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.

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