“How do you go from leaving university with almost nothing in your portfolio and no years of commercial experience and pick up a job that requires three years of experience?”
How indeed. It seems like nary a week goes by these days where I’m not meeting an aspiring UX designer for coffee and chats. What’s the best way to get experience? What should I put in my portfolio? How can I get my foot in the door somewhere with no experience? Why did I get that degree again?
(Of course, as a dutiful and enthusiastic editor of UX Booth, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend that aspiring UX designers should peruse our Complete Beginner’s Guides. They’re pretty swell.)
The fact is, the majority of traditional schools are simply not adequately preparing aspiring UX designers for the Real World™, and nowhere is this more obvious than with hiring managers.
It’s a big discussion, which is why it’s the feature of this week’s True North podcast (which I personally just discovered). For those of you not familiar, True North is spearheaded by the usability-test-tool-suite company Loop11, and discusses—you guessed it—user experience design. And in the spirit of disclosure, they’re not sponsoring this post so let’s calmly put down the pitchforks…
Check out the episode below (transcript and video, because we love our readers), and subscribe to True North…if for no other reason than to support the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, who apparently writes the jingles to EVERY SINGLE FREAKING PODCAST I LISTEN TO.
Anyway. Yes. Good podcast, interesting topic. Let us know what you think.
Design Horizons: Education
Question: So what was your degree and major studied at university?
Answer: It was a Bachelor of Humanities, majoring in Politics, Economic History, History and Asian Studies.
Answer: Just a Bachelor of Communications Design and Monash University.
Answer: I did a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Marketing and Entrepreneurship and then I went on to do some post graduate studies around Multimedia.
Answer: I did a Master in Social Science, majoring in Human Geography.
Ben Newton: UX Designers, you’re a diverse bunch. If we put 100 of you in one room I bet we’d have close to 100 different stories about how you got to where you are. And while many would view the meandering path that eventually leads to the job title of UX designer as an endearing trait. It does present a slight problem. How do you become a UX Designer?
Here’s Andy Budd from ClearLeft in the UK.
Andy Budd: I speak to so many people who have recently graduated from university who are frankly confused by the industry. Who are confused by arguments over job title and by senior designers going “well there’s no such thing as UX, it’s all just design really”. And yet, at the other end of the spectrum companies are advertising five jobs that all have different job titles that all look exactly the same. Junior designers are really, really struggling.
What’s happening is people are coming out of universities with little or no experience, practical experience, and very, very minimal portfolios. You’ve then got design companies, in-house and external, who are needing to hire people, bring them on board, and have them able to start solving problems straight away.
Those companies are typically looking for people who have a portfolio of four, five or six projects under their belt and who have had two or three years of experience.
So as you can see, that creates a gap. How do you go from leaving university with almost nothing in your portfolio and no years of commercial experience and pick up a job which is requiring 6 projects and three years of experience?
Ben: So the problem of not having a well-defined education-through-to-employment pathway could only happen in a niche or shrinking industry right?
Wrong. Business is booming, according to folks like author Jeff Gothelf.
Jeff Gothelf: Look I think it’s a great time to be a designer, it’s a great time to be in design. I am seeing the influence of design grow and grow and climb the corporate ladder. So this is an opportunity to really make meaningful impact both on companies, on your teams, on the products you are building, as well as, the world.
So I would encourage folks to double down on their efforts because everything that I’m seeing is pointing to the increased impact of design and designers in the workplace and in the world.
Ben: Ok, so we’ve got a set of skills that can be broadly lumped under the umbrella term of design and we know the technology world is increasingly going mental for designers. So, how do we create more, but not only that, how do we do it so that they are ready for the rigors of the industry and able to excell?
Ben: Hi and welcome to True North. My name is Ben Newton and I’m from Loop11. This is the podcast where we share stories of discovery and innovation.
Most of us have been taught that if you go and get a degree at university, any degree, then you’ll be far better off than if you didn’t. Speaking from my own experience, I’m not convinced. I went to university for 4 years and received a Bachelor of Contempory Arts, the most common response I get to that is questions revolving around was I a dance major.
