“You’ll never make money as an artist.” That simple phrase has discouraged many from pursuing creative passions in favor of more “conventional” (read: lucrative) career paths. These words can be especially disheartening for high schoolers—individuals facing choices that will, in many ways, shape their adult lives. Concerned with setting themselves up for a financially stable future, teens may decide that art, while fulfilling or enjoyable, is best left confined to the pages of a sketchbook. It simply won’t pay the bills they’ve been told time and again.
In his youth, Connecticut native DJ Haddad had begun to have the same concerns—at least, those around him did. Drawing seemed to be his only innate talent. His guidance counselor had made that fact very clear during the college application process. Even his mother, who worked as an art teacher, worried about her son’s career prospects.
Despite these doubts, Haddad stuck with drawing. He went on to enter the world of graphic design, working for several Manhattan agencies before founding his own creative agency: Haddad & Partners. It wasn’t until several years ago, however, that Haddad realized how truly lucky he had been to “make it” in the visual arts. When reflecting upon his career path, it occurred to him how indirect and happenstance it had turned out—a sentiment shared by many of his fellow designers. Upon further consideration, it hit him: he had grown up middle class, attended a high school with an exceptional art facility, and had a mother in the arts, but it was still a miracle he had ended up a graphic designer.
Soon after this realization, another fact became apparent: if the path to a creative career was that elusive for him, it would be even less accessible for those with fewer resources. Children from under-represented communities and under-staffed, under-funded schools—especially those who might be second- or even first-generation college attendants—would have even more reason to avoid a career that might not “pay the bills.” The resulting lack of diversity in creative fields can be seen in the numbers: only 3.5% of graphic designers are black and just 10% are Latino.
It was this disparity that drove Haddad to found Summer Studio—a one-of-a-kind, hands-on course for students interested in pursuing creative careers. In collaboration with partners AIGA CT and Sacred Heart University, Summer Studio is now in its third year. Its continued mission: to diversify the graphic design industry by introducing students from neighboring cities to the foundational learnings of design.
Providing no-cost instruction in a college-course environment, the program arms students with the skills and tools needed to create the beginnings of an art school portfolio. Each student, who is referred to the program by their art teacher, receives a Surface Go 2 business laptop, a one-year subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, and three college credits. Throughout the course, students dive into the creative process in a variety of ways, exploring different aspects of general marketing, communications, photo editing, and graphic arts. From learning the basics of digital design to creating posters, flyers, social media ads, and even party invitations, students leave Summer Studio with portfolio-ready projects that they can also use in their daily lives.
Past Summer Studio attendees have shared the impacts the program has had on their personal artistic journeys. “My favorite part was doing everything digitally,” said student Ruby Millet. “I’m more of a black and white, drawing-on-paper kind of person, so learning all about the colors and the different tools and techniques was very inspiring and cool.”
As Summer Studio continues to grow each year, it has become a source of hope and support for young talents with big dreams but limited access to opportunities. It has shown that with the right support, guidance, and resources, creativity truly knows no boundaries. By empowering these students to pursue careers in the creative arts, the program is not only helping to transform young people’s lives, but also to diversify an industry that desperately needs fresh perspectives and voices.