Archive for December, 2006

A culture change is needed – but in industry or academia?

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

One of the issues that keeps coming up in my current research project is the complaint from certain sectors of the design industry that they are not seeing the same quality of graduates that existed before (in the mythical ‘olden days’ presumably). I posted last week about how I thought that was so much rubbish, and could even be argued against using basic maths.
The complaints are based on anecdotal evidence from employers but there are two real problems with this: firstly, it’s anecdotal evidence. If things were really so bad then the British design industry would be in the pits, so there’s no actual evidence of such a decline. Secondly, it’s been said for years – in fact I can’t remember a year when exam results in the UK weren’t met with a press release from the Confederation of British Industry moaning about falling standards.
What we really mean by falling standards is that I can’t believe kids these days don’t know when the Battle of Hastings was, or who Edward Heath and Richard Nixon were. Whereas I remind myself that when I was sixteen I couldn’t do half the things today’s kids can, the ‘suits’ confuse trivia for knowledge. I suppose if you were recruiting on the basis of putting a winning pub quiz team together you could rightfully complain about ‘falling standards’, but otherwise, I’m not sure you can.

Anecdotal evidence has its value, mind you. I’m a big fan of it (especially when it supports my point of view!) and I think it’s wrongly frowned upon in academia. My own anecdotal evidence, based on many conversations with students and graduates, suggests that contrary to what employers are saying, we are producing ‘quality’ graduates. And I agree that employers aren’t seeing them. How can both sides of the story be true?

Simple: the qualities, not the actual quality, are changing, and the things that mark out a high quality graduate these days, certainly in graphic design, are cynicism and scepticism, a healthy distrust and dislike of the way a lot of businesses work, and a growing preference for a job and lifestyle that contents them, rather than propels them on a glittering career and wealth. (I suspect those things may change as they get older, of course…)
In other words, the reason a lot of design firms in the UK are complaining that they are not seeing the same number of top quality graduates applying for jobs is not because the quality of teaching has dropped, but because those graduates are more choosy about who they go and work for. The tradition in the design industry of undertaking unpaid work placements, and then accepting poorly-paid ‘trial periods’ is something that today’s cash-strapped and culturally-aware graduates are no longer willing to take part in, and a good design graduate would rather take a post in an independent coffee shop than work in a soulless office all the hours God sends for little or no pay (this is what the ‘suits’ call ‘passion’ incidentally).

And that’s not a crazy comparison, as though working in a coffee shop is a really menial thing just one step above being a designer. As Richard Florida points out in The Rise Of The Creative Class, in today’s cafe culture jobs like this are seen as fulfilling ones for the people you meet, the conversations you have and so on (we’re talking about arty, independent cafes here, not your greasy spoons and chains). While ‘suits’ think having a workforce of waitresses and hairdressers with degrees in English Literature is a sign of educational oversupply, I think it’s a sign of a society that values knowledge and creativity.
It seems odd that the body that represents the creative industries in the UK seems hell-bent on stamping out the very things it depends on, not just because designers use them, but because so do clients and consumers.

These thoughts were reinforced for me today by an entry over on Florida’s blog. It’s worth noting that Creative and Cultural Skills, the body I’m talking about, uses Florida to make their case about closing courses, building artificial communities of creative people servicing communities of bio-scientists, businessmen and so on. It’s clear they’ve never actually read his book beyond the introduction, if that. In calling for things such as a more business-oriented approach to design education, less frivolous (i.e. no fun, I assume) and less interdisciplinary in social terms, they actually contradict a lot of what Rise suggests is needed to nurture creativity. He makes the points again today in response to an article in the New York Times:

Three things crossed my mindas I read the story and scanned its pictures, which interestingly enough appeared in the fashion and style section and not the business section.

