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On a typically gorgeous spring day in Savannah, Ga., in a typically funky building renovated by the Savannah College of Art and Design, a man named Utkarsh Seth, who is a head of user experience (UX) research at Google, stands in front of a class of about 50 SCAD students. They are an impressively diverse crowd of young men and women, ranging from Southern preps to bohemians with multiple hair colors. Many of the students are international; 27 percent of the students at SCAD’s Savannah campus come from outside the United States.
What they have in common is a seriousness of purpose. This class is about UX design, which is the process of engaging with consumers—“users”—to better understand how they use things in order to create products that work better for them. As Seth puts it, the decisions you make in product design “have to serve a purpose, fulfill a need, solve a problem and provide value to people.” He then laughingly admits that he can’t get his PowerPoint presentation to start, so he asks the students to introduce themselves by sharing their name, their major, what project they’re working on—more on this in a minute—and what they hope to get out of the class. One man says that he’s working on “the Volvo team” and adds, “I really want to know how to ask that better question so as to get not a yes or no but a better response.” Says the next student, “I want a better understanding of how to eliminate bias in research.” “How to pick and choose the information that we need when we could get so much more,” says a third. “How to love the problem and not the solution,” says another.
If some of this language sounds like college students preparing to deliver their first TED Talk, that’s very much by design. This class is part of SCADpro, an unusual and influential program at SCAD in which teams of students are paired with industry partners to help solve corporate challenges. Simultaneously, SCADpro helps prepare students for life after graduation, introducing them to the norms and expectations of corporate America and, sometimes literally, introducing them to future employers. For 10 weeks every academic quarter, teams of around 15 to 20 students work with a faculty leader and an industry representative on what they call a prompt—basically, a problem or challenge from a particular company. One example: Google, which has participated in SCADpro for about five years, asked the students to come up with ways to improve Google Maps. Chick-fil-A, recognizing that many of its customers eat their food while driving, asked its SCADpro team to design packaging that would minimize distraction while driving. Delta wanted SCADpro’s advice on how to get employee buy-in for its new line of Zac Posen-designed purple uniforms. Gulfstream Aerospace turned to SCADpro for proposals to redesign the control panels of its cockpits. The roster of companies goeson: Amazon, Apple, BMW, Disney, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Pixar, Uber….
SCADpro is a relatively little-known program that’s having an outsize impact, not just on its students and partners but also on Savannah.
SCADpro is a relatively little-known program that’s having an outsize impact, not just on its students and partners but also on Savannah and, really, the way that American universities interact with corporate America. This small Southern city of about 150,000 has long been known for its beauty, hospitality, architecture and food, and, frankly, its reputation for embracing idiosyncratic individuals. In recent decades, it’s also been known as the home of SCAD, one of the best design schools in the country. (“The best,” SCAD reps say, but comparisons to places like the Rhode Island School of Design and the Parsons School of Design in New York are impossible to quantify.)
Through its architectural preservation and by virtue of bringing some 10,000 young people to Savannah every year—many of whom stay in Savannah after graduation—SCAD has helped Savannah appreciate its past while adding the energy of youth. Now SCADpro is further boosting economic development here, bringing representatives of the world’s finest companies to town while helping students prepare for work life, often as entrepreneurs, often in Savannah.
“The whole mission of this engagement is, how do we prepare students as they enter industry?” says Seth. “Because when students are not prepared and they join Google or any other company, there is a significant amount of ramp-up time, and the more we can reduce that ramp-up time, the more we can better prepare students upfront, the better it is for them and for Google”—or, Seth points out, any other employer.
The benefits of SCADpro go both ways, agrees Josh Lind, a SCAD alumnus and commercial filmmaker who returned to Savannah from Los Angeles to run the program. “I used to think, Why would a brand come to a university?” Lind says. “I always understood the student perspective, because that student wants to be a professional. They want to go out and be an industry leader in a brand or their own company, and they want to have an impact on whatever it is they’ve set out to do. And on the flip side, the people who are coming from industry and partnering on these collaborations, they want what the students have. We have major tech corporations that come in and say, ‘We know so much about our industry—how it’s worked, how we do it, how we run it.’ But whenever someone comes in and says, ‘The industry’s changing, what’s next?’—that’s what’s hard for them.”
