Here at The List, we’re ever-curious about the culture of design, so who better to survey about the field’s current state than those currently working at the top of it? In Need to Know, a weekly column, we pick the brains of best-in-class creatives to find out how they got to where they are today—and to share an insider’s perspective on the challenges and highlights of their particular perches in the design world.
In 1978, Paula Wallace founded the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) with a clear objective: to create a “purposeful curriculum designed to launch a specific career with specific, highly specialized demands.”
Wallace was primed for her current role as the university’s president by her pedagogical career. Before SCAD was founded, Wallace was an Atlanta public school teacher, a position that, she suggests, is an amalgam of so many other “hats”: “educator, parent, nurse, curriculum designer, interior designer (ever seen a third-grade classroom?), ringleader, entertainer, public speaker, [and] external relations master (parent-teacher conferences!).”
And Wallace is not wrong. The involved nature of public schooling—a system that has normalized employee/employer entanglement so much so that a reported 94 percent of teachers pay for their own school supplies—is undeniable. Today, her university students are recruited for positions with companies such as Apple, Google, Uber, Samsung, Pixar, and BMW, among others, but the “intentionality” behind their education is derived from a singular genesis.
This intentionality is the central idea from which all SCAD’s successes originate. Now, with four international campuses on three continents, over 100 degree programs, and auxiliary fortifications such as SCADPro and a robust events program, it’s safe to say that the strength of Wallace’s initial intention has resulted in a one-of-a-kind institution—and so much of what SCAD is today. In light of SCAD’s 40th anniversary, we spoke with Wallace about the university she founded.
SCAD has just celebrated its 40th anniversary. On this occasion, what aspect of the university are you most proud of? And what do you hope your legacy—or SCAD’s legacy—will be, after our generation has come and gone?
I’m deeply proud of all the new degree programs we’ve created in my 40 years at SCAD. I created the first SCAD catalog practically ex nihilo! We built many programs from nothing and now have more than a hundred. These are degrees that extend into the future, from our very first, in preservation design to new ones in immersive reality (think: AR/VR), the business of beauty and fragrance, and social strategy and management. We’re a university of firsts: the first B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees in visual effects, motion media; the first M.F.A. in sequential art; and much more.
I’’m also proud of our alumni’s 99 percent employment rate. Our mission is to prepare students for their professions, and that statistic proves that we do what we say. That’s meaningful. It’s not just talk. That 99 percent figure means improved lives, families, communities. Productive people doing good work in the world. SCAD touches so many lives. Marriages are made here. Students recruit their siblings. Students start businesses with their classmates. I met a “Pre-Bee” student last week—she’s applied and been accepted. She came to visit the campus with her parents and grandparents. They were all touring, all aglow for her future. You could see it in their faces. SCAD touches entire families!
More than one hundred of SCAD’s buildings are restored. Can you speak to the challenges of that process, perhaps by using the hardest project to complete as an example?
Scorpions. That’s a challenge! We had scorpions in the ancient caves of Lacoste, where we have a European campus. Many of those caves carved into the limestone on the village hillside now serve as studios and workspaces for students and faculty. The caves are ancient, but the technology is new. SCAD Lacoste has the best internet connectivity in the South of France.
There’s also the resurrection and rebirth of the Central of Georgia railroad sheds (the oldest extant depot in the nation, by the way) into what is now the SCAD Museum of Art. It was a ruin with barely a wall remaining. We wanted to keep that wall, which represented the history of the enslaved peoples who built it—some of whom escaped to freedom from that very depot.
And of course, with a museum, you have to create an anti-humidity, anti-desiccant envelope. We analyzed the mortar holding together the historic Savannah gray brick and re-created that exact chemical compound, repointing and replacing missing mortar. You’re both preserving a ruin and building something new within its footprint. That’s my favorite part: the creative challenge of designing within the discipline of the footprint.
In Architecture of a University, you wrote that “SCAD has shaped the practice of architecture, yes, but architecture also has shaped SCAD.” Using the university’s unique preservation design program as an example, can you speak to how SCAD’s immediate environment has inspired both its culture and academic programs?
