Mike Joosse

Partner and Community Director at DESIGNATION

Mike Joosse

Partner and Community Director at DESIGNATION Episode 46 Part Two

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello, and welcome to Episode Forty Six part two of Design Edu Today, the podcast series discussing what is necessary to be a successful designer in a contemporary, screen-based interactive world. I am your host, Gary Rozanc, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In both part one and part two of this episode we will be discussing the ins and outs of UX and UI bootcamps, how bootcamps compare to traditional 4 year graphic design programs, and the similar struggles that both bootcamps and traditional design programs face when training emerging designers.

Today’s guest is Mike Joe-see. Since 2001, Mike has devoted his career to nurturing and leading design communities. Currently, he serves as Partner and Community Director at DESIGNATION, the leading UX/UI design bootcamp, where he helps prepare students to become conscientious, skilled design leaders of tomorrow. Mike has lectured across the country on community and careers in design, at the DSVC National Student Show and Conference, Frontier: AIGA Design Educators Conference, the Hike Conference, Design Exchange Boston, Phoenix Design Week, Brooks Institute, and to a host of organizations. He does occasional projects under the name Listening and Speaking. He lives in Chicago and no longer fears snow.

Gary:
This is for me to kinda like get an understanding of how your program works and others that are similar, so personally, I think oftentimes substantial visual design learning occurs not in the making, but during critique, when students see examples of both good and bad design and have instructor or facilitator, however you want to call it, led conversations about those differences of what’s good and what’s bad, so, how do students learn to critique design when they spend the duration of their design essentials training, and that design essentials term is specific to DESIGNATION training, participating virtually?
Mike:
Yeah, it’s definitely a tricky concept to understand virtually and I think we all certainly see as educators, see people who struggle with accepting critique and being able to understand critique, certainly at first, but then even sometimes later on in the process. At first they really learn by watching; our design essentials and virtual phase creative directors do a great job of building up to it; they do check-ins with the full cohort, right away, I think even the first day of design essentials and then two more times that week our Creative Director, James, handles that check-in with the full cohort. Also, with individual teams, because they’re working on teams right away and they’re doing individual projects, all of the projects that they do in virtual phase get graded so they’re submitted and they’re graded and those grades come with an explanation for what that grade means. They also are able to get pretty serious one-on-one time with James who does design essentials and Katie who does virtual phase. They really set up environments also where designers can provide critique in their smaller groups and teams so every design team has a Slack channel that’s dedicated to it that the Creative Director is a part of, that the graders are a part of also and they’re keeping an eye on the conversations that happen there and making sure that it is useful, it is constructive to make sure that those conversations are happening in really useful ways and making sure that they can provide critique to each other and feel comfortable to do so. So there’s a lot of rule setting, even at the very beginning of, this is what it means to critique constructively; this is what it means to seek feedback on your work and this is why getting critique on your work is important. So, a really big principle that we practice here is the ASK method of critique which is Actionable, Specific and Kind. We have a pretty official rule that the only criticism allowed is constructive, so it cannot be something that is just crapping on a piece of work but it has to discuss what is working about it, it has to go specific, so you cannot talk about the piece as a whole but you have to focus on the individual piece, part of that piece that is working or not working and explain why and how to…ideas for how to improve it, make sure that everybody knows that it is not personal; it is there to improve your work and make you have a more useful experience in the program. So, we believe that if everyone around you is practicing these things from Day One, we believe that you are much more likely to pick it up and practice it too.
Gary:
Sorry, because I was in the middle of typing up a note so I just want to follow up and if you already covered it, just say, I already covered it. Do they do that in a group or is that one on one?
Mike:
