Ready for Business

A new industrial-design program immerses students in the realities of corporate culture.

These days, design-school grads are lucky to find work as bartenders. Jesse Bizzoco Newton, a recent graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), scored an internship last winter at a multinational electronics cor­poration halfway around the globe. Six months later, they offered her a job in Hong Kong. Newton was 21. She had only been abroad once before.

Newton got there by way of Cultural Context of Design, now in its third year at SCAD. Each spring semester, the course thrusts a dozen or so industrial-design students into the global marketplace through a partnership with the telecommunications and electronic-toy giant VTech. Members of the class travel to VTech’s headquarters in Hong Kong, where they pitch mock products to company honchos and tour design firms and manufacturing plants. Great students land internships with VTech; the best, like Newton, get job offers.

The course is part of a broader initiative at SCAD to expose students to an increasingly and inexorably corporate design culture that demands savvy both at the drawing board and in the boardroom. “Ten years ago, students were all designing shiny objects, and, ‘Oh, aren’t they fabulous?’” says Tom Gattis, chair of SCAD’s industrial-design department. “Now it’s about research and solving business problems. Students have to understand that their job as an industrial designer has changed.”

Cultural Context of Design students are enlisted to tackle a pressing corporate issue: how to design for a company when one of its primary markets—telecom—is shrinking. Using the theme of a “connected home,” students produce conceptual gadgets that consider various aspects of VTech’s business. Newton combined telephone and gaming technology in a digital writing tablet that allows parents to send messages to their tweens without having to buy them cell phones. Lauren Peters, who took the class this spring and was also hired as an intern, dreamed up an intelligent medical device that helps adults care for their aging parents through a schedule manager for doctors’ visits and medications, GPS, and video chat, among other features. VTech doesn’t specialize in health-care equipment, but given the company’s core holdings, it would be a natural shift, says VTech design director David Waterman. Peters’s idea, he notes, “was an excellent business solution to the problem.”

Not that it’ll hit stores anytime soon. The concepts aren’t meant to go into production, and Waterman is quick to point out that the partnership is strictly pedagogical, not about tapping free labor from clever young minds. (The main benefit for VTech is cheap staff recruiting.) “It’s very much about trying to immerse students in the business world,” says Waterman, whose friendship with a SCAD professor spawned the partnership. “What we’re seeing more and more is that the people you bring in need to be trained to fully understand the complexities of the industry. Most design schools teach in a vacuum. The more students understand, the easier it is for them to hit the ground running.”

Skeptics might look askance at a program so aggressively tailored to the workplace. After all, isn’t school a platform for experimentation? Shouldn’t students be free to screw up without fear of professional failure? “They are still allowed to explore and make mistakes,” Gattis assures. “The added element of working with a company and studying with captains of industry is that it makes the classroom experience very real.” Besides, participants take from the program what they will. Newtown declined VTech’s offer for employment and returned home to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in August. “It was cool,” she says. “But I missed America after a while.”

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