The entire city of Savannah is a classroom for students in SCAD’s preservation design degree programs. The city’s historic 18th- and 19th-century architecture and Enlightenment-era urban plan have very much influenced the PRES curriculum, at the graduate and undergraduate level.
The B.F.A. and M.F.A. programs are housed in the Clarence Thomas Center for Historic Preservation at SCAD. The Thomas Center originally housed a convent for the Missionary Sisters of the Franciscan order, and the chapel now serves as a lecture hall. The building has lived many lives: convent, orphanage, halfway house, and it also housed SCAD’s sequential art and fibers degree programs. When we repurposed it for preservation design, we transformed the interior into an immersive resource lab. Instead of placing art works by SCAD graduates throughout the building (our usual practice), we placed salvaged architectural remnants throughout the interior—an art deco column capital here, a pressed tin detail there, an array of doorknobs, hinges, hardware. I wanted the professors to be able to take their students into the hallway to point out different details, textures, materials.
Each SCAD building, in Atlanta, Savannah, Lacoste, and Hong Kong showcases an array of building arts techniques and traditions. Our students, regardless of discipline (dramatic writing, fashion, animation, illustration) are immersed in design excellence and vibrant works of art at every turn: color, line, texture. Even when they’re walking to class, they’re absorbing an ethos of good design. Graduates walk directly into professional environments when they leave SCAD, so we want them to experience professional environments here.
SCAD’s global campuses make it an inherently unique art institution. What was the impetus for creating a SCAD-specific, global array of satellite campuses?
SCAD is one university with four locations. We have no satellite campuses! Satellites revolve around something else, whereas each SCAD location is a shining star—generating its own light. Students earn degrees at three of the four physical locations [SCAD Atlanta, SCAD Savannah, and SCAD Hong Kong], and the fourth [SCAD Lacoste] is open four quarters a year for an array of majors and disciplines. We’ve had students study at all four—an elite cadre. I recommend that each student travel to at least two campuses while they’re at SCAD. To study toward your profession on different sides of an ocean, a planet, is eye-opening and soul-expanding.
Back to your question: Why did we create four campuses on three continents? As everything at SCAD, this decision came about from the happy meeting of opportunity and need. In the early 2000s, when SCAD passed the twenty-year mark, we started receiving overtures from mayors, advocates, and chambers of commerce asking us to consider opening SCAD campuses in their cities—Jacksonville, Santa Fe, Charlotte, Palo Alto, Singapore, Dubai. They’d visited Savannah and had seen how SCAD transformed a city from ghost town to modern vibrancy. SCAD brings people, jobs, history, and beauty wherever we land.
Our two international campuses were given to SCAD. The Lacoste campus was given to SCAD by the board of the former Lacoste School of the Arts, whose enrollments had dwindled over many years (enrollment has grown every year since SCAD took over, and SCAD has considerably expanded the size and quality of the campus’s built environment). The Hong Kong campus came about as the result of our winning a bid awarded by the Hong Kong government to rehabilitate a former magistracy. It was a literal contest. Our proposed use and redesign plan won out over other nonprofits.
International campuses add a layer of complexity to operating a university—but the benefits are exponential! Students learn how to interact with new cultures and clients. Their friend networks grow. Friends are very important when building a career. SCAD graduates really root for one another. They hire each other, start businesses together, work together, as SCAD alumni Ciaran McGuigan, Richard Langthorne, and Karl Sjöström do at Orior New York, the Brooklyn location of an Irish furniture company started by McGuigan’s family. (These three designers played together on SCAD’s soccer team, too.)
Similarly, SCAD hosts a string of signature events. What inspired those—and what are the objectives of having event programs from a holistic standpoint?
SCAD loves events! Dreaming up events to showcase our SCAD students and degree programs is one of the great parts of my job. My husband is always saying, “Stop having ideas!” [Laughs] I tried to stop having ideas once. Didn’t work. The truth is, none of our SCAD signature events—SCAD aTVfest, SCAD deFINE ART, SCAD FASHWKND—would exist without the center of our world. SCAD is a university for students.
