RED Academy's digital education emphasizes experiential learning and portfolio development

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      RED Academy was founded with the objective of offering opportunities for aspiring digital marketers, designers, and developers to create a meaningful impact on the world.

      RED—which stands for Real Education and Development—takes its mission to redefine education seriously at its Vancouver, Toronto, and London campuses, which specialize in technology and design.

      According to the Vancouver school’s general manager and former lead user-interface (UI) instructor, Julie Tremblay, this is best achieved by embedding experiential applied learning into all of its programs: UI and UX (user experience) design, web and app development, and digital marketing.

      So, how does this work?

      Tremblay emphasizes that in the UI and communication-design program, students must adopt proven humancentric principles of design thinking by addressing a central question on all of their projects: “What human need is this product or service fulfilling?”

      “It’s essential to put the ‘intention’ at the centre of the solution,” Tremblay says. “It’s how we go about creating a solution that will address the users’ real pain points.”

      From there, students proceed through different phases, whether they’re in the UI- or UX-design, digital-marketing, or web-development program.

      The first phase involves a great deal of research. Tremblay points out that there are many ways to gather information, including by conducting surveys or going on field trips.

      She says that as students develop their portfolios, they are also working with community partners—often nonprofit organizations and social entrepreneurs—to create real-world solutions while building a portfolio made of real projects. This is a key element that helps students land jobs quickly, oftentimes before they graduate.

      “We’ve had students in the past going to Whistler when they had a client there, and they conducted a contextual inquiry, which is a research method we leverage in the UX-design process,” Tremblay notes. “It provides them with the opportunity to go on-site and conduct direct research with people who are currently engaging with the service or the product.”

      According to Tremblay, the second stage of the design process is planning.

      “This is when all the designers will take in the users’ insights and also the stakeholders’ requirements, understanding business needs and tying the two together.”

      That leads to the third phase. This involves actually designing a program, product, or service. At this all-important stage, RED Academy students develop prototypes.

      These are shared with the clients and tested with the users to inform further refinement and measure the usability and desirability of the prototype.

      “The testing phase is really, really important,” Tremblay explains. “User testing is how we’re able to assess the quality of the solution that was created through that overall design process. It iterates constantly.”

      The collaborative atmosphere at RED Academy replicates what graduates would find in a design firm or advertising agency. Again, it’s another manifestation of the real-world education that RED embraces.

      When asked if there are any designers who have inspired her thinking, Tremblay cites Donald Norman, director of the Design Lab at the University of California San Diego. He’s the author of many books, including The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design.

      Norman is the world’s most sought-after expert on user-centred design. This concept is rooted in understanding how design can affect behaviour, improve users’ moods, and increase their willingness to use products or services.

      “It solves everything,” Tremblay says. “It’s very powerful.”

      RED Academy also offers students insights into how powerful design can be and how to design ethically with the awareness of the existence of aspects such as “dark patterns”. These are introduced by retailers, game designers, and social-media companies to lure customers deeper into their worlds.

      As an example, Tremblay cites how department stores might deliberately design their floors to increase the likelihood of shoppers getting lost amid all the products. Another dark pattern might be inserted by a casino when it makes it a little more difficult to find the exits.

      Students also learn to communicate an intention through the visual language and observe how this affects our emotions and subconscious. Tremblay compares this to the way that music can affect our mood.

      “There are a lot of musicians at RED Academy,” Tremblay reveals. “We usually wrap up our Friday nights with a jam of guitars in the stairwell. There is really good acoustics there.”

      Staff at RED Academy take pride in how the school gives back to the community through its partnership programs with nonprofit groups.

      The school has calculated that since it was created, it has contributed $3.1 million in value to organizations that would otherwise have been unable to afford to hire UI or UX designers or pay for digital-marketing programs or web development.

      According to Tremblay, it can be a moving experience hearing these stories of social impact.

      “I’ve sat through presentations when the community partners are in tears because they’re so thankful and so grateful for the work that the students have produced—which is going to make a really big difference for them,” she says.

      One of the newest instructors is Briana Garelli, a highly regarded multidisciplinary designer, illustrator, and writer who specializes in branding, editorial and UI design, and social-impact marketing.

      “For staff and students alike, when they set foot in the doors here, there’s often big life changes that happen,” Tremblay says. “The intensity of the program combined with our personal-development program triggers some big epiphanies for people—not only in their careers but in their life in general.

      “That was one of the things that Briana was drawn to: the ability to be part of something like this,” she continues. “While we do all this, the students get trained and acquire a technical skill set, and we also give back to the community through our community-partner program.”