It is both. There is one-on-one with the Creative Director to make sure that, especially in the early stages when they’re really fighting that imposter syndrome of, should I be here? Oh shit, should I be here? Oh shit, I paid how much for this? Their fears are really being calmed and they’re able to really learn the knowledge that’s necessary to become a functional designer, so, taking baby steps really, making sure they learn how to crawl. There’s group, so they work on teams especially in the virtual phase, actually the virtual phase UX teams are working on a project together, they have to meet virtually, they do Google Hangouts, if they’re in the same city they meet together and at the end of the virtual phase, they actually present their work to a panel of guest critics and that all takes place over video chat, so they’re getting critique even at that time. And then it’s cohort-wide, so they make sure that the Creative Directors are giving lessons, they are speaking with everybody, that there’s an opportunity to get and give feedback one-on-one, in a small group and then cohort-wide. So, by the time you get to the in-person phase, in theory, critique is not something to be afraid of.
Gary:
And this is one thing, it’s not specific to bootcamps, this is any design programs at traditional four year universities that are doing online courses have to work around this, but there’s something magical about when you’re in a foundation level course or early courses on the students, all of them put their work on the wall and then it’s like the instructor, you have them come up and talk to them about their thought process and then you start pointing out like, you see how this design element is making somebody do this, and then you can kind of point to all ten or fifteen or so of the pieces and say: see, you can start pointing out the pattern, they’re all doing it this way; see how this one doesn’t let you do that, and I just personally can’t wrap my…there’s so much learning that’s going on by just having everybody sitting in the…seeing the same thing at the same time, listening to the same conversation that I just can’t wrap my head around how online technology lets you do that and I think that’s just my own ignorance, but…
Mike:
Definitely, those opportunities to…like you said, put up work on the wall, have everybody gather round it and talk about it; those happen way less often than I would like them to happen at DESIGNATION and probably in any bootcamp because that’s probably one of those things that we just had to remove from the curriculum to make sure that the implementation of those hard skills and soft skills was happening quick, so that definitely happens on a group level but cohort-wide, it’s a lot harder to do that on a regular basis, for sure.
Gary:
And it’s not just bootcamps; that’s for any program that is online, whether it’s accredited four year or what-not, like I said, to me…but I haven’t tried! I have the luxury of I don’t have to, but when I’m forced to, that’s going to be the one thing that I just can’t kind of wrap my head around. So, I like that you have a distinct, and correct me if I’m wrong, I’m getting this from looking at the website; I like that you have a distinct UX and UI path to combat that lack of specialization that a combined UX/UI bootcamp may have. So, I also struggle to find enough time and credits to teach both and it makes perfect sense that you would also have that some problem; it’s really hard to do both. So, how much…what’s the balance…how much UX do your UI students learn and on the flip-side, how much UI do your UX students learn?
Mike:
I think that happens in a couple of ways and I think the curriculum, certainly for the time that they have in person is relatively less compared to a more university education. A lot of that happens by osmosis because in design essentials, before you’ve picked your track, everybody is together and you’re sort of in this giant stew where everybody is talking with everybody else and they’re discussing what makes them really excited about UX or UI and where they’re going to go. All that’s really great. Then they separate into their individual tracks for virtual, so they’re in UX and UI and when they come in to the in-person phases for immersion, client and career, they’re all literally in the same room together and so there’s a UX team over here and a UI team over here and they are able to socialize a lot and share the same resources and otherwise be there to talk and commiserate and share notes and everything. I think on a practical level, we reinforce that understanding that you have to be aware of what happens before you get your brief and what’s going to happen after you finish your work, for immersion phase project, for the client project. Actually the immersion phase project is really cool because it’s a separate project for UX teams and a separate project for UI teams and the UX prompt will have every team answering that prompt differently with a different focus, whatever.

