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Assistant professor of marketing Annika Abell models a T-shirt from designed by UT students studying typography.

UT’s Haslam College of Business and College of Architecture and Design are teaming up this semester to create an experiential learning opportunity with a twist, benefiting the United Way of Greater Knoxville. Students from a strategic digital marketing class and a graphic design typography class are designing products and managing an online merchandising website for United Way. aims to support local students and charities by giving students a hands-on platform to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom while raising money for United Way agencies in the Knoxville community. Half of the proceeds from sales of items on the site support the advertising budget of the marketing class, and the other half goes directly to local charities through United Way of Greater Knoxville.

Annika Abell, an assistant professor of marketing in the Haslam College of Business, created the project this year to give her students a realistic educational experience. Abell got the site up and running over the summer. Current promotion is executed through student-run ad campaigns, funded by the Teaching Innovation and Development Summer Grant awarded by the college.

A T-shirt design that says live, grow, thrive
Live, grow, thrive was the winning T-shirt design by Ashleigh Williams. Courtesy

“The goal of this project is to make it self-sustaining, where the profit that we’re making is enough to donate to charity and to reinvest a portion back into ads and other tools the students can use,” Abell said. “It’s an added bonus that all of the work we do will be directly helping the local community. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

She originally planned to have local artists supply designs and products for the website, but the coronavirus pandemic put a huge strain on local talent, leaving artists barely any capacity to take on pro bono work. Determined to launch the project this fall, Abell had to get creative. She reached out to Christopher Cote, a Graphic Design Fellow and assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Design, who jumped at the opportunity to collaborate on the project.

“Clearly, we had to have product if we were going to have a store, so that’s where Chris helped out,” Abell said.

“When Annika needed products she reached out to me for designs, and that’s how my students got involved,” Cote said. “I suggested my typography students make shirts that were rooted in research of the United Way–supported agencies. I was happy if it was linked to actual research and the community in some way, not students just designing things that were random and looked cool.”

Students in Cote’s second-year graphic design typography class were responsible for creating variations of typographic statements for T-shirts. They met with Abell as well as Matthew Ryerson, chief executive officer for United Way of Greater Knoxville, to learn more about the organization and gain inspiration for their designs.

Jacob Hirschmann, a sophomore from Mount Juliet, Tennessee, loved working with his cohort on the project and interacting with a community partner. “It was a great step in learning to design for a client. United Way is a great organization with a great cause, and it was awesome to be involved with them,” said Hirschmann. “This assignment will undoubtedly help us in the real world, and I really feel like I am helping spread a positive message within my community.”

Abell’s students handled the rest of the logistics for the site—running ad campaigns, writing blog posts, coordinating social media, making suggestions for optimization, using email marketing, and doing market research.

“As a university, we’re not all about just talking the talk. UT is giving us the resources and opportunities to put these values into play even before I graduate.” Senior Valentina Rezk, regarding this experience and how it relates to UT’s commitment to service and volunteerism.

A T-shirt design that says elevate others
Elevate others T-shirt design. Courtesy

“The big advantage of this project is that our students get great exposure to all of the marketing tools that are currently being used by a large majority of firms, so that when they enter the job market they should really have a competitive advantage compared to other students,” Abell said. “It can be so hard to explain how all these different elements fit together in a lecture. But with the students running it and having that responsibility, with real money and a real store, it creates a whole different ball game.”

Valentina Rezk, a senior from Memphis, worked on the content team helping manage social media for WearKnox and studying analytics. As a hands-on visual learner, Rezk gravitated toward the experiential curriculum. She also noticed the university’s commitment to service and volunteerism take on a deeper meaning.

“As a university, we’re not all about just talking the talk. UT is giving us the resources and opportunities to put these values into play before I even graduate,” Rezk said.

Cote also stressed the value of getting students engaged with the community and offering a platform for them to use their talents and knowledge for a greater good. Having a project that builds connections across colleges and within the city of Knoxville helped tremendously with keeping students motivated, especially given the current pandemic environment and new hybrid format.

“Nobody wants to stare at a screen all day, so I’ve had to have a variety of activities and transitions to keep people engaged,” Cote said. “My students are so hardworking, kind, and receptive that it’s really a joy to teach and discuss with them how to make their work stronger. Typography resides at the center of the discipline of graphic design, and so far they are making a lot of impressive work.”

Ryerson and others at United Way selected student Ashleigh Williams’s design as the featured T-shirt for the site. It encourages Knoxville to “Live, Grow, Thrive.” Students designed 36 T-shirt concepts in all, and 15 are currently featured in the online store. Others will be released later in the semester.

“I believe it is very important to support and be involved in the community, especially now,” said Williams. “These past months have been challenging for most everyone, and I believe the best way we can get through this is together.”

The United Way of Greater Knoxville works to help the people in Knoxville and surrounding areas by funding programs that focus on providing health, education, and financial stability.


Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993,