  • (1) You can’t pump creative work out of people, assembly-line style.’ Motivating this kind of mental work requires a new kind of’ workplace, one that appears to be nurturing,’ attuned to individuality, and ‘fun’-‘ a trend I dubbed ‘soft-control’ in Rise.
  • (2) It’s a mistake to see this stuff as all frills and perks. Companies are doing it because it is increasingly required to attract top talent.’ Offering a stimulating environment, flexible work hours, and the ability to be ‘yourself’ is an effective and relatively ‘cheap’ way of competing against, say, investment banks and hedge-funds.
  • (3)’ Scanning the photos, I was struck by the similarity between these new work-spaces and college dorm rooms, where so many of these high-tech companies come from, or even the play-spaces of middle age teenagers. Could it be that the demographic trends toward postponed marriage, extended single years and what Ethan Watters dubbed the ‘urban tribe’ are being projected into the work-place?

(Via The Creativity Exchange.)

Those graduates the industry say they are not seeing will not magically show up because you put a pool table in the studio or let people play music (something, incidentally, that drives me mad – I would never work anywhere I was subjected to other people’s music!) but only when the entire culture of the employer changes. And yet there’s a long way to go before unpaid placements, long hours, ‘flexible contracts’ and other strange practices are consigned to history. Will these things ever happen? Well it’s telling that the industry bodies think it would be easier to force university courses to turn out exactly the type of graduates they want (i.e. willing to work for nothing, over long hours, and with little job security) than to change industry practice.

Another reason why the ‘business’ approach to design teaching is wrong

Saturday, December 30th, 2006

I think [design schools] have a good shot at helping the university turn out capable innovators. They are better positioned, for instance, than [business schools].

For one thing the design schools believe in consulting carefully with the consumer […] the design field believes in ethnography, and this method flourished there well before its present popularity in business research circles.

For another thing, the design school believes in culture.

As it stands, the business school tends to think about the product or brand in terms of utilities, functions or benefits. Brands and products create value by doing work in the world.

From Grant McCracken via Richard Florida

How graphic design writing causes problems in student learning

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006


Earlier I mentioned that there was a need for the design industry and press to ensure it reflects more closely the realities of how design is produced and consumed.
One example worth looking at is the book Dialogue: Relationships in Graphic Design by Shaun Cole. This book intrigues me because designer/client relationships is a particular research interest of mine. Unfortunately, none of the examples cited in the book matches up with my own experience of designer/client relationships, either as a designer myself, or as a researcher on the outside looking in.

That’s because the book focuses exclusively on the ‘prestigious’ end of the market. All the clients and designers here are well known, or share certain cultural backgrounds, knowledge and tastes. It’s an interesting book, and I heartily recommend it, but with the proviso that it is an accurate description of a tiny aspect of the graphic design profession and you don’t have to move far outside that little world before you begin to encounter the sort of horror stories recounted on Graphic Design Rants.

But this is a massive problem in graphic design – just about all the writing on the subject focuses on a tiny proportion of the industry. I would wager it’s not even a classic 80:20 split (where 80% of writing about graphic design focuses on 20% of the industry), more 99:1.
This is what I meant when I mentioned the focus on ‘the visual’ and ‘heroes’ in my last post – pick up any design history book and the link between it and the truth of how design is produced is infinitesimal – which is probably why there’s little market for it among most designers themselves, never mind the general public (pace Rick Poynor). It isn’t quite fiction, but it’s not far off when compared with the experiences of 99% of designers and their clients.

Take a look at the index of Dialogue and you’ll see what I mean; it’s a roll call of the great and the good: Jonathan Ive, Ken Garland, Bjork, Madonna, Steven Spielberg, Dream Works, Saul Bass… not one mention of the everyday realities of getting graphic design produced – finance, trademarks and copyright, spreadsheets, negotiations, chasing clients for copy and images etc etc.
But it’s books like this that students read, and that give them their impression of what working in graphic design is all about. If employers think graduates lack a sense of realism they blame people like me, the teachers. But I, like so many of my colleagues, am constantly placing design in to a real world context, but we’re fighting against this tide of publications that ‘big up’ design and attempt to make it sound sexy and arty and heroic. And the biggest culprits in this mis-selling of the job of graphic design? Industry. It is seeking to reposition itself, to give itself a legitimacy (academia has a big role to play in this too – the elevation of design to academic status means it has needed to develop a sense of history and it has done this by borrowing it from the art world). This legitimacy comes from ignoring the dirty little secret, that graphic design exists at a basic, fundamental level in society and commerce and instead focussing on prestigious jobs and clients.

