it’s a great resume and portfolio builder.”

Model Farm worked with approximately 60 organizations in the past year, the majority of those on-campus, said Tony Thrush, creative director. “We’d love to see that double in the next year,” he said.

“We’d like to have an equal balance between Iowa State and outside organizations because of the representation and the experience (ISU provides),” Thrush said. “Iowa State is a world-class brand, and the exposure that the students get to that brand is invaluable.”

As part of its affiliation with ISU, the university’s marketing department meets twice a year with Model Farm, once for staff training and again for a year-end review of completed on-campus projects. And on the off-campus side, “the students are getting a lot of behind-the-curtain experience that may influence where they want to work or what they want to do,” he said.

Sarah Folkmann, who landed a job as a digital production artist with Martin Williams Advertising in Minneapolis after graduating in May 2017, worked at Model Farm for three semesters. Her biggest project with Model Farm was helping to create some wall graphic designs for Vermeer Corp. to use in its new building at the ISU Research Park in Ames. As part of that project, she presented ideas to Vermeer executives and its brand team.

“It was really interesting to be part of that team and experience it from the very beginning to pitching the idea to a real-life client,” Folkmann said. “It was a really valuable experience and it helped a lot in getting me more comfortable talking in that kind of setting, and catering to people who might not have the same kind of design sense that other design students or my professors might.”

Thrush helped her find the internship with Martin Williams that turned into a full-time position. “A lot of the things I was doing (while interning) was directly pulling from skills I learned at Model Farm,” Folkmann said, “such as being flexible and not being afraid to ask for help from supervisors.”

The exposure that Model Farm provides students to potential employers and career options is significant, Hinkhouse said.

“When I was graduating I knew that as a graphic designer I could go to work for a design firm or an ad agency, maybe,” she said. “Those were the natural ones you hear about. But I didn’t know at that time that a Wells Fargo employs graphic designers or a manufacturing company could have an in-house marketing department.

“We’re really all about exposing students to all the various employers. Our hope is that once they understand the plethora of jobs here, that they then stay in Central Iowa. So we’re really working to partner with companies that it may make sense for students to eventually work at.”