It was while attending an introductory product design class at the famed ArtCenter College of Design that Sam Denning realized he wanted to make more than just money.
Soon to graduate high school, the prospective business communications major began to question his corporate calling. A few semesters later, as he sat in an accounting class at the University of Alabama, it struck him that something just didn’t add up. His heart wasn’t in the game.
“I decided to ditch all that,” says Denning, who returned home and eventually found his way to Irvine Valley College. “I started looking at design because that’s what I was interested in.”
Denning didn’t just find a passion in Irvine Valley College’s Design Model Making and Rapid Prototyping (DMP) program, he found a pursuit. After only two semesters at IVC, he was admitted to the highly prestigious ArtCenter College in Pasadena. According to his proud instructor, Brett McKim, that’s a new record.
“I have never had a student progress in such short order in my 20-plus years in community college education,” says McKim.
You don’t have to be immersed in the world of industrial design to recognize the work of ArtCenter alums. The vaunted institution produces world-class product designers responsible for everything from the iconic Kikkoman soy sauce dispenser to the game-changing Apple monitor and Oakley Zeros sunglasses. Ranked as one of the top design schools by The Wall Street Journal and Money Magazine, ArtCenter is a commercial product designer’s Juilliard.
Denning’s record rise is no doubt a testament to his unique work ethic and out-of-the-box approach. To hear the product design prodigy tell it, though, it may never have happened if not for an IDEA.
The instant he showed up for the first day of class at IVC’s School of Integrated Design, Engineering and Automation (IDEA), Denning knew he was in the right place. Between the tight-knit community, access to cutting-edge industry equipment, and the palpable passion humming in the air, he was ready to redesign his life.
“It was really clear right away that it was an amazing opportunity,” Denning recalls about his first impression of IVC. “It’s kind of a hidden gem … They have as many resources as ArtCenter does.”
Denning built a firm foundation for the real world in his classes at IVC, learning 3D modeling in SolidWorks, sketching for rapid visualization, and engaging hands-on with CAD and 3D printing.
The high-tech lab at IVC became Denning’s playground, where he would arrive at least 45 minutes early to class and leave up to an hour and a half afterward to work on his creations.
“It’s not just schoolwork, so much as a portfolio,” says Denning. “The resources at IVC are ridiculous.”
IDEA students have access to high-end scanners, laser cutters, CNC machines, 3D printers and more. Covering more than 32,490 square feet, and featuring three classrooms and six specialized teaching labs, the IDEA building would be Denning’s home away from home for two semesters.
World-class facilities were just the beginning. It was his classmates, eager to collaborate and create over the din of whirring machines, that began to truly set the IVC experience apart. These students weren’t just there just to check off another requirement, thought Denning. Rather, they came to class because they enjoyed every minute of it.
“It’s a lot more interesting when everybody is interested,” reflects the IVC grad, who still keeps in close touch with his former classmates via Discord group chats, which are “still blowing up every day.”
In fact, the students have taken to using the channel to host group study sessions, share ideas, and showcase their side projects. Says Denning about his cohort: “The people are just so creative.”
Denning is especially grateful to McKim for sharing his support and expertise. “He just dedicates his life to that program,” says the grateful student. “You come out of the program with marketable skills. He sets it up so that you can get a job.”
After just four classes with McKim, he had everything he needed to put together the demanding portfolio required as part of the ArtCenter application. He submitted sketches and finished drawings of original products that demonstrated functionality and aesthetics, as well as thorough research and exploration of the product, from beginning to final rendered design.
“Everything I learned at IVC was the only way I was going to be able to crank out a portfolio for ArtCenter,” says Denning.
To make the cut, he drew upon his skill for sketching, along with his knack for executing professional 3D modeling designs. It certainly didn’t hurt to have a glowing reference from McKim, who served as a substitute teacher at ArtCenter for seven years.
“I have taught a great number of students over the years and consider Sam to have exceptional potential as a design student,” McKim wrote in his letter of recommendation. “His techniques and overall passion for the subject are hard-pressed to match even in seasoned industrial designers.”
Coming from an accomplished industry professional who worked at Disneyland, owned a successful product design studio, and has taught the subject for 30 years, that praise no doubt greased the wheels for Denning’s application. Looking back, though, he’s as thankful for the friendship as he is for the endorsement.
“Brett and I got really close — we were texting every day then,” says Denning. “He was the one that encouraged me to apply to schools when I did.
“I definitely wouldn't be where I am now without him.”
For McKim, it’s an honor to help students like Denning. Every few years, he says, a couple of his high-achievers manage to make it into ArtCenter – and he’s proud to see his latest protégé join the ranks.
“He is in getting into a field where he was intended to be,” declares McKim.
Denning’s crowning achievement in his successful ArtCenter portfolio was a thermometer featuring a case that automatically sanitizes with UV light.
“I really did love that thermometer,” says the proud student. When a regular person looks at a thermometer, he says, they just see the same old thing. Denning, on the other hand, is always looking for ways to think outside the box… case… or whatever he happens to be designing.
“It makes using those things more enjoyable when there is more thought put into the design.”
Looking to the future, the first-semester student has dreams of joining the broad ranks of ArtCenter grads working for Fortune 500 employers, making every-day objects exceptional for a company like 3M.
“It’s brutal. It’s hard. It’s a lot of hours,” admits the proud IVC alum regarding the rigorous ArtCenter curriculum. But because of IVC, “I’m definitely prepared.”