It’s no wonder that potential clients for design are turned off by what they perceive as irrelevant (a major threat to the future of the industry), but equally it’s no wonder that employers complain that graduates have no understanding of the context in which they will work. They’ve been lied to for years, reading articles in Creative Review and Grafik that try to hide that dirty little secret. Yet it’s those self-same employers who encourage this, by trading in prestige and taking part in profiles and case studies that contribute to the idea among students that ‘business skills’, of the sort CSS says should be taught, are irrelevant

Funny, though, how it’s teachers who get the blame.

Why design students reject lessons on legal and business issues

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

Creative and Cultural Skills (CCS) claim that UK design courses are not teaching the right things and cite copyright and trademark issues, and accountancy and design management as examples.
Now let’s ignore the obvious problem with this – that you can’t on the one hand claim a big threat to the UK design industry is ‘amateur designers’ and then claim we should be producing designers who are also ‘amateur lawyers’ and ‘amateur accountants’ – I would imagine our colleagues in those disciplines would think it odd that we try to teach their specialisms in a few weeks).

On one course I taught, all level 2 (one year before their final year) design students were given a talk by a representative of a government-funded agency established to help people in the creative industries with copyright and trademarks. They also received a series of talks from a similar agency on issues such as finance, pricing jobs and setting up in business. The response from students was that the talks were ‘interesting but irrelevant’. (Personally I found them to be highly relevant, but then I’ve got nearly 20 years of experience).

Clearly CCS are wrong in this instance – students are being taught the things they say are important and by specialists from outside academia (CCS claim, among other things, that academics shouldn’t be teaching but that specialists and practitioners should – I’ll come back to that bizarre argument another time).

But the problem is not, as CCS claim, with the teaching, but with the learning – and this is one of the reasons CCS’s claims about education need to be questioned, because they demonstrate a fundamental lack of pedagogical understanding. The question that needs to be asked is why do students perceive these topics to be irrelevant?

I propose two reasons: the first is pedagogical – if you do not assess something, then you can ‘teach’ it all you want but the likelihood it will be ‘learnt’ is low. And other than setting examinations to test theoretical knowledge of these areas, the opportunities to assess practical knowledge are few – the only real way is to experience them, something that could be done on work placements (but rarely is as hosts tend to put placement students to work on menial jobs rather than shadowing graduate-level areas) or in an actual job. (The role of employment in ‘completing’ an education is ignored by CCS who seem to believe that a graduate should be ‘ready baked’).

The second explanation is important. Initial research for my paper suggests that the graphic design industry rarely, if ever, discusses aspects such as copyright or trademarks in its communications. Indeed, a study of a sample of Design Week, Creative Review, Grafik and Eye found no mention at all of any of the issues CCS identifies as ‘threats’ to the future of the industry (e.g. accountancy skills, design management, law etc). (My focus in the paper is the graphics industry – whether it applies to other areas of design remains to be seen).

Without doubting CCS’s assessment of the problems it is clear that their proposed solution – to teach them more – is unlikely to succeed if it cannot first persuade the design industry and the design publications industry to change its public focus from ‘the visual’ and ‘the heroic’ to the ‘nitty gritty’. If students’ perceptions of the design industry are changed at this level then the job of courses will be made much easier. When we try to teach students about the realities of the practice of design, they reject it as irrelevant because that’s not what they’re hearing from the industry and, after all as CCS say, what would academics know about ‘the real world’?

At the moment, many courses do teach these aspects, but with little success – not necessarily because the teaching is poor but because students understandably believe them to be irrelevant. Those courses that do not teach these areas are arguably making a wise choice as there is little point expending valuable resources with nothing to show for it.

CCS, instead of blaming design courses for a lack of awareness of these issues among graduates, needs to pressure the industry and design journals to be more reflective of the realities of the business of design before it can make claims about, or force changes on academia.

Academic and Vocational Qualifications – what’s the difference?