Each SCAD festivity has a twofold purpose. The first is educational. We want students to feel connected to the professions they’ll be entering. That’s why we invite preeminent professionals to visit SCAD, the preeminent source of knowledge. We host these guest artists, filmmakers, writers, designers, and others to teach our students through masterclasses, lectures, talks. Our students ask great questions (as when they asked Alan Cumming, at last year’s SCAD aTVfest, to talk about practical similarities between preparing for his famous Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret and X-Men’s Nightcrawler). Each signature SCAD event clusters multiple degree programs in one single week or moment. For example, SCAD deFINE ART honors painting, photography, sculpture—all the fine arts.
The second purpose of SCAD events is to honor these professions, to emphasize to students the importance of honoring those who have come before them. We end up creating an army of SCADvocates who help us advocate for SCAD worldwide. SCAD events turn any guest into an ambassador, because you sort of fall in love with the place when you visit. It’s true! Our built environments enchant with art and story and invention. Our hometown communities each hold a special charm. Mostly, it’s the people. Our SCAD family knows how to host. We were born in the South.
Speak to SCADpro, when and why it was created, and how it works in practice.
SCADpro emerged from the industrial design department, many years ago, when our design students began collaborating with companies to invent products. We partnered with Kicker Car Audio to design its European lineup, with JCB to create a new backhoe interior, with VTech to create new product lines for children. We created a new tandem recreational kayak for Hobie. The benefits of these collaborations were many and obvious: SCAD students working with real clients on real projects. They were able to see their education at work, and many of them were recruited as employees and interns. About a decade ago, we decided to implement collaborative experiences in every department, for every student—and established the year-round initiative called SCADpro.
SCADpro now functions like a design agency, constantly generating solutions for the world’s most influential brands. It’s SCAD-ultra—the best and brightest SCAD students and faculty partnering with the best and brightest companies. SCADpro is recognized as the preeminent university partner in higher education and among design agencies worldwide.
Most SCADpro collaborations last a single 10-week quarter, which means that we work faster than most universities. There’s a kickoff event during week one of every quarter, so students and faculty can meet around a table with executives and company representatives. Then teams form, they pitch ideas, they present, refine, prototype, all culminating in a final presentation for the company—sometimes at SCAD, often at corporate headquarters. These are unforgettable experiences for students. How awesome for a recent SCAD graduate to say, during his first job interview, “Well, when I was presenting my designs at Google last year….”
The dichotomy of teaching vs. research university is old and tired and gone with the wind. We research. We dig. We ask new questions. Big questions. We invent. SCADpro is the heart of that. Recent assignments for SCADpro include helping toy company Dynacraft understand its markets, creating legacy films for watchmaker Hamilton, studying hand gestures for UX interface in BMW cars, helping Volvo equip cities for the electric cars of tomorrow. Before they even graduate, SCAD students work with the CDC, NASA, Chick-fil-A, Samsung, YouTube, and others. You can’t beat that.
The eternal chicken-and-egg interview question to young college graduates—”Do you have any experience?”—is answered through SCADpro.
What is the most satisfying part of your role with SCAD?
The intimacy of the work. I get to influence individual students’ lives, helping them find dreams and transform those dreams into productive and rewarding careers. It’s powerful to see what goodness can be made in the world through caring about each individual student and professor, each member of the SCAD team. I receive many heartfelt notes and emails and Instagram DMs from parents who are so grateful to SCAD. I get highly sentimental when I think about it, and I’m truly honored that SCAD plays such an important role in so many lives.
As I said earlier, the 99-percent employment rate of SCAD alumni is the evidence that we make good on our promise to students to prepare them for careers. This stunning success is the fruit of our hiring the hardest-working faculty, evolving the perfect degree programs for this time in history, and providing the most professionally minded learning resources and environments at any university this side of Oz. All to create student success. Too many universities treasure exclusivity. SCAD celebrates inclusivity, where every student matters, where every dreamer is given wings to fly. To see that dreaming happen in real-time is a miracle, and that’s how I’ve spent my days for 40 years now. Pinch me.