Dr. Leslie Jensen­-Inman from Center Centre on Design, Learning, and Tech in Chattanooga

center centre leslie jensen-inman

Welcome to the “New Tech Cities” series at OSTraining.

In this series we’re talking about cities that were rundown but are re-inventing themselves, and using technology to do so. We’re trying to get to the bottom of the questions, “What does it take to turn around a struggling city?” and “Can technology help?”

Our initial focus is on the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Scroll to the bottom of the post to see links to all the articles in this series.

This week we’re interviewing Dr. Leslie Jensen­-Inman whose perspective bridges the gaps between education and industry.

Dr. Jensen­-Inman is a maker of awesomeness and a doer of good. She improves the state of design education by connecting industry, education, and community. She is a designer, speaker, author, and educator. Leslie is the Co­founder and Institutional Director of Center Centre.​ She earned a doctorate in Learning and Leadership with a focus on design education and designing for good.

center centre leslie jensen-inman

Have you had a dozen different career paths, jobs, and educational goals … or just one?

Designing and learning are at the core of who I am and influence what I do.

When I was about five years old, I was learning how to write my ABCs. I mean really write them. On proper thick­ruled paper. I was focused on getting my letterforms just right. To achieve this goal, I would write and erase the letters over and over again. So much so that I would wear through the paper and have to start all over again.

When I was five, my mother didn’t scold me for erasing through the paper. She didn’t say, Leslie, you have to stop…this is crazy. Instead, she bought me more paper. She recently told me, I didn’t know it then, but you were kerning—you were letter­ spacing. (I have a pretty awesome mom.)

When I was a kid, my very first job was mucking out horse stalls. It wasn’t a sexy job, but I learned an important lesson early on—there is a right way and a wrong way to muck out a stall. I was fortunate to learn from someone who had experience mucking out horse stalls. I learned their process, and I didn’t get kicked by a horse. Early on, I learned how important it is to work with and learn from people who know more than I do.

At some point, I realized that I’d rather push pixels than manure. There were a lot of steps between mucking out stalls to becoming a designer.

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of different jobs. The variety of work requires me always to stretch and grow my skills. I enjoy learning new skills because I enjoy being a lifelong learner.

My first job out of college was at a design studio that had multiple printing presses on site. I’ve made documentary films. I’ve run a camera for live, local television. I’ve worked for a public relations firm. I’ve run my own design, marketing, and public relations firm. I’ve co­authored and creative designed a book. I’ve spoken around the world about design and technology. I was an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for five years. And now, with J​ared Spool​,​ I’m designing and running the user experience design school Center Centre.

These varied experiences helped me to understand the importance of being a part of a mixed team with people who have a lot of experience in a lot of areas. This understanding has proved vital as I expanded my skill sets from designing for print, to designing for screen, and now to designing a school.

welcome to center centre

Are you involved in the tech scene in Chattanooga?

I’m involved in a lot of technology, design, and education initiatives in Chattanooga. (The amount of initiatives!) What I’m involved in is always in flux. Currently, I serve as a board member of the Chattanooga Tech Council. I serve as an advisory panel member for the Talent Dividend Initiative. I’m a mentor for CoLab and GigTank. I speak with middle and high school girls through organizations like Girls Inc. and Girls Preparatory School. I was an active member of C​hattanooga Forward​’s Technology, Gig, and Entrepreneurship Task Force.

In Chattanooga, when you’re asked to serve, you serve. You serve because you can. You serve because it’s the right thing to do. And you serve because working to improve your community with other dedicated people is a lot of fun and extremely rewarding.

There aren’t clear boundaries between what is and what is not the tech scene in Chattanooga. Innovation is in the DNA of our city. And technology is only one part of what makes up our innovative DNA. What really makes our city and our tech scene awesome are Chattanoogans.

The folks in our community are dedicated to constantly learning from what we’ve done. We openly share what we learn. We take what we’ve learned from previous experiences and apply it to what we’re doing. We’re not perfect. We don’t get everything right. However, we’re dedicated to doing better. Each and every time we try our best, and then we determine how we can do even better. We’re a community of lifelong learners. You can see this in the sheer number of events that focus on professional development in all areas of tech and design.