Monday, December 25th, 2006

One of the big problems we face in design education is the still popular notion that degrees in design are ‘vocational’. They aren’t. A degree is, by definition, ‘distinctively academic’, no matter what subject it is in.
Unfortunately, this is generally forgotten or even unknown to a large number of employers, students and – worryingly – teachers.
In the UK we have what’s called a ‘qualification framework’ which is overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). This lays out a range of qualifications and levels defining (admittedly in quite woolly terms) the difference between what a student on the first year of a degree course should be expected to know compared with, say, a final year student, or an MA student. (The fact that a first year undergraduate should not be expected to have the same level of understanding of a topic as the post-grad teaching them is sadly forgotten by a significant number of teachers).

There are two basic types of qualification: a vocational one, and an academic one. Neither is better than the other, they are simply different, intended for different purposes. I can’t do the system justice by boiling it down like this, but essentially a vocational qualification should be your choice if you want to do something without necessarily understanding the bigger picture, while an academic qualification takes in the bigger picture but may still enable you to practice – though the possibility of you practicing the subject is just that: a possibility, and not a given.

So if you want to be a lawyer, you would choose a BA in Law, but if you want to work in one area of law, or advise people, or run a law firm, a vocational qualification might be the ideal choice (vocational qualifications are – or should be – designed to be studied while the student is working if necessary).
Similarly if you wanted to be a researcher in art or design history, a BA in the subject is ideal. But if you want to run a museum then a vocational qualification in museology might be better.

What I don’t think many people get is that you can have an academic qualification in a vocational subject, and a vocational qualification in an academic subject. And this failure to ‘get’ it is why we have degrees in some subjects when they should be vocational qualifications (in the UK the two main types of vocational qualifications are the Higher National Diploma – HND – and the Foundation Degree – FdA – which is largely replacing the former).
Design educators who claim a design degree is ‘vocational’ are missing the point. There has to be a difference between a BA and an FdA, and the difference is the type of things studied and the depth to which they are studied. A BA in graphic design is not simply a two year FdA with a dissertation on top and a bit more time to work on your portfolio, which is exactly what a lot of design degrees are.

To give an example, there are many many design students on BAs who would be much happier on FdAs – and many design teachers who would be happier teaching on them too. Equally there are many design students and teachers who would love to study and work on academic design courses but find themselves trapped in poorly disguised and mis-labelled vocational courses which aim only to turn out designers.

The problem is that the industry recruits graduates for ground-floor jobs, then complains that the graduates are not ‘right’ for the job. That’s because the job isn’t graduate level. But instead of doing what the FdA was designed to do – giving employers a say in the creation of qualifications that suit their needs, and enable them to recruit someone from school and send them on a part-time FdA while giving them real-world experience – they continue to recruit graduates and seek to influence what is taught and how it is taught. In effect, the design industry appears to be trying to turn degree courses in to FdAs and HNDs instead of simply sponsoring new vocational courses.

There is enormous value in studying design at degree level, but there are too many students who simply want to work as designers without understanding the bigger picture, (and, conversely, not enough people who see design as a legitimate area for academic study). That’s not their fault – it’s ours, and industry’s (for insisting on degrees for jobs that don’t need them). Worryingly, there are many design degrees which do not actually meet the criteria for a degree, simply being vocational training courses stretched needlessly over three or four years.

I don’t agree with Creative and Cultural Skills that there are too many design students – the more people who study design the better design will be understood by clients and consumers (Margaret Thatcher knew that, which is why she insisted that craft and design be part of the national curriculum in schools).
But there are too many people on the wrong courses, and too many courses of the wrong type. What CCS should be doing, instead of criticising academics and trying to shut down courses and prevent people from studying design at degree level, is telling its constituency to stop recruiting graduates to non-graduate positions, to begin recruiting people at a younger age and sponsoring them through a vocational qualification (instead of criticising school curricula as well as university courses), and respect the value that design studied in an academic environment brings to the industry and the world in general.

Nailing the myth of graduate quality – with a bit of simple maths

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

A few weeks ago I attended the Competitiveness Summit 06, organised by the Design Council to mark the anniversary of the Cox Report. On the whole I enjoyed the day and got a great deal from it. Some things rankled with me, however, and I suspect I will write about them over the next few weeks.
In particular was the number of times the old myth about graduate quality was trotted out, especially by a representative of Seymour Powell, the product design firm. I have to say this chap managed to cram into five minutes some of the most insulting and patronising crap I have ever heard, and if what he said was any indicator of the response he and the company gives to applicants for jobs, I’m not surprised they’re having difficulty recruiting! (But of course it is all ‘our’ fault – academics who apparently are out of touch with ‘the real world’ – unlike anyone sitting behind a Mac in a design studio, for example).