The story of SCAD’s impact upon Savannah goes back more than 40 years, to 1978, and through it all runs the incredible journey of one woman, SCAD cofounder and president Paula Wallace. In her 20s, Wallace was an elementary school teacher in the Atlanta public school system with a passion for innovative teaching methods. She also had an entrepreneurial streak and, despite what skeptics saw as an almost complete lack of relevant qualifications, decided that she wanted to found a college of design. Atlanta, her hometown, felt too big and too blessed with cultural institutions already, but she visited Savannah and fell in love. With the help of her husband, Richard Rowan, and her parents, who donated their retirement savings to the project, Wallace founded SCAD—no endowment, no accreditation, no students—in 1978. They began by buying Preston (now Poetter) Hall, an 1892 building that had served as an armory but had since grown dilapidated. Over a period of years, doing most of the work themselves, they painstakingly renovated the building. And, with Wallace’s mother serving as the head of admissions, they accepted their first class of 71 students for the fall of 1979, a moment that surely imprinted itself in SCAD’s DNA: A passionate, principled and risk-taking founder had enlisted into her mission a bunch of young people with the exact same qualities.
SCAD wasn’t an overnight success, exactly, but its progression was steadily upward.
SCAD wasn’t an overnight success, exactly, but its progression was steadily upward. Wallace, who’d long been more interested in pedagogy than management and had served mostly as provost, assumed the presidency in 2000. In the years since, she’s launched new SCAD outposts in Atlanta, France and Hong Kong. Today, SCAD offers degrees in 40 different programs ranging from architectural history to UX design to painting to fashion marketing and management. Its students are as diverse as its subjects; they come from every state in the nation and from 115 different countries.
For its part, Savannah wasn’t sure at first what to make of SCAD. There was concern about how an influx of young, creative types—or, as some thought of them at the time, “kids with purple hair”—would coexist with Savannah’s genteel culture. But in fact, Savannah is a place known for embracing quirky individualism, so that wasn’t a problem. And while some of those kids may have looked strange to longtime Savannah residents, they happened to be creative, motivated young people whose benefits to the community—economic, artistic, social—quickly became obvious. And because SCAD had no traditional campus—it wasn’t as if Wallace had a fortune with which to build a quad—SCAD’s buildings were integrated into the city. Since there was virtually no “campus” housing, SCAD students lived in Savannah just like anyone else.
SCAD’s growth also had an unintended consequence: historic preservation. As the noncampus campus grew, SCAD bought dozens of buildings in Savannah. Inspired by an awareness of architectural and design history that was often lost in American cities as developers rushed to tear down, then build, in the ’70s and ’80s, SCAD had a knack for identifying and saving architectural treasures, many on the verge of demolition. Perhaps most famously, the SCAD Museum of Art occupies a reimagined 1853 rail yard terminal. A developer had been about to knock it down, selling its bricks for a buck apiece and turning the land into a parking lot, when SCAD made its successful bid.
Today SCAD owns about 70 buildings in Savannah, and while there still remains some occasional town-gown chafing, there is also an overwhelming consensus that SCAD has helped keep the city historic while also making it hip. “SCAD has had a major impact on Savannah’s tourism scene in two ways,” says Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah. “First, being internationally known as one of the top art and design schools in the world, and with campuses in North America, Europe and Asia, they help bring exposure to the Savannah brand to people around the globe. Then, once visitors—students and their families—from those places arrive, they observe firsthand the 70-plus buildings in Savannah’s historic landmark district that SCAD has restored.” SCAD is a big reason, Marinelli points out, why this small city has some 14 million visitors annually.
