Archive for July, 2007

Inappropriate music

Monday, July 30th, 2007

This story today reminded me of a post I meant to make after flying on one of these planes, with the same airline (Flybe), recently.

An aircraft has had to make an emergency landing at Edinburgh Airport.
The Dash-8 Flybe plane had 36 people on board when crew members were forced to shut down one of its two turboprop engines on Monday morning.

The airport was put on full emergency alert after the plane’s captain put out a mayday call at 0740 BST.”

Flybe have an annoying habit of playing music as you board the aircraft, but what’s worse is the speakers are so poor it reminds me of the 70s, listening to the radio on longwave (those of you too young to remember pre-FM or even pre-digital days, you don’t know what you missed).

Anyway, the song playing as I got on? “Buck Rogers” by Feeder. The repeating refrain didn’t fill me with confidence: “I think we’re gonna make it”…

It played twice on the way there, and again on the way back. Inspiring.

I meant to write and complain…

BBC NEWS: Universities lukewarm on Diplomas

Friday, July 27th, 2007

BBC NEWS | Education | Universities lukewarm on Diplomas:

“Fewer than four in 10 university admissions officers see the vocational Diploma as a “good alternative” to A-levels, a survey suggests.
The government wants Diplomas, set to be launched next year, to be a qualification that will allow students to find places at university.

Of those polled, 38% saw Diplomas as a suitable alternative, while 88% backed the International Baccalaureate.

ACS International Schools polled about one-third of admissions officers.”

What’s interesting about this is that I doubt any of the people polled actually read the specs for these diplomas. I think there are many problems with the idea of young people deciding at the age of 14 that they’re going to specialise for the next five years, and the initial choice of diplomas (construction, engineering, health, IT and media) is worrying: it’s not the issue of looking down on subjects such as, say, construction, but the problem is that if a child is at a school that only offers that diploma, then that’s all they can do (or traditional qualifications).

Last year I worked with Skillset on part of the development of the media diploma. My job was to identify what it would take for admissions tutors to accept diploma students onto media degrees. Their assumption was that there was a checklist of skills and knowledge – students should be able to use Final Cut Pro, or Photoshop, or have X number of life drawings in their portfolio, Y number of scripts in a folder and so on.
In fact, as I expected, we found that most admissions tutors appeared to base their decision on ‘cultural capital’ – what films had the applicant seen, who were their favourite directors/designers/artists/authors and so on. Applicants, we said, who were unfortunate enough to live in a town where there was no decent arts scene were less likely to get in to a media degree than those who did – even if those who lived in those areas never took advantage of them. It was more about language, vocabulary and attitude than actual knowledge.

(We observed some dreadful practice, and interviewed some clearly traumatised students. One well-known art college invited applicants from around the UK (many of whom travelled hundreds of miles and even booked into hotels), got them in a hall, told them to leave their portfolios and come back in a couple of hours. When they got back they read out a list of who should go straight home and who should stay.
Another interview procedure at another ‘respected’ university consisted of the student sitting several meters in front of three academics and listening to them spout on about how wonderful the course was and how lucky they were to be interviewed. That student was offered a place and turned it down…)

We recommended that the best thing they could do was make sure any school offering the diploma made a big effort to create links with local HE and FE institutions, as the other big factor in admissions choices was not what the student knew, but where they’d been to school or done their art foundation course. Many decisions on whether to interview a student or not were based on two factors: whether the admissions tutor recognised the school or college they were currently at (which is why certain colleges have good progression stats – nothing to do with their teaching quality necessarily, but more to do with a forty-year-old ‘reputation’); and whether the student had put their course at the top of the list of places they wanted to study (in part, this is an administrative thing, but in many cases is purely about ego).
So PR was more important than anything else in ensuring universities regarded students with diplomas as worth interviewing, and the ability to bluff your way through the interview was the next most important quality. Actual knowledge and skills were way down the list.

