Alumni Spotlight

PhilaU Alumni Couple Designed For Success

Rick Landers ’99 and Colleen Miller '99

Rick Landers '99 and Colleen Miller '99 Photo 1

Rick Landers ’99 and Colleen Miller ‘99 first met while studying Graphic Design at Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science (PCTS.) It was during this time that the two fell in love with not only each other, but also the world of design. Over the last 20 years, the couple have each chased their dreams from the east to west coasts, finding great fulfillment in their personal and professional lives.

Rick, Founding Partner of the couple’s business, Landers Miller Design, LLC, feels fortunate to have found his calling. “I feel like the luckiest person in the world for getting to do what I do every day,” Rick said. “I get to make fun stuff.”

Colleen, also Founding Partner of Landers Miller Design, LLC, and more recently an Experience Design Director at R/GA, an American international advertising agency, exudes the same enthusiasm as her husband when she talks about loving her work in an ever-changing industry. “I never, ever want to stop learning,” Colleen said. “No matter how big or small the project, successes or flops, I am always looking to expand my education about the way our profession is changing.”

But, before Rick and Colleen became husband and wife and parents to their three-year-old daughter, Ada, the two have very different stories of how they came to decide on their career paths.

Rick always knew he found design interesting, even if he didn’t understand exactly what it was. “Despite not knowing what design was until I was literally enrolled in it,” he explained, “I have always loved visual culture. Growing up, my dad worked for Xerox and I went to a lot of different print shops with him. He would bring home annual reports, letterhead and business cards and I had no idea what any of it was, but it looked cool. I would often try to copy some of the things that my dad would bring home.”

Rick dabbled with a word processor in high school, spending hours typesetting reports to mimic the professional work he saw his dad bring home. As a senior in high school, and an employee at a local print and copy shop, Rick had access to a Macintosh computer right when they were “starting to really make waves in the world of design and typography.” With access to a Mac, Rick quickly became the family friend to make flyers and business cards for people’s businesses.

It was these experiences that led Rick to enroll as a student at Penn State as an advertising major. However, he quickly realized advertising wasn’t quite what he expected. A teacher in a printmaking class questioned whether or not Rick should look into graphic design, which further grew his curiosity about what the right school and program would best suit his interests.

That summer, at his copy shop job, Rick met a customer who would greatly impact his decision to transfer to PCTS. Dennis Kuronen, then Dean of the Graphic Design Communication program at PCTS, came into the shop several times that summer with work he needed printed. Rick, in admiration of the design work Kuronen brought in, struck up conversation with him which led to Kuronen eventually inviting him to check out the graphic design program at PCTS. 

“When I went to the school it just seemed like a better fit for me — it was a more approachable size, and the graphic design program was everything I always thought advertising was supposed to be,” Rick said. “At one point, Dennis described the program and said ‘we make cool stuff here.’ That is exactly what I saw and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Rick Landers '99 and Colleen Miller '99 Photo 2

For Colleen, the decision to attend PCTS was clearer from an earlier age and felt the school had everything she was looking for. “PCTS was the right combination of art and science, so we had a well-rounded foundation of classes in design, history, liberal arts, business and science which provided a good base for a design career,” Colleen said. “I also wanted to play softball, and I loved being nestled into a beautiful part of a big city to study.”

Since the two did not start their college careers at the same school, it wasn’t until their junior year when Rick and Colleen would meet for the first time. But, before they would find themselves in the same room together, their worlds were intertwined as finalists in a local banner design competition for the East Falls community in the Spring of their sophomore year. Rick recalls receiving a phone call to learn that another student from his school, named Colleen Miller, was selected over him as the winner in the competition. “I was only slightly bitter,” he remembers.