The team that is the strongest, that produces the strongest outcomes and the best story about how they created their work, their work will actually turn into the prompt for the next cohort’s UI project. That maybe was a little complicated for me to explain but it’s actually really great because they are able to work very closely with the preceding cohort’s UX team and have that hand-off and say, here are the wireframes. Every UI team with every project will get a set of wireframes; they will get the research, they will get an understanding from the client about what has been done on this work, before you’re about to touch it. And so that’s really, really important. We make sure that there’s always workshops and there’s always an understanding for every designer that what happens after you finish your work, it has to be prepped for hand-off. So, UX teams have to annotate their wireframes; UI teams have to red-line their screens and be able to prep that with notes for the developers. That work will not be coded at DESIGNATION; it will be coded by the client, it will be done somewhere else. We’ve actually partnered with some dev bootcamps that are here in 1871 or around in Chicago, where we’ve had a client say, we want UX, UI and dev work; we’ll handle the UX and the UI and then another dev bootcamp will handle the dev so we’ve handed off work before to other bootcamp teams. So, that’s really great. I think certainly we don’t expect fluency for UX designers in UI; we don’t expect fluency for UI designers in UX, but we expect conversational language; we expect you to know how it works and we expect you to know where this work came from and where this work is going.

Gary:
I love…I think that’s amazing that you’re doing the…having one cohort handing off the UX to the UI but the only one thing that I could see kind of problematic about that is that then you’re siloing them and so you’re not having…or is there at least like a sort of a bridge so the UI team can go back and say, hey, UX cohort, I need to pick your brain a little bit about what you handed off to me?
Mike:
Yeah, that opportunity is always available to the UI team but you’re right, it was a previous cohort, different cohorts are in different rooms or if the cohort has graduated already, they can be harder to get a hold of but the expectation is, they will always be available for questions.
Gary:
OK, and that’s generally what is happening in the industry. Well, it depends; every place is different. You know another thing that I like too that you did? This is the biggest knock for m e on four year programs at university: being able to collaborate between departments. It’s just logistically it’s a pain in the rump, because most universities have a design program; most universities have a human-centered or human-centered design program and most of them have some sort of computer sciences program. Getting all three together to collaborate at a university is next to impossible, where you can just do it on a daily basis, it’s no big deal, that’s just an amazing experience that you have that we can’t replicate in four year universities like I wish we could. So, kudos to you!
Mike:
Well thank you, I think we are a start-up; we are an educational entity and we’re a professional experience but we’re also a start-up and we have eight full time employees, we have eight or ten part-time employees, we have other people who are associated with the program in even less of a part-time capacity, but really those eight people, we get in the same room two or three times a week and one of those times may be over beer on a Friday happy hour, but we are really close and we make sure that we communicate with each other because we know that James, who runs the design essentials program, that his work directly impacts Katie, who runs the virtual phase, which directly impacts Doug who runs the immersion phase and directly impacts on and on, all down the line, and even the work that I’m doing at the end of the program in the career phase, sometimes we need to backward design it to go all the way back to DE and say, we need to now make a change in the curriculum all the way at the beginning to prepare you for what needs to happen at the end of it. So, we are in communication all the time and that willingness, that playfulness, to be able to say, we can and we do need to update the curriculum, be willing to update the curriculum and be sort of ruthless about what we’re seeing that’s working out there for graduates with hiring partners and managers, that that feedback and that experience that they’re looking for really is going to directly impact the way that we talk with each other about our curriculum.
Gary:
So, back on my scripted questions: some aspects of UX are hard to teach, like those quote-unquote soft skills such as empathy and empathy’s another word that I don’t really particularly like but to me it’s just, don’t be an asshole! But OK, empathy, which I define as being able to synthesize and discover insights out of a body of research and then design thinking, another soft skill which I think of as like finding problems beyond the obvious ones, beyond the ones that you were told. So, how effective are bootcamps in teaching these soft skills in a compressed timeframe?
Mike:
We have found that bootcamps in general are not good at it, and that I think is because of the length of the program and the relative depth of the curriculum. We have worked incredibly hard as a team to implement those soft skills as part of the curriculum, so even from Day One, you are getting tremendous exposure to those soft skills like interviewing and teamwork and communication and critique and play and all of those things that make again the experience of being a designer really valuable, not just understanding design and being able to practice it but we have known, the whole time that we have existed, that it’s those soft skills that make somebody a better candidate as a professional designer than somebody who just goes through the motions of understanding how to design and understanding the tools and the programs that are used. So, it’s been incredibly important for us to bake in soft skills all the time and we’re doing lots of stuff in our workshops; journaling is something where we actually put on the calendar every single night, you need to journal about the day, so talk about what happened today; that will come in handy later when you’re doing your case study but also journal at the end of the week and talk about how did you grow this week. This is the end of your sprint, of your weekly sprint.

What happened over the course of this time? So you’re starting to synthesize that information and that synthesis is such a huge word for me because analysis and synthesis are really the cornerstones of making a good case study, of making a good story about how you grew as a designer through the experience of being at DESIGNATION and if you cannot analyze those experiences on an individual level and on a collective level and synthesize all of them together and say, here’s who I am at the end of all of it, then the experience was not meaningless, but pretty close to meaningless if all that you are is a collection of those hard skills then you’re not going to be somebody who can really nail an interview, who can be seen as a really excellent team-mate, potential team-mate for a bunch of designers in a room who can solve problems, who can communicate with clients, who can admit failure: all of those things happen through experience and they must be baked into the curriculum, so that’s something I’m not sure if too many other cohorts do. We took up some pages from Dev Bootcamp which is probably one of the greater dev-focused bootcamps out there; they have emotional intelligence, they really, really focus on the EQ of every designer in their program and so that’s something that’s been really important to us to really have.