Anyway, back to this myth. It is claimed by many people, especially Creative and Cultural Skills that the quality of design graduates is decreasing – it isn’t as good as it used to be in ‘the good old days’ basically. They offer no evidence for this, interestingly enough, and base the claim on two things: anecdotal evidence (of the type spouted by Seymour Powell), and the conclusion that as there are more design courses, students and graduates than ever before ‘it stands to reason’ that quality must be suffering.

I can offer my own anecdotal evidence to counter that: it isn’t. Each year I am amazed to find the quality of graduates getting better, despite the fact that I tell myself it must be a statistical blip – surely this year can’t be as good as last year? I haven’t met one educator who agrees with the assessment that quality is suffering – only that the qualities themselves are changing, and this is one of the central arguments in my forthcoming paper.

But I wonder why companies like Seymour Powell believe that quality is getting worse. The conclusion I’ve come to is actually quite staggering, and I want to save it for January (sorry about that), but for now let me share with you a really simple ‘proof’ that the myth of graduate quality being linked to increased student numbers is wrong.

Remember that the claim is ‘the number of quality design graduates has decreased sharply in recent years’ and that the co-relation to this is the equally sharp increase in the number of students. (If you study statistics you’ll know instantly what the problem is with this hypothesis).

Let’s assume, for the sake of ease, that twenty years ago there were 1,000 design graduates each year (the actual discipline is irrelevant). Let us also assume that of those 1,000 graduates 250 were what might be described as ‘high quality’.
Now come to the present day and say that the number of graduates per year has increased tenfold to 10,000.
If the proportion of ‘high quality’ graduates were to drop equally dramatically, from 25% to only 2.5% there would still be 250 high quality graduates. In other words, even if critics are correct and the proportions are suffering, the actual number of high quality graduates in a worst case scenario remain exactly the same. Given that this is a worst case scenario, the actual truth must be that rather than the number of high quality graduates diminishing, as claimed so loudly (and believed by many), the number has increased.

This certainly ties in with the anecdotal evidence from within higher education and, believe me, academics are not known for their Pollyanna attitudes – I have worked with some real sceptics in my time and even the worst grudgingly admit that standards are at least as good as they ever were and by most accounts so much better.

The claim by certain sectors of the design industry that the number of quality graduates is diminishing is, to use some frank and un-academic language, bullshit.
What my research is suggesting is that what these people are seeing is a change in the number of traditional graduates applying to them – they wrongly jump to the conclusion that this is a sign of bad teaching and over-supply of graduates. It isn’t. What it is, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until mid-January to find out…

Why the Chartered Society of Designers does not get design

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

I’ve been busy researching the relationship between the graphic design industry and academia recently for a paper I’ll be giving in London on Jan 5th. This has invovled analysing the role of ‘Creative and Cultural Skills’, an organisation that claims to represent employers and makes several broad claims, which basically boil down to the ‘fact’ that university courses in design are no good and that industry knows better. (It’s a little more complicated than that and I’ll post more about it after the conference).

One of CCSKill’s partners in their campaing is the UK Chartered Society of Designers, an organisation that has been around for quite some time but until recently has not had much of a profile in the design industry. This is changing, largely because of the CCSkills campaign to replace academic skills in the industry with ‘practical’ skills.

One policy of CSkills and the CSD is to create a licensing scheme for practising designers. I have a real problem with that: licensing practitioners is protectionism (funny how when other people do that we cry foul, but see no problem in doing it ourselves).

The aim of CSD is to remove unlicensed designers from the market because a) they are taking business from ‘professionals’ and b) they produce bad design that serves clients poorly.
These are strange assumptions that are not borne out by reality – a simple check would be to see if CSD members only ever produce ‘good’ design and never have disgruntled clients. I imagine ‘no’ would be the answer to both those points.