One of the greatest aspects about Chattanooga is how easy it is to be involved in the community. I’ve never lived or visited anyplace else that allows for such easy and complete access to all parts of the community—government, foundations, businesses, and organizations.

This is all part of the reason we selected Chattanooga to be the home for Center Centre. Our school is designed to serve and benefit from the community we’re a part of. We partner with organizations that have real design needs, giving our students practical experience and our partner companies a design solution. And with Chattanooga’s ethos of community involvement, we’re excited to contribute.

center centre street view

How have you been involved in the city’s transformation?

I help connect education, industry, and community. By making these connections, I help create a talent pipeline and shine an international spotlight on our city.

Chattanooga is a project ­based city. We come together and work on projects. These projects often build off each other. Focusing on projects helps us maintain momentum. It helps define clear goals, standards, and measurements. Once we’ve met the goals of the projects, we close the project or move it to a sustaining phase. Then, we move onto the next project.

One project I organized was the WE (Web Education) Rock Summit and Tour. These events allowed the O​pen Web Education Alliance members from around the world to meet in Chattanooga to have and distill discussions into a white paper that contained specific recommendations for how higher education institutions can use standardized Web education curricula to better prepare students for the workplace. ​T​he summit was made possible in part by grants from the B​enwood​ and L​yndhurst​ foundations. The foundations in Chattanooga do an amazing job of supporting design, learning, and technology.

Another project I helped start was Take Root, a tree­planting initiative. The students enrolled in Professional Practices in Graphic Design at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in spring 2008 worked directly with Leadership Chattanooga, the City of Chattanooga, and vendors to create and produce a holistic branding solution for Take Root. By December 2011, $402,300 had been granted to the city to help with the initiative, and this ongoing project continues to help Chattanooga—literally—grow. Take Root demonstrates how a united community can create substantial and sustainable positive change through the use of design.

Chattanooga appears to have rebuilt itself from being a rundown city. What changes have you experienced during Chattannoga’s revival?

You know, in 1969, Walter Cronkite called Chattanooga the dirtiest city in America. And today, with our green technologies and services—like our electric shuttle system—Chattanooga is now an extremely clean city, and I have a hard time imagining what it must have been like.

I walk around the city, going from meeting to meeting, and there is never any dirt under my fingernails. I visit other cities. I walk around and at the end of the day, I look at my fingernails and I long to be back in Chattanooga.

A clean, walkable city allows for a lot of chance encounters. Many days, I walk to lunch or a local coffee shop and run into many of the people I need to touch base with. From government officials to business folks and non­profit leaders—everyone is out and about and open to opportunities to collaborate.

Tell us something about Center Centre. What’s a UX designer and what do you teach your students?

Your favorite websites, phone apps, and kiosks are crafted by user experience designers. The way the design looks, the way it works, how it’s organized, and how it fits into its environment are all the result of user experience (UX) design.

UX designers work on all flavors of screen ­based design. You’ll find UX designers working on messaging applications, information websites, games, and banking systems. They work on customer ­facing applications like reservation systems and e­commerce. They design the systems that employees use. UX designers shape our experiences.

Companies are now investing in better experiences. They’re hiring more UX designers, which has drastically increased the demand for UX talent. R​ight now, there are openings for about 25,000 UX designers in the US alone and, in the next 10 years, the projected job growth of U​X designers is 22%. ​C​omputerworld r​eported​ in 2013 that UX salaries range from $70,000 to $110,000, with the upper end hitting $150,000 and sometimes more.

However, most companies want experienced designers who can hit the ground running. Many hiring managers are unable to train junior talent. This leaves aspiring UX designers unable to gain the experience they need to get hired.

At Center Centre, we offer a two­ year program to train industry­ ready UX designers, to bridge a major skills gap. Through project­ based learning, we create graduates who are prepared for companies in need of UX expertise.

And, by the way, we’ve started a​ccepting student applications.​ We’re working to provide some scholarship funding for qualifying students, and we’re looking for more partners in this area as well.

cc learning lab

True or False: Chattanooga is the coolest city in the South.

For me, it’s true. Chattanooga is the coolest city in the South. There are a lot of other southern cities that are doing really cool things in tech. The South, as a whole, is focusing on innovation in technology, business, and education.

