Five years on, Scout has clout

Members of Scout NEU meet in their office in Ryder Hall in Boston, Massachusetts on April 2, 2018. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

After placing second in the Husky Startup Challenge and joining IDEA, Katie Wilhoit connected with Scout, Northeastern’s student-led design studio. As the co-founder of Unsize, a yet-to-be-launched startup aimed at taking the guesswork out of online clothes shopping, she needed help communicating her vision to potential shoppers and retail partners alike. “I see a future where sizing labels and gender boxes don’t exist,” said Wilhoit, SSH’18, “and I reached out to Scout hoping the group could help me promote that message.”

The studio delivered. During the fall 2017 semester, a five-person team designed a website for Unsize, created character illustrations, and developed a web app that will enable users to upload their body measurements with a Bluetooth device and shop online. “What we gave Unsize was a robust brand that works across digital, web, and video platforms,” said Adam Markon, CIS/DMSB’18, the project leader. At the end of the three-month collaboration, Markon and his team presented Wilhoit and her co-founder with a 21-page brand book. “Team Unsize sat in silence for three or four minutes in awe over the book,” he recalled. “That’s when we knew we had nailed it.”

Molly O’Neill, Scout’s executive director, says the studio’s work is “out there in the real world and people are hearing about it.” Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Scout is a primary player in Mosaic, Northeastern’s alliance of student-led organizations that support venture incubation at the university, and Unsize is just one example of the studio’s ever-expanding design portfolio. Since its inception in 2013, Scout has created apps, logos, brand guidelines, product packaging, and high-fidelity websites for more than 30 clients in industries ranging from food and sports to health and education. Most clients—from Knightly, the campus safety app, to Eat Your Coffee, the caffeinated snack company—have been sourced directly from IDEA. Others, like Everyday Boston, a grassroots organization that harnesses the power of storytelling to unite the city’s diverse residents, come from the community.

“Our work is out there in the real world and people are hearing about it,” said Molly O’Neil, AMD’18, Scout’s executive director. “We’re becoming a name through word of mouth.” At a recent campus event, one prospective Northeastern student told Brennan Caruthers, DMSB’18, Scout’s operations director, that he wanted to attend the university so he could work with the studio, which is housed in the College of Arts, Media, and Design. “He stumbled upon Scout’s Instagram account and dove into what we do,” said Caruthers, who manages the studio’s $100,000 budget. “Now,” he quipped, “he has a Scout sticker and is following my personal Instagram.”

After five years of success, Scout will hold its first annual design conference on Saturday in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex. The conference—held during Boston Design Week and dubbed “Interventions!”—will provide a “space for creatives to consider the consequences of design interventions and examine the intentions of their work.” It will feature speakers from Airbnb, Netflix, and Lyft. Tickets—$50 for students, $200 for the public—will reportedly include “the best bag of swag you will ever receive.” Margarita Barrios-Ponce, associate teaching professor of art + design and Scout’s faculty advisor, said the conference “puts Northeastern on the map in terms of being a design thinking hub.” For her, Interventions! underscores Scout’s growth over the past five years. “It’s mind-blowing that a group of students can accomplish so much while capturing what needs to be transferred from year to year so that the organization can continue to develop ideas that emerge organically.”

‘A fraternal kind of love’

Scout’s office is located in 307 Ryder Hall. On a recent Friday, the small, angular space was filled with more than a half dozen students who were quietly working on laptops while preparing for Interventions! One wall was covered in posters from past events in the studio’s bi-weekly speaker series, another in Post-it notes from recent brainstorming sessions with Knightly and three other clients. It’s not uncommon for the studio to be buzzing with excitement: All 45 Scout members spend at least 10 hours per week devoted to the work—and the people with whom they work. “Students come to Scout to get experience and build up their portfolios,” said Caruthers, “but what keeps them coming back is the community and the friendships they make.”

Scout’s logo on a laptop. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Scout is divided into four parts. There’s Scout Studio, which takes on clients like Unsize, and Scout Events, which hosts lectures by accomplished design professionals like Monotype’s Charles Nix. There’s Club Scout, which caters to students who want to talk shop, and Scout Labs, which strives to create a positive impact in the community through design-based initiatives with local partners like Everyday Boston. Each student is involved in at least one of these programs. Their academic backgrounds are diverse—from design and international affairs to computer science and business administration—but they all share the same passion for learning while doing. Some will leave Scout with a newfound ability to code or use creative software like Sketch or Adobe XD, said Barrios-Ponce, while others will develop the talent to give and receive meaningful design critiques. “Our students are really entrepreneurial,” she explained. “They know how to learn through experience and they’re really passionate about being able to build and to lead.”

