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Thriving by design

Robertson School graduate discovered talents that guided her career path in an unexpected direction.
Crystal Douglas

Right: Crystal Douglas, who grew up in South Carolina, describes herself as a woman with “small-town roots and a New York City hustle.” (photo credit Jud Froelich)

With a knack for visual aesthetics, 22-year-old Crystal Douglas turns heads, whether she’s creating designs on a computer screen or modeling them on the runway. She refined her talents for both during her time on campus at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Douglas, who grew up in South Carolina, describes herself as a woman with “small-town roots and a New York City hustle.” That energy fuels everything she does and played a significant role in her choice of where to attend college. She fell in love with VCU’s diverse campus culture early in her search.

“I remember watching videos online about what it meant to be a Ram and getting really emotional,” Douglas said. “I knew I would get claustrophobic if I didn’t go to school in an urban environment. I wanted to be somewhere where I could get valuable experience in anything I wanted to try.”

Douglas enrolled in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences in 2015. Scholarships, including the Chandra Broadnax-Payne Scholarship, the Martin Agency Endowed Scholarship and one from the Advertising Club of Richmond, helped reduce the financial burden so she could focus on her studies and experiences.

“It touches my heart that someone recognized my potential and wanted to invest in me,” she said. “I felt so loved and supported, especially as an out-of-state student without family nearby.”

Tools of the trade

In her academic courses, Douglas honed her skills in graphic design, branding and marketing as a mass communications major in the strategic and creative advertising sequence. Outside the classroom, a lifelong love of fashion led her to join GroupMODA, VCU’s student-run fashion organization and modeling troupe.

“GroupMODA is all about diversity, body positivity and making space for models who aren’t traditionally accepted in the fashion industry,” Douglas said. “The group is a big melting pot of fierce, fabulous people. Being a part of that taught me confidence and was a huge influence on the woman I’ve become.”

Today, that confidence colors everything, from Douglas’ bold personal style to the digital designs she develops for her clients as a user experience and interface designer at Colab, a Richmond, Virginia-based agency specializing in digital design, development and strategy, whose founder and president is VCU alumnus Eddie O’Leary.

Using her creative flair

As a UX/UI designer, Douglas develops digital assets such as websites and applications for Colab clients. Strategic thinking and creative flair, she said, are key components for success in this role.

“The products we design need to look nice, but they also have to be effective and functional,” she said. “If you don’t have a strategic mindset, your designs are just going to fall flat.”

Douglas applies that principle to every project. In meetings with the Colab team, she asks detail-oriented questions to ensure that each element of a project serves a purpose and appeals to the intended audience. When she meets with clients, she comes prepared with mood boards or other visual samples of color schemes and design options to communicate her ideas and encourage feedback.

As one of Colab’s newer designers, Douglas welcomes feedback openly as an opportunity for growth.

Crystal Douglas at work at Colab in Richmond
Crystal Douglas at work at Colab in Richmond. (photo credit Jud Froelich)

“I’m learning so much as I go along,” she said. “The team has been so helpful. They’ve recommended awesome resources like books, blogs and podcasts to help me get my footing and learn best practices. They know that I’m young and new to this, but I’m thankful that they see something in me and are confident that I can succeed.”

With an academic background in advertising, a career in the tech industry was not what Douglas expected. She pictured herself working at a traditional advertising agency until her academic adviser in the Robertson School recommended her for an internship with a local digital consulting firm.

“I really loved that environment,” she says. “I started to gravitate more toward the digital space — building apps, designing websites and stuff like that.”

Robertson School Interim Director Marcus Messner, Ph.D., is grateful for the generosity of donors like Chandra Broadnax-Payne, whose support makes it possible for students like Douglas to discover their talents during their time at VCU.

“Crystal’s success speaks volumes about the positive impact our donors and their scholarships have on our students,” he said. Author and motivational speaker Broadnax-Payne established her scholarship in the Robertson School in 2010 because she knows firsthand how it feels to face financial uncertainty as a student.

“My sister and I were raised by a single mom, and there wasn’t always a lot of extra money floating around,” she said. “When it came time for me to go to college, I carried a lot of the financial responsibility. If I hadn’t gone through that, though, I wouldn’t know what it feels like to worry that your financial constraints might keep you from something you want to achieve. Those experiences gave me a passion for giving back to others in similar situations.”

Broadnax-Payne often receives letters of gratitude from the students who, like Douglas, are achieving their goals with help from her scholarship.

“Reading their letters is pure joy,” she said. “They tell me their dreams and all the things they hope to do in their communities or in their careers. I remember being in their position, knowing there was so much I wanted to achieve.”

Douglas’ achievements so far, she said, would look a lot different if she had ended up anywhere other than VCU.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I’d gone to any other school,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the way things have worked out for me. None of it is what I expected, but it all feels like it’s how it was meant to be.”

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