“Design is intelligence made visible,” said author Alina Wheeler. Though she wrote that phrase into existence nearly two decades ago, it remains true — perhaps even more so — today.
As our world becomes increasingly tech-reliant, design is often the first (or only) thing that stands out about a product. It can be the one thing that makes or breaks a business. Design is used to tell a story, solve a problem, and create sticky awareness. The ability to design products, webpages, mobile apps, and other forms of content is a crucial skill we’ve only recently begun to appreciate.
It’s a skill that’s highly sought after, but the talent pool isn’t deep enough to support demand. Thanks to the explosion of online learning, there have been a number of virtual design academies created over the last decade. These programs boast world-class curriculum that place newly skilled designers in roles and set them up for lifelong careers in the exciting, booming industry of design.
We’ve identified five virtual design academies in particular that are shaping the future of learning and creating wider, deeper pools of design talent. They’re inspiration for any prospective founder or operator of a virtual academy, bootcamp, or micro-school not just for their marked student success but for the profitable, sustainable business models they’ve created along the way.
5 design academies that are driving virtual learning communities forward
So often, organizations struggle to bridge the gap between design efforts and big business decisions when, in reality, they should go hand-in-hand. Solving for this gap is what drove Alen Faljic to found d.MBA five years ago.
Alen’s motto is simple: Put people over profit. “We wanted to create something that people would follow through on and have an impact,” Alen says. “And that came back to care. Care is something where it changes the way you approach the whole learning experience.”
The d.MBA team is exemplary of what can happen when you start with your pie-in-the-sky goal. In this case, Alen always knew he wanted to eventually charge $3,000 for this cohort-based business design course. By working backwards from that number, the team was able to create an airtight content marketing plan and an admissions process that ensured only the best and brightest were gaining admittance. Despite the steep price tag, d.MBA’s alumni base has little to say besides rave reviews about the curriculum, instruction, and community support. In fact, the reviews are so good, the virtual line is out the door of folks eager to join the next cohort.
Fostering a tight-knit community of kindred learners has been crucial to d.MBA’s success because they know how important community will be to the future of learning. Alen says: “Right now it's me, teaching you. You are joining because of me. The more we mature as a community, the more it's going to move into, ‘Actually, I'm not joining this because of whoever this expert is.’ The most successful companies in this place will build a model where you're teaching and learning from each other in the community, so it's not just on one person. The best way to learn is to teach, and so I think the future of learning is teaching. It's almost like reversing the model and teaching others how to teach.”
For over a decade, Dribbble has been a hub for designers to find work, share their designs, and join a bustling community of kindred professionals. Creating additional courses and expert-led education for their community was a natural fit for Dribbble, and that opportunity presented itself as we sheltered in place during the COVID pandemic.
The initial response to these classes was so well-received by Dribbble’s community, they realized there was a wide-open opportunity to add an offering to the Dribbble lineup. By next year, they had created Dribbble’s Product Design Course.
The Product Design Course combines elements of other successful virtual learning businesses in their curriculum and structure:
- Individualized learning by pairing learners with seasoned mentors (that you won’t get in a traditional classroom)
- Community-powered learning by creating subgroups and fostering intimacy within them
- Hands-on curriculum that allows the learner to walk away with actual, applicable portfolio work
- Career support upon program completion
This formula is exactly what makes the virtual learning industry one of the fastest-growing and most successful sectors today. It’s the antithesis of what we thought learning had to be and is rather what we’ve wanted learning to really be. The promise of traditional education like colleges and universities was always “get a degree, and you’ll find a job.” We know now that’s not enough, especially in an oversaturated job market. What’s going to set people apart as candidates and as professionals is additional, immersive training from experts in the field and a community of other driven individuals.
For aspiring designers, this Product Design Course is a model of not just a successful business model and revenue driver for Dribbble, but of what the future of learning is aiming to look like.
The Fountain Institute
Design is an ever-evolving role — and that’s what makes it exciting. The Fountain Institute has curated an inclusive learning community under co-founders Hannah Baker and Jeff Humble. “My mission is to empower designers to be sought after for how they think rather than what they produce,” Baker notes in her LinkedIn bio, and it’s that sentiment that encapsulates what The Fountain Institute has to offer learners.
Four live courses break down the different components of design; from conducting experiments to facilitating creative workshops and brainstorms to defining strategy and finally continuing to conduct research, The Fountain Institute has its finger on the pulse of what learning in the future will look like: actionable, career-specific education that cuts out the fluff and teaches folks what they need to learn to be successful in their job. You won’t just learn what the design process looks like by reading passages in a textbook — you’ll be on the ground floor making it happen.
The future of learning is active, not passive, and The Fountain Institute boasts a 9.6/10 course rating and a 98% graduation rate for a reason, with 35% of learners being promoted in their roles within just three months.
1,600 graduates of DesignLab have gone on to work in UX/UI roles at some of the biggest companies in the world, so they must be doing something right.
That something is creating a foundational course for budding designers or beginners to the industry, then graduating them on to UX Academy where they’ll earn the hands-on training needed to be a full-fledged product designer. 480 hours’ worth of curriculum makes up DesignLab’s UX Academy, but learners leave with a portfolio full of projects and career coaching to give them the confidence they need to apply to and find product design jobs. By creating a mentorship program with seasoned designers, learners are supported along the way by DesignLab’s comprehensive training.
Co-founder Harish Venkatesan was inspired to create DesignLab after being saddled with his own college debt and realizing he was interested in a completely new facet of business:
“I graduated college with a lot of student loan debt, so thinking about the education system was top-of-mind for me early in my career. In tinkering with various side projects in the space with my now co-founder Daniel, I found myself wanting to learn more about branding and visual/UI design.“
Will virtual learning replace society’s reliance on college degrees as a requirement for jobs? Maybe, maybe not — but in the case of DesignLab, it could very well be a supplement to career advancement and continuously learning on the job.
Mento Design Academy
Google, Adobe, and FitBit are among just a few of the many companies that Mento Design Academy mentors work at.
One thing about the design community that’s so unique is the willingness to teach, learn, and share ideas and inspiration, and that aspect is one Mento Design Academy leans heavily into.
The Mento team is small but mighty, being founded just two years ago. Already, they’ve built a world-class curriculum and a stellar mentorship lineup that learners have the opportunity to benefit from. Their course design is three-pronged, introducing personalized learning, thorough student and alumni support, and the opportunity to work on real-life projects rather than fictional prompts to create portfolio pieces from.
It bears repeating: the future of learning is community-based. There’s no sage-on-the-stage teaching one-sided wisdom. Rather, learning will take place across groups of people, with everyone sharing what they’ve learned from their unique experience. This is the model Mento Design Lab has mirrored in their already-successful UX/UI design courses by really allowing mentors to lead instruction. They’re a business worth watching over the next few years as the design industry creates more opportunities for fresh talent and, with that, a need for continued learning.
Learn what’s in store for the future of learning from the founders and operators creating it in real-time
Virtual learning wouldn’t be the standout industry it is today if it weren’t for the founders of learning communities and businesses making it happen on their own. As we speak, there are bootcamps, academies, and micro-schools being founded that could go on to become wildly successful businesses — not to mention life-changing programs for folks ready to take control of their careers.
Read our interviews with founders and operators of Learning Empires across the world and what shared philosophies they have on business, community, and driving the industry forward.