Gary:
I like that term, emotional intelligence versus empathy; I just like that, it just feels like…yeah!
Mike:
It’s funny because I wish that I could think of a better word than empathy but it’s something that I actually started describing to designers here when I got here that that’s the designer’s secret weapon, that empathy is the thing that defines us as professionals and as educators because we put ourselves into the shoes of everybody that we meet, and not just the clients but our team-mates and creative directors and everybody else, but it’s really not our secret weapon any more: it’s our primary weapon, especially in this day and age when empathy is not at all valued on a governmental level, on a societal level that we have to fight back with that empathy and I think you’re right, that emotional intelligence is something that it’s way more than empathy; it’s the understanding of how empathy rolls into all these other soft skills that make you a stronger human being, that we really need to make sure that we teach and that we make sure that our designers practice.
Gary:
Yeah, to me, I kind of describe it as, everybody should have empathy, that’s a basic human….every good human being should have empathy, so when you remove it from that perspective, it’s really there is a process to understanding it, that you go through, that we do really well as designers; that’s the unheralded thing that we do is, like you said, that investigation of other people; we put a process to understanding people that other people just don’t have for whatever reason, whatever it is about design. So, these are my scripted questions again. Teaching is hard. When we go into it, unless you went to school for K through Twelve education and you actually learned how to teach, when you’re trained as a designer, that doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher of design and universities, mine included, have entire teaching and learning centers devoted to best practices and teaching and how to write pedagogy and how students learn. So, how do you empower your, I don’t know what the term is: mentors, facilitators, professors, teachers, how do you empower them to be better teachers and how to help the students?
Mike:
Yeah, a couple of ways. First is, we call all of our teachers Creative Directors because that’s the role…there’s definitely education involved and imparting skills and knowledge but their main function is to guide you on a professional sense to get to the point where you can be self-sufficient as a designer and understanding all the bigger concepts of being a designer. So that’s one of those terms that we use. Again, moving away from student and teacher, things like that. I think one of the things that’s really important to understand is, a fair number of our Creative Directors are graduates of the program, so they came through as designers where they had a particular skill-set. Some of them were involved in traditional design before that, some were designers and developers. Again, Doug, who is our immersion phase Creative Director, he was the guy I mentioned who had twenty five years’ experience working at Disney and Mattel and Girl Scouts so they, I think as pure empathy, they really understand what it takes to be successful in the program and how to take the most advantage of it and they understand where their instruction, or the instruction that they received, was strong, was weak, could be improved and they’re able to iteratively improve on it with every cohort.

So, the other factor, I think, that makes our Creative Directors pretty successful is knowing that there’s a balance between being a teacher type and being a Creative Director type and that combination is really rare; in fact, we have worked with I don’t know how many, maybe ten or so guest instructors and people who were around for a few weeks or for a single cohort where they kind of washed out of the program because they were either coming from a straight creative director background and they didn’t really understand what it took to have a teaching side and to employ that teaching side, or they came from a straight teaching side and didn’t really understand how to be a good Creative Director. So, finding those people who have that balance, who are excited to display that balance and practice it is a challenge and that is one of the reasons why I think we’ve been intentionally slow to grow; we have these two particular tracks, we have the part-time and released a full-time program and we’re staying relatively small for the moment because we understand how difficult that balance is to get and then to maintain. So we hold onto these people who are really successful at that balance really, really tightly and make sure that they have what they need to succeed. And someone like me is, I have had teaching background but I really have valued much more the professional background of design management and creative direction and making sure that it’s not necessarily about what I produce but what the designers under me are able to produce and so when you come into it with that mindset, I think you succeed a lot more. So, we have some resources that are out there, we have some mentors who are professionals who work with our Creative Directors and make sure that they are staying abreast of what’s going on in the world but they also have an opportunity to learn some about how to be stronger Creative Directors and how to be stronger instructors.

