Designation is a digital design-focused school in Chicago that helps students with a technical or design background make the shift to digital design jobs. We talk with founder Kevin Yun about the differences between Designation and other web-development bootcamps, the types of applicants they look for, and why it's important to learn digital design now.
Kevin, tell us about your background and how you got into this boot camp model of education.
I’m a startup guy, but I didn’t really find my passion until I started doing design work for the startups I was working on. The startup world can be really scrappy, but you have to learn to do things quick and you have to learn a lot of things and wear lots of hats. That’s where most of my self-education and experience came from- just building products with friends and companies. I found that I was interested in design, and that’s when I saw the model for bootcamps coming up. Everyone’s focus seemed to be on programming, which design being treated to the side. There was like, five classes, part-time, but not a real focus on teaching digital design. I wanted to build a curriculum where it was full-exposure, where you’re not expected to be awesome at everything, but at least you would know the whole process. That’s why I started Designation.
How did you learn front-end development?
It took me a couple of years, here and there, of self-teaching and doing what needed to be done, but in the end, this is what I really like doing. Specifically, I like visual design, and going into a text editor to execute the design into code. Digital design is a large field, and there’s a tremendous amount of topics involved. The idea of Designation is really compressing all that knowledge and the insights from people with different experiences in design. Getting them in the same room for a really intense focus on ten weeks of design.
How long has Designation been operating?
It’s actually been a year now. We’ve had two part-time cohorts. But we just shifted into a full-time model a couple of months ago, and are about to launch our first class on April 21st. This is also the first that we’re talking to hiring partners, the first time we’re purposefully taking action to help students get jobs. That’s really the main goal. Our team has doubled within these last two months. There’s a lot of things that need to be changed, revamped, upgraded, and executed on, so we’ve been pretty busy on our end. Adding the hiring partnerships initiative is pretty insane.
How many people are working for Designation?
We have a network of mentors, designers, TAs, and design instructors. Really, the core team is our four instructors. Our setup is that we have lectures at night, and then a daytime immersion portion where students work on projects, assignments, and apply the things they learn in lectures during the daytime. It’s work and effort, when it comes down to it. We expect people to take a self-directed approach; we’ll hold your hand, but this is technology. In five years everything will be different, so it’s really important that student be self-directed and be motivated by themselves to reach their goals.
Why is it important to learn front end design?
Design has become really prominent, not just in terms of how things look, but the user experience and the research done behind building a product or service for a particular set of people that will use that. It’s not just, “Oh, let’s engineer something and push it out.” It starts with building personas, doing a lot of testing, iterating. Design is a large field, especially digital design- there’s everything from UX, front-end web development, and visual design. But really, the goal at Designation is to get students exposure to all the different types of design- we’re throwing a lot at our students, expecting them to put in the necessary work, follow the program and build an amazing portfolio by the end of the program.
Do students need to have the Adobe Suite to start the course?
We require all students to come in with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop already installed. This is for the prep work involved, and of course, for the main program.
What’s the cohort size that you’re trying to stick to for this first full-time immersive program?
We’re looking anywhere between 18-24, depending on how we build out our space. We have a dedicated space now at 1440 N. Dayton St. in Chicago. The location is actually right off the red line, about a three-minute walk. The red line is one of five lines in the country that never stops running.
What are you looking for in potential students? And how many applicants and what kind of applicants are you seeing for this next program?
This whole week was jam-packed with interviews, as we’re trying to narrow it down for the next class. What we’re really looking for in candidates is a technical or design background. So what that means is that maybe you have experience in back-end or front-end coding, knowing syntax, and semantics of code, or you are familiar with the language of code. We’re pretty serious about our designers learning to code- we believe everybody should learn to code. Our applicant pool has actually been quite strong, and I’ve been pretty impressed by the people we’re taking in. We’re taking in people who have already held UX/UI design positions. Most of them are not junior level- we look for at least, mid to senior level people who want a change in their careers, who do have some experience in design, whether it is Photoshop, Illustrator, or UX. We don’t like to think that we teach people, or we’re a school, as much as we are a group of designers that are showing you our practice.
So, it’s really that we’re looking for applicants that are already experienced. We’ll accept some beginners if they have a really compelling application or interview we need people who can dedicate an intense ten weeks of their life, and have some sort of experience. This is why there’s prep work involved. We want everyone to be on the same page before coming to class, whether they’re advanced or beginners- at least they’ll all have gone through the same topics before entering.