This isn’t peculiar to diplomas, incidentally. This is the situation we observed currently.
I think everyone on that panel (and it included people who were high up at the BBC, the British Film Council, Endemol, and many many more, as well as plenty of educators) was a bit stunned by this. Of course I’m being a bit more cynical than I was in the final report which actually put forward some constructive proposals. It is true that schools and colleges need to work on their reputation and the best way to do this is through making contact with local universities. If every diploma provider did that, the reputation of the qualification would go up.

But there is something else that’s important here. When I went to the first meeting on this I have to admit I was sceptical of the whole idea of the diploma and, as I said earlier, I still am – but only with the idea of specialising so early, and the lottery of provision (and more importantly with the idea that students doing this diploma were almost being promised careers in the creative industries at the end of it). When I saw the ideas for the curriculum I was pleasantly surprised: it was extremely liberal, and not over specialised at all. In fact, not at all ‘vocational’. It put many college and university courses to shame.

I can’t speak for the other diplomas in construction and IT, among others. They may be worryingly narrow (IT is a dangerous subject to teach at any time – in 1987 I took an O level in ‘Computer Studies’ which required me to demonstrate knowledge of punched cards… the only time I’ve seen one of those is in documentaries about the old days and, oddly, the occasional science fiction film. And yet we’d been taught about them as though they were still being used…)

But rather than sound the death knell for diplomas because of this story on the BBC, I’d sooner sound the death knell for anyone concerned with admissions who makes decisions like this without looking at the actual curriculum they’re dismissing, and decides whether to interview based on outdated prejudices, and then bases their final decision on whether the student likes the same film directors as they do.
This story tells me the problem isn’t the diplomas, but ignorant admissions staff. At least we’ve got five years before the first ‘graduates’ of these diplomas start to apply to university. I suspect, though, that if they find universities haven’t changed their attitude they’ll just do exactly what most of the industry appear to be hoping, and go and work for them without doing degrees. (In some ways, this would be a good thing if it stops degrees being seen as four-year training courses, but it would also impact on student numbers and, therefore, income).

These diplomas are happening and we have to engage with them, whether we like them or not. I’m surprised (or am I?) at how few academics even know they’re on the cards. Does no one read the educational press?

Bruce Nussbaum: Are Designers The Enemy Of Design?

Friday, July 27th, 2007

I quoted Bruce Nussbaum’s thoughts on ‘idiot designers’ the other day. Here’s a speech he gave recently that, he says, is “designed to provoke design management students.”

There’s a lot I agree with here…

In the name of provocation, let me start by saying that DESIGNERS SUCK. I’m sorry. It’s true. DESIGNERS SUCK. There’s a big backlash against design going on today and it’s because designers suck.

So let me tell you why. Designers suck because they are arrogant. The blogs and websites are full of designers shouting how awful it is that now, thanks to Macs, Web 2.0, even YouTube, EVERYONE is a designer. Core 77 recently ran an article on this backlash and so did we on our Innovation & Design site. Designers are saying that Design is everywhere, done by everyone. So Design is debased, eroded, insulted. The subtext, of course, is that Real design can only be done by great star designers.

This is simply not true. Design Democracy is the wave of the future. Exceptional design may only be done by great star designers. But the design of our music experiences, the design of our MySpace pages, the design of our blogs, the design of our clothes, the design of our online community chats, the design of our Class of ’95 brochures, the design of our screens, the design of the designs on our bodies—We are all designing more of our lives. And with more and more tools, we, the masses, want to design anything that touches us on the journey, the big journey through life. People want to participate in the design of their lives. They insist on being part of the conversation about their lives.

So Lesson One here is that the process of design, the management of the design process, is changing radically. Egos and silos are coming down, participation is expanding, tools are widespread and everyone wants to play. People want to be in the design sandbox so you have to figure out how to get them in and do design with them. This is a huge challenge.

Let’s talk about the arrogance of architects. When I began covering architecture a decade ago for Business Week, we launched an annual contest with Architectural Record. When we were about to publish pictures of the first winners, I looked at all the fancy architecture magazines. None had any pictures of people inside buildings. The buildings were all devoid of people. And most still are. We put people inside the spaces they inhabit. We inserted people into the conversation of their lives. Now, smart architects engage the masses in their designs. They hire firms who do social geography, showing how people really interact in organizations, not what their titles suggest. Informed with this information, they design spaces.

