When university president Paula Wallace founded the Savannah College of Art and Design 42 years ago, she wanted to develop a completely different kind of institution. “No starving artists,” she said. Her goal was to provide students with the expertise to succeed professionally in their chosen fields.
The key to achieving that success? Real-world experience.
So SCAD embarked on a series of collaborations with corporate clients, beginning in the university’s industrial design department. After a number of successful projects, the way forward became obvious: expand the program to more disciplines so that every student could work with real clients, solving real problems.
In 2010, Wallace launched the university’s year-round innovation studio SCADpro. The impactful program connects talented SCAD students with industry partners to solve specific business challenges. SCADpro teams have now worked on more than 450 projects with more than 300 influential brands, including Google, NASA, Microsoft, Airbnb, and Disney. So, why are A-list companies turning to a group of students for breakthrough ideas?
“The partners we work with understand it’s about getting a fresh perspective,” says Khoi Vo, SCAD vice president of industry relations, adding that industry collaborators are not looking for someone to tell them what their company or product is, but what it could be.
SCADpro offers companies access to a creative student body from more than 100 countries, specializing in more than 40 major disciplines, including immersive reality, architecture, and user experience (UX) design. A cross-functional student team may include researchers, designers, writers, illustrators, strategists, and more—a rich mix rarely found in typical agency settings.
Whether it’s creating complex branded events (for Delta Air Lines), designing the interior cabin experience for an aerial ride-sharing prototype (Uber), or improving the remote-education process (Microsoft), SCADpro teams have tackled challenges in almost every industry, with more than 50 products going to market.
“The students always take an approach that surprises us,” says Mike Buzzard, a Google UX manager who has worked closely with SCADpro on projects over the past six years. “Part of the reason for this is they’re not inside Google and therefore they’re not encumbered by organizational constraints or biases that might otherwise limit their imagination. They also provide a perspective that is outside of the tech bubble in Silicon Valley.”
Each SCADpro project lasts 10 weeks, with new ones kicking off every quarter. “Some companies will come to us with specific current issues,” Vo says. Other times, “it’s more like futuristic trend forecasting, like BMW asking, ‘What’s the future of the car interior?’ or consulting with Ford on the future of mobility.”
Given the challenge of delivering industry-level results in such a short period, the student-selection process is rigorous. Hundreds apply each quarter for a small number of spots. After interviews and portfolio reviews of applicants, each team is carefully selected by faculty leaders based on complementary skills, tailored to the unique business challenge.
“For each SCADpro engagement, the students study clients’ intentions, delve into their brand identities and histories, analyze competitors, and conduct extensive research—all in a compressed timeline,” Wallace says. “Our academic calendar is business-friendly because we produce results with speed.”
Over the course of each project, industry partners meet with their SCADpro counterparts at least three times, fielding questions and providing feedback. The companies fund each engagement according to its specific needs, and students are required to manage the budget.
Projects culminate in a final presentation, complete with assets. Deliverables can include physical and digital prototypes, immersive installations, and videos that simulate the product experience. “They’ll create an immersive, multimedia experience that connects you with the user and puts you inside the problem space so that you can fully appreciate the proposed solution,” Buzzard says.
According to a 2019 alumni study, 92% of 2019 SCAD graduates are working in the industry for which they studied or in a related field. For corporate collaborators, SCADpro graduates have a leg up on the competition, and many have been hired by partner companies. SCAD alumna Angela Martin traveled with her student team to Lenovo’s headquarters in North Carolina for their final presentation; that same day the company offered her a job, based on her presentation and passion for diversity, UX design, and data visualization. “With [Lenovo UX Director] Chris Osborne’s help, I was able to pretty much design the role that I’m in,” she says.
“These companies are witnessing students researching, ideating, prototyping, and presenting,” Vo explains. “The students are, in essence, getting a 10-week job interview [during] which they’re demonstrating all their skills.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Vo was concerned how SCADpro would continue to produce effectively when students were creating from home. Yet, adapting to the pandemic actually expanded what SCADpro can do across its global locations in Savannah, Atlanta, and Lacoste, France. “Now we have projects that are open to all our student population,” he says. “We can assemble a team from anywhere.”
The broad geographical disbursement of students has even led to a more efficient production cycle. Team members in one time zone can work on a project, then hand it off to others in another part of the world to keep working while the first group sleeps. “It’s been really cool to see students capitalizing on a situation that’s been forced on them,” Vo says.
SCAD plans on further expanding the SCADpro program well beyond the 50 to 60 projects they currently take on each year. And since only a small number are accepted onto SCADpro teams, the university is developing a set of courses available to all SCAD students, compiling 10 years of learning from hundreds of SCADpro projects. “The skills students learn from these courses will not only benefit them in future SCADpro projects, but empower them to be successful in any class they take at SCAD,” Vo says.
As Wallace sees it, it’s a program in which all parties come out ahead. “Faculty maintain their currency in sophisticated research and technology, clients benefit from Gen Z ideation, and students grow into accomplished professionals,” she says. “Win, win, win.”