The answer, no, and if you’ve seen me dance, you’d realize there is not a dance school on earth that would graduate me.
I, like many others, picked up my professional skillsets after graduating, while in the work force.
Here’s Andy Budd again.
Andy: We don’t have an effective education system which is producing, or rather it’s not producing job ready designers. I’m not sure that’s what the education system should be doing, there’s a whole debate around with the role of education is to open and enlighten people’s horizons or is it to produce willing cogs in the industrial machine.
I think there is room for both and I think there are some universities who are producing people who are ready to start work, and some people should be opening the eyes of graduates to all the possibilities.
Jared Spool: I think that design curriculums as they exist today are very much built on an old academic model.
Jared: The original universities were created to teach religious law. People realized that if you really wanted to get the masses to adopt the particular religious doctrine, you had to educate them. So they created this whole education process to do that and that’s what the modern universities are created on.
So the whole academic models is about creating more teachers and when you try to apply that to trade work it falls apart right away. There’s not enough project work, there’s not enough experience. The people who do the teaching are often no experienced broadly enough in the trade that they understand variety of scenarios. So they teach these idealistic versions of what goes on and there’s just not enough time put into it.
You know, take a design school, the average design school is a semester based program. Which means you get ten to thirteen weeks, classes are usually somewhere between 18 and 24 hours. These days projects are very popular in classes. That’s good, but for the projects themselves, each student is expected to spend upwards of 30 hours on project work. Basically, they are taking three to six classes at a time, which means they have three to six projects that they are working on at a time. Often due on the same day. Where else in the real world do we have three to six important projects due on the same day? We wouldn’t take that on.
That’s the way it usually works and you’re expected to equally split your time that way. So 30 hours isn’t really a lot of time. In industry we have a name for the 30 hour point in a project, we call it Thursday. And so, that’s not really what projects are like.
If you’re an ‘A’ student your experience is basically you put in your 30 hours on a project, you get you’re ‘A’ from your teacher. You do that three to six times per semester. Maybe the project comes back with a little bit of feedback as to what you could’ve done better, but most of the time the project comes back with virtually no feedback as to what you could improve.
So you go through your entire design career at school thinking that your work is the most amazing work ever. Then you go and get your first job and the first thing you’re told is, “That” wasn’t good work because we put in more than 30 hours here and second you’re told that you need to learn a lot of stuff that you thought you already knew because you were getting “A’s”. And third, you’re told your design is not implementable or usable and you’re going to have to re-do it multiple times before it ships because that’s the way it works.
The students are just not prepared. The hiring managers tell us this creates a lot of stress and a lot of problems with the folks that they get because they are just not ready for a production environment when they come out of these programs.
Ben: I think we now understand the problem and many of you listening may have experienced this either as a hirer, a new employee or student.
The good news is, there are people who are doing something to change things. We’re going to look at two of these cases. The first of which is Jarred Spool’s Center Centre. To give you some background, it’s not a traditional university, so what is it?
Jared: Center Centre is a bricks and mortar school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that me and my co-founder Leslie Jensen-Inman created with the intention of producing industry ready UX designers.
Ben: Ok so the next logical question was why they created their own school? Why not partner with an existing institution?
Jared: That’s a great question. I wish we could have partnered with an existing organization but as we started to look at what hiring managers needed we couldn’t find any organizations which actually met hiring manager needs.
Leslie and I started four years ago with a research project where we just interviewed dozens of hiring managers at large, medium and small companies who were extremely frustrated with the quality of designers that were coming out of today’s schools.
They knew a lot of book knowledge but they did not have up-to-date skills to actually be able to do the work and in many cases had to be re-trained.
IBM has had this problem for a very long time. They’ve gone to the point where they’ve actually set-up a program where they actually take students right out of school and then re-train them for four to six months to actually get them to work successfully. Out of the four or six months of training only a few weeks are actually IBM specific stuff. Most of it is just general how to perform in a business environment and it’s because students in today’s programs are not really being well equipped to actually work.
