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.

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