So one Big Design Management Challenge is how do you switch gears from designing for to designing with? Maybe the object of design is not a finished product but a set of tools that allow people to design their experiences for themselves. Think iPod and iTunes. Think TiVo. Starbucks. Fortunately, design has tremendous tools. In fact, design has evolved from a simple practice to a powerful methodology of Design Thinking that, I believe, can transform society. By that I mean Design, with a capital D, can move beyond fashion, graphics, products, services into education, transportation, economics and politics. Design can become powerful enough to be an approach to life, a philosophy of life. But it can do so only when Design by Ego ends and Design by Conversation begins. More on that later.

Back to the backlash against design. Designers suck because they are also IGNORANT, especially about sustainability. The rap against designers is that they design CRAP that hurts the planet. That’s the argument. Let’s take your favorite toy, designed by one of today’s design gods, Jonathan Ive and his team at Apple—the iPod. Apple does fantastic things with materials. Amazing things. And it has recycling programs for its products. But what it doesn’t do is prioritize cradle-to-cradle design. It doesn’t design a long-cycle product that you can open and upgrade over time. It doesn’t design a process that encourages the reuse materials again and again. It doesn’t demand sustainability.

So ask yourselves if you demand sustainability in your laptops, your iPods, cell phones, cars, or houses. There are mountains of computers and iPods and cell phones and stuff—your old stuff—building up in India and Chinas, leaking toxic chemicals. Greenpeace has launched a Green My Apple campaign. Europe tipped green in the 90s. The U.S. tipped green just last year.

I actually think that of all the designers in the US design professions, architects are the greenest. Architects are the leaders in terms of sustainability. Building according to LEED specs is the norm for big corporations. Bank of America is putting up an incredibly green building near Bryant Park. One wonderful green trick– it uses cheap electricity at night to make ice in the basement to cool the skyscraper in the morning. Bring back the ice box.

The broad new paradigm for design—the paradigm you will all work within for the rest of your lives—is sustainability. When you have venture capitalists at the latest TED conference in Monterrey crying, literally crying onstage, about the planet, sustainability is hot, hot, hot. So the iPod is cool but…..

Challenge Your Assumptions. Think about the mink coat. It is beyond cool. It’s sustainable. You feed those little rat-y things with garbage that you throw out or food you grow, you create something that is comfortable, beautiful and gives you warmth for your entire life, you pass it along to another generation or recycle it or simply let it disintegrate. It’s organic, after all.

All you folks in fashion, try and rethink materials. Fashion is one of the most creative of the design fields—obviously. But what does it mean to design fashion within a sustainable context. I think it means changing materials. How can you fashion a fashion process, that focuses on bringing a new line out twice a year, that allows materials to be reused again and again in different ways? Or should designers try and design clothes that last far longer than one season or two? And why are organic materials, bamboo and cotton, so expensive? And how do you price for all of this. Hard questions.

Let me stop and make a suggestion. Skip your next trip to Milan or Miami and head, instead, for the reservation. Visit the Navajo and Hopi, the Pueblo Indians, the Souix and the Cheyenne. These folks lived a sustainable lifestyle long before it became both fashionable and necessary. There’s a lot left to their eco-culture. Learn from them—their contemporary artists in weaving, pottery, painting and jewelry are among the most innovative and creative in the world.

Take the Navajo Hogan, a simple six-sided building. Hogans sit lightly on the land—no 10,000 or 20,000 square foot McMansions for the Navajo. Hogan are easy to assemble, use little energy to keep people warm, and have strong spiritual meaning to the families who inhabit them. Today’s modern hogans are trailors and they are all over the rez. Now think about trailors. They, too, sit lightly on the land, are kind of prefab, and use little energy. In a world focused on sustainability, is the trailor worse than a cool building designed by Rem Koolhass or Frank Gehry?