So we have these weird situations where there are all of these UX Jobs that are open but companies don’t feel that they can hire them because they don’t have the resources like IBM does.
So it’s very hard for designers, right out of school, to get design work because they’re not equipped for the jobs which are currently open.
Ben: So one company who could afford to do what IBM is doing is Google, but they wanted to approached the problem from a different angle. Here’s Mike Buzzard, he’s a Design Manager at Google.
Mike Buzzard: One of the areas I’ve focused on since I’ve been at Google has been talent and from all different perspectives. From the bottom up, being from a UX team and their needs, to horizontally and knowing the different hiring managers, leaders and UX teams across the company. And then I’ve been a part of the hiring committee for about four years which led a little further upstream to what Google was doing on campuses.
I started to see very different approaches to industry needs, or the skills that people might build on as they move towards careers. I would work with different schools, talk to different leads to try and figure out the history of why their programs were the way they are. When I got to SCAD we noticed such a diversity in design programs and some that had been very targeted and aligned with industry needs in the past. I just saw this opportunity to create this UX design or digital product design curriculum based on a lot of the ingredients they already had.
Ben: Ok, so it’s no surprise that Google could see the trend of graduate designers being under prepared for the workforce, but before we go on, we need to explain who or what SCAD is. SCAD stands for Savannah College of Art and Design and to give us some further insight, here’s Jason Fox. He’s the Graphic Design Chair at SCAD, who along with Mike Buzzard, was a part of the User Experience Design course founding team and steering committee.
Jason Fox: SCAD’s been around since 1978. SCAD’s mission is to prepare talented students for professional careers. That is the single reason we make all decisions. If it’s not career preparation, if it’s not career readiness, then it’s not important.
Ben: So SCAD’s focus on producing industry ready graduates, seems to align with the goals of Center Centre. Let’s dive a little deeper into the detail and find out how both these schools aim to achieve these goals. Here’s Jason from SCAD again.
Jason Fox: As the UX discipline is collaborative, so too is the leadership within the development of the program. So the Dean of the School of Design, the Dean of the School of Communication Arts, the Dean of the School of Digital Media, which are all schools within SCAD, work together with myself and a core group of folks from Google’s team, and develop the curriculum in three specific pillars.
We wanted to make sure we touched on Human Behavior, lifting that up and providing a deep dive into that. We leveraged our Industrial Design programs, to include our Human Interaction classes, contextual resource classes. We adjusted our Foundation program to include Anthropology.
The second pillar is our visual design which for the most part is owned by the Graphic Design department. So typography, idea visualization, some of our Adobe courses, all built in to start to lift up the idea of visual narrative, storytelling, within the visual design process.
And then the third pillar is our technical proficiency or the closest thing we’d have to Lean UX engineering. So our programming courses.
Finally, we cap that off with our senior year design courses which focuses on idea development and applying all of those outcomes from those three pillars, which we just covered, to UX problems.
Ben: So SCAD was able to leverage off a lot of existing course content, piecing together what was relevant and then creating new classes where they were required. Center Centre on the other hand were a completely clean slate and thus needed to approach things differently, here’s Jarred Spool again.
Jared: We need to rethink exactly how the school would in this situation and the only way to pull that off was to re-do it.
So we got rid of semesters, we got rid of having multiple classes at the same time, we got rid of shorter projects. We ended up with a program where you take one class at a time, each class is three weeks long, and in a two-year program you’ll take 30 classes.
They’re (the classes) for all aspects of UX design. So they include information architecture and visual design, user research and front end development, facilitated leadership and presenting. Communicating design work through deliverables and artifacts.
Each class is comprised of three components. An industry expert, who is up to date on latest techniques, giving a two-day industry grade workshop to open the class and start the topic going.
Then, three days of the students working on individualized projects for them to prove that they have mastered the materials themselves before they go into group work. And them two full weeks of group work where the students work 40 hours, each week, on a project that they are actually rejoining. So that project goes for three to five months.
