Design firms don’t just work on design projects; they’re often called on to do double duty as HR personnel, fielding requests from clients for referrals to bright and talented recruits.
Boston-based Fresh Tilled Soil has figured out a way to anticipate the client need for full-time, eager designers with coding chops during projects but also after the formal relationship has ended. Its Apprenticeship in UX gives four paid workers 90 days to balance real-world, real-time client work with road-mapped "challenges," like redesigning the user experience of an existing system such as Twitter, or crafting a typographic system for Adobe’s own site. In the firm’s own words, Fresh Tilled Soil apprentices are pushed to become "bloody brilliant web and mobile product experts."
Why set out to make your low-cost workers so easy to plug into your clients’ offices? Because fostering a culture of mentorship and teaching is a net gain for the firm and its industry, CEO Richard Banfield says:
We know they could go and leave anyways. In the meantime, our [established] staff tend to get better at their jobs, as they refine their understanding of different aspects well enough to teach it. We’re not investing in them and losing them. We’re becoming better mentors, becoming better teachers. It’s a startup way of looking at [employment].
Banfield sees an analogue in how Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer formerly cultivated a circle of leadership while an executive at Google, fully expecting to see her company’s most connected and passionate minds head off to other companies. You may lose some immediate talent, but you seed allies and references around the industry.
To hear Nicole Ajamian describe the 90-day program at Fresh Tilled Soil, it’s akin to flying your own small plane to a definite, if short-range, destination. Internships like the kind Ajamian picked up after graduating from University of Massachusetts–Amherst are more like flying as co-pilot on whichever flight needs you that day—instructive but often random and harder to sell on a CV.
"To actually ship, to be on the Internet with your work, that’s not something many interns get to do," Ajamian says. "[Apprentices] saw the whole process through for launching a project. We worked ideas into wireframes, did the design, budgeted our time. You had to decide if you had a short thing, where you just work until it’s done, or if you had to set a milestone for a client meeting, then regroup after that. All while keeping the budget in mind."
And then there are the apprentice challenges, which you can view in some detail on Fresh Tilled Soil’s blog. Ajamian took on Massachusetts’ jury deferral website. Apprentice Laura Lozano tackled the online bill-pay experience for a regional utility, seeking to fix "broken code, a lack of link hierarchy, and illogical organization." Taking inspiration from the engaging and energy-savvy site Opower and the "intuitive and clean dashboard" at Credit.com, Lozano suggested a site broken up into five main "buckets," with easily discovered links to explain billing and energy usage and much of the bulleted data points replaced with easily grasped graphs.
The apprenticeship isn’t just theoretical redesigns and hierarchy, however. Besides sharpening both sides of their Photoshop and code skills, the candidates receive regular assessments on how they’re managing feedback and pitching new ideas. As Fresh Tilled Soil sees it, understanding the psychology of clients and their goals, as well as anticipating hiccups that may delay the design process, are key tools to reaching the next level of design work.
Some of the questions used to gauge an apprentice’s progress include:
- How do you communicate with all the stakeholders, not just your client?
- How do you make the clients feel like they are providing useful feedback?
- How do you react to extremely negative feedback?
The time invested in refining and grading these soft and hard skills in workers that you likely won’t even hold onto might not make sense for every firm. But Banfield says it’s perfect for his growing Boston agency:
This comparison is going to sound weird, but I’d like for [the apprenticeship] to be more like SEAL training. We’d rather bring in a few people who are exceptionally good at this very particular stuff than build an army of people who are B or C grade on a lot of things.
Ajamian was still working at Fresh Tilled Soil when interviewed in December 2012, having been in the running for one promising position. One of the drawbacks of being the first round of guinea pigs is discovering the tough job market during the holidays after the apprenticeship has wrapped up. Another is having to explain, often repeatedly, the difference between your apprenticeship and the internship concept an employer might have in mind. Ajamian has her pitch down to elevator length:
"It’s a focused program, centered on the skills and experiences you need to be a full-time designer," she says. And there’s real-world experience to back it up, on projects you can see."
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]