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RHS grad Almstead: Making a difference with art

Blake Almstead, a 2003 RHS graduate, chose to settle down in Detroit instead of Dubai in part because he thought he could make more of a difference in the Michigan city.

Dubai or Detroit?

Ridgefield High School Class of 2003 graduate Blake Almstead opted to settle down in the Motor City in part because he felt he could have a bigger impact than in the exotic Middle Eastern city state.

“It’s hard to make a big difference in a city like that,” Mr. Almstead said of Dubai.

Now he’s helping art college students gain exposure and professional experience as well as helping the United Way’s efforts to make underprivileged children more ready for kindergarten.

After completing his master of fine arts degree in graphic design in 2007, he was offered a full professorship in Dubai as well as a position at a computer software company, Compuware, in Detroit.

He took the position as creative director at the Detroit company and also became a professor at two universities.

Exactly what an impact he might have, he wasn’t sure.

Mr. Almstead first settled in a suburb 30 minutes outside the city which he figured was “safe,” but he didn’t feel connected enough to the city, and the commute was getting old.

“I realized the city [was] a city I really didn’t understand.”

He moved into an old house within walking distance of work.

“I live in the third oldest house still standing” in Detroit, he said. “I definitely blame Ridgefield for my love of old homes,” he added, “1840 is not old for Ridgefield standards but it’s old for Midwest standards.”

He chuckles about having a vague fear of living in the city now. In the few years he’s been there, he’s seen vacancies ramp up in downtown and midtown Detroit, and the area he lives in was featured in Martha Stewart Living. Now visitors to the area ask him where they can find a featured sandwich shop they read about.

“A year ago, thinking that someone would ask me that, I would be shocked.”

On his walk to work, “every day I would walk past this empty storefront,” he said. “I would say, Wow, this would make a perfect art gallery.” He approached one of the universities he teaches at and was able to get help opening the gallery as a nonprofit.

The gallery, Studio Couture Detroit, focuses on the work of students, giving them exposure they might not otherwise get. Its two-year anniversary is in March.

His company, Compuware, recently became involved with helping the United Way’s efforts to improve child literacy by encouraging parents to read to children at least 15 minutes per day.

The nonprofit’s push involves giving books to families with newborns, and providing families with books every month.

The program has become difficult to track, and Compuware began working with the United Way to design software for mobile devices and the Web to streamline the process of logging hours and administering the program.

But as a professor, Mr. Almstead and a co-worker at Compuware, who is also a professor at the College for Creative Studies, decided to have students do the design work in a professional setting.

“The school calls it a sponsored project,” he said.

Students have been able to work with Mr. Almstead’s design team but also on things they’re less likely to pick up in a classroom, like working with a client, handling PR and considering feasibility.

The app has to be simple for users to log their book titles and reading time, but also for the United Way to access the data and look at how successful the program is.

Besides designing the software, the students were involved in designing packaging material that books are sent in.

In addition to books, reading milestones unlock digital badges. It was a design student’s idea to have make the badges printable.

“Every time you unlock a badge in an application, the caregiver will receive an email with a black-and-white coloring book version of that badge,” Mr. Almstead said.

Mr. Almstead, a former Chez Lenard employee who went to Veterans Park, East Ridge and the high school, credits Ridgefield schools with fostering his love of arts. He felt compelled to reach out to his hometown after last month’s mass shooting in Newtown, where his brother’s son attends a different elementary school.

“The arts program growing up was incredibly encouraging,” he said. “I was one of six boys who also went to the schools, and we’re all artists.”

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