How SCADPro is Fueling Economic Development in Savannah

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.”

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