Gary:
And that’s pretty cool that you brought that up about the balance, the internal balance, because I kind of identify…I know I need to be…I self-identify that I need to be a little bit more of that creative director. I have maybe a seventy…maybe a sixty-five:forty-five balance towards the teacher, where I have a colleague that’s probably like a hundred per cent on the creative director side of the spectrum and so it’s always good that when you have that balance between all your instructors that it does let you get away with somebody who’s like a one hundred per cent one thing and you’re a hundred per cent the other, then together the two of you get that right balance, if that makes sense, but that’s cool that they’re cognizant of that because that’s a real thing.
Mike:
Yeah, it’s a big challenge and we’ve certainly seen the terror in Creative Directors’ eyes that first week, or first couple of weeks when they come into that environment and it is not going to be a straight teaching experience and it’s not going to be a straight creative direction experience: it has to be somewhere in between and if you are not able to grasp that quickly then it can be really hard to stick around for multiple cohorts so we’re really, really lucky in the team that we have right now to be able to do that.
Gary:
So, that leads…actually, that’s perfect, that leads into my next question is, it was basically I already asked the first part of it which was, how much time do you spend re-working and you’ve answered that, but how do you know if something is wrong or if something isn’t working? What mechanisms do you have built in to put up the red flags?
Mike:
We’re fortunate that we are able to know those things pretty quickly. We seek feedback from the full cohort at the end of every phase, so they’re talking about the recent past and their experiences there and we ask them really to kind of open up and talk about anything; if it’s the curriculum, if it’s the projects, team structure, the supplemental workshops, whatever that might be. We also make it clear that they can speak with a staffer any time they have concerns and like I mentioned with design essentials, that happens right away so they know that if they have a question that they need to speak with James about, James is available two times a week for one-on-ones; he’s also…we’re all available on Slack, pretty much all the time, so people can come talk to us and we encourage them to do that. We have staff meetings twice a week and we are able to talk about how those curriculum changes affect every phase of the program. What I find interesting is there might be DESIGNATION graduates listening to this recording who came to the program in 2014, 2015; they would not recognize the curriculum today whatsoever and I think we all on the staff here love being drivers of that change because we really believe in the mission of DESIGNATION; we’re really driven by the same motivators which is to honor the commitment that these designers make to change their lives and really start a career in digital design so again, going back to the idea that we’re a start-up, again, we’re eight people and we are a start-up and in many ways we get to act like one. So, there are a lot of great things about understanding when there’s a red flag that’s raised, we will do everything we can to make sure that it’s resolved, it’s corrected, that it comes up either never again or in a more productive way for the following cohort.
Gary:
Anybody who’s listened to this podcast knows that I’ve complained a lot about finding the right balance between visual design, front end development and user experience. I’ve also struggled to find the best way to introduce projects to students, how to make students…not make them, but what’s the best way to have students conduct research, how do you make learning some of these things permanent. What are some of the things that you’ve struggled with from cohort to cohort that you just like, man, I want to solve this but I just can’t?
Mike:
Because our cohorts overlap, especially the in-person phases, there tends to be a comparison between what you get in your cohort as a designer and what the previous cohort got. If there’s a change and that’s seen as some negatively impacting their experience, there can be some upset feelings about that. I think the removal of dev from the curriculum was the big one; the last cohort to be able to quote-unquote, major in dev, they felt like they had a certain experience and the subsequent cohort felt like they had been robbed of that experience. We also established the career phase as a specific phase for those two weeks; before that it was a little more haphazard, the structure of being able to produce a portfolio in a set amount of time so the last cohort to not get the career phase was somewhat disappointed about that experience. So, every major change to our curriculum there’s something that certain designers see and want for themselves and sometimes instead of focusing on having a really great experience for themselves and making the most of that, they do want to complain about the next cohort’s experience being different. That’s sort of human nature and it’s also sort of a result of being cooped up in a room with people in your cohort and being close to everyone; the next cohort is in the next room over and being close to everybody in a physical sense, people talk and they complain, and sometimes those complaints are not constructive.

And we encourage them to get back to the task at hand and make sure that, you have long term goals that you were trying to reach; we’re here to help you get to those so there’s a lot of work to be done on the specific project in front of you but also those longer-term projects that you have. The next cohort actually will come in and they don’t really know what the previous cohort went through; we don’t compare cohorts to each other, we don’t talk about what came before, we only talk about the experience that they’re getting in front of them, so with their current situation, after a few weeks any particular struggles of, why can’t I have blank…tend to go away, which is always kind of fascinating to see that happen. I think anything else that we struggle with is pretty universal, reminding people to stay passionate about design and helping them achieve that passion and maintain that passion; making sure they stay physically healthy, not getting sick in this room that’s somewhat windowless, teaching them practices that they keep long in their careers, teaching them to embrace ambiguity, adapting to the sprint structure, helping them not get overwhelmed or having melt-downs; forcing them to go outside and take a walk around outside. You know, I’d say a lot of those things.

Gary:
I used to live in Chicago so…sending them outside to walk along the river, where you’re at? Oh God, that was my favorite spot to go walk. Well, second favorite, but I digress! So, I’ve got just a couple more questions but there’s one that popped up that we haven’t come back to that I might as well ask now that doesn’t relate to anything else and it has to do with…you said that…so the work that the students do with these start-ups. Is it pro bono or is it paid and how do they feel about doing…giving away free work if they are?
Mike:
Yeah, so it is entirely pro bono when it comes to the relationships that we set up with those clients. Again, being surrounded by a thousand start-ups in this space is really inspiring to understand how design and UX and UI and how understanding your users is going to be directly applicable to the success of your product, so we don’t really have any complaints from our designers about doing work for free. The truth is, this is something that differentiates DESIGNATION from almost every other bootcamp out there; there are a couple that do it now but for several years, we were really the only ones who did that and that started from even back in our first cohort, it was one of our primary values to provide that real world experience, so we really see that the people in the program do understand and do value it as a significant differentiator, as something that gets them much more value for the investment that they pay to come to DESIGNATION. I think everybody, almost universally, values it as an idea that the work they do is going to live out in the world and has the potential to be something big. There are start-ups in 1871, a great example of this is a start-up called Guard Llama, which I have to make sure to say that, because those two words should not exist in nature next to each other, but there’s a start-up called Guard Llama that we did UX and UI work for, maybe a year ago, and they were just on Shark Tank and they got some sort of big investment from one of the Sharks there and they were on national TV and they are going places and the work that we do, we did for them, is a part of that experience that’s going to be now seen by many, many more people. With this investment they’ll be able to take their product to a much larger audience and that’s very exciting for the designers who participated in that work; that’s really exciting for the Creative Directors and us on staff because we saw that work get implemented. Our Creative Director actually for that project just got contacted by Guard Llama and said hey, there’s actually more work that we’re going to need to do based on this bigger roll-out so we’d love to work with you guys again this summer.

