An Interview with Andrew LeVasseur, Head of Experience Design at VCU Brandcenter

At the VCU Brandcenter’s annual recruiter session, there’s a small group of tinkerers and builders and mad scientists who sit in the same room as art directors and copywriters, but kind of off to the side. Instead of ads, their tables are littered with drones and robots, hacked toys and games, tablets with app prototypes. Tangible things, things they’ve actually built. They are a new breed, a new creature in the industry. Until now, they’ve been called Creative Technologists.

I love talking to them about their work. I have a whole different set of questions than when I talk with the art directors and copywriters. Things like “What the hell is this?” “How's it work?” “How did you make it?” “What's this button do?” “Have you patented it?” And, usually in the back of my mind, “Wow, is this even advertising?”

This track—Creative Technology—has just been renamed Experience Design. We caught up with Andrew LeVasseur, the head of the Creative Technology/Experience Design track to get his take on VCU Brandcenter’s approach to technology and user experience, the future of the program and the reason for the name change. 

What’s your background? 
I have worked for top agencies like Razorfish (Seattle) and The Martin Agency (Richmond).  I have also launched and helped grow multiple start-up companies. My brand credits include Barclays, Best Buy, Capella University, Capitol One, Harrahs Entertainment, Hawaiian Airlines, Holland America, Microsoft, Michelin – BFGoodrich, Verizon FiOS, Weight Watchers, among others.
My focus areas include brand strategy, user experience design, information architecture, interaction design, software, information systems and process design, technology and new media, applied research and analytics.

What’s your role at the Brandcenter? 
I joined the VCU Brandcenter as an adjunct in 2009 where I played a large role in establishing the Creative Technology track (a precursor to the Experience Design track). As head of the Experience Design track, I help shape the vision, curriculum and course content.  As a professor, I teach multiple courses focused on strategy, design and technology.

Why the name change from Creative Technology to Experience Design? 
The Creative Technology track has successfully been in operation for 6 years and the name “Creative Technology” has served a specific purpose for the times we were in.  We’re renaming the track to better align with the direction of the industry, the career opportunities for our students, and to reflect more specifically the titles and roles our graduates are assuming in business. 

So what does an XD student do? 
Experience Design students concept, design, prototype and build ‘experiences’ that push the envelope of what is technologically possible.

While at the VCU Brandcenter, Experience Design Students will:
·       Study new and emerging user participation platforms like digital, social, mobile, and experiential (IoT). 
·       Identify new and imaginative ways for brands to engage with users across platforms. 
·       Design ads, interfaces, apps, wearables, robots, flying machines...things yet to be imagined.
·       Balance strategic, tactical and technical project demands to bring ideas to life in both form and function.

Here is the Fall 2015 Course List:

Semester 1: Business of Branding, Creative Thinking, User Experience Design, Physical Computing 1

Semester 2: Strategy & Design, User Participation Platforms, Visual Storytelling

Semester 3: Creating Gravitational Pull, Experimentation, Physical Computing 2

Semester 4: Innovation, Persuasion, Indivituation

What kind of people are you looking for in XD? 
We accept students from very diverse backgrounds and believe that the more variety in experience, capabilities and skills make for richer collaborative design.  That said, we want students who have a passion for business, design and technology, and who are: 

Culturally-Curious/Tech-Forward:  Are you fascinated by the world around you and the impact of
technology and new media on culture and people?
Creative Problem Solvers: Do you see challenges as design opportunities and have the capacity to
find creative design solutions? 
Interdisciplinary: Do you possess a combination of business, design, and technology
experience?  But want to develop a deep specialization and practice in experience design. 
Productive Team Members:  Do you welcome new ideas and play well with others? 
Thinkers + Makers: Are you equally comfortable developing concept, design, and prototypes?  
Strategic, Tactical and Technical: Can you address the strategic, tactical and technical challenges
that come with any complex design project?

If this sounds like you, we're still accepting applications for Fall 2015

How about the students graduating. Can you describe their skills?
Breadth and Depth. You’ve heard it before, but the industry requires talent that gets the big picture, but also brings something unique and differentiated to the creative exercise.  We focus on developing talent that has strong foundation in concept and craft.  Dependent on their unique ambition and interests, our students also develop an area of specialization while at the VCU Brandcenter. For some XDs, it is user-centered design and related UX disciplines (UI, IA, IxD, Front end-development).  While others are passionate about concepting, designing, building and trialing new experiences that push the envelope of what is technologically possible.  While other students are focused on the production of dynamic multimedia content for new environments.  There are so many emerging opportunities out there, that we leave it up to our students to shape their own views and invent their own visions of the future.   

See the portfolios of current XD students and the current student showcase.

Where are some of your graduates working today? 
Since we started, we have placed upwards of 100 CT/XDs.  Our graduates are in high demand and have gone on to work in the top agencies, client-side, and in successful start-up companies.  They work for global brands, on award-winning work, and some have been recognized as leaders in our industry.  Our graduates operate under multiple titles in the industry (and this is a good thing).   

Any predictions on where this track is going? 
This track is uniquely positioned within our curriculum to be looking upward and outward to what is new and next. What are the trends impacting our industry, where might we experience disruption, how does that point to new opportunities for brands, and what capabilities and skills will we need to develop to lead the creative industry?  That is why we will need to constantly evolve, question our assumptions, and expand our base of knowledge and ability.  It is also the same reason we are hard to define.  That might not be a bad thing after all.

In the spirit of change, I’d love to hear from you.

The VCU Brandcenter Master's program, part of VCU's School of Business, has been recognized by Creativity Magazine, the 4A's, Ad Age and BusinessWeek as a top graduate program in advertising, marketing, digital media, and design + business.  

The Brandcenter is known within the advertising industry for its intensity, and the students who graduate from the program earn valuable real life experience to develop brands on a global scale. 

The VCU Brandcenter is more than a portfolio school. Students earn a Master’s of Science in business that complements their portfolio of work. This portfolio could contain ad campaigns. It will definitely contain strategically thought out and creatively conceived solutions to business problems. Brandcenter students concentrate in one of the five tracks. They study within their given track, as well as collaborate with all tracks on team projects that culminate in presentations to their faculty, peers and often real world clients.