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Back to School: Portfolio Center Adds Creativity to Coke Packaging and More

By:  Jay Moye Feb 8, 2014
Man reviewing notes

Noel Stewart, an engineer at Coke, studies a batch of creative ideas from Portfolio Center students.


Lauren Childs had just graduated from Atlanta’s Portfolio Center last spring when she landed her dream job. As part of Coke’s Global Content Excellence group, she’s now applying her graphic design skills to the brand’s 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign.

Even though it’s her first full-time job, it’s not her first experience working with Coca-Cola. A few months before being hired, she was part of a “live client” class assigned to steer the creative direction of an early-stage packaging innovation.

Portfolio Center group

Students from Atlanta's Portfolio Center visit Coke headquarters as part of a 'live client class.'

“Once we started that project, I knew I was going to work for Coke,” Childs says. “I absolutely loved the atmosphere. Everyone was so proud of the brand, and that really rubbed off on the students. We were so excited to be working on something so many people would see and touch.”

Lauren is one of more than 50 students from Portfolio Center -- one of the country’s top postgraduate creative communication arts schools -- who have supported a range of Coca-Cola projects since 2012.

Each quarter, Coke provides classes of six to 10 students with a creative brief. From there, the students conduct research, develop and refine solutions, then present their recommendations to the client. Some of the students’ recommendations end up on the store shelves, while others are integrated into other Coke programs.

Scott Biondich leads the development of sparkling beverage packaging and immediate consumption equipment for Coca-Cola North America. His team has enlisted Portfolio Center's creative braintrust to contribute outside creativity and communication expertise to several key projects, including a cold-activated aluminum can featuring thermochromatic ink technology and a Variety Station, which enables shoppers to customize eight or 10 packs of Coke beverages. Several other projects the school has supported are confidential because they have yet to reach the public.

Coca-Cola cans

Portfolio Center students helped steer the creative direction of Coke's cold-activated cans.

“The Portfolio Center students have helped translate complex engineering concepts into visual language that resonates with our internal brand and innovation customers,” Biondich says. “They have brought our concepts to life by leveraging our brand positioning and visual identity system. The students have delivered great designs and ideas, and simultaneously gained valuable real-world experience working with the world’s number-one brand. It’s a true win-win.”

The partnership gives Coke access to outside-the-norm insights from its core consumer target: Millennials.

“In essence, they’re their own audience,” says Hank Richardson, Portfolio Center’s design director.

According to Richardson, what sets Portfolio Center students apart are the broad range of creative disciplines they bring to the table – from design and screen-based media, to photography and illustration, to art direction and copywriting -- all coalesced by the school’s integrative teaching approach.

“Our curriculum focuses on applying design thinking to solve problems through integrated systems design using a think-plus-do model,” he adds. “With many of these projects, we’re bringing the art of storytelling to the engineering world and helping people who see in black and white see in color.”

Wade Thompson, Portfolio Center alum and founder and creative director at the Atlanta-based firm Son & Sons, has taught several of the “live classes” at Coke. Getting students away from the classroom and the everyday rigors of school and into a real-life business environment helps to create breakthrough learning moments, he says.

Lauren Childs with FIFA Trophy Tour plane

Portfolio Center grad Lauren Childs now works on Coke's Global Content Excellence team.

“It’s a great opportunity to help students grasp what successful design partnerships look like by understanding the Coke business and system, and how design can be used to reach people,” Thompson adds.

For Coke, the collaboration is helping to build a legion of brand advocates and, as Childs proves, a fruitful talent pipeline. And by taking time to work with the students, Thompson insists, Coke leaders are positioning their company as an innovative, design-centric organization.

“Coke is getting brilliant thinking and work from people who aren’t baked in the solution; they’re approaching their projects from outside the Coke context,” Thompson adds. “They’re comfortable making mistakes and going somewhere an agency of record may not have the freedom to go.”

He adds, “When we present to a Coke team, you see an awakening... people get re-energized. The students help them see challenges in a new light and open up new solutions. Their enthusiasm and energy are contagious.”