So, opportunities like that are really, really exciting and that’s not going to be the case for every client. Some of our clients are a single person who says, I have an idea for a start-up but I need to understand my audience and so the project will just be UX research. Or we will work on some significant stuff and they will say, well I really appreciate that but funding hasn’t come through yet; that’s something that I will be working on in the near future. So, they know, our designers known that their work may not be immediately applied to the real world but some day it will be, or it was done with these very real world objectives in it. So the stories that they’re able to tell in their case studies and when they go on interviews to say, this client that has a weird name because it’s a start-up that has two people in it, actually used us and actually we did things for their users in mind, for their staff and their employees in mind and we improved their experience and that’s something that is inordinately valuable for the experience of how to be a designer when you get to the interview stage and the professional stage.

Gary:
And it totally is but it’s something, and I’ve polled my students over the course of…and this is a traditional four year university; I’ve polled them over the years and a lot of them kind of resent doing work for free and it’s something that I just struggle with it because I know the value. And also too on the grand scheme of things, are you devaluing….are educators devaluing design by seeking out free work for these learning opportunities? It’s a real serious debate that I just….it’s one that I just don’t know what to do, but I think…this is just me thinking out loud: I think one thing that helps in your case is that the fact that it’s kind of like up-front; this is going to happen. So, they’re completely…if a student doesn’t know that they’re going to do that when they enter into your program, they obviously didn’t do their research!
Mike:
No, it’s impossible to escape; we put it front and center on the DESIGNATION website and it’s part of the interview process so we make it clear that that’s a big part of it. You talked about understanding one’s own value as a designer and that’s something that’s really, really, really important to me personally and something that we have put into the curriculum significantly: we ask our designers to understand their values and we say it’s not necessarily right or wrong that free work is bad. What are you getting out of that experience? Are you getting really valuable experience? Are you learning a new program? Will you get a really excellent case study or portfolio piece?? There may be great opportunities that come out of working for free. It may have the potential to turn into a very lucrative opportunity later on or you might get stock in the company, whatever that might be; there can be advantages to it so don’t…that goes back to the ambiguity; there’s not a right or wrong answer of, is free work…should I do free work or not? Because we really encourage people to understand what is most important to you and what are your deal-breakers and when you understand those, you are way prepared later on to answer a question like that when it comes up.
Gary:
And that’s been my mental gymnastics, a way round it is the fact that one, they’re not…if you as a designer are saying, hey, this is the bill, this is what this would cost, so you’re educating them, what is the value of what you’ve given them for free, and if they honor and say, we can’t pay for anything but hey, if this gets funded, we’ll give you stock options or hey, the best we can do is give you a six-pack of beer. It’s not like it’s some Fortune 500 company trying to get something for free, so they know there’s value…anyway, that’s my mental gymnastics around it is the client knows that there’s value t it and at the same time that it’s…they’re valuing it, so it’s the biggest one that I’m concerned with. But there’s easier ways around it.
Mike:
Yeah; another thing that we encourage designers to do, if they had a really good experience working with a client, to ask the client for a recommendation; offer a recommendation on LinkedIn, offer a quote that they can put at the end of their case study on their portfolio site, have them be a reference if the experience went really well and make sure that they have the opportunity to get something else out of that experience.
Gary:
So I just have a couple more wrap-up questions now and this is about bootcamps in general. I think…I see a lot of design educators from traditional two year and four year programs seeing the rise of programs, bootcamp programs as direct competition. Do you…and you can’t speak for other programs obviously, but do you see yourself as a direct competitor to a four year institution or just a different animal?
Mike:
We absolutely do not see ourselves as a competitor to a university education; I want to be really, really clear on that. We cannot substitute for four years of sustained education, whether that’s a design school where you get to really, truly focus on a major or a liberal arts education where you get to explore, a bootcamp is neither of those things by definition, and those are truly important, very meaningful life-changing experiences for people in university education. Bootcamps in general do some things better than four year programs and in general do some things that are worse and I believe that DESIGNATION does a few more things better but maybe a few things worse. They’re just fundamentally different experiences and we go to pretty great lengths to make sure that applicants and sometimes parents of applicants who are college age or high school, that they understand that; it is not like comparing apples to apples, they are very, very different experiences. I do say, and I said this at an AIGA Design Educators’ conference last year that I believe we’re more of a de facto Grad School education, that we want you to come in with a very well-defined, well executed set of skills that you can then learn on top of, you can build on those skills.