We need to live the lives we design. Take Al Gore, one of my heroes. Does a great movie on global warming but does he walk the talk with a 20-room mansion and private jets? What is his real carbon footprint? Yes, he buys all kinds of carbon offsets, you know pay peasants in the Amazon to grow trees. But is that living a sustainable life. Can you buy your way to a carbon-free life there if you are rich? Both Davos and the Oscars were full of rich folks flying in on private jets leaving a big fat carbon footprint. Yet both conferences were allegedly CARBON-FREE. What’s up with that?

OK, enough. Now that I’ve insulted designers, allow me to insult myself. In the 90’s, I was the editorial page editor of Business Week. I was the VOICE OF AUTHORITY. Truly, they had an ad campaign revolving around the voice of authority. I did design as a journalistic afterthought, at nights or the weekend. I wrote about design being a force within the business culture. I had a small following.

That changed a few years back. The commoditization of manufacturing and knowledge and its outsourcing to Asia, left US companies unable to compete to make profits. When you can’t compete on the basis of cost or quality, you have a problem. So the business community embraced the notion of innovation. Driving revenue and profits by turning out a continuous series of new things, be they products or services or even experiences.

Wowie. But how do people who’ve spent a lifetime using their left-brain, suddenly shift to using both their left and their right? How do people used to deconstructing old problems into their parts and squeezing answers out of each of them then learn to see problems with fresh eyes and integrate parts of many solutions into one new one. Enter design and design thinking. Over the past decade, design has evolved to become an articulated, formalized method of solving problems that can be widely used in business—and in civil society. Design’s focus on observing consumer/patient/student—human behavior, it’s emphasis on iteration and speed, its ability to construct, not destruct, its search for new options and opportunities, its ability to connect to powerful emotions, its optimism, made converts out of tough CEOs. AG Lafely at P&G, Immelt at GE and many others embraced design. Now Mayor Daley of Chicago and Mayor Livingstone of London are embracing it.

And so am I. I dropped the edit page and launched the Innovation & Design site online two years ago. It’s a huge success. We open-source it and have many partners, including Core77, Dwell, ID magazine and Metropolis. We have the top thinkers and practitioners of design to write columns for us. I blog. We have built a global community around the ongoing conversation of design and innovation (20% of our traffic is from outside the US). And then we did something weird, we launched a new magazine off the website, because we found that many senior managers don’t go online. Surprise. The new magazine is IN, Inside Innovation.

Today, I kind of coach a team of about 8 people, 6 women in their early 30’s, one guy in his thirties, and a women in her twenties (she’s Canadian and a generation ahead of the 30-something sisters in technology). Our process is totally different from the hierarchical way of writing and editing we had just a few years ago. We all write for both platforms—online and print, and do a little TV on the side. Our job today as journalists is to curate conversations among groups within our audience, with Jessi Hempel doing social networking and philanthropy, Reena Jana doing fashion and gaming culture, Matt Vella doing cars and green technology, Aili McConon doing sustainability and motion technology such as wii. We design stories with our audience. As John Battelle said recently, the conversation now is the content. It’s not about the finished story but about the ongoing story. It’s the conversation. And since most conversations don’t have a conclusion, they are ongoing. We live a life in beta.

A final point on language: Innovation and Design. Business men and women don’t like the term ‘design.’ I think they think it implies drapes or dresses. Even top CEOs who embrace design don’t want to call it that. They want to call it ‘Innovation.’ That has a manly right to it. It’s strong, techie. These folks are perfectly willing to use the word ‘vision,’ whatever the heck ‘vision’ is. They like ‘Imagination,’ whatever the heck that is. But they don’t like ‘design.’ Go figure.

I solve this problem by calling it all a banana. Innovation, design, eco-imagination, just call it whatever they want to call it and do your design thing. Because your design thing is a glorious thing that has the potential of changing our lives in a myriad of ways in a myriad of places.”

Incidentally, Nussbaum’s articles on design for Business Week are available here: and there’s an RSS/Atom feed avalable too.