The following semester, on their first day of class in Design 4: Typography, Colleen recognized a new face she hadn’t seen in her classes before. As a transfer student from Penn State, Rick didn’t know many people yet and was therefore quiet and reserved.  Colleen, who evoked a much different persona, made it a point to call out Landers and ask who he was. “The whole room went silent,” Rick explained. “Turns out it was Colleen Miller, winner of the East Falls Banner competition and apparently everyone’s friend. We, too, quickly became inseparable friends.”

Colleen agreed that the chemistry was instantaneous and said, “I always make it a point to talk to the quiet ones, they are usually the most interesting folks in the room.”

This opposites-attract-dynamic transcended into not only a budding romance, but also a professional partnership.

After graduation, the two moved from Philadelphia to New York City where they began to pursue their individual design endeavors for the next five years. Eventually, the two both knew that they each wanted to continue their studies but that it would be financially best to enroll one at time.

“I needed to get back to really pushing myself,” Rick said. “In 2004, I ended up applying to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters of Fine Arts Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program. This was also on the heels of me and Colleen getting married. This is a whole other story but in short form; we bartered an identity and website design as payment for our entire wedding reception. We owned the entire project and relationship and I was really inspired and proud of the whole experience.”

This project, along with many other freelance assignments, including some work with Steven Heller from the New York Times, occupied much of Rick’s time outside of the classroom through his graduate school years. Once he graduated, Rick was presented with an opportunity to work independently for a start-up company. Because the work was “comprehensive and robust in scope” Rick asked Colleen if she would join him. Colleen agreed and added this work to her already full-time job at a design studio in NYC.

“After a year we had enough work and income that we started our own studio,” Rick explained.

While the dynamic-duo describe their time living and working long hours in a small Brooklyn apartment, as “living the dream,” Colleen was ready for her turn to continue her studies.

Reflecting back on how she came to learn and grow in her current industry, Colleen said, “While at Textile the internet was just becoming a thing. The school was beginning to give out email accounts, and we all got onto AOL and Netscape to browse websites at the dawn of the internet.”

When Colleen was fresh out of college she continued to explore her niche in web design was hired at a web design studio where she learned how to code her own designs in HTML. Experiences such as this one, in addition to her vast work experience freelancing for agencies, and working for Landers Miller Design, allowed Colleen to identify what her biggest strengths were in the realm of design.

 “While in business together, we found a natural cadence where Rick tended to do more of the visual design while I focused on client communication, concepting, organizing, writing, and coding. When I saw that School of Visual Arts was launching a Masters in Interaction Design program, I knew it was for me,” Colleen explained.

Rick Landers '99 and Colleen Miller '99 Photo 4

Colleen really enjoyed her time at SVA and after graduating, there were a lot of interaction design jobs available at big companies. “It was during the recession that I started to feel the itch that graphic design wasn’t exactly my thing,” Colleen said. “Since then, I’ve focused on user experience design, working on digital mobile products for Food Network, Travel Channel, and HGTV.”

As Colleen began to accelerate her career at Scripps Network in New York, Rick was also presented with an opportunity for a full-time job at Carbone Smolan Agency (CSA). While Landers Miller Design always maintained a clientele, working for companies with benefits and normal business hours was ideal at the time, especially as they was expecting their first baby.

In 2015, Colleen was presented with a great job opportunity to work on the Nike account at R/GA in Portland, Oregon where the couple and their daughter now live.

“I believe that moving to Oregon has been one of our best choices,” Rick said. “I enjoyed our time in NYC and Philly, but I remember always wanting to venture away from there. Since moving here, I find that we have so many more adventures to go on. We miss our families, I miss the Flyers and Phils, and Sunday football at 10AM is really odd, but we get some of the best outdoor time ever.”

For Rick, the decision to move also meant him having to decide whether or not he would continue working remotely at CSA, a company where he had be working full-time since 2012, and had a longstanding relationship with dating back to 2005. Ultimately, Rick decided to continue what he has always loved, which is working with various clients through Landers Miller Design. “While our firm has been open since 2007, the work has varied with different degrees of intensity,” Rick said. “It’s allowed us to be very flexible in our professional and personal lives. Now seems to be the perfect time to be back with the firm full-force working on projects with clients.”