The career switchers and the career advancers that I mentioned earlier, those are the ones who really, really do great in the program and the career starters are the ones who are…it’s trickier for them to really take the most advantage of the program compared to those other types of designers in DESIGNATION. It is a massive shock to the system for people to come in with only a high school education to a bootcamp program and especially DESIGNATION. I talk about all the time to my designers, it takes me six months at least to feel acclimated to a brand new job and imagine what it’s like to have to work way quicker than that. You only get six months at DESIGNATION; you have to be come acclimated to it much quicker. There are lots of people who are just more suited to have a slower paced, more sustained development as a designer and as a growing adult and university programs are just naturally going to be better suited for that experience, but the people who are older and they’ve identified how they work and how they need to grow, a bootcamp can be really, really great for that and they may say, I just don’t have two years or four years of my life to be able to dedicate to a university education: that’s where a bootcamp can be really, really useful for me.

Gary:
So, the next question, I just want to kind of put into context before I ask it and so this is my own personal observation again, this isn’t like I’ve heard people talk about this, but to me, I think it’s obvious that traditional four year design programs are not offering what students, what they need to gain employment in the UX/UI industry and I think that’s why there is such a huge market for programs like DESIGNATION. So, let’s assume traditional programs eventually catch up to the industry, giving them the skills that they need. What do you think the overall future of bootcamps looks like?
Mike:
Bootcamps will get longer. I mentioned DESIGNATION is probably the longest design bootcamp out there, we’re at twenty four weeks and we got to that point because we started at ten and then moved to twelve and then sixteen and then eighteen, and none of those were long enough. Any bootcamp who says that you can go from zero to UX designer in ten weeks is fooling themselves and they are trying to fool you. Without a ramp-up, without that gradual ramp-up, our phases…skills just can’t be picked up instantly and the cadence of our phases is really intentional. First you design for knowledge in design essentials, then you design for experience and virtual, then you design for expertise in the immersion phase, then you focus outward and you design for others in the client phase, and finally you focus inward and you design for the hardest client, which is yourself, in the career phase, so that’s very intentional, that ramp-up is very intentional and we need to be able to have our designers crawl, walk and then run because you can’t just go from zero to sprint in ten weeks, that is physically impossible. I think you have so much potential to lose your designers and your students from the very beginning and never really get them to catch up to any of the stronger students that are in that program, so that’s what we see from other bootcamps, we’ve seen at DESIGNATION that we need to lengthen it. We even joke that twenty four weeks isn’t enough and we may see in the future that we will extend it even further because there’s always more basics that can be learned, there’s more supplemental activity that can be had, there’s more post-graduate experience and development that can happen after that so who knows where we might go in the future, but I think bootcamps will end up getting longer across the board. I also think…oh, do you want to talk some more about that?
Gary:
Nope; makes sense! I’m just curious where you see the future of them going.
Mike:
Yeah, yeah. I think another place that they have the potential to go is to be less of a one-size-fits-all experience and being more customizable. One of the things that we have really understood very quickly at DESIGNATION is that everybody has a different motivation for being here. They come from different…they’re different ages, they come from different background levels, they have different levels of experience, they have different skills and strengths and weaknesses; everyone wants a very unique career, not just with a job but with the location, the size of the company, the types of problems they want to solve, the types of snacks available in the break room, the areas of focus. All of those things are so unique to everybody. I started requiring every designer in the program to fill out something I call the Values Checklist and then ask them to answer so many questions about what they seek out of a design career. Before that, we were finding graduates that were applying to hundreds of jobs all over the world as long as they said UX or UI in the job title and that was so much wasted effort because they weren’t really sure where they wanted to go and by zeroing in on those primary values and also the deal-breakers, those designers can put way more of a direction in their job search, and I think that might spread across the bootcamp sphere and there is going to be more of an emphasis on bootcamp designers first identifying their values much more strongly and then getting a curriculum that’s hopefully more tailored to those values so they can really, they can get the basics and everybody get the basics together but then a little bit more of a divergence among the cohort.
Mike:
We also, I think all of us at DESIGNATION have a hunch that the bootcamp industry might start to shrink, that we have reached that saturation point and need to start, some Darwinism needs to happen and the stronger ones will emerge from a very large pack. Bootcamps have to be held responsible for the quality of their graduates and we’ve already heard of a bootcamp having to re-fund tuition for an entire cohort because no one in that cohort was skilled enough after graduation to land jobs and if you’re guarantee in entering that program is you’re going to get a job, then if that doesn’t happen, then how are you able to justify having that curriculum and having those experiences for your designers?