Accidents are part of the design process too…

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Discussing clients’ need to know what the design process is, Michael Johnson writes: “Recently I’ve also realised that a whole series of our projects have almost been designed by accident.

At that critical stage where only a finite series of days remain until the big presentation anything goes in the johnson banks studio, so critiques and commentary and indeed design by accident can happen at any point.

I’ll give you some examples.”

It’s worth looking at the examples, many of which will be familiar to UK readers.
But I want to take (gentle) issue with the idea that ‘accident’ isn’t process.
If you read the stories Michael tells you’ll realise that they are all connected by the fact there is a clear process going on. It’s just that the process is particularly fluid.
And if you extend the case studies to include the briefing, the clients’ identification of needs, the presentation, the production and so on the process becomes clearer.

There’s a difference between macro and micro here, I think. It rained today, but it was generally sunny and very warm. The weather forecast usually summarises: bright and sunny with occasional showers. But if I’d been caught in the shower, which was quite heavy, I’d have said “it rained hard today”.

Erm, that’s not making any sense is it?! Trying to be enigmatic and I can’t quite pull it off.
Let’s try again…

A former student of mine once interviewed several well-known designers to identify their working processes. All of them, if I remember correctly, insisted they had no process and were almost angry at the suggestion they would. For them, the lack of process, the serendipitous nature of their work, was a badge of creative honour. They would pick out individual projects and say “we did it this way on this one” and “we did it this way on another one” therefore we don’t have a process.

But when my student and I read this and looked at the different examples they cited, we could see quite clearly that there was a definite process, almost an habitual approach to the way they worked. It’s just that each one had an ‘aha!’ moment where an idea appeared and was used. This, they said, was accidental. Creativity, then, is accidental and those of us who teach design as a process are evil. (I think one did actually say something like that!)

Reading “Designerly Ways of Knowing” by Nigel Cross (a great book, scholarly and well researched but very expensive in hardback – wait for the paperback) he identifies that a lot of designers actually have an idea fairly early on, discard it, go through a process and then keep coming back to the original idea. But, it seems, they don’t see that this is what they do. Designers are actually quite conservative!

Yet none of this takes anything away from the effectiveness of the examples Michael cites – I like all the designs he talks about.

It’s odd that a lot of designers and creative types assume that creativity is random (and that it can’t be taught). If it were true, no one would make a living from it. But I think it has a lot to do with trying to make out that creativity is a magical and rare talent that can’t be forced.
While that’s okay as a sales technique it annoys me if I hear teachers saying this, as though all they do is ‘facilitate’ a student’s already existing creativity. It’s more than a little lazy.

What is clear, however, from Michael’s introduction to the article, is that clients like to assume there is a clear process to the way designers work. To be honest, I wouldn’t disabuse them of this notion. For one thing, clients need to know their roles and responsibilities, otherwise they end up being nightmares (because we haven’t told them what’s needed). For another thing, if I hired someone to come and do a job for me and they started spouting some of the pretentious crap I hear some designers come out with, I’d run a mile.
You only need to give them the “macro” process, don’t go in to detail about what happens within that. As Cross points out (I think it was him) most people think design is a linear activity, that if you give ten days for a project then it will be half-done at day five, 70% done at day seven and so on. In actual fact, most design occurs in a sort of logarithmic fashion – little apparent progress for most of the project and then BAM! it all comes together at the last minute.

Of course, whether that’s because this is how the creative process works, or because designers are just shysters who piss about for 90% of the time and only work when the deadline’s looming is anyone’s guess… (I jest).

(Or do I?)

Oscar the cat can predict when nursing home patients will die

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

I like cats. But this is one I wouldn’t particularly welcome…

From The Guardian: “The nursing home cat that ‘predicts’ death

Oscar the rescue cat is not simply a welcome feline companion at the Steere nursing home in Providence, Rhode Island. According to a new report in a medical journal he has a remarkable, morbid talent – predicting when patients will die.
When the two-year-old grey and white cat curls up next to an elderly resident, staff now realise, this means they are likely to die in the next few hours.

