Design Revolutionary: Denise Korn

Think back … as you were growing up, there was probably someone in your life who spotted your drawing skill or your way with color, and who encouraged you to explore those talents. Maybe a high-school art teacher, a parent or a mentor who said, “go for it!” when you talked of turning your love of art and design into a career.

Disadvantaged kids, though, often don’t have that positive force to steer them toward a particular career, let alone a creative one. That’s why Youth Design in Boston is so important.

Under the leadership of design firm principal Denise Korn, Youth Design is heading into its 10th year as a career development and internship program that places kids from several inner-city schools in creative firms and nonprofits. For years, I’ve heard design veterans talk about finding ways to encourage kids, especially those from tough backgrounds, into design. But Denise and her business partner (and Youth Design board member) Javier Cortés are making it happen. And they hope to expand the program—and encourage designers everywhere to step up an mentor a young person.

Youth Design selects a group of incoming sophomores from partner schools in the Boston public system and places them with creative agencies, nonprofits and in-house design groups for a 7-week summer internship. Notably, the interns are paid for their work. They sit in on project meetings, contribute to brainstorming and research, learn computer skills, help with concepting projects, sketch, design ….

Denise shares the organization’s mission statement:

The mission of Youth Design is to open career pathways to talented urban high school students by introducing design as a viable career option and connecting them to high-quality mentorship, employment, and learning opportunities in design-related fields.

You’ll get to meet Denise, Javier and their team as they open their doors as part of the HOW Design Live Studio Tour in Boston. In the meantime, prepare to be impressed by the way Denise and her Youth Design colleagues are bringing radical change to the way kids learn about design. Find Youth Design on Facebook and on Twitter, too.

Denise, tell us a bit about what Youth Design is doing as you head into your 10th year.

Youth Design is evolving this summer to a two-summer, full-year program! (Historically, this has been a 7-week summer experience where students are only allowed to participate for one summer.) For the first time, we are welcoming back 7 students from last summer to join 23 new students for our first combined 1st year and 2nd summer students. We will work with them into the following school year with added in-school curriculum and partnerships with a host of life-learning specialists to provide additional services and resources to our students as they prepare to apply to college.

So, running a successful Boston design studio doesn’t keep you busy enough? What inspired you to launch Youth Design 10 years ago?

I moved to Boston from New York City in 1991 and was fascinated and frankly disturbed by how fragmented the design world was from the cultural scene in Boston, as well as from advertising agencies and other disciplines in the creative realm like architecture and industrial design. So I got involved with the Creative Economy Initiative for New England, served as the co-chair for several years and worked hard to bring creative minds together, share resources and simply collaborate more. Youth Design evolved from that work. It was my way of using what I knew as a designer to propel impactful change to the next generation of designers in our communities. My business partner, Javier Cortés, and I have always wanted Korn Design to play an active role in our community. Youth Design is a labor of love and commitment to the next generation.

What makes this program different from other efforts in the industry to get kids interested in design? 

Youth Design starts with meeting urban youth where they are. Over the years we continue to learn and understand the challenges our students face in school and at home and provide them with as much relevant information, access and resources to open up a world of possibilities to them in the realm of design as a career. Youth Design is a paid summer job, immersive for 7 weeks, and led by committed professional design mentors in the workplace. I haven’t been able to find other programs doing this.

What kind of student makes the ideal Youth Designer?

I look for a spark in their eyes, a hunger to learn and humility mixed with self-confidence. It takes a lot for high-school students who often have had very little experience beyond their neighborhoods and their schools to be punctual at a full-time job, to focus and perform to the best of their ability. Given all of the personal challenges many of our students face, I’m blown away by their ability to jump in with a smile.

What are the three most important skills/things that a kid takes away from their Youth Design experience?

  • Empowerment and awareness of the possibilities for careers in the broad fields of design that they can pursue
  • An adult mentor for life, alongside a powerful network of professional designers, like-minded peers and leaders in the program to lean on as they pursue their course to college and beyond.
  • Critical communication skills with superiors and colleagues, both verbal and digital, and the knowledge of how to use those skills to present and defend ideas, concepts and perspectives.

Denise Korn, founder/Youth Design, principal/Korn Design, with Lydia Kardos, from the first class of Youth Design in 2003. (photo: Karmaloop TV)

So many internships in all fields are unpaid—why was it important to you that Youth Designers earn a salary for their work?

Youth Design aims to provide these opportunities to urban youth who need summer jobs to support themselves and help their families. The fact that this is a paid summer job is critical. Summer is the only time for these students to fully immerse, focus and grow without too many of the normal school-year distractions.

What’s been the greatest success story to come out of Youth Design so far?

That’s a tough one—there are so many , and frankly some are small moments, while others are big steps. Overall, I’ve become close to all of our students, and seeing them begin to connect the dots on why things are the way they are, what it take to be a designer—when that light bulb goes off and I see futures of possibilities unfold, it’s super exciting.

What percentage of Youth Designers go to college? How many wind up in a creative career of some kind?

We are in the process of gathering all of this data for the past 10 years, but almost all of our students have attended, are currently attending or are on the path to college. I feel confident to date that we are close to 100% college attendance and closer to 80% majoring in the creative fields including design, fine art, or architecture. My first Youth Design student to mentor at Korn Design is now working as an art director and photographer in New York City. We have students currently enrolled in many of the leading design schools across the country.

For all the designers coming to your hometown this June, what are three things they must absolutely do, see, visit or eat in Boston?

Just three?

  1. You MUST visit the Institute of Contemporary Art and the new American Wing at the Museum of Fine Art.
  2. Boston is a walking city, so save some time to walk … the Esplanade along the Charles River, wander the streets in the South End, follow the Freedom Trail into the North End, check out the Boston public gardens.
  3. The food scene in Boston is exciting right now—but always and forever you can get a great local feel for breakfast or lunch at Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe on Columbus. Tell them Denise and Fritz sent you!

Plan a visit to Korn Design as part of your Studio Tour at HOW Design Live. Still plenty of time to register and save before the final Early Bird deadline at the end of April.

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