These days, it seems like every other friend’s boyfriend’s colleague’s cousins want to become a UI/UX designer.
As a designer and educator that opened up a design school recently, I should be thrilled, right?
Not so fast.
When I decided to become an entrepreneur in my own industry, I became drawn to the education side of it accidentally.
I was looking to improve my public speaking skills for conferences and teaching was recommended to me as a way to practice speaking in public while getting paid for it.
Through introductions, I became an adjunct professor at several universities, an instructor at a few design schools and a design mentor at different bootcamps.
“Job Guarantee” Becomes Another Student Debt Trap
One of the biggest draws to bootcamps and for-profit design schools is that they offer Income Share Agreements (ISA), which is essentially a form of student loan with a fancy name.
Students don’t pay a penny while they attend the bootcamps. Instead, they sign an agreement to payback a certain percentage of their salary, usually between 2–10%, after they get hired.
There is usually a “salary floor”, which sets the lowest amount of salary you receive before payment is required.
In addition, there are payment caps set to the loan, which specify the maximum amount you will repay. There could be ISAs that set the payment cap to more than 2 times the owed amount or even without a cap.
There is also repayment terms, which set the time frame for how long your ISA contract lasts. It could be anywhere between 2 to 10 years.
A fair and sweet deal, right?
That’s before you run all the scenarios and do the real math. Let’s get your calculator out.
Let’s say you agree to pay back 5% of your salary and your first job out of the bootcamp meets the lowest salary required for the ISA to be in effect.
Most of us would want to get jobs that pay more and more over the years. That’s why we change jobs when a better-paying one hires us.
If you end up making much more than your original salary a few years down the road, and you are still within the ISA repayment terms, guess what’s going to happen?
Your monthly payment also goes up — by a lot.
Because of the percentage you agreed to, the higher your base salary is, the higher the monthly repayment you will be making.
In the end, you may end up paying close to $20k or even more regardless of the original price tag of the bootcamp. Check out this detailed calculation example from Nerdwallet to get a better picture.
Essentially, both the bootcamps and the ISA loan providers make more money as you make more.
There is certainly nothing wrong with good business.
But from the perspective of a student, this is essentially another student debt crisis.
If students just finished college with significant amount of student debt, they will be adding an additional amount on top of that by attending expensive bootcamps with an Income Share Agreement.
Speeding Through Foundations And Producing Cookie-Cutter Portfolios
When I look at bootcamps’ curriculum design, I found a lot of positives but also some negatives.
One of the positives is that many bootcamps make knowledge easier to understand than how it is usually taught in college.
Some of them also break down lessons in bite sizes, which make it easier to digest and more fun to learn.
Most bootcamps offer some form of one-on-one mentorship, which is the most valuable asset because it is like having a private tutor on demand.
However, there are a few negatives that may limit the graduates’ ability to get into highly-selective companies.
One of them is the fact that many bootcamps don’t teach enough design foundation.
Because bootcamps are running on a “fast-tracked” model, they need to get students in and out quickly to make a profit.
As a mentor, I have had many meetings with students when I discovered the curriculum didn’t teach them the basic design foundation they need or certain critical parts were skipped over.
Of course, that’s where the mentor could step in to fill in the gap.
However, because of the limited time frame of bootcamps, students who need a bit of extra time to get acquainted with design principles because they don’t already have prior knowledge will still have trouble digesting that knowledge and use it for their design.
The “fast-tracked” nature of the bootcamps also necessitates a highly-standardized curriculum where many students will inevitably produce portfolio pieces that look very similar to another bootcamp graduate’s.
In fact, before I joined the education side of design, I heard many times from hiring managers that they can immediately tell if someone comes from a bootcamp because they have cookie-cutter portfolios.
If the design industry is a non-creative industry, that would have been fine. If we are an industry that requires the passing of certification exams, this would do the job.
But the reality is, the design industry looks for creativity, a lot of it.
Especially with an increasingly competitive hiring landscape, having portfolios that look similar to 500 other candidates is almost like trying to get found as “Waldo” and not even have the red-striped shirt on.
This is part of the reason why some highly-selective companies, especially creative agencies, still prefer candidates who graduated from famous (and expensive) art schools because they have had the time to really focus on honing their craft and building a unique body of work.
It Inadvertently Perpetuates Lack Of Diversity In Design
This inadvertently perpetuates the lack of diversity in design — if a student doesn’t have the financial resources to attend an expensive 4-year degree program or a bootcamp with high price tags, they cannot break into the industry.
That’s part of the reasons why we still see so few socio-economical and racial diversity in this industry.
The annual Design Census report (2019 edition) released by AIGA said that only 3% of the designer population surveyed was Black. Nine percent was Asian and 8 percent Latino/Latina/Latinx/Hispanic. The overwhelming majority was White.
While Caucasians take up roughly around 70% of the population in the US, Black designers are disproportionately low compared to their population percentage, which is around 13% as of 2019.
From my personal experience as a designer, educator and part of the racial minorities in the US, I saw the same representation.
In most of my classes, the vast majority of students are white. In most of my past design roles, I had white colleagues most of the time.
If we don’t make design more accessible to learn, the problem will only persist.
Students Still Don’t Get To Learn The Business Of Design
Another big problem that exist both in higher education and in bootcamps is that neither teach students how to run a design or creative business themselves.
While not everybody will be (or want to be) their own boss, it is a great career option for those who desire to build their own products and carve out their own paths.
But the reality is, the vast majority of entrepreneurs had to teach themselves because no one taught them how to run a business at school.
If we can teach extremely complicated academic subjects in school as we have been doing for centuries, why can’t we teach entrepreneurship? And why don’t we?
In fact, in one of my conference talks, I showed a quick case study I did relating to the lack of business classes in design schools.
I did a quick survey of design major classes on the websites of the highest-ranked design schools in major cities in the US — most of them lack business components.
Of the few that do offer such classes, they were presented as electives and usually available towards the last semester of senior year.
Talk about treating business as an afterthought!
One advantage of bootcamps over college is the fact that they do offer more career development opportunities. Classes are usually taught or created by working professionals with up-to-date industry knowledge. There is always a career services component to the curriculum.
But we still don’t see business classes.
Instead, when creatives (and people from any other industry) dive into the entrepreneurship scene, they are bombarded with ads from “gurus” and coaches that supposedly can help them navigate the business world.
Shouldn’t students get the option to explore entrepreneurship when they invested in education?
I certainly think so. And that became part of the core offerings of my school.
Education Should Be Individualized, Not Mass-Produced
I started taking instrument and singing lessons at a young age.
One of the things I love about my music education was how personalized it was. It helped me learn the craft better and understand my creative identity on a deeper level.
The arts have never been a “standardized” field, and will likely never be. While design is not art, there certainly is a component of it.
It only makes sense that the education side of it is personalized as opposed to standardized and mass-produced like products on assembly lines.
The goal of my article is not to trash bootcamps, because they are a viable and convenient option to change careers quickly.
As a design educator, my goal is to provide an option that is much more personalized, affordable and serves both the job-hunting and entrepreneurship community.
I love the fact that our industry is flexible and doesn’t require extensive post-graduate education. I love that anyone who loves creativity has a shot at entering our industry.
That’s why I am making it my mission to make that happen for as many people as possible in a more accessible and individualized way.
The future of the creative industry depends on how we push it forward, and I hope we can do it together.