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KCAD Student Turns Historic Family Letters into Top Honors at National Competition

Jonker and JohnsonGRAND RAPIDS –For the second straight year, a Graphic Design student from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University has gone the distance in the American Advertising Federation’s American Advertising (formerly ADDY) Awards, wowing judges at every stage of the competition.

Amy Johnson, a 2014 KCAD graduate, won a prestigious Gold award at the National American Advertising Awards Show for “Letters Lost Then Found,” a publication that chronicles the extensive correspondence between her grandfather, William Raubinger, and his youngest brother, Freddie, who left home at age 19 to serve in World War II and never returned. Like fellow 2014 Graphic Design graduate Isaac Daniels, who won Gold and Best in Show awards at the 2013 national awards for his skateboard culture publication, “Disorder,” Johnson conquered the challenge of capturing deeply personal subject matter through design.

“This story, these letters, were a secret,” Johnson said. “Growing up, Gramps would never talk about it, so all I knew was that Freddie never made it home from World War II. This story may have been lost in confusion if it wasn’t for my own heartbreak.”

When her grandmother passed away, Johnson inherited the somber task of emptying her grandparents’ basement. It was there that she discovered the file cabinets where her grandfather, William, had kept a trove of handwritten letters, including every one he’d received from his brother, Freddie, and copies of all the letters he had sent back in reply.

As she read through the letters, Johnson saw such a profoundly moving narrative emerge that she knew it couldn’t be quelled any longer. “Freddie would have been 91 years old in September of this year,” she said. “Ultimately, this is about a 19-year-old boy that became a man overseas and never came home. His story had to be told.”

Under the guidance of professor Suzanne Jonkman, Johnson began the process of designing a publication around the chronology of the letters. She knew she’d have to handle the process with the utmost care and respect, and wanted the book to be both personal and informative. “It was important to me that the readers got to know Freddie through these letters in the same way I did while reading them in my grandfather’s basement,” she said. “Freddie’s plane was reported missing Feb. 4, 1945, and my grandfather carried the secret of his pain for a lifetime.”

“Letters Lost Then Found” was designed to engage readers in a number of different ways. The letters themselves can be read sequentially from cover to cover, but there are also brief excerpts next to each letter that form a sort of poetic series when read one after the other. Freddie had served in the China Burma India Theatre, often referred to as the War’s forgotten theatre, and Johnson also saw the book as a means of bringing valuable historical context to light. ‘Day in History’ sections on each page give the reader a glimpse of what was happening in WWII at the time each letter was written, and a ticker tape runs across the bottom of the pages, explaining why the China Burma India Theatre was such an important part of the larger conflict.

Intuitive design and handsome aesthetics aside, Johnson believes the real reason the book drew the attention of American Advertising Awards judges at every level was its poignant humanity. “The book is nostalgic, familiar, patriotic, and perhaps optimistic. I think what set it apart was that emotional connection to feelings, experiences, ideas, and dreams that most everyone could relate to.”

Johnson is now focused on getting the book published, and as a freshly-minted grad, she’s also eager to put her talents to use professionally.

“With future projects, I will continue to tell a story, whether it is BBQ Sauce, effervescent bath salts, outdoor work-wear, or goat cheese, they all originated for a client and their personality, and their voice needs to be heard,” she said. “I like being incognito. After all, isn’t it always about the project?”