It’s late in the afternoon and Zoe Woomer is in the back room of University Graphic Systems (UGS). She’s manually folding a large stack of calendars designed by a local San Luis Obispo artist; the first of 300 to be included in the order, which is expected to go out the next day.
Woomer, with hands stained green from a screenprinting event earlier that day, takes her time, carefully aligning and folding the calendars with precision. The silence of the room is cut only by the faint sound of paper rustling and the distant chatter of the front office.
You won’t see it passing by the UGS office, nor would you see it standing at the front desk, but behind the cluster of cubicles, is the heart and soul of Cal Poly’s print and publishing business.
Lesser known to the student body, UGS is an extension of the Graphic Communication (GRC) Department and is a campus-wide, student-managed printing and publishing company in Building 26.
It’s an enterprise run by 10 new student managers every year, who spend two quarters training and learning beforehand and are then hired annually into paid positions. Each student has a role; Woomer, who is a graphic communication senior, is one of three project managers.
“Today I’m doing mostly production. I’m folding, and eventually, I’ll trim and stitch,” Woomer said, as she added another folded calendar to the ever-growing stack.
This is a typical day for Woomer. She’s either in the back physically working on orders or communicating with clients.
People can get homework, resumes, posters, t-shirts, mugs, glasses and stickers printed. Woomer said she wishes more students knew about UGS and the services they offer.
“I think it’s fun when like, there’s just like, a group of friends that just like, want an inside joke on a sticker,” she said.
During their employment, students grow and cultivate partnerships with other campus organizations, including clubs, the Cal Poly Corporation and local San Luis Obispo businesses.
Just recently, Safer and UGS collaborated on a screenprinting event where students could come in and get tote bags with designs promoting domestic violence awareness for Purple Thursday. UGS also did a screenprint event for Cal Poly club Iter8, and just before that, an event for WOW.
To stay afloat during COVID-19, UGS also printed health safety signs that were posted around campus to help incoming students and staff social distance. In conjunction with the journalism department, UGS designed and printed the new building and floor signage for the graphic communication and journalism building.
“There’s so much that we have to offer that we want to be a resource for people because we’re an affordable option,” GRC senior and general manager of UGS Alexa Griffin said.
Griffin says there is no typical day.
“I’m kind of doing, like, a million things during the day,” Griffin said. “It really depends on the week when you ask me because there tends to be something new all the time, but I really enjoy it.”
Griffin oversees the business, including everything from clearing printer jams to doing payroll and supervising projects. Xiaoying Rong is a GRC professor and the UGS advisor, but it’s students like Griffin who oversee the day-to-day, client relations, marketing, special projects, production and campus events.
“I only come in when the time I see if maybe it’s off track or maybe they need help,” Rong said. “My hands-off [approach] mostly is to allow them to make mistakes.”
Woomer appreciates the learning experience, and she said that she and the nine other managers are all learning and failing together.
“If you worked in a real print shop, you would be around people who have worked there for years,” Woomer said.
UGS, which has been around since 1968, is a unit within the department and is administered under the Cal Poly Corporation. It receives state funding through IRA grants and through the department’s budget, but it also makes money through print projects and print sales.
Because UGS is a full-functioning organization, students are learning the skills to run a business.
“I think it’s a personal growth as well,” Rong said. “So, you have to kind of think about how to do teamwork and how to balance your own personal life.”
UGS managers work ten hours a week while balancing school work and club participation. Rong said they also learn skills in the UGS shop that they can practice on their own time.
“I don’t think print is dead,” Woomer said as she placed the last calendar of the day onto the stack.
She takes the pile out to the front office where boxes of paper are scattered around on tables and colorfully printed posters, stickers and pins are neatly presented on the front desk. She places the stack on her desk, where another manager will take over during their shift and continue folding, trimming and stitching.
In Building 26, at least, print is very much still alive.