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Emily Marsala

The Facebook post is brief, showcasing a Wendy’s beverage cup shoved hastily into an overflowing garbage can. Wendy, the fast-food chain’s founding icon, appears on the cup as a childlike crayon drawing, smiling back at the camera as she shines rainbow rays of happiness onto her drawn companions below.

“Spotted at the gas station,” the Facebook post says. “The hard thing about being a designer is that most of what you make ends up in the garbage lol.”

Emily Marsala, a Cincinnati native and 2016 Northern Kentucky University graduate, designed the Wendy’s cups not long after being hired by Saatchi & Saatchi X—a marketing network whose parent office resides in Arkansas. Marsala’s blue and red illustrations change with each drink size, but all of them promote the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a nonprofit charity dedicated to finding homes for children in foster care.

Marsala’s Facebook post racked up a few dozen likes—a tiny fraction of the millions of Dave Thomas Foundation cups that Wendy’s distributes per day. Despite the cups’ inevitable resting place, Marsala’s first professional design is reaching a mass audience.

“Whether or not they actually look at it, hundreds of millions of people are holding my art in their hand,” Marsala says. “It’s a little overwhelming and crazy to think about.”

Marsala says that the opportunity to design nationally distributed packaging for a renowned fast-food chain was made possible for several reasons, but foremost because of her experiences in the Honors Program at NKU. “[T]he Honors Program structures classes in a discussion-based style,” she says, “and I was really shy coming into college and was way out of my comfort zone. But I kept taking those classes, and by the end I was chiming in and speaking my opinion.”

The Visual Communication Design major says that without that sense of comfort in discussion, she would not be as successful in her career—specifically the brainstorming sessions at Saatchi and Saatchi X where the designers develop project concepts. Those sessions, Marsala says, are now her favorite part of her job. “Bouncing ideas off my coworkers…building that confidence in myself to speak up and have ideas and keep thinking at this fast pace—that's really fun.”

Additionally, Marsala says that NKU’s co-ed service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, helped further her cares and interests through numerous activities. From trips to regional universities, to organizing a Give Kids the World event in Florida’s Walt Disney World, the organization provided plenty of opportunity for personal growth.

“It really set me up for success in a lot of unexpected ways,” she says. “In terms of networking, I wouldn't have a job without Alpha Phi Omega. I wouldn't have a lot of my friends without it. I wouldn't have my boyfriend without it. And, pretty importantly, it taught me leadership. And that has really, really impacted my life. I'm a completely different person than I was when I started college.”

Visual Communication Design professor Julie Mader-Meersman points to Marsala’s research and thoughtfulness as the keys to her success as a designer. “In my first class with her three and a half years ago, I remember noticing that she was well-informed. Her ideas were smart from the very beginning. In the capstone class last fall, this was still observable in her final installation all the way down to her investment of time and energy in crafting creative, original writing within her visual design."

The investment is paying off dividends beyond anything Marsala imagined. She recently received an email from the Dave Thomas Foundation regarding a pair of sisters who had been inspired by her designs. The email explained that the older sister had given up on finding a home. Her younger sister, however, assured her that there was still hope after seeing on one of the cups the story of a 15-year-old boy who had been adopted.

The sisters were adopted a few months later—together into the same family. “They wanted their first meeting with their new family to be at Wendy's. That's kind of the most rewarding thing,” Marsala says, “knowing something I did has a positive impact on the world.”