Instead of having little projects inside of a big class, we have big projects with little classes inside of it. Each project is with five to six students on a team plus one of our full time faculty members who acts the project lead or creative director, basically directing the project until a student capable of doing those tasks themselves emerges.
The projects are real world, assigned projects, not greenfield projects. They go all the way through concept to delivery and deployment where the students actually get a chance to see the work that they do get deployed. Then they get to do research post deployment, like usability testing and other types of research to see if they actually implemented the design they expected to deliver.
At the end of the two years the students will have five to eight of these projects they’ve worked on. Each one being able to show a full portfolio and talk in-depth about all the phases of the project and the work that they did. Plus, the experience of implementing everything from start to finish.
Ben: What we can see in the different approaches of SCAD and Centre Center is a shared focus on the preparedness of their students. Another element that both institutions view as critical is the involvement from outside companies. Here’s Jason talking about SCAD’s partner program.
Jason: When we work with partners, a couple of things are happening there. Not only are the students being exposed to partner ideas, strategies and processes, but the faculty are being exposed to that as well.
What that allows the faculty to do is when they come back into the normal curriculum it’s impossible for them not to bring that experience back into their normal everyday classroom.
So this loop is created especially when you add in the component of students who are also now finishing a collaborative project, let’s say with Hewlett Packard or Google or Coca Cola or whoever it might be. Then coming back into their regular curriculum and adding that value to their classroom experiences as well. What you get is this cycle which allows students to really begin to, if not jump to the edge of the technology curve, certainly get a whole lot closer to that.
Ben: Both schools are at pains to point out that they ensure the expectations of participating companies are correctly set with student education and development being the focus and end results being important but secondary.
Ben: With both courses being in their relative infancy there’s going to be a lot of observation and tweaking as they mature. I asked Jarred how they’re planning on measuring success at Center Centre.
Jared: One of the things we’ve done is, the way we’ve created the curriculum is, we’ve identified all the competencies of what it means to be a designer today. And those competencies all came from our work with the hiring managers to figure out what they needed, so this is really preparing them for work.
We have a basic schedule for how students should be acquiring those competencies and if students are not getting them on the schedule we expect, or the alternative which means they getting them way faster meaning we have to ramp up the skill level in the school, we can adjust for that in real time.
Ben: So for now a lot of time will be spent by both faculties looking at what’s been put in place and how the students are progressing, but to a certain extent an amount of time will need to pass before results are clear. In the meanwhile other challenges will certainly keep both schools busy.
Jason: The current challenge from a recruitment standpoint is informing eighteen year old students, and their parents, what user experience design is. Those in the industry, we know what it is, we know the components of it, even though it can be framed differently in many different capacities.
And then finally, as with all challenges when working in collaborative environments, you’re having to work with folks from different backgrounds, in completely different majors. You know that was a challenge, and a good one.Â One that I think is going to benefit future program development.
Ben: And it’s not just the schools that are watching and learning, here’s Mike Buzzard again from Google talking about something they’ve learnt from the early partner projects being ran at SCAD.
Mike: The one interesting finding was that we went into the first Collaborative Learning Center (CLC) project with the hope of equally splitting the syllabus from research to prototyping to refinement. We spent a good half on research, the students just really ate it up. Disconnecting their emotions and their identity from the creative work and then the insights they got from doing that was just so surprising to all of them. And very welcome.
So I think that was something we thought was definitely needed but we didn’t realize it was going to be that impactful for all of the students who participated
Ben: As SCAD and Centre Center’s courses progress the challenge will be thrown down to other universities to expand their horizons and catch up to the future. If they don’t they run the risk of their graduates being left behind playing catch up in a world that is already extremely difficult to keep pace with.
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To find links to groups and people mentioned in this episode such as SCAD or Centre Center, go truenorthpodcast.com and see the show notes.
Our music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
True North is produced by Loop11.
We’ll see you next time.