While the two both love design and work very well together on various design projects, their specific fortes are very different.

Landers describes himself as a generalist and that through building content and design, he aims to always create an emotional connection with every consumer. “All of the work I do is to create a visceral and emotional connection with the consumer through content and design,” Rick said.

Colleen, on the other hand, describes her favorite type of design work as “fixing big, ugly problems.” Colleen’s job is centered on program interaction design. “I work on the architecture of Nike consumer and internal digital products to remove any friction a user might experience as they try to accomplish their goals,” Colleen said.

When both Rick and Colleen think back to where it all began, they seem to credit much of their foundation to their time in college. Both of them feel strongly they made the right decision to attend PCTS.

“All of our classes were really tight and focused, and this appealed to me,” Rick said. “It felt like we were working as designers that I had been reading about—it felt real.”

Rick Landers '99 and Colleen Miller '99 Photo 3

Colleen added, “I felt a well-rounded sense of readiness for my career, not because I was by any means a good designer, but I had the tools to succeed in work. I could write, communicate, execute and defend ideas, and we had faculty who helped us network with companies looking to hire designers. The school generated buzz in the city with their students and it was exciting to be a part of local community projects. Ultimately, the faculty truly cared about our careers and we keep in touch to this day. Those relationships are the most valuable, cherished part of my education.”

Professor Frank Baseman, Director of the Graphic Design Communication Program at PhilaU, is one of those faculty members that Rick and Colleen keep in touch with almost two decades later. It was in Baseman’s first year teaching when they were students and while he didn’t teach any of their classes, Baseman was well connected to the pair, remembering them as very active and hardworking students. “They were both leaders from the get-go,” Baseman said.

Baseman reflects on Colleen’s capstone project as “way ahead of her time” and Rick as “someone who always stepped up to the plate.” Baseman feels the cohort of students that Rick and Colleen were part of were one of the most talented groups of students he has seen graduate from the program. “I say this when I think about the work they did in the classroom, but also when I think about the particularly talented work they’re doing with their careers now.”

“When I think about Rick and Colleen, and all they have accomplished with starting their own business and launching successful careers,” Baseman said, “I think to myself that they have consistently shot for very challenging jobs, and they got them.”

Baseman also explains how the couple have been very engaged and generous alumni to PhilaU. Of the many programs they have participated in, including student and alumni networking events, panel discussions, and even hosting students at their office, Baseman is most impressed with and grateful for Landers work on PhilaU’s graphic design blog. Landers donated his time and talent to designing the impressive blog that is used to communicate to current and prospective students as well as alumni and industry partners.

“If all alumni could be like these two, and if this is our end product, then we are doing pretty well here,” Baseman said.

Baseman, now knowing the couple for 19 years, thinks of Rick and Colleen today as very good friends. “They really are wonderful people and even through all of the great success they’ve earned,” Baseman said, “they continue to be nice, humble, down-to-earth people.”

When asking Rick and Colleen what their advice would be for current graphic design students at PhilaU, they both agree it’s all about the connections and relationships students build in their four years in college.

Rick Landers '99 and Colleen Miller '99 Company Logo

“Cultivate your relationships and listen to other perspectives,” Colleen said. “The relationships you begin in school could very well be your longest-lasting friends and mentors. I was exposed to a diversity and broadening of perspective that I never experienced up until then that has formed the base of my personal values, and in turn has created a strong foundation for my professional relationships.”

Rick added, “My advice is universal; regardless of major. It’s up to you to make the best of everything, no one is going to hand you anything. You have to really love what you do and if you are fortunate enough to find a way for your work and study to become an intertwined part of your life, good things will happen,” Rick said. “Oh, and if someone sits across from you and says hello, say hi back. You won’t regret it!”