Such is Oscar’s apparent accuracy – 25 consecutive cases so far – that nurses at the US home now warn family members to rush to a patient’s beside as soon as the cat takes up residence there.

‘He doesn’t make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die,’ said Dr. David Dosa, an expert in geriatric care who described the phenomenon in the New England Journal of Medicine.
‘Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one,’ Dr Dosa added.

According to staff at the nursing home, Oscar began patrolling the wards around six months after he was adopted as a kitten, observing and sniffing at residents before occasionally choosing someone to sit by.

Oscar appeared to take the task seriously and was otherwise quite aloof, Dr Dosa said: ‘This is not a cat that’s friendly to people.’

The Steere home is a dementia centre which cares for people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments.

Another doctor who works at the centre, Joan Teno of Brown University, based in Providence, said she became convinced of Oscar’s talent after he appeared to make a mistake.

Observing one patient, Dr Teno said she saw the woman was not eating, was breathing with difficulty and that her legs had a bluish tinge, signs that often mean death is near.

However, Oscar would not stay inside the woman’s room and Dr Teno thought this meant his correct streak had been broken. Instead, it turned out her prediction was about 10 hours too early, and during the patient’s final two hours Oscar joined the woman at her bedside.

Scientists remain uncertain whether there is any predictive basis for Oscar’s talent, or if there are other factors at work, for example, an attraction to the warm blankets often placed on seriously ill residents.”

Now is it just me or are people missing something here? If I walked up to people who then mysteriously died I wouldn’t be lauded as some sort of psychic, but hauled off for questioning. This is one evil, and probably very rich, cat. Someone should look under its bedding…

Prisoner found guilty of masturbating in his cell

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

From The Guardian:

“It is a verdict likely to cause great consternation to lonely prisoners throughout the US penal system. A prisoner in Florida has been found guilty of indecent exposure for masturbating alone in his cell.

Terry Lee Alexander, 20, of Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, was sentenced to a further 60 days in jail on top of the 10-year term he is currently serving for armed robbery, the Miami Herald reported yesterday.”

It’s worth reading the rest of the story and asking yourself if there aren’t better ways to spend taxpayers’ money and if forbidding indecent exposure in an ‘open’ cell that is being actively watched by a female prison officer isn’t asking too much.

But for me the funniest part is this:

“Ms McHugh (the defendant’s lawyer) asked the 17 prospective jurors who among them had never masturbated. No hands went up.”

Why? What were they doing?

Level 60 at last!

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

Ah, another of life’s little milestones has passed…

I can’t believe I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for nearly two years now, and it’s taken me all that time to get my main character to level 60.
If I’d done it before the expansion that would have been pretty much the end of the game but now I have another ten levels to go…

Although it’s been two years, I noted that it actually took 14 days, 17 hours and 20 minutes to reach level 60 which is pretty crap, compared to some people who clearly have no lives. I also haven’t done any raids so have no epic gear, and I lost the plot with my talent tree so seem to be a ‘Ret Paladin’ which I recently found out was quite lame… I’m such a noob.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about then well done. However, I heartily recommend trying out the demo from Blizzard then you too can experience the agony pleasure.

Here’s my ‘armoury’ specs, courtesy of MMO Guildsites’s new Armoury widget thingy:

Everything has its uses

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

A clever ad, with a pay-off that you have to think about… worth the effort!

London buses

Friday, July 13th, 2007

In my last post I mentioned it would be more cost effective to park a bus outside a few agencies than go to New Blood (the D&AD annual show of graphics graduates).

Well it turns out Loughborough University did both. (Ooh I nearly applied for a job there once! Isn’t Loughborough where the pork pies come from?)

Nikesh left a comment and I used my detective skills (i.e. followed a link) to see his/her blog. Fairly positive on the whole, I think, though there were some negative responses… Worth checking out.

Student shows in London. What’s the point?