Gary:
That’s a heck of a motivator to make sure you’re doing your job!
Mike:
Absolutely; it absolutely is. There’s a new organization out there called the Council on Integrity and Results Reporting, CIRR, which aims to finally standardize bootcamp placement metrics and other important data points because they vary really wildly across the industry and in the next year or so, those bootcamps who participate in CIRR and DESIGNATION is one of them, will have a lot of data to report and those could end up being the biggest measure of quality for bootcamps, and I think a lot of those lower and middle tier bootcamps will end up going away, especially ones that have some ethically dubious metrics.
Gary:
So, that brings me…that makes me think of one thing that’s unique to universities is that the whole idea of tenure. So, the idea of tenure, at least the way I understand it, is you go through this process, you prove, you spend your six years proving your worth to the university and then when they tenure you, it means they can’t fire you, which now means you are really free to experiment because experimentation is what’s going to lead to things growing and things being better but if you don’t have the safety-net of knowing that your experiment could fail, you don’t experiment. So, what’s to…I could see a danger for the bootcamps is that the minute you find things that work, you’re not going to want to change and evolve because you’ve got a formula that works, because of the fact that if you have…the things you just said. Have you thought about that at all?
Mike:
Yeah, I mean it’s certainly something that we are aware of and we work really hard not to do. I think you could see that happen in the bootcamp environment for sure, the same way you could see it in any design firm or office that is somewhat insulated and wants to insulate themselves from the world outside; that can be really easy to do if you’re not paying attention, if you’re not doing some self-auditing on a regular basis, if you’re not interviewing your users and the decision-makers and the stakeholders and everybody who is around you as a working entity. So, we’re very much a group of people, again, the eight of us in our start-up environment who don’t want to remain stagnant, we don’t want to create something that is going to stay the same because we know that this industry changes big-time. Another example of that is a year and a half ago, think: yeah, about a year and a half ago, we were teaching Illustrator as our primary UX and UI tool and we heard from hiring partners and recruiters that it’s not Illustrator, it’s Sketch that people are working in. So we instantly, with the next cohort said, we’re no longer having you learn Illustrator, you’re going to learn Sketch, and therefore they’re going to be much more marketable to hiring partners. So that sort of thing has to happen, we have to have our ear to the ground; all bootcamps do, and if we don’t then yeah, we are going to be seen as old and outdated, we’re going to be less relevant, we’re going to be less impactful for the people who come to the program, it’s just the domino effect of bad things that could happen, for sure.
Gary:
Unfortunately, you’re more nimble than traditional four year programs but it doesn’t have to be that way in four year programs but they just don’t keep up!
Mike:
Yep, absolutely.
Gary:
So, Mike, before I let you go, is there anything that you want to personally talk about, anything…open mic, anything that I missed, whatever.
Mike:
Before I answer that, I do want to go back and say one more thing about where I think bootcamps are going, that you can edit back in there.
Gary:
Yeah, no worries.
Mike:
I think that we’re also seeing larger companies start their own bootcamps as a recruitment tool for new employees and retention tool for existing employees. IBM Design is the hugest example of that, where they put new employees through a required three month bootcamp to get immersed in the world of IBM and the language of their design before they can return to their home offices. There are also a lot of companies that have launched Innovation Labs which have that similar sprint format; it’s a real fast-moving structure to pull in multi-disciplinary teams to work on big problems really quickly, and those are places where we’re seeing an increasing amount of our graduates and UX designers in general get hired and I think that’s a practice that’s going to spread across corporate America more and more, especially if companies start to have leadership that finally understands the role that good design can play in business.
Gary:
I’ve seen…I saw a specific one for Shopify; they were looking for somebody to…they’re building exactly what you’re talking about and they were hiring somebody they wanted to lead that out and it was like, that’s an interesting job, that’s the first I’ve ever seen that one for, so it’s pretty exciting.
Mike:
Yeah. No, there is nothing that I’m working on personally outside DESIGNATION that I would want to promote. We’re just going full steam ahead, graduating our four hundredth designer in July so we’re really excited about that. I’m always happy to speak further about bootcamps in general if anyone out there wants to have those conversations; we’re really excited to talk about bootcamps, talk about the experiences; we want to learn from other educators and other professionals out there, we want to improve our curriculum and hear what’s going on out there because there’s always room to grow, so I always love to have those conversations with people.
Gary:
That’s all we have time for today on Episode Forty Six, part two of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Mike Joe-see for being so generous with his time. I want to thank the audience for listening and I want to thank the Design Edu Today hosting sponsor DigitalOcean and the CDN sponsor Fastly for making the hosting and distribution of these podcasts possible. I also want to thank the AIGA and the AIGA Design Educators’ Community for their generous support of my research that lead to this podcast series.

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