Movers & Shakers
Crowdfunding Design Education
Jared Spool, Founder UIE
The 1906 earthquake and the fire that followed left San Francisco in rubble and ash. But there wasn't many tradespeople who could immediately work on rebuilding the city. So schools formed to train those people. A similar demand, sans the earthquake, is needed in design, urged Jared Spool at a special evening edition of Soapbox.
Jared told us about his vision, evolution and creation of his new school, the Center Centre, which trains design students as if they were part of a working agency rather than in traditional academia.
Too Many Design Grad Need Training
Jared said traditional academia has two important gaps in how they prepare students for work. First, Jared and his Unicorn Institute partner Leslie Jensen-Inman found a huge demand for designers — but there aren’t enough designers graduating. On the order of 500 graduates vs. 24,000 job openings.
Second, hiring managers told them that designers they met didn’t have relevant skills — they were missing key skills to start and be productive. IBM, Jared said, set up its own school to train graduates on practical design in real-world environments.
The accredidation process is part of the cause. The organization that approves curriculum takes at least three years to process new courses, meaning everything taught is at least three years behind — sometimes more. Contemporary issues in responsive typography, images and workflow are still years from entering the scholastic realm.
Anything a school’s allowed to teach is at minimum three years old. … We’re just now seeing the first courses in responsive design.
Another problem, Jared said, is that schools’ structures, created a hundred years ago, was designed to produce more teachers, not practicians. At first, he elaborated, there weren’t enough teachers to cover subjects like writing, math and science. Schools were not designed for vocational studies or to produce tradespeople.
At any given time, students are working on three to five projects. They’re all due the same day because instructors need to grade projects at the same time. That’s efficient for universities, perhaps, but it doesn’t reflect real-world situations.
In addition, the average school project lasts 20–30 semester hours. But in practice, 20–30 hours isn’t a lot of time in a 40+ hour work week. Students aren’t being prepared to last through a 80+ week project.
(In the real world) 20-30 hours gets you through Thursday.
Hiring managers find that graduates don’t know how to work on projects of “regular” length — or even “regular” eight-hour days — from 90-minute classes.
Jared said that he and Leslie came at the problem from different angles. People were asking Jared for help in finding designers, but unable to provide any names. Someone suggested he solve the problem by starting a school. Crazy as it sounded at the time, he called it “Project: Insanity.” But the more people he talked to, the more the idea grew.
I was hoping that someone would be a really good friend, take me aside, and say, ‘do not do this project — it’s insane.’ What I learned from talking to dozens of people … is I have no good friends.
Everyone he talked to insisted that it was a good idea, including visual designer Dan Ruben, who introduced Jared to Leslie. Within days of that conversation, Jared read a tweet from Leslie that she was leaving her job at the University of Chattanooga, and looking for projects to pursue. It became clear that her ideas for an industry-based web curriculum matched Jared’s ideas on how to produce product designers ready to enter the workforce. Bingo! Over the next eight months the two compared notes, developed their ideas, and — as Jared put it — tried to talk each other out of what he called “Project: Insanity.”
He and Leslie knew that contact hours were key to traditional education. Contact hours are the “Higgs-Boson particles of education,” Jared said. No one knows how they work, exactly, but they seem to be everywhere. He discovered that they were originally designed to calculate how much pension teachers should get upon retirement.
Their program would offer 1,750 contact hours as mandated by the state of Tennessee. Meanwhile students take one course at a time for three weeks. Normal design schools, Jared said, give students three to five classes in a 13-week semester. Jared and Leslie’s school “inverted” that pattern. Each class lasts eight hours per day for three weeks — about 120 hours in total — and students take about 30 such courses in a two-year program.
Students, he said, don’t look to big corporations for jobs, but that’s where jobs are. For example:
- GE wants to hire 400 designers “right now.”
- IBM said they need 600 designers “this year.”