I love Chattanooga. My husband and I can live anywhere in the world (as long as there is high ­speed Internet access). We choose Chattanooga. There’s something a bit magical about Chattanooga. We visited the city in 2005 when my husband, S​haun Inman, ​spoke at a web design conference called Create24. We fell in love with the city, bought a house over the Internet (as you do when you’re a geek), and moved here in 2007.

Chattanooga is a place where you can roll up your sleeves and help get things done. When we visited in 2005, there was a sense that we could make a significant contribution to the city—to the community. That’s been one of my main goals. I do my best to support our community. In Chattanooga, that’s easy to do because so many other people have the same goal.

People ask Jared and me, why we opened Center Centre in Chattanooga. Here’s m​y response.:


Atlanta’s tech community has grown significantly in recent years. What are start­ups and tekkies missing by not coming to Chattanooga?

Atlanta is a thriving city. There’s a lot of neat things happening in the tech and design spaces. The A​tlanta Web Design Group​ is a great example of an organization trying to focus the energy of Web geeks. Atlanta has growing companies—like M​ailChimp​—who are focusing on user experience design.

Chattanooga is different than Atlanta. We’re a mid­size city. Our size allows us to connect easily with people and organizations. In Chattanooga, the cost of living is low. This means it’s

more affordable to live here and more affordable to run a business here. There are a lot of different types of places to live. You can live in animated downtown or on top of a quiet mountain. Either way, your commute is short.

Do any local success stories come to mind?

There are so many success stories. Two great ways to get a sense of the variety of cool projects that Chattanoogans are working on are to check out the fully funded C​hattanooga Kickstarter projects​ and the local PBS station’s, WTCI, program G​reater Chattanooga.​

What’s next for Chattanooga and what would it take to hit those goals?

We have an opportunity to develop our talent pool, our talent pipeline. We can develop our workforce and focus on retaining it. I, for one, would love for us to improve schools K­12 and higher education. We can support new types of educational initiatives that are more suited for personalized learning opportunities and provide experiential learning (learning by doing).

To see these goals come to fruition, we need state and federal governments to understand where education is going. We need parents to not be afraid of kids going to tech and trade schools. We need an understanding in the community that a four­ year degree isn’t always the right choice for every person.

How do you hope to contribute to that achievement?

Center Centre is a project ­based school in a project ­based city.

Building the user experience design school, Center Centre, is one of the largest ways I’m helping the city transform and to rethink education at large.

Before beginning the work of designing the school and the curriculum, Jared and I spent more than a year interviewing dozens of hiring managers to explore their teams’ needs for design­ school graduates. Using our research findings, we’ve created an immersive educational program to produce students with amazing qualities:

  • Students who have all the right skills to meet today’s UX design challenges, from information architecture and visual design, to designing for mobile and working with cross­-disciplinary teams.
  • Students who have practiced the core skills in multiple projects, refining their craft and exploring techniques in different contexts and situations.
  • Students who have learned to pull out the interesting design challenges from any type of project, even those that, at first, appear to be unsexy.
  • Students who have spent their two­ year education working on real­ world projects 75% of the time. These projects have real stakeholders, real end users, and real developers.
  • Students who know what to expect from their first job, because they’ve had an in­-depth exploration of how different companies tackle design, focusing on what’s best and what’s most challenging.
  • Students who understand how a design isn’t finished until it’s built and shipped, having had a chance to take multiple projects through the development cycle and deploy each with real users.
  • Students who have solid interpersonal, communication, and collaboration skills—the soft skills that large organizations require in today’s design world.We’ve designed the two­year Center Centre program from scratch to deliver students with these qualities. With a heavy focus on experiential learning and instruction from the leading experts in today’s user experience design world.

Center Centre students graduate with professional relationships already built and career skills already in hand. Our graduates will have what they need to be an asset on day one to the company that hires them.

We’re building a talent pipeline that meets the needs of industry, connects students and industry­ experts to the Chattanooga community, and keeps our students’ interests at the center of everything we create.

Any final thoughts?

We are ecstatic to move forward with this new approach to education, providing what we genuinely believe to be a better learning experience, producing truly work­ready graduates. If you are interested in joining the movement, we have opportunities for p​artner companies,​ scholarship donors,​ and s​tudent applicants.

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  • Steve Burge

    Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.

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