Following Apple's success, many companies are finally starting to recognize the crucial role design plays in building a desirable (and profitable) product. Yet very few companies are actually founded and led by designers. Here to change that is 30 Weeks, a new program by a powerhouse team of New York design schools—Parsons, Pratt, School of Visual Arts, and The Cooper Union—in collaboration with the education company Hyper Island and Google.
"I don’t see it as a disruption of the education system as much as helping the education system, giving them a different way of producing their graduates," Robert Wong, head of Google Creative Labs, tells us. "It's an open source thing. It's more of an experiment that all schools can riff off and build on. It’s almost giving all the schools a petri dish to develop [a new approach]."
30 Weeks is kind of like a cross between a traditional school and a startup incubator. "The design schools and Google said, 'if we pool all of our knowledge and access, we can create something greater than we could alone,'" explains Founder-in-Residence Vivian Rosenthal, a designer-founder herself, of the augmented reality photography app Snaps.
The 30-week program will operate out of a coworking space in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Twenty students will be invited to participate. The only requirements are that they’re designers 18 or older and have an idea for a product.
The "curriculum"—though Program Director Sveinung Skaalnes hates that word—was designed by Hyper Island with input from the aforementioned New York design schools, which serve as advisers. The program will take students through a series of crash courses in business, engineering, and product design, while a prestigious collection of designers, engineers, CEOs, and venture capitalists make appearances along the way to offer lessons they’ve learned in the field.
"This is the real world in some ways. It’s not meant to be siloed, going to some beautiful green campus where you’re remote from the real world," Rosenthal says. "The designers focus on their product from day one. They ideate, validate, iterate. They’re constantly pitching to different audiences, investors, others in the design-tech industry, and the various people involved with 30 Weeks."
The 30-week timeframe is meant to split the difference between the time required by traditional schools and incubators. Incubators often run just three months, while schools can span from one to four years. Students are expected to build their products rapidly, but also have plenty of time for the sort of self-discovery you find in a traditional academic setting.
"We’re hoping they learn and have the time to pivot, to say, ‘that idea I came into the program, that I was so bullish with and was going to change the world with, now is going to turn 30 degrees to the left," explains Rosenthal. "We feel like 30 Weeks encompasses enough time to actually be iterating and constantly taking that feedback you’re getting from various thought leaders and VCs."
Most incubators are free to attend at the cost of some percentage of the student's future company. Students at 30 Weeks will pay $10,000 to attend (though some scholarships will be available). This was a trade-off, Rosenthal explained, because at the end of the program, students will keep 100% of the intellectual property they’ve created. Their business or product is all theirs rather than partially owned by an incubator.
"The idea is, you’re going to be making back that $10k very quickly. You’ll be raising capital. You’ll be able to give yourself a salary," Rosenthal says. "It’s a different model than what we have in America, where you go to school for two to four years and end up in hundreds of thousands in debt, and you don’t leave in the position of leadership to run a company."
Rosenthal and her colleagues don't necessarily see 30 Weeks as replacing traditional schooling altogether—at least not for everyone. They expect their first wave of applicants to range from high school dropouts to graduate-level designers. Their common threads will be that they all have the perspective of a designer and the tenacity of an entrepreneur.
And there's never been a better time for designers to take the reins of their own companies, as coding becomes more approachable, and products are increasingly differentiated by the vision of their design leadership. Just look at Pinterest's Evan Sharp or Airbnb's Joe Gebbia. Both designer-founders have shaped their respective fields, not just through clever business plans or smart engineers, but by carving their respective ones and zeroes into a unique experience.
30 Weeks is accepting applications now for their inaugural session in September 2014.