But why would anyone want to be a member of the chartered society of designers? And why would anyone use such a person?
One of the arguments commonly heard in favour iof licensing designers is that similar schemes have worked in other areas, with architecture and gas fitting being commonly cited. Membership of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is seen as a badge of quality, and it is difficult to practice as an archtitect in Britain without membership.
Membership of Corgi is a legal requirement for anyone fitting gas appliances such as boilers and fires. Rather than it being a badge of quality, it is a badge of competence – to gain membership you have to pass an exam and demonstrate that you understand basic concepts and theories regarding, among other things, carbon monoxide poisoning. It is illegal to fit a gas appliance without Corgi registration, but such registration does not mean that a member will not make a mistake, or do a bad job in future.

Now it makes sense for someone who is having a wall knocked through to check the qualifications of the person doing the job – after all, a bad job could be fatal. Similarly, it makes sense to check that someone fitting a new boiler knows what they are doing for the same reasons – a bad job could kill someone.
You would have to have a massively enlarged sense of the importance of graphic design if you believed you had to use a member of the CSD to have your new restaurant menus produced, or your new business card and letterhead. Or your small ad for the local paper.
No one, as far as I know, ever died because a menu was badly designed. There is no comparison between graphic design on the one hand and archtecture and gas fitting on the other.

There is no doubt that some clients would seek out a CSD member to do their design for them, but for every one who does I imagine there would be another ten who either wouldn’t care (or even know) about CSD membership, and several more who would actively reject the notion of employing such a person because they would assume they were too expensive.
CSD membership has many benefits but the most important one is a sense of belonging – because membership is based on peer approval it must feel good to get in, and the prestige or social capital it brings is what you exchange the membership fee for. What it is not is a guarantee of future income, nor is it a guarantee to the client of a good job and good design.
You have to invest a lot of time and effort in gaining CSD membership and maintaining it – this is time and effort (and therefore money) that a lot of designers cannot afford and that a lot of designers simply do not need to expend, because they are managing quite well without being a member.

It all comes back to the idea that the CSD is essentially a club for graphic designers, nothing more. As such I have no problem with it. I have occasionally pondered joining but I’m not sure what I would gain from it, or even that I would be accepted (are my clients prestigious enough?).
But the notion that the CSD wants to grow into a licensing body so that the message going out in future is that only members should be approached for design work in future is a dangerous development. It is, to repeat what I said earlier, protectionism – an attempt to counter competition from a perceived threat of amateur and untrained designers and to improve the quality of design, as determined by the design elite.

The licensing will extend to education too, with the CSD having a role in approving courses in the same way that RIBA does and, by implication, closing down those that do not adhere to its policies and curriculum, or worse limiting the number of courses on a supply and demand basis – if the CSD doesn’t need any more members then presumably they will not license more than a handful of design courses. This is wrong and worrying on so many levels.

My prediction is that colleges and universities will split – some will seek out membership as a marker of prestige but then be shocked when the local FE college also gains membership (as it will, largely because FE colleges are traditionally more willing to change curricula to suit local employers’ needs). This will then result in universities deliberatly not seeking membership and moving to distance themselves from the CSD, perhaps even forming their own organisation in direct competition.
When I suggested this, one senior member of the CSD said this was fine ‘it’s a free market’. Which sort of begs the question, why seek to ensure that the market to buy and practice design is anything but free?

(Incidentally, it’s worth noting that there are major ructions going on between some architecture courses and RIBA over their approach, and similar things are happening in the world of psychology where courses are rebelling against the British Pyschology Society).

Let’s go back to that assumption that untrained designers are bad designers and need to be stopped. It is more a case that the design industry simply does not get design – people go to ‘amateur’ designers because they want a cheap, quick job without any pretentions or angst over typeface choices. They also go to such designers because they are happy with what they get. Are we seriously saying that a local cafe needs to go to a design studio licensed by CSD to get its Christmas menu designed? Is the local hardware store owner really going to be forced to go to a CSD-licensed agency to get its three-page web site done?

Design is subject to the free market in so many ways, and any attempt to restrict the market, to protect ‘good’ designers from amateurs through a licensing scheme somewhat misses the point. Before it can hope to license designers and courses, those in charge of the Chartered Society of Designers need to do a little re-education of their own and try to get a better understanding of how design is really produced and consumed.