The first email I received from Ritesh Gupta was at 4:30AM. This could mean one of two things—he’s one of those founders who gets up early to start his day (a habit I’ve always coveted, but never been able to execute), or he’s pulling an all nighter due to the sheer volume of work on his plate. Gupta confirms it’s the latter. “I wasn’t ready for the on swell of reception on my posts, so I’ve been feeling that adrenaline for quite a while.” The “on swell” is due to the huge wave of support he’s received for his new venture, Useful School—a pay-what-you-can, online design school for people of color, teaching the soft skills that design degrees don’t often touch. Need to learn how to construct an invoice, or write an engaging email? Useful School has you covered.
Gupta’s fascination with education didn’t begin at art school, but through its absence. “My parents would not allow me to go to a design school—I wish I [had been] able to go!” After attending school for business economics, his design sensibilities were piqued when working at Wieden+Kennedy as a social media strategist, and becoming good friends with designers who introduced him to “how design can help inform how a client feels.” He left W+K wanting to design the products that they were advertising, and is now Senior Director of New Product Ventures at Gannett/USA Today, having counted Mother Design, Felt Not Heard, and Sagmeister & Walsh as collaborators. Through mentoring young designers, and volunteering at the Where are The Black Designers conference, Gupta realized that so much of what held designers of color back—a lack of network, eurocentric design curriculum, micro aggressions at work—could be tackled through one venture. On a transatlantic Zoom call only a few days into the new year, I probed into why he’s chosen to forgo sleep to help designers of color smash the glass ceiling.
I’ll start with an easy question—why did you found Useful School?
My parents would not allow me to go to a design school—very typical of Indian families who are more traditional. That’s one of the challenges designers will have unless we target young students pre-college. We’re not just doing graphic design for the sake of vanity, it really impacts what we use. It wasn’t until I was able to actually prove to my parents, who want to brag about me at dinner parties now, that I could actually make money and have a realistic impact.
We’re not just doing graphic design for the sake of vanity—it really impacts what we use.
In 2019 I made a speech at the Brand New conference in Las Vegas, where I took the AIGA design census, and presented on the challenges that branding folks are having within the space. One of them was related to the fact that we’re seeing a very slow uptake of people of color get into the industry, and an alarming rate of folks leaving due to discrimination, micro aggressions etc. Afterwards, Forest Young said, “I really liked your speech—you need to address this issue.” So by the beginning of 2020, I had a prototype.
Why focus on education as a way of combating these systemic issues?
I’ve noticed folks talk about education as something they’ve had a poor experience with, whether being stuck with student loans or income share agreements, so the school had to be affordable and accessible. I also knew it had to be centered on people of color, because nearly every design school curriculum is very white-focused. That’s starting to change, and there’s been a lot of validation with the work Dori Tunstall and others are doing. But I figured given my resources, and the fact that I love watching people grow, I felt like it’s my duty to do this at a larger scale.
What alternative education models did you take inspiration from?
I saw Oriel Davis-Lyons who founded One School, and what he’s been doing with getting Black folks into advertising. The model of cohort based learning, all centered around people who look and talk like the students. And out of the first cohort, 80 percent of the students actually came into the industry, which was really encouraging.
Walk me through how you designed the curriculum and the culture you’re curating in the classroom.
The fact that we have only people of color in the meetings is going to make [people] feel like nobody is watching or judging, and that we can be our full selves. The way I teach is very non-formal. I’m swearing, throwing Kendrick Lamar memes in the chat and asking how it can relate to design; things that are not typically done by a professor at a traditional design school.
The classes will be focused on the softer skills that are preventing folks from either opening up their own studios or getting promoted and advocating for themselves. For example, designers have to create an invoice and they want to make it look unique. So we’re going to create an invoice, but all the typefaces have to be designed by people of color. I’m not only trying to create deliverables that would be useful in a graduate’s real life but also put a spin on it when possible to make it centered on POC. I’m aiming for something similar to One School, where 80 percent of grads are jumping into product design or related fields.
With traditional universities, there can be a vague expectation of what the reputation might gain a student, or what kind of education they’ll receive—it doesn’t hold the degree accountable in the same way. Do you see Useful School as being an addition to the traditional university model, or a replacement?
