When Patrick Lee Lucas’ interior architecture students began working on the entryway of the Industries of the Blind building, the company president David LoPresti expected them to simply pick new paint colors and carpeting, and maybe put up some history in a picture frame or two.

The company got way more than it expected. And so did the students.

Nine undergraduate students set out to make a brand identity for the nonprofit and express it on the inside and outside of the building. The question they grappled with, Lucas says, was: “How do you tell the story of an institution in the space where you walk in?”

For years, Industries of the Blind (IOB) has been a UNCG neighbor on Lee Street, but few knew much about the factory.

The students started by conducting oral histories of some of the 200-plus employees, 80 percent of whom have some kind of sight disability. In its almost 80-year history, IOB has manufactured items such as its signature ball point pens, brooms, garments and, more recently, bomb-proof underwear and parachutes for the military.

“We teach people what they are making and why they are making it,” LoPresti says. “Blindness is something we leave at the door step.”

In a community-engaged project, students learn much more deeply about themselves.

Students were fascinated to learn many of the employees inspect their products by touch, one of the reasons the quality of its products is so high, Lucas says.

Then students created a plan for the entryway and all of the building’s public spaces using Braille as an inspiration. The plan calls for a fusion of colors, textures and lighting.

“I was completely impressed,” says LoPresti. “I was completely floored by it.”

The partnership between Lucas’ class and IOB is an example of something important to UNCG – community engagement. A strategic priority for the university, community engagement is research or creative work that is mutually beneficial for the researcher as well as their community partner.

“Community engagement is working with, not for or to – a collaboration,” says Emily Janke, special assistant for community engagement in the Office of Research and Economic Development.

For Lucas, community engagement is ongoing. “It’s a long-term conversation, commitment,” he says.

This summer, Kristy Stroud, a rising junior who was in the fall class, will work on specifics for IOB along with Lucas. She won an undergraduate research award to move this work forward. In the fall, there might be an opportunity for fabrication. Stroud also talks about what she has learned from this project in her Do something bigger altogether video on the university’s YouTube page.

It’s beneficial for all involved.

“In a community-engaged project, students learn much more deeply about themselves,” he says. “It helps them find their own design voice.”

LoPresti hopes to continue working with UNCG and other universities.  “Students have great energy, great ideas,” he says. “They see things that are fresh and new, and that’s the kind of organization we want to be.”

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations