Keys and the Stories They Tell: Degree Project Case Study

Northeastern’s Graphic Design degree project is divided into two classes, in the first half, students are asked a variety of questions to get the creative juices flowing: What interests you? In what areas do you feel your portfolio is the weakest? What is your passion? Though I immediately had answers to these questions, I still had a ways to go before turning my interests into a final product.


I had answers to the posed questions, but none of them struck me as concepts I could turn into a project that I wanted to spend four months creating. Towards the end of the first semester of the project I started to panic…I still didn’t have an idea. It was in a Degree 1 class that I started playing with my keys; I realized there was something very personal about this. Not only the way I was flipping the keys back and forth, but the keys themselves. The keys were always on my person. They were very unique to me. But more than that, they told a story about me. 


With this nugget of an idea I knew I had to make sure it could work. After we went through the entire class discussing each others keys and hearing everyone else’s stories I knew that the idea had legs and from there it was a matter of getting a proposal together and hammering out the details. Or so I thought…I assumed that since I was in control of the entire process from A to Z that the client/designer relationship strains I had experienced in the past would be minimal. But if anything, I discovered that open format self-directed projects can be more difficult. 


Finding a direction to take the idea in was tough, but I knew I wanted to use my skills as a versatile creative to my advantage. I decided on documentary style photography accompanied by clean and meticulously designed text in the form of a book to tell my story. This format not only worked perfectly for the content, but also is something missing from my portfolio of work.

Once I landed on a prototype, I assumed it would be smooth sailing. I quickly found that I was wrong once again. Starting in on Degree 2, my prototype was greeted with interest by my classmates and professor, but not enthusiasm. I knew that I would have to flesh out the design and concept before I would convince my peers that this idea had legs. 

  Initial Prototype

Initial Prototype


From a design standpoint, I knew I wanted to have a photo of a subjects keys on the left side of the spread and the story of the keys on the right. And in my prototype I chose to take the ultra minimalist route and keep things extremely clean, both in photography and design. Since it was a self-directed project I initially didn’t feel the need to explore more complex iterations. However after experimenting with the design a bit more, I realized that I may have been taking my ‘less is more’ mantra a bit too seriously. 

  Layout Iterations

Layout Iterations


The other challenge was the ultimate thesis or purpose of the piece. My idea was initially very broad. All I knew is that I wanted was to have keys and stories about keys. This broad idea worked in theory, but once I started gathering stories and explaining my project to people, I quickly realized that I would need to be able to come up with an elevator pitch of sorts for the project. After some deliberation it ultimately came down to proving that keys can tell a story about their owner. 


After the mission of the book was nailed down, the story gathering began. I initially gathered stories from peers and people I knew I could track down again in case I needed to reshoot or confirm details. While the story gathering started, I also was getting closer to finalizing the book design through class critiques. Once I had the final design done, I started in on the second phase of my story gathering plan; approaching strangers.

After four hours on the Charles River Esplanade and no photos or stories, I realized that I just didn’t have the time to create a full mosaic of Boston (let alone Northeastern). My immediate thought was that my project was over, but after talking it over with my class I realized I could pivot and save a great concept. This was probably the most valuable lesson I learned from this project; the simple shift of changing my subject pool to people that I came across in my day to day kept the mission of my project alive. 


The rest of the process became far more simple with the foundation in place. It was just a matter of talking to people in my daily life and having discussions with them about their keys. This was definitely the best aspect of the project, I’m always on board for any chance that I get to get out from behind the screen and come face to face with a person. This also provided me the opportunity to get feedback from people about not only my story gathering process, but my anticipated final product as well. And in that was the true inspiration behind this project, being able to show the intersection of the graphic design field with story telling in its most raw and real sense. All I needed to do was find the key.