For the first cohort, almost everyone is already an incredible visual designer in some way, but I’m interested in taking folks who don’t have experience with design and seeing what that looks like. Eventually I would like to scale the classes in such a way where this could actually be a legitimate alternative to a traditional four-year education. There’s challenges, like building up the name, so parents feel comfortable with their kids jumping into something like this. It’s more of a long term thought, but I know firsthand that you can get an incredible education by either creating your own curriculum or learning something alternatively. I’m also in active conversations with schools on how we could partner—this could look like Useful School coming in on a semi-frequent basis to help seniors prep for the real world, for example.
I know firsthand that you can get an incredible education by either creating your own curriculum or learning something alternatively.
I’m interested in how you recruit teachers, fund the classes, and publicize the school?
I plan to be the lead instructor for the first cohort, and I have a waitlist of folks who want to instruct, which is incredible. All the guest speakers are people of color and have been helping to get the word out themselves. This includes Mitzi Okou from Where are the Black Designers, Armin Vit from Brand New, Shakeil Greeley and Azeez Alli who are two of the cofounders of Design to Divest, and Annika Hansteen-Izora.I made two Linkedin posts, one of which got around 50,000 views, which has led to hundreds of applicants, the vast majority who are Black and Latinx.
The business model is currently capturing funding from three different sources. Number one is the students themselves. I’m not using that as criteria to say oh, you can pay a lot of money, you’re accepted, but purely using it as a way to keep the students accountable and making sure they’re actively thinking about what they can contribute. I’m also receiving funds from those who cannot take the class but who want to see younger designers thrive. Thirdly, a lot of companies (including Spotify and Cash App) themselves want to sponsor students in addition to other benefits. So if a student can’t pick up a full tab of what they feel it costs, I’m actively reaching out to a select group of agencies and other companies to consider sponsoring students for those who can’t pay a decent portion.
For people of color, this idea of parental approval, or the role family has in your life is so much more dominant than it might be for a white person—how do you think that impacts the pathway into industry that people of color have?
There’s going to be a decent number of students (that I’m actually one of), who do something without telling their parents because they know they’re going to get pushback, then tell them about the exciting news after, which makes the conversation so much easier. The other types of students are people who want to get that external validation before they come to Useful School, who might be a college student still relying on [family] for support in a variety of ways.
Once we have a shift in the conversation of what designers are producing, culture will continue to evolve in the right direction.
What’s going to be important for them is to [see] previous cohorts that have landed amazing jobs. [I often say] that design and branding has a branding and design problem—people don’t understand what it actually means when you’re designing something. People of color have a harder job [at explaining] that they’re doing an honest day’s work and contributing to society. You don’t have to be a doctor or an engineer to be working within the healthcare system and designing an app that could save lives. One of the most common reasons for death in the US is human error. How can designers help address that through products? Once we have a shift in the conversation of what designers are producing, culture will continue to evolve in the right direction.
In what ways are creating a network of students and alumni that employers can have access to?
One of the benefits to sponsors are that they have first access to the set of portfolios that students create. It’s also natural for people of color to stick together, especially online—Somewhere Good and Ethel’s Club are really exciting spaces. There’s going to be a significant number of graduates of Useful School who want to make a concerted effort to help students get into their company, or tell them to go elsewhere if where they’re working is problematic. Then there’s the relationship between the students and myself— after students graduate, I have a system in place to check on them regularly to make sure that they’re feeling like they’re able to hit any milestone that they set for themselves.
How do you plan to instill longevity into the project?
I’m interested in working [with] more leadership-oriented decision makers at companies. They will naturally have a higher budget to contribute, which is exciting because then the conversation becomes about having other people of color that are thriving in companies supporting the younger designers in the beginner classes. I’m also considering starting an external agency that allows students to get paid to learn. That means Useful School actually has clients that are asking for design work and the students and graduates are getting compensated for that.
What is the one thing that you want students to fall in love with in terms of the design process?
I don’t want designers just going to Adobe Fonts and pulling the most popular one off the rack. I want them to think about what that font means to the design community. If your go-to resource for type is looking at type foundries that are POC-led, that helps more people of color get into type design, because now they’re getting funding for it. So changing our approach to creating an invoice, brand strategy or a UI system will help many people of color, and that’s a very different way of approaching design than many of the other institutions out there.
Interested applicants for future classes can apply here, and interested sponsors and partners can contact Ritesh at firstname.lastname@example.org.