I read on your blog that you have lowered tuition. What was the motivation there, and are you seeing more applicants, less applicants, people from different backgrounds that are now able to apply, or are you going to see any money on 2,000?
The course is really $1,000- if your goal is to get a job after the program and you take a job with one of our hiring partners, we’ll give you a $1000 tuition refund. When we went full-time, the expenses just skyrocketed through the roof. Between building a bigger team, handling admissions, hiring partners, logistics, internal marketing, and everything to make students come in and have a seamless experience. That’s been a full time, day in and day out job just for our internal team. But we lowered the tuition because we believe in the long term vision, which is to place people into design jobs. That’s something our partners are totally in line with. Our business, and the people and services we work for now- our whole team is totally in right now. And I would say that is the most important thing. We have a 100 percent dedicated team to help place our students in jobs.
Do you all have any outside funding?
My mentality has always been to just be bootstrapped. We are closing a couple of very small rounds from friends and family now- anywhere between 5K and 15K investments, just so we can sustain in the short term and focus on the long term.
It’s pretty clear that there is a disparity between men and women in the web development part of the tech world. Women are underrepresented, and minorities are even more underrepresented. Have you noticed, in your experience, that there is the same sort of disparity between men and women in the design world?
If you’re talking programming and computer science, I would definitely say there is a huge disparity. I was a student at the University of Illinois at Champaign, and their computer science program is pretty strong, so I hung around that building a lot, and you could definitely see the ratio. But if you’re talking in terms of creatives and designers, 60 percent of our past students have been female, 40 percent male. Our field is very creative, it is process driven. So I think that’s where it differentiates us. I think the overlap is where you see the coding aspect. I would say our classes don’t have that problem. It might actually be the opposite problem.
You seem to really emphasize the hiring aspect of Designation. Can you explain the relationships that you have with hiring partners?
We’ve been working on it for a couple weeks now, and it started with some companies reaching out and asking to talk to our students. And some of our students were asking us to help them polish up their portfolios. So we took those hints and we realized that we should just go the whole stretch. On top of that, we’ve been talking to companies that are anywhere from 100 person, design driven start-ups, start-ups that are just starting out, some that are VC funded- that need the talent to expedite their growth, and that can pay the commission for that talent. Just to give you a little scope, there’s 30,000 UX jobs open, and this is according to careerbuilder.com, and there’s only 3,000 professionals that can fill up those UX positions. And this is just for user experience design. What we’re trying to do is get designers that are 20 percent there, and get them to an 80-100% level, a point where they can work with these companies. We’re located in the same building as one of the leading UX agencies in the Midwest. Employers don’t care about your background if you came from a boot camp, or whatever else. It’s really, “Can you show us your portfolio? Can you explain your work? Are you a cool person that we could work with on a day to day basis?“
If a student takes a job with one of your hiring partners, then they get a thousand dollar refund, right?
We like to think of it as splitting half the tuition. Our business relies on the tail end, where we place designers into companies.
If that happens, is Designation also taking a recruiting fee, or a hiring fee, from the company?
Exactly. That’s how we’re going to pay the bills. $2000 is a crazy low tuition. We just want to work with awesome people- having a large financial barrier to entry didn’t make sense.
What is a design job interview like? How do you help your students train for those interviews?
Tell us about the tech scene, especially as it relates to design, in Chicago.
I’m glad we started in Chicago, just because things are way too expensive in San Francisco and New York. In terms of jobs, it’s just a rising industry in general. As technology gets less and less complex, as people build more products and develop and push and deploy apps, and work in the data, design is tremendously important in terms of not making crappy products- that means a good user experience.
The California regulatory agency story that came out a few weeks ago has gotten a lot of press. Has it given you all any pressure to become accredited or is that something that’s on your radar at all?
The main reason for that regulation is to keep out the fraud. For example, there’s been thirty boot camps that have just popped up for development and programming across the nation. Whether they’re good, bad, credible, there’ve been more than thirty that have popped out in the last year. In terms of quality and promises and guarantees, the state needs to protect students somehow, so we’re in support of it. We’re in talks with the state department of Illinois, we’re getting our documents organized, which puts good pressure on us in terms of organizational structure, academic calendar, etc.
Kevin, are there any plans to expand into other courses, other locations, in the future?
Our goal right now is 100 percent placement, nothing else. That’s our main focus. Everything we do is revolving around that fact.