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Drake students design Dogtown light show

The Dogtown light show gave graphic design students opportunities to see their designs displayed on storefronts on University Avenue. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Dennigmann

Winter in the Midwest isn’t exactly known for its inviting nature, but thanks to a collaboration between a local artist and a group of graphic design students at Drake University, the streets of Dogtown overflowed with color this winter season. 

In late January, the artistic director and graphic designer for Group Creative Services, Alex Braidwood, visited graphic design professor Neil Ward’s content and audience class with a proposal. Braidwood, who is in charge of the annual Dogtown Lights display, wanted to give students an opportunity to get involved with the community. What better way to do that than to let them design artwork that would be displayed around the city?

“As we were putting together this year’s program, I had this idea of getting some Drake students involved,” Braidwood said. “I thought it would be interesting to reach out [to Ward] and see if [the event] was something his graphic design students might be interested in.”

The Dogtown Lights display has been an annual show since the winter of 2021. The show, orchestrated by Braidwood and Group Creative Services, plays out across thousands of string lights that cover the fronts of the buildings lining the Drake neighborhood sector of University Avenue in Des Moines. The company strives to bring the community closer together and wanted to create “a bright, warm place in the cold, dark winter” with the lights, Braidwood said.

“I wanted to give [students] the experience of making work that actually goes out into the world,” Braidwood said. “Students make a lot of projects that address assignment[s], they go up in class, maybe they get exhibited in a gallery or a hallway. But that’s different than making work that goes out into the real world and is able to be experienced by people.” 

Ward’s students, who had returned from J-Term mere days before, had two class periods to work on their designs before they went on display on Feb. 2. 

“It was our first project brief,” said senior graphic design student Pat Lucas. “Students [were] prompted with the project to create GIFs that could elicit fun, relatable imagery. [Braidwood] gave us some ideas in terms of designs, colors [and] themes, and we were able to create our own GIF and then see it in real time.”

Senior Kathryn Dennigmann designed her GIF after the different moon phases. She was inspired by the word “dreams,” something Braidwood said when introducing the project. With the ways the light display was set up, that meant there was a full black background. Dennigmann used a few pixels of color in the background, and with a black backdrop it “looked like there was so much more dimension” and like a “galaxy.”

She enjoyed the opportunity to get her work out into a space and in front of people outside of Drake, something the art department does “a lot.”

“It was a great experience…to see the work up in Dogtown, [as] a Drake student and you go into Dogtown quite a bit if you’re driving through,” Dennigmann said. “To see my work up there instead of the regular lights was pretty cool.”

Ward said this project was especially challenging because students had to think about the circumstances under which their designs would be seen. University Avenue is a busy street, with drivers and pedestrians always on the move.

“They had to create an animation that drivers would be able to see if they were stopped at the stoplight or driving by at 30 miles an hour,” Ward said. “You can’t have an animation that takes a minute to loop when a viewer’s attention is only two or three seconds. It’s a really interesting problem.”

The students’ designs lit up the Dogtown business district throughout the month of February, bringing “a little bit of magic” to the community, in Braidwood’s words.

“I’m grateful that the art and design program here at Drake gives students the opportunities to get involved with things beyond the University,” Lucas said of the experience. “It’s cool to be able to work with professionals and do projects that are going to be out in the public.”

Lia Reichmann contributed to reporting.

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