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College Issue: SCAD's new cutting edge classes
School introduces sustainability and service design degree programs
SCAD senior John Adams' service design project, Maitre-Smart Home Platform for VTech

To keep pace with rapid changes in technology and in the American economy, the Savannah College of Art & Design has added two buzzworthy new degree programs that it says are the first of their kind in the nation.

Part of the school's burgeoning Industrial Design department, the new offerings are a Masters in Fine Arts in Design for Sustainability and a Bachelors and Masters in Fine Arts in Service Design. The first students enrolled in both programs are meeting for classes right now.

We checked in with Industrial Design chair Tom Gattis for the scoop.

I'm surprised to hear that no other school offers these degrees.

Tom Gattis: The Design for Sustainability program is the first of its kind because of its multidisciplinary approach. Most sustainability programs are associated with architecture or graphic design programs whereas ours is crossing over to many disciplines in the college. Industrial design, obviously, furniture design, architecture, interior design, graphic design, are probably the main ones. We'll also tap into fibers and fashion. The approach is about giving students a core set of classes focusing on sustainability issues and theories, and allowing them to pepper in a few directed elective courses that could come from all those disciplines.

Designers from all those fields are being required and requested to have those skills in their pocket now. If we look at all our industries there's a greater and greater emphasis on design for sustainability, whether it's eco-design or social responsibility, or even just something as simple as design for disassembly.

I understand most of the impetus for these new programs actually came from students.

Tom Gattis: SCAD doesn't take the normal approach. That's a good thing from our perspective because students get a voice, and faculty get a chance to champion a cause and move it up the chain so we can develop new programs. Really both Service Design and Design for Sustainability are the result of faculty that were passionate and had an idea or were prompted by a group of students.

The sustainability thing I get, but what exactly is Service Design?

Tom Gattis: The U.S. economy has changed dramatically over the past ten years as we've seen manufacturing move to the far east and to Africa. The economy here has changed towards a service economy, where you see much more emphasis placed on services we engage with rather than manufactured goods. This happened in Europe sometime ago, and they embraced these ideas some time ago, and it's really kind of the hot buzzword starting to come here now.

It used to be that industrial design consulting firms were designing objects and winning awards, but none of those same companies are doing that. Products are a part of their offerings, but it's more about designing services and new forms of research and methodologies that help clients solve problems that are rather wicked. Problems that aren't easily solved by throwing another product into the marketplace.

Let me give you an example. Bank of America a few years ago approached IDEO (a major design firm) looking for help to convince customers to save more money. Savings accounts had dropped and they wanted their customers to build up savings. IDEO at the time was really a product design firm, and they had a bank come to them asking for help in solving a service problem.

What they came up with was the check card that rolls over to the next dollar, so if you spend $1.70, it rolls thirty cents into a savings account for you. And it's more than that particular product offering, because the websites have to be different, and the interactions between customer and customer service have to all be rethought.

Service designers have to solve all these problems, but looking at them in a holistic way. We call those the touchpoints - all those points where the customer is going to interact in some way.

Another good example is Apple with the iPod and iTunes. That whole package of services that surrounds this rather simple little box that plays music is a really complex problem. The fact that I can go onto my iTunes account and it automatically knows who I am and it can suggest music that I might like - it's genius, in fact they call it "Genius" because it's a wonderfully smart idea solution that drives business and makes the experience much more delightful. That's really what it's about - making the experience more delightful for customers.

What kinds of jobs are these programs preparing students for?

Tom Gattis: Some students will go to consulting firms, some will go to large corporations, some will hang out their shingle and become consultants. It depends on the student and what their ambitions are and how they want to apply their craft. Being a consultant gives you the opportunity to work with lots of different companies on lots of different projects, whereas if you go to work for Procter and Gamble or GE it will be more specialized and specific. What we're trying to do is prepare them to go to work the day after their graduation.

What's the difference between an engineer and an industrial designer?

Tom Gattis: It's fuzzy! There's a common debate among industrial designers on just that topic. We're not mechanical or electrical engineers, but we're playing in that world, and we try to make sure our students have a conversant knowledge, as we like to call it. In other words they need to be able to clearly communicate with an engineer to see the intent of their design carried forward.

The world of ten or fifteen years ago where those were separate entities, and designers would toss their concepts over the wall to the engineers - it just doesn't happen that way any longer. In just about every organization designers and engineers are working hand in hand to solve problems.

When many people hear "service design," they'll assume this is preparing students for low-income service jobs. How do you fight that perception?

Tom Gattis: Excellent question, and we've debated a lot about how to promote and market this and convince students to come. I don't have a good answer except to say like all our programs, the proof will be in the pudding soon.

The approach we've taken with our Industrial Design program is to let the public know about the excellent work that's going on within the program and the wonderful projects that students get to work on. We'll take a similar approach with Service Design, but there's a challenge there that's going to be interesting to figure out. I don't think any of us could go into a high school today and say, ‘Everybody that knows what a service designer does, raise your hand.' They're probably going to think hotel worker or something along that line.

And being new to the U.S., that's also part of the issue. If we were operating in Europe we wouldn't have the same problem.