He and Leslie asked these companies and others exactly what they needed. The answer: Designers who know the latest techniques, who can begin working on day one. Hiring managers didn’t care about accreditation, so their school would not be accredited. This allowed them to avoid the three-year waiting period. And although that meant their credits couldn’t count towards Masters degrees, few students they talked to said that mattered. Students wanted the skills more than the degree.
The people we want to attract are those who want to learn design in order to get a great job.
So one of the school’s novel approaches would be to develop curriculum directly with hiring managers. If managers need designers who understand gesture-based interfaces, for example, then the school would change its curriculum to fit. In fact, Jared said, part of students’ curriculum remains intentionally undefined when they sign up in prospect of changing needs and technology.
But there are established tracks, including:
- information architecture
- interaction design
- user research
- information design
- design process management
- editing and curation (which Jared described as “saying no to features”)
- domains and analytics
- social network design
- Critiquing and presenting
- And whatever technologies become relevant during their two years of studies
Kickstarting the Unicorn Institute
They used Kickstarter funding to develop the curriculum — a necessary step before they could ask for tuition. Jared said he’d been on “both sides” of Kickstarter projects: those that didn’t get funded until the last minute, and those that got funded early on. “Both of them suck,” Jared said, because it’s a matter of waiting and refreshing one’s browser all too often.
We told our friends, Kickstarter is the hipster word for begging. For the next 30 days, we are going to beg. You can shut us up if you and all your friends donate $1. We thought that would get us to our $21,000 goal.
To his amazement, they met their $21,000 goal in only three hours. “It was insane,” Jared said. He related how they had discussed stretch goals “next week.” But funding took off, and they scrambled to invent new goals before the first day was out. Eventually they raised $133,000, and this surprise boost in funding allowed them to bring in their faculty early; extra money they put towards scholarships.
Other hurdles took longer to overcome. To legally call one’s self a school in Tennessee and other states, one must receive authorization from a state program. In Tennessee, even advertising a school is illegal without proper authorization. Not wanting the exorbitant $1,000-per-day fee, Jared and Leslie patiently waited about nine months to earn the right credentials to adopt the school’s formal name: the Center Centre. It refers to the center of the design world and a place for people to congregate and discuss emerging design practices.
Meanwhile, knowing that “Project: Insanity” had poor marketing value, Jared and Leslie’s project came to be informally known as the Unicorn Institute — a play on turning “mythical” creatures into reality. Jared scribed buying “unicorninstitute.com” as “the best $9 I ever spent.”
So Jared said they decided their school that would act almost like a real agency. To produce graduates who were ready to work upon graduation, the school would emphasize projects with real-world constraints with real stakeholders and end users. Design students’ grades would hinge on how well their work improved the lives of others. This was difficult, if not impossible, in an online school, so a hands-on, in-person, brick-and-mortar school was the obvious first step. Lectures alone wouldn’t cut it — students needed practice. Up to 75% of students’ time would be spent working on these projects.
Each team of six students would have their own room in which to work, a mini-headquarters within the school’s 7,200-square-foot facility.
They need to put their designs up on the wall. They need to be able to conduct user research. They need to have a place to leave their stuff, come back the next day, and it’s right where they left it. The space is dedicated to their project.
Unlike real jobs, however, the school would dedicate a full-time facilitator — a.k.a. “unicorn wranglers” — to work alongside each team of six on their work. The instructor would be able to “press the pause button” on their project and discuss how, say, a recent lecture directly applies to the students’ work.
These teaching moments within a project gives everyone a moment to reflect upon what’s happening, what needs to improve, and what’s working well.
Jared believes that these ideas and others will help their school to produce up to 500 students per year, each ready and eager to start working on their first day of employment.
The Center Centre has been officially authorized by the State of Tennessee to give students diplomas in UX Design & Technology.
The state wanted the ‘and Technology’ for some reason, I don’t know why. And we said, sure.
But the real benefit of graduation would be students’ portfolios of real projects, and the ability to discuss each project as they would in a real-world environment. That, Jared said, is what hiring managers really want to see.
Our discussion with Jared continued with questions from the audience. We'd like to thank him for sitting down with us and to those who attended the event.