The secret of success

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2006

I went to a talk by two university alumni today, organised by the students’ union (a great initiative, incidentally – I spoke to the President and VP afterwards and they were really switched on to the role the union has to play in the future of their members, not just their alcohol intake).
Anyway the two designers in question had been out in ‘the real world’ for a number of years and spoke about what had happened to them since, and how they got where they are today.

And there was a common theme to both their talks: social capital.
Neither made a really big play about talent or skill, but both talked about chance encounters, meetings with people who introduced them to other people, building relationships, the importance of personality…

In other words, while the design industry pressures higher education to squeeze the curriculum with yet more ‘business skills’ like how to use a spreadsheet, how to answer the phone, how to do accounts, how to fix a Mac, how to sew on buttons, how to turn a seam, how to create a rollover blah blah blah, the skills that industry actually uses itself at any level above Mac Monkey and seamstress are exactly the sort of social skills that going to university used to provide but is in danger of losing as the ‘skills agenda’ takes over.

We’re in danger, I think, of producing design graduates who can work out the figures that show they’re about to go bust because they haven’t developed the social skills and the personal assurance and identity that they really need to get on.

There was a telling comment at the end when the graphic designer was asked about the role of technical skills. He’d been asked what he looked for in someone applying for a job: personality, communication and imagination were the top three if I remember correctly. For Mac skills, he said, while they were important to his business, he tended not to look to art school graduates for those.
This is the difference – or should be the difference – between a designer and an artworker. A degree in design isn’t about acquiring technical skills but about understanding the discipline, the people design affects, the role it has to play in society, in business, in the wider world, and – for want of a better phrase – growing up. What he was basically saying was someone who knows their subject, is communicative and enthusiastic about it, will make a far better designer than someone who can work in Photoshop without breaking a sweat but is crap at talking to clients, colleagues or so focussed on learning new shortcuts that they rarely manage to read a book that isn’t about their favourite program.

Moreover, it should be about being a graduate – articulate, knowledgeable, able to grow and continue to learn. Being at university is a rare opportunity to change and thrive; you can learn Photoshop anytime, but as much as society’s attitude to age is changing, your youth is still the best place and time to have fun, travel, experiment learn and think.

The skills agenda being pushed by so much of the design industry is shortsighted in that it threatens to produce mindless graduates far less able to grow their business than is currently the case, but it’s also immoral in that it assumes young people go to university, spend three or four years of their lives and tens of thousands of pounds purely for the benefit of accountants and directors.
University should be fun, relaxed and nurturing, not unpaid labour and cheap training for any industry. Who benefits from that?

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