More than 20 students—the designers, developers, and project leaders—work with Northeastern-based startups and community partners. Others—the social media strategist, say, or the videographer—devote their time to marketing and events. Four students are dedicated solely to planning the upcoming conference. “People get close to their teams,” said O’Neil, who spent three years as a studio designer before being named executive director in March 2017. Carruthers agreed, noting that several students recently attended a club volleyball game at Boston College to cheer on Scout collateral designer Alexa Nguyen. “It’s a fraternal kind of love,” he said.

‘A model of professionalism’

Cara Solomon, the founder of Everyday Boston, has been working with Northeastern since the start of the 2017-18 academic year. One class transcribed a bunch of in-person interviews for her website, another created a business plan. “There’s a ton of entrepreneurial spirit and creativity in the student body,” said Solomon, a former reporter at the Hartford Courant and The Seattle Times.

Brennan Caruthers, Scout’s operations director, manages the studio’s $100,000 annual budget. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

She described Scout members as “incredibly committed, creative, and curious.” To her, “they’re a model of professionalism.” In the fall, one group redesigned her website—and Solomon loved it. “It feels powerful and accessible and representative of the spirit of Boston.” Over the past three months, another group has been working to create an interactive microsite that will enable Bostonians to share their own stories online. One in-progress mock-up prompts prospective storytellers to “Tell me about your first crush.” It features the word “Love” in sleek, red letters, heart-shaped icons, and a character illustration of a blissful woman leaning against a bespectacled man in a hat.

Solomon was initially reluctant to OK the microsite but gave it the green light after hearing Scout’s pitch. “I’m aware of how alienating the internet can be,” she explained, “but the students convinced me that they would design it carefully and that it would align with what Everyday Boston is about.” How does she feel now that the site is nearly finished? “It’s really exciting and has the potential to spread our message of curiosity and connection in a different way than we’ve done in the past.”

As part of the website redesign, Scout urged Solomon to refresh Everyday Boston’s logo. “They challenged me,” she said, “but they did it with a sense of humility.” When Scout initially presented Solomon with a mock-up of the logo, she told the students that it needed to be “more bold and less pretty.” She suggested they seek inspiration from Howlin’ Wolf, a blues singer, guitarist, and harmonica player from Mississippi. “I was not easy,” she acknowledged. But the result—an abstract, block-shaped illustration of people of all different shapes and sizes over a capitalized version of the organization’s name—was worth the give-and-take that it took to get it done. “It is exactly what we wanted—it’s stripped down, it’s bold, and it communicates warmth,” said Solomon. “I just printed sweatshirts with the logo and it feels very much like us.”

‘We can’t imagine doing anything else’

Scout is a game-changer for clients and team members alike, transforming their career trajectories while making dreams come true. Wilhoit recently attended Shoptalk, the world’s largest conference for retail and e-commerce innovation, and plans to develop a pilot program for Unsize while on co-op at The Michael J. and Ann Sherman Center for Engineering Entrepreneurship Education. “Working with Scout taught me a lot about the entrepreneur’s mindset and gave me the tools and the confidence to start Unsize,” she said. “At the conference, retailers loved the idea of taking away sizing language so people don’t have to think about vanity when they shop. I’d love to work on the startup full time and help solve that problem.”

After serving as Unsize’s project leader, Markon decided to carve out a career in product development. “I don’t see myself staying in the startup world,” he said, “but the idea of working with new and rapidly changing products is interesting to me.” He plans on taking a fulltime job at Hubspot, where’s he’s already completed two co-ops as a software engineer. “I’m trying to focus the position on new product development as opposed to working on established things.”

O’Neil and Caruthers won’t graduate until May, but they’ve already opened up their own Boston-based design studio. It’s called Juno—there’s no quirky story behind the name, they just liked how it sounded—and its first client is Well-Found Chocolate. If not for their experience in Scout, said Caruthers, “self-doubt would have crushed our dreams.” Running a team of 45 people, he explained, proved that they have what it takes to excel on their own. “First of all, we can do this. Second, it’s a lot of fun and we can’t imagine doing anything else.”