Mobile app engineer. User interface designer. Virtual reality developer. Augmented reality programmer. These are among the high-demand jobs of today, with continued growth expected in the future.
Since September, a small group of high school freshmen have been learning the skills for these high-tech careers in a one-of-a-kind program run by Bergen County Technical Schools at Northern Valley Regional High School District’s two high schools, in Old Tappan and Demarest.
The Institute for Interactive Design at Northern Valley was launched last fall to satisfy the growing demand for additional career and technical education programs in high-demand career fields. Bergen County Technical Schools Superintendent Howard Lerner and Northern Valley Regional High School District Superintendent James Santana brought their teams together in a unique collaboration to create the program.
“The idea of starting this program in a regular high school was to give kids more options and more access to career and technical education,” said Andrea Sheridan, the assistant superintendent for Bergen County Technical Schools.
“We don’t have any more room right now in our schools to add another program, and Northern Valley was looking to expand their career and technical education options for their students, so this was a perfect fit,” Sheridan said. “This type of program was something that students were telling us that they really wanted to see as an option.”
The program currently has 42 students and is open to students from throughout Bergen County. Half the seats are reserved for students from the Northern Valley district.
“We’re going to have an internship program like we do in all of our other programs,” Sheridan said. “When they graduate from high school, they can get a job, or they can go to a two-year or a four-year college. We don’t want to lock them in. We want to give them a lot of breathing room to choose different pathways.”
Interactive design combines several different fields, including graphic design, animation, computer programming, marketing and psychology. With technology squarely embedded in almost all aspects of daily life, user experience/user interface design is needed well beyond websites and mobile apps — it has become a critical concern for all types of products and services, from automotive to health care to education.
Anyone who has ever used an iPhone, for example, has experienced the work of a team of user interface designers responsible for the layout of the screen, the icons, the fonts and other elements that make using the device intuitive and enjoyable.
“It’s not to make something that is just beautiful, but to make a product that’s functional and looks good as well,” said Antonina Luppino, who teaches the classes at Northern Valley.
Luppino didn’t consider the design field when she was in high school. She attended Bergen County Technical School, where her academic focus was in law and justice, but her passion was drawing. She studied at Monmouth University, where she majored in interactive design.
After graduation, she landed a job in the design field working for CBS Sports on the “Jim Rome Show” and CNBC on “The Exchange,” where she was responsible for all of the on-air graphics.
When her alma mater decided to start a new program in her field, she jumped at the opportunity to help shape the curriculum and teach the next generation of interactive designers.
During their four years of high school, interactive design students will concentrate on mastering Adobe design tools, including Adobe After Effects and Adobe XD, a powerful UI/UX tool for designing, prototyping and sharing user experience and interactive designs. While interactive designers do not need advanced coding skills, some computer programming will be included in the curriculum, as well.
But the program will extend beyond ensuring students have technical proficiency.
“We focus on learning what this whole field is about, understanding the psychology piece of thinking in the user shoes and making everything accessible for them,” Luppino said.
The value of good user interface design has become even more important during the pandemic, which has forced many people into virtual environments for a good portion of the day, such as sitting in front of Zoom for online meetings — software that has won praise for its user interface.
“We talked a lot about how the pandemic just changed the way everything is now,” Luppino said. “Everything that we’re seeing now is technology-based, and that’s what’s making this program really relatable for students, because we all use these pieces of technology every day.”
Sheridan said one important aspect of the program is having relationships with industry partners. So far, the program has landed partners in Summit-based Trillion Creative and Constellation Agency, a Manhattan-based firm ranked No. 37 on the Inc. 5000 Regional New York Metro List. The program has also partnered with the School of Design at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
“It really brings me great joy to see that high school students now get an introduction to interactive design and product development before they even get to college, to know if they want to explore this as a career,” said Larissa Montecuollo, a partner and creative director of Trillion.
“It was so smart of the school to ask business professionals in this field to look and shape the curriculum,” Montecuollo said. “We have seen the syllabus and the track that the students will take, and we’ve had opportunities to provide feedback on whether it is the right order and whether it reflects real-life applications.”
Montecuollo said the field of interactive design is applicable to any kind of product development and STEM career in the future because it teaches students how to work with interfaces and design for a target audience.
Students enrolled in the program generally consider themselves artists, but look forward to having in-demand skills that will ensure their employability. Their passion for what they are learning comes through.
“In this program, we learn about actual UX/UI design, and that’s really an emerging field,” said Abigail Dennis. “I feel like starting this freshman year and learning how to use Photoshop, how to design apps, how to design your own website, how to build logos and how to build your own brand is really going to help us all in the long run.”
Haley Rodriguez said she doesn’t know for sure if she wants a career in interactive design, but feels the training she is receiving will help her no matter what she decides.
“You don’t necessarily have to go into an art profession,” she said. “I like marketing, advertising and business and I feel like I’ll be prepared for any of those careers after this program.”
Lilliana Mangano said what she loves about the program is that it allows students to use their creativity.
“I love doing this in my free time,” Lilliana said. “I work on stuff for projects every day, just because I love it. I always put time aside to do homework, but for this it goes into my break time, my free time, my lunchtime. This is what I enjoy doing.”
Employers can learn more and express interest in partnering with county vocational-technical schools here: careertechnj.org/become-a-business-partner/.