The Value of Real Clients in the Classroom

Why clients matter in design education and how to recruit the ideal class client

Written by: Dr. Jack T. Labriola

Jack T. Labriola is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication in the Technical Communication and Interactive Design Department at Kennesaw State University. He teaches classes on usability/UX, information architecture, and technical communication. He has researched, written, and presented on a variety of topics ranging from a co-edited collection on content strategy, Content Strategy in Technical Communication (Routledge, 2020), articles on minimalist design aesthetics and mobile user experience, conference papers on university partnerships and building up student research toolkits, and most recently has been working on various grants and projects focusing on autonomous vehicles (AVs) and their related user experience(s). He is always looking for the next collaborative effort and how he can facilitate new ideas and research projects to focus on the users that are impacted most. Learn more about him at:

My Teaching Philosophy

Let me start off by saying that I believe that frequently, people take students’ tacit knowledge of technology for granted. People assume students know how to use, adapt, and assess technology from their everyday lives in ways that are productive for both their school and work lives.

In my classrooms, one of my main objectives is to help students learn how to adapt their technological skills, learn new ones, and begin to understand how what they are learning in the classroom are concepts and skills that can be utilized outside of it. I understand that there are many things that students know how to do well in a classroom setting, but may not know how to translate that success from the classroom to the industry space. I am a firm believer in Clay Spinuzzi’s idea of “pseudotransactionality,” which, simply stated, says that students tend to see everything that they do in a classroom as “just a school assignment.”

I spend a lot of time and effort trying to counteract this limitation, which oftentimes results in creating research-based case studies to allow my students to simulate real-world problems in the classroom, which allows them to apply their knowledge in unique ways to form real-world solutions.

What’s even better than creating research-based case studies, is being able to give my students the true real-world experience, with a real client. While often difficult, each semester I search to for small businesses, non-profits, and startups to try to pair my classes with real-world clients. Sometimes the clients pan out, sometimes they do not. However, the time and effort spent searching for these potential clients, when successful, is on an entirely different level in comparison to my case studies.

What makes real clients that valuable?

There are many reasons why I believe having a real client in the classroom brings immense value to my student's education. Here, I want to focus on my top three reasons:

Reason #1: It’s NOT “Just a School Assignment”

While my research base case studies help stimulate a lot of real-world issues for students to tackle and try to solve, in the end there is no denying in the students’ mind that the only person who may look at this final solution is their teacher. However, having a real client where the students can meet with them (in person or virtually), put a face and a name to the project, makes it infinitely more real. Having a responsibility to someone other than their teacher creates a level of effort that many students don't even realize they have inside them.

Reason #2: Experience in Communicating Professionally

Another reason why I find client projects so valuable is that these students have the opportunity to practice their professional communication skills. While we teach our students to be professional in emailing their fellow classmates or their teachers, there is something more serious and professional in their minds when communicating with somebody outside the University.

Sometimes students are nervous to send an email to a professional in the industry they one day hope to step foot in. But the understanding between the client and me as the teacher, that these are students who are trying their best to learn, helps the clients give feedback, communicate professionally, and emulate something for the students that they don't get anywhere else.

Reason #3: Showcasing Student Talent

It is not often that people outside of the University are able to see the incredible talent that our students have while they are in coursework. Many students will work to get internships, go to job fairs, build portfolios, and share their resumes. Being able to showcase the work in real-time to a real client, allows students to show their skill sets in a completely different way. From the beginning to the end of a project, across multiple communication opportunities, and across many different deliverables for both the class and the client to see, students get to showcase their growth, their adaptability, and their problem-solving skills.

How to Find and Build Relationships with Clients for Student Success

Maybe you have been thinking about including client projects in your classroom for a while, or maybe you’ve read about the benefits I’ve laid out above and thought to yourself, “this is something I would love to do.”

No matter how you came to the conclusion that you’d like to try out a client-based project in your classroom, I also want to give some tips for my fellow educators in some of the things that I do to find clients and build relationships with them to craft a successful student-driven client project.

Tip #1: Where to Find Clients

This is oftentimes the most important, the most often asked about, and also the most difficult part of setting up a client lead project in your classroom. “Where do I find clients that are willing to work with students?”

The beauty of this question is that it is a double-edged sword. There is no right or wrong answer on how to find clients. Depending on where you live, finding clients may be easy, like in bigger metro areas. But, maybe you are in a small rural town and do not have access to a lot of big-name organizations and companies. I have found clients to work with students in both of these settings, though each of them can have a slightly different approach.

Being a bigger metro area has advantages for finding clients through things like nonprofit emailing lists, local startup hubs, or local businesses that partner with the university. These are all places that I’ve found potential clients in.

In small rural areas, the local small businesses, your typical “mom and pop shop” is usually the best bet. But, I’ve even had opportunities to work with online small and local businesses that were not necessarily in my city.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there are no guarantees or “better odds” trying to meet up with local businesses vs. startup hubs vs. mom and pop shops. Each client is unique, run by different people, and may or may not be interested in partnering with you and your class.

Tip #2: Setting Expectations

If you are lucky enough to find a client who seems to be interested in partnering with you in your class, you immediately need to set viable expectations for both the client, yourself, and your students.

First and foremost, the client needs to understand that this is still a class project. While our students will be providing a service to the client, it should be understood that the students are still learning and honing their skills, and applying them to a client project to help someone in the local community but also in bolstering their expertise.

Second, it often helps to have the client meet with your class in person or virtually to give their side of the story. Let your client explain their business or organization, possible issues that they have been having, and how they see your students helping them solve some of their issues.

During this meeting, it’s an opportunity for students to ask questions to the client, get a better understanding of what they may want to work on, and also helps build some early rapport with the client.

Third, the client needs to set expectations in terms of their involvement. Is the client interested in getting updates throughout the semester? Once a month? Do they want to just see a little presentation at the end of the semester when everything is complete?

Since the students are working on project deliverables for their class, they have separate due dates and deadlines that the client won’t necessarily see. So, setting up expectations if there is any content or meetings that the client would like to have with the students during the project is helpful at the start.

Tip #3: Facilitating Communication Across the Semester

Finally, depending on how the client responds to the third expectation above (their involvement throughout the semester), there may need to be a discussion about how you as the instructor may need to facilitate communication across the semester-long project.

I’ve had some clients who were very hands-on, very interested, and loved answering questions via email any time my students wanted clarification. Some clients have also set up Slack channels with my students where they loved to see prototypes, rough drafts, and other bits and pieces of the project as it was progressing.

But, on the other hand, I’ve also had clients that only wanted one email per week regarding the project, and wanted all student questions compiled by their instructor and sent out through them.

There are many more things to say…

While there is so much more I can say about my experience working with client projects, tips for finding clients more specifically, or facilitating a client project throughout a semester, these points here are a great starting point.

Every time that I've worked on a client project with my students, I have always gotten positive feedback from my students for the opportunities and experiences that they were able to have during my class. I’ve also seen glowing reviews from clients on the work that my students have done with them, and even some professional relationships and opportunities that have opened up for students because of it. Due to these positive experiences, past students who have told me how helpful working with somebody in industry was to their career, clients who have enjoyed the opportunities, along with the general opportunity to help organizations and businesses in our local community, I continue to search for real-life clients in my classroom.