Paula Wallace was always known for her creativity, but she has been equally passionate about something more pragmatic: the ability of SCAD students to get jobs. The romance of the starving artist held no appeal for her, and she never saw much point in building an institution that churned out creative wonders who couldn’t make a living in their preferred profession. That philosophy is woven into SCAD’s DNA, which means, for example, that from their very first quarter at SCAD, students are required to take classes on public speaking, so that they can ace project presentations and job interviews. The work seems to be paying off: SCAD recently conducted a survey that found that 99 percent of its spring 2017 alumni reported being either employed, pursuing further education or both within 10 months of graduation.
Wallace’s pragmatic streak led to the creation of SCADpro in 2010. A group of faculty and administrators were discussing a plan to have students work with local governments on public art projects. Wallace worried that the idea felt insufficiently practical. “There was little in the plan addressing the SCAD mission and our mandate to prepare students for careers,” Wallace wrote in her memoir, The Bee and the Acorn. “Let’s think bigger,” she said. Why not have the students collaborate with companies? “Why not major brands? Why not big firms like the ones that hire our graduates?”
SCADpro—originally known as Collaborative Learning Centers, the name was changed to incorporate the SCAD brand in 2018—evolved from that prompt. It works like this: SCADpro sessions last 10 weeks. The corporate partners come at the beginning of those sessions to explain the challenge they’d like the students to work on. “The partner will come and say, ‘Here’s who we are, here’s what we’re trying to figure out,’” Josh Lind explains. The students ask questions and then conduct their own research and come up with ideas. They meet formally with a faculty member twice a week for two and a half hours a class. About five weeks in, they start pitching ideas to the corporate partners, who then give feedback—“we like this, we don’t like this, this is something that we’re already working on, don’t worry about that, but we’ve never thought of this before—let’s put our energy there,” Lind says.
SCAD doesn’t make money off the partnerships; the companies pay only for project expenses. And at the end of the semester, the corporate partners retain the intellectual property that the students have created. Sometimes the value SCADpro generates is helping businesses evaluate an idea they ultimately reject; Chick-fil-A, for example, decided it didn’t want to create packaging that might inadvertently encourage people to eat and drive.
It’s like hiring a team of really young and smart—and, crucially, diverse, not just in terms of identity and geography but also in terms of creative expertise—consultants who aren’t bound by the typical straightlaced culture of a consulting firm. They are too young to know that they’re not supposed to be doing what they are doing.
Participating companies are looking for “an environment where a bunch of young, creative minds can research and create a concept that they may not have been able to come up with,” says Jenn Lee, a 2019 SCAD graduate who’s participated in SCADpro projects with Google and Ford.
Take the case of Stephen Nottingham and Inwon Jong, two recent SCAD graduates who got to know each other working on a SCADpro project for Gulfstream. The goal, says Nottingham, was “to remove all the physical components within the cockpit [of Gulfstream jets], and create a touch-enabled interact that was simple, clean and intuitive.” [Gulfstream was unable to comment before press time.] The student proposal was ambitious, in part because Jong had spent previous years working at Samsung in South Korea, heading a team that coded the swipe function on Samsung devices. Nottingham, essentially the project manager, had been a regional manager for several Outback Steakhouses in Maryland and Virginia.
The two have now founded an ambitious company called Frendesign, housed in an old brick warehouse in an industrial section of Savannah. Frendesign aims to help transform healthcare by making it more patient-friendly. They’re starting with creative educational programs and therapeutic environments within hospitals for sick kids, so that the children can better understand what they’re going through and heal faster. In one pilot project at the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital, Frendesign has created a room where child patients can go to play, read, do physical therapy and learn about child safety in a modern, interactive way. The room has a Lewis and Clark theme—a digital mural puts the viewer smack in the middle of the famed expedition, with historically appropriate flora and fauna. Nottingham and Jong want to apply similar principles of engagement and interactivity to environments for elderly patients, and convince hospital architects to incorporate this technology from the ground up. Writ large, what Frendesign is trying to do could radically transform the patient experience, and it all started with a project at SCADpro.
“These corporations are growing older with their customer,” Lind says. “They always have to be thinking about the next generation, and that’s what SCAD has here. Our students are always in the 18- to 20-something range. We never grow old.”