20 Mar Forget Welding. The Hottest New Vocational Schools Do Digital Design.
As originally posted at Wired.com by Margaret Rhodes
When Ella Nance graduated college with a bachelor’s in advertising, she landed a job as an analyst helping hospitals decide what equipment to purchase. Her company generated a lot of reports, and built digital tools to help hospital administrators keep track of inventory and contracts. Untangling that information required user research, prototypes, and usability tests. Nance’s company didn’t need analysts—it needed designers. So, last fall, she left her job to enroll in Center Centre.
Center Centre is a new, small user experience design school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Launched October 2016, its founders modeled it after traditional vocational programs, in which students receive hyper-focused training in, say, welding or radio engineering, to meet the needs of hiring managers. And right now, hiring managers need UX designers. That’s what happens when your company has a digital presence. The way a website flows, the placement of buttons on a mobile interface, the clarity and readability of the accompanying language—all of these things and more affect a user’s experience of a brand and its products. A UX designer’s job is to make sure that experience is as pleasant as possible.
The field is growing and evolving quickly, and so is demand for its practitioners. “Ten years ago no one even knew what user experience design was, and five years ago it was still a pretty difficult thing to nail down,” says John Paul Rowan, vice president at the Savannah College of Art and Design. No longer. Like coding, UX design has become integral at any company with a digital component. In a recent survey of 500 department heads, Adobe found that most of them expect to double the number of UX designers they employ in the next five years. But until recently, people didn’t explicitly choose experience design as a career path, so much as they stumbled into it through a side door.
Center Centre wants to be the front door. The curriculum skews pragmatic, not scholarly, and simulates life at work. For two years students arrive in the morning, depart in the evening, and tackle projects that stretch out for three to five months. One early project tasked the six1-person inaugural class with building an online resource bank for designers, akin to Hacker News. Outside companies, such as Capital One, which donated to Center Centre’s student loan fund, will suggest future projects. Students learn how to sketch, wireframe, and prototype. Guest lecturers from companies like Etsy and the Center for Civic Design dip into Chattanooga to speak on those topics. User research factors in heavily. Students display competency through projects. There are no tests.
Real projects and real schedules will, Center Centre hopes, prepare students for future jobs. “That doesn’t happen in a traditional academic environment, where I put in 90 minutes of class, and now I can go play frisbee,” says Leslie Jensen-Inman, one of the school’s founders. “That doesn’t really help a hiring manager.” Center Centre will also aim for real demographics; it aspires for each class to represent women and people of color, and that students be recruited through unusual avenues—via relationships with local churches and volunteering events, instead of bus-stop advertisements—to reach people outside the design and tech world.
Center Centre’s creators say its curricula and policies will distinguish it from similar programs that have emerged in recent years, which range from 10-week “bootcamps” to extension classes at major universities. The Savannah College of Art and Design added a UX design degree just last year. General Assembly, a coding academy, created a UX design track in 2013, a year after opening its Bay Area campus. “We were in San Francisco, starting to hear this zeitgeist talk of UX, UX,” says Anna Lindow, who oversees campus education for General Assembly. “I remember feeling that we were at the beginning of the wave.” To date, 3,200 students have gone through the 10-week-long course. Of those, General Assembly says 99 percent found design jobs within six months. Recently, IBM Design and InVision offered input on curriculum updates.
Corporate partners help, but General Assembly’s impressive placement rate has mostly to do with the changing needs of companies. American interest in vocational schools tends to fluctuate in response to socioeconomic shifts. “There’s a long history behind this ambivalence,” says UMass Amherst sociologist Katherine Newman, citing the uptick in white-collar jobs following WWII and cultures’ wavering biases towards and against four-year education. Countries like Germany and Austria, Newman says, make good use of government-funded apprenticeship programs, in order to maintain a strong, relevant workforce. The US follows a boom-and-bust pattern, and is currently, slightly, booming. “There’s growing interest right now, in part from coming out of the Great Recession.” Vocations evolve with the times, so this go-around there’s heightened focus on television, engineering, and tech jobs.
The challenge for schools like Center Centre will be keeping curriculums relevant to a market that’s evolving faster than ever. “That is exactly the most difficult thing about being in UX design,” says Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe. “The technology is changing, and it changes every 5 to 7 years, that’s the cycle where things get radically different. We’re completing the mobile cycle and moving into this new cycle of chatbots, AI, conversational interfaces.” By that logic, any skills acquired in a two-year program come with a looming expiration date.
That hardly renders them useless. Programs will do well to future-proof curriculums, but Vinh says the fact that they exist helps hiring managers. “In the first decade of this profession, a lot of it was improvised,” he says of the UX design career path. “We might start to see more straightforward paths into the trade.” Take Nance, for instance. Only recently, she says, did she appreciate design’s ability to dictate online experiences. Now she does, and intends to wield that knowledge at a company—maybe a bank, perhaps another healthcare outfit—that needs to make its platforms clear to customers. Once companies have a reliable workforce available to do that, the real creativity can begin.
1UPDATE 8:30 PM ET 03/06/17: This story has been updated to reflect the number of people in Center Centre’s inaugural class.