Brook Lynn Fraser is at a crossroads.
An audio recording engineer who is interested in moving into digital design, she has been taking courses at Santa Monica College and was planning to transfer to another school to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“It’s hard to find interaction design as a bachelor’s option,” she said, adding that many jobs in graphic design require technical knowledge of user experience. “You find classes here and there, which is really bizarre because it’s such a rapidly growing field.”
But Fraser, 33, might not have to go elsewhere to pursue her new career.
SMC has submitted a proposal for a four-year interaction design degree in the wake of state legislation to create bachelor’s programs at 15 community colleges, and students and educators are anxious to find out whether it receives approval Wednesday.
“It would be awesome,” Fraser said. “It’s so hard to find actual classes in it unless you go to a private school or training seminar, and for the most part that’s not affordable. I was planning on moving, but if this program happens I would absolutely consider staying in Los Angeles.”
SMC views the potential degree as a victory for the area tech industry and as a gateway to upward mobility for its socioeconomically diverse student population. It could also serve as a possible model for future four-year programs at community colleges.
The college feels it is “perfectly positioned” to roll out a four-year degree in interaction design, citing high student interest and Silicon Beach connections as well as a new facility and knowledgeable faculty.
“This is an extension of our efforts to create pathways for our students to exciting careers that will pay them well, and a beautiful partnership with the local tech industry,” Dr. Jennifer Merlic, SMC’s Dean of Instruction, said in a press release. “They’ve told us that this is an area where they have an overwhelming need — where they want to hire our students, at the BA level.”
The legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year stipulates that the academic programs must address local needs, and SMC’s proposed degree was designed specifically to meet the demands of the booming tech industry in Los Angeles.
Three years ago, SMC president Chui Tsang attended Santa Monica’s annual State of the City symposium and sought input from area businesses on how to make the school’s courses more relevant.
“He was asking people from the tech industry, ‘How do we support this new tech scene? Let us know what we can do,'” said Grace Smith, the college’s public information officer. “Ever since then there’s been this very active involvement and conversation between the city, the chamber, SMC and local tech, and this is all a result of that.”
According to Jennifer Taylor, Santa Monica’s economic development administrator, the so-called Silicon Beach area hosts more than 2,400 tech, entertainment and creative design businesses and employs more than 20,000 people in the city.
Interaction design, also known as user experience design, is an evolving field that plays a major role in creating websites and apps that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing for digital consumers.
Internet giants and social media companies rely heavily on these concepts, and there are hundreds of jobs available in the market. The median salary for UX and IxD professionals in Southern California is $115,000, according to a 2014 salary survey by the User Experience Professionals Association.
SMC officials pointed to the ongoing involvement of major corporations and local start-ups at the college. Microsoft, Amazon, Warner Bros., Disney, Fox, Sony, ABC, NBC, Paramount and Lionsgate, among others, have all expressed support for the proposed degree.
Santa Monica College officials believe they can handle the administration and execution of a four-year degree because of their current course offerings and available instructors, calling it a “natural progression” for a graphic design program that has existed for about 45 years.
The school already has certificates in graphic and web design, so many of its students are enrolled in lower-division courses of the proposed bachelor’s program, such as visual design, user experience, web design and mobile design.
According to SMC data, in 2013-14 more than 700 students completed two or more core courses of the graphic design associate’s degree, 200 finished at least six classes and 52 received degrees or certificates in the discipline.
The college stated in its proposal that students entering the interaction design industry need four years to develop the necessary creative and critical thinking skills. If the four-year degree is approved, however, students will still be able to earn associate’s degrees and certificates in the field.
The four-year degree would involve four full-time and several adjunct faculty members as well as a full-time counselor and technical and clerical staff.
The college does not anticipate trouble in finding qualified teachers among its current crop of more than 300 full-time faculty, although it would likely bring in sector professionals to keep students up to speed on industry strategies.
“It’s amazing to be able to offer that,” said former SMC student Jill DaSilva, who now works at General Assembly, a tech training school in downtown Santa Monica. “They’re going to be on the forefront and a go-to place for lots of students.”
Meanwhile, SMC’s proposal highlighted the infrastructure and resources that will enable the school to provide a four-year degree.
The design technology department temporarily moved out of the Academy of Entertainment and Technology to allow for renovations, which are scheduled for completion next year. The facility will include seven computer classrooms, an open lab with more than 80 workstations, seven editing portals and collaborative project spaces.
Students will also have access to creative design software and a variety of other equipment, including a three-dimensional printer.
Students have voiced enthusiasm and excitement about the prospect of a four-year interaction design degree at SMC.
Many of them are either returning to school to switch careers or seeking advantages in the job market.
“Sometimes they don’t even know this field exists,” Smith said, “and then they start exploring based on their interests and come up on interaction design.”
That was exactly the case for Casey MacAllister, whose boyfriend is an engineer who writes apps.
“He’d make an app and I’d peek over his shoulder and critique it,” said MacAllister, a current SMC student who hadn’t heard of interaction design. “I looked it up and was like, ‘Where has this been my entire life?’ There are actually people out there whose job this was.”
MacAllister, who had been working full-time before starting at SMC, is now taking a beginner programming class to beef up her technical knowledge and hopes to continue in the proposed degree program.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” she said. “Assuming SMC gets this, it’s a monumental, life-changing thing for a student like me.”
DaSilva, the former student, had moved from Orange County to take classes at Santa Monica College because she felt they offered skills that would lead her to employment.
She started out doing flash animation, was recruited for a design job by a start-up firm through LinkedIn and parlayed her new experience into another design gig. She tripled her salary within a couple years.
Still, she said she would have considered pursuing a four-year degree at SMC if it had been available while she was in school.
“Knowing the instructors there, I think SMC can pull this off,” DaSilva said. “The quality of education there helped me excel quickly.”
Alisha Ippolito, a graphic design student at SMC who works in Silicon Beach, wrote in a letter to the school that a four-year degree in interaction design would allow her to stay in Southern California while affordably learning new skills in her field.
Portia Iversen said the existing design technology classes at the college, where she has learned Adobe Illustrator and InDesign, have given her new job opportunities. She added that a four-year program “would be a real game-changer for so many students.”
Orhan Basak, who has worked on personal projects involving user experience, is currently studying advertising and graphic design at SMC but would rather pursue a bachelor’s in interaction design.
“I feel like I have been searching for this exact degree,” Basak wrote, “but I could never find a school that totally fit my needs.”
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