Interview: Nathan Shedroff of California College of the Arts

Nathan Shedroff

More business schools are adding design to their curricula, but only a couple programs cater to designers and creatives. We spoke with Nathan Shedroff, chair of the new Design Strategy MBA program at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, about what people working in the creative industries can get from doing an MBA.

Where do your students come from?

Around 70 percent of the students have a design background; that might be fashion, graphic design, interaction design, industrial design, or maybe a little architecture. The rest have a non-design background but all have an affinity for design. They might work for companies in non-design capacities but these companies use design strategically or are design-aware.

For someone in your program without a design background, will they learn design as well as business?

They will definitely learn more about design as they go through the program, but we aren’t a design program, and we don’t actually teach design skills in the traditional sense. There’s nothing about color, type, layout, etc. We often talk about those issues in classes, but they aren’t learning those design skills. Instead, they learn strategic design skills: design research, design thinking, managing design, managing companies, etc.

The first year of your MBA program has only just begun, but where do you expect your grads will end up?

We expect they’ll end up in one of three places, depending on what they’re interested and what the economy is like. We expect a small percentage of students will start their own companies, probably based on whatever their thesis is. That’s not for another 16 months, so it’s hard to gauge.

We think the bulk of our students will end up at the design-related consultancies that do strategic design. And they’re crying out for people to bridge the gap between design innovation and business. A big part of it is helping clients understand what the process is, and what needs to be done, and to be comfortable with it. And then there are the skills of managing innovation. Consultancies are searching desperately for these people. Not only is it hard to find people with this experience, but strategic work is much more profitable for them, as well.

Plus, much of the traditional design work is moving over to China at the moment. Graphic design not as much yet, but product design and industrial design is moving over to China rapidly. Interaction design is starting to follow, as well.

And where else might your graduates land jobs?

Strategic design companies. Companies that already use design strategically: Apple, Target, Nike, BMW, Proctor and Gamble, the kinds of companies that already know how to innovate and already value innovation. We expect that group to grow in the next few years. There may be companies we don’t normally associate with design-led innovation that will be looking for that a year and a half from now.

Will there be more MBA programs for people with a design/arts background or interest in it?

It is a trend. We were lucky because we are a small school and we could invent it from scratch. It wasn’t easy, but easier than trying to do this at a large, established school. That’s why we got up and running so quickly.

Stanford has d.school now. Rotman has Designworks. You see a lot of programs that are tacking a design component onto their business program as an option, and that’s the easiest way to get this up and running at a school. And they’re great but, essentially, they’re one or two courses in design thinking. The other 14 courses are the same old courses.

We were able to build a new curriculum from scratch and have design, innovation, and sustainability in every course, and I think you’re going to see more of that. I just think it’s hard for big schools and colleges to move that quickly.

Our students get accounting, finance, economics, operations, etc. but we have the opportunity to infuse it with innovation and sustainability. We don’t think it would be helpful to just give them an economics teacher to teach them the way it’s taught everywhere else. Why not bump it up a couple levels and have environmental economics, ecological economics, and talk about it in the context of how you help a company innovate?

(Photo courtesy: Nathan Shedroff)

3 thoughts on “Interview: Nathan Shedroff of California College of the Arts

  1. Andy

    Very interesting, especially his point about the program being build from scratch, allowing it to really concentrate about design and business(as opposed to the programs at established b schools). but the problem is, that CCA is essentially a arts schools and not a b school, and it is only accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), a fact that would have an impact on the job prospects of graduates. i think that at this point it is probably “safer” to go for a program from established b schools offering concentrations in design. only time would tell if the CCA program is worth something as a carrier booster.

  2. Pingback: MBA Programs in Design and the Arts – MBA a better understanding!

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