Empowering the next generation of tech professionals with the Project Lab

What do augmented reality, a vaccine registry, board games and a healthcare software company have in common? The answer is not much – but for the group of design students who recently visited a health tech company seeking feedback on their senior portfolio projects, that was exactly the point.

Design students entering the workforce today are facing very different environments than their predecessors. Just a few years ago, most students graduating from Toronto design programs could expect to land a job working among like-minded peers at a design agency. Now, being embedded as part of an in-house design team is the norm, creating new challenges for designers as they enter workplaces where they are part of cross-disciplinary, collaborative teams.

“We’re seeing design exist within various workplaces,” says James March, a professor at York University/Sheridan College’s Program in Design (YSDN). “When you’re in the education space it’s a sort of silo and haven for your own work, which is incredible in some ways, but in other ways doesn’t always reflect the real world.”

YSDN strives to offer student opportunities that stretch beyond a classroom. On March 19, that included healthcare software firm RL Solutions inviting a group of students to its Toronto headquarters for an evening of feedback on their senior projects. Mentors with equally diverse specialties, including sales, marketing, product management, and human resources, all came to support the students with advice they could apply to real-world practices.

“I came from a finance background, where there was usually only one solution to a problem,” says Justin White, a YSDN student whose project focuses on bitcoin education. “An explorative mindset is really my biggest takeaway from design school, but tonight exposed that even with that mindset, getting outside perspectives can offer a lot of insights.”

The event, dubbed the Project Lab, is part of an ongoing partnership between YSDN and RL Solutions that aims to expose students to diverse feedback on their projects, while giving them a taste what it’s like to work as an in-house designer at a tech company.

The students showcased projects ranging from an augmented reality tool to help people with visual impairments safely navigate the world, to a digital immunization registry and an app to help support people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Not to mention, an interactive map to help people navigate the notorious labyrinth of Toronto’s underground PATH system.

“This kind of experience gives students a real-world application at a juncture of their life when they’re about to leave education and will be speaking about their work to those who are less familiar with design,” says March.

In a series of 15-minute “mentor meet-ups” students received in-depth feedback on their work. Here, Gillian Wu presents her concept for a digital immunization registry.

For some of the students, these projects will end at their graduation showcase in April, but others hope to take them further, now armed with business advice.

A showcase of student projects

Danielle Sheahan

Sheahan’s senior project focuses on the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I designed an app to help people who have PTSD manage their symptoms,” she explains. “It allows them to track symptoms over time, to get suggestions on how to manage symptoms when they’re happening and understand possible triggers.”

The YSDN program is Sheahan’s second-degree, and despite having experience in the working world, she says the evening gave her a chance to consider different perspectives on her project – and to hone how she explained it.

“It forced me to think about how to talk about an idea in a really concise manner,” she says. “Which is great, because I’ll have to do that for all of my projects, whether it’s for our upcoming grad show or preparing a portfolio to apply for jobs.”

Michael Calcada

Calcada is passionate about the intersection between technology and design. His project, an augmented reality tool, was inspired by a personal experience.

“I tried Google Glass and because of my own visual impairment I wasn’t able to use it,” he explains. “That really inspired me to create a project to help people with visual impairments navigate their world.”

Calcada says his biggest takeaway from the evening was the tips he received on how to present his idea to non-designers in a compelling way.

“Storytelling is definitely key when presenting a complex idea like this and there a lot of different perspectives I never considered before – for example, how the product might apply to children,” he says. “The entire experience taught me to challenge my own perspective as a designer.”

“It’s given me great feedback on how to present this idea that I’m so passionate about in a way that will get others excited about it, too.”

Gillian Wu

A few years ago, Gillian Wu cut herself on a piece of metal. She couldn’t remember when she had received her last tetanus shot and couldn’t find her immunization record card, either. This experience inspired her to design a digital immunization registry as her senior YSDN project.

“I got feedback on creative direction and even insights from a former YSDN student [at RL] who’s been in my shoes,” she says. “[It] challenged me to think more about the user experience and user research side and how I can apply different angles to my project.”

Gillian says that she’s still figuring out her plans for after graduation but knows where her passion lies.

“I enjoy problem solving, but especially solving problems that affect people.”

This article is a collaboration between YSDN staff and representatives from RL Solutions.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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