Leaving the hallowed halls of higher education can be a traumatic experience for most new grads. New graduates are often faced with the task of finding work, building a career and maintaining a creative practice whilst presumably being crushed by student debt.
Precisely to combat this issue, 'professional practice' courses exist in nearly every design curriculum to smooth the transition and give a leg up on the competition. The vast majority of courses however, never manage to adequately cover the scope of possibilities for how to structure a fulfilling career in design. Instead these courses focus on the traditional professional skills of writing a resume and designing a portfolio. Luckily, a handful of schools are taking the first step towards new methods of real-world training by looking at trends in making, crowdfunding and direct to consumer products as necessary topics to cover with design students.
tCup by Lawrence Cummins and Hum by Emily Rose Litten
One such example comes from the University of Illinois at Chicago in their year-long "Entrepreneurial Product Development" course. The course, led by product designer, illustrator and Core77 CoreToon-ist Craighton Berman, asks students to spend the first semester making a product and the second launching it on Kickstarter. Over 9 months, students go through the process of development, manufacturing, marketing, sourcing and distribution of their ideas. The two semesters, appropriately themed "Make" and "Scale" cover all the steps to independently launching a product in addition to lesser covered topics in design school such as royalties, capital investment, retail distribution and more. Additionally, a number of notable guests (Max Temkin of Cards Against Humanity, Michael Una of Inventables and even Charles Adler the Co-Founder of Kickstarter) are thrown in to add real world perspective.
As one of the earliest adapters to Kickstarter, Berman has launched a number of products to date including Sharpener Jar and the more recent Manual Coffeemaker. I had the pleasure to speak with him about the class, the ever-changing landscape of independent design and of course—how to make a great Kickstarter video.
Teshia Treuhaft: With Kickstarter products, there is often a question of balance between the quality of the project and the quality of the marketing. How did you convey the need for balance in the curriculum?
Craighton Berman: I'm not too worried about anyone being too slick in the video because they're students and they're balancing a lot. They not only have to put together the campaign but also figure out how to manufacture their product—I don't think anyone has overdone it on the marketing side. In the greater scheme of things, whatever the project is, everyone is taking a risk by backing a project that didn't exist before that campaign so you have to find a way to be honest to your vision.
However, some of the best stuff that I've seen on Kickstarter [in terms of video documentation] is very DIY, not super high fidelity but very honest. More than ever on Kickstarter, the quality of the video is a big thing—even in their app, when you browse projects the first thing you see is a video and you have to click through to read about the project.
Do you think there's a trend in our field away from big companies and agencies toward independent design?
The thing is, there is still a lot to be gained from the traditional relationship between designer and manufacturer. If you're working with Knoll, they really know furniture—they know how to push the technology—they are some of the best engineers in the world. No one designer has that expertise in them.
There are limits to what you can independently launch—especially as far as complexity goes. Particularly with tooling, if you have a large campaign you can fund it, but if you're doing a complex desk chair, the tooling costs in that are outrageous. Only a large company can support those types of projects at the moment. This is an up-and-coming space and the projects are going to have to be simpler by the nature of what they are. Likewise, with research projects, big companies can be in research phase for years, independent designers can't do that, you have to earn a living somehow.
How much entrepreneurship is in 'Design Entrepreneurship'?
You can go to business school and learn about entrepreneurship, venture capital, investment—all of which is very valid. However, many design students will need to get a job out of school for functional reasons or because having mentors and being around people who can show you the ropes is important in order to keep learning. But [having a job] doesn't necessarily mean you have to stop having ideas. Just because you lose your studio or you don't have access to a shop is no reason to stop doing things on the side, launching things, getting your ideas out there and still building a name for yourself. That's inspiring and a major goal of the class.
Looking back at my own practice—I was fiercely independent in school and then started having jobs and did nothing more than sketching in sketchbooks for 5-6 years before I was like oh I can actually do something. I think a lot of people have that problem—they think 'oh I don't have resources anymore and I need to get used to a 9-5' and all the other weird thoughts you have when you leave school.
We will be exposing the students to funding, manufacturing and retail but the spirit of the class is definitely still in not letting that those methods get in the way.
Because most design careers are a hybrid of all sorts of different models anyway?
Yeah, the reality is that nobody does just one thing—a lot of people design for brands, have their own lines or do consulting work they don't talk about publicly. Part of the theme of the class—the 'always be hustling' thing—comes from the reality that you have to find ways to make everything in your career work. This might not be the romantic side, but it's the truth. It's worth noting that if you think of yourself as a designer, you have your unique point of view—but you also have a tool kit that's very sellable and there's no reason you shouldn't be doing all different types of projects.
Teshia Treuhaft is a Michigan-born designer. Upon graduating from back-to-back degrees, a BFA from the University of Michigan and MFA of Furniture Design from RISD, she moved to Berlin to pursue a research project considering shifting paradigms in design education. Teshia currently works at the tangible UX startup Senic.