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

This post will get me in to trouble with colleagues but here goes…

Noisy Decent Graphics on D&AD’s New Blood show: “I always feel so sorry for the students at these shows. It’s just a really shit way of displaying work. You can never see all the work, you can never see the work properly and you don’t get a feel for what a student is really like.”

Many moons ago, when programme leader for a graphics degree, I found out that the D&AD show was happening earlier than had been anticipated. This caused major problems as, like just about every other course, we geared our year around the show and even devoted an entire module to it (something I thought was completely bizarre, but there you go).
Making a jokey comment I said ‘maybe we should think again about going to this and spend the money on a piss up instead’ or something.

Well you’d think I’d declared war or something. My comment was immediately transmitted to the rest of the team as a decision I’d made (it wasn’t) and over the course of the next few weeks it kept coming up (Them: ‘we think it’s a bad idea not to go to D&AD’ Me: ‘We are going, I never said we weren’t’ Them: ‘We’re going to the Dean’ Me: ‘About what?’ I learnt a lot about the power of office gossip then, I can tell you).

So anyway, it did lead to a big pow wow in the board room, despite the fact that all the time we were going to do the bloody D&AD show.

Later, however, I began to wonder if it was the right decision. Maybe we should stand up to the tradition. After all, the show’s a commercial venture and it’s in the organisers’ interests to get a packed hall. But what do we, and students, get out of it?

Let’s look at the arguments for going that always get put forward:

It gets our students ‘out there’.

True, but alongside every other bloody student too. My marketing background tells me that if you’re selling baked beans you don’t see any point in simply being on the shelf next to all the other baked beans. No, you need to differentiate yourself. The leading brands of beans (bear with me on this analogy!) advertise to create a sense of personality and trust, and pay supermarkets to go at eye level or at the aisle end.
At D&AD you’re put whereever, and even worse every stand basically looks the same because all the students show off the same bloody D&AD competition briefs!

It gets students jobs

Correction: it gets some students jobs. The vast majority leave with nothing except an (even bigger) overdraft from the expense of being there in the first place.
I mentioned this to a group of students recently and one replied “well I got an offer of work” which sort of made my point. One student out of twenty got an offer of work which actually meant a work placement – unpaid except for expenses. (This practice is, incidentally, one that should be stamped out. I’ve known graduates who’ve spent 18 months or more on nothing but ‘placements’, not because they aren’t any good but because it’s becoming the standard method of employment in the design industry. This is the same industry that campaigns against ‘free pitching’ to clients…)

Let’s look at the maths. It costs a few thousand pounds to have a stand at D&AD’s show. Each student needs to pay for travel and accommodation unless they happen to be local. Let’s say that’s an average of £500 each. Then there’s the cost of putting the show together, the printing, the mounting, the business cards. Let’s conservatively put that at £150 each.

I work that out at just under £1000 per student. Even if I’ve overestimated by a massive amount, it’s still a lot of money but I reckon my grand’s a pretty safe bet, when all is said and done. If this were a commercial operation I’d factor in the students’ time too and then it would really start to sting.

So for a student to say it was all worth while because they, out of twenty students on the same stand, got an offer of work, and unpaid work at that, really makes you wonder…

Someone needs to do a cost-benefit analysis here. Compare the cost of going to a show like this with printing off some postcards, boxing them up and sending them off to targetted employers, or even just mailing some good CVs in envelopes (which most do anyway) and I think the whole ‘it gets students jobs’ argument collapses under the weight of simple maths. (It’d be cheaper to rent a double decker bus and park the bloody thing outside a different agency every few hours.)

To repeat: it gets some students jobs, most of those unpaid and on a trial basis and at a cost of several thousand pounds per lucky student…

It’s good publicity for the course

Funny how I’ve never met a student who cited a show like New Blood as the reason they applied for their course…

I’d like to see a proper survey done of how influential London shows are in course choice. I bet it’s minimal.
Of course, if any of the ‘suits’ at colleges started asking for analyses like this they’d be accused of ‘managerialism’ but let’s face facts: if a business spent a lot of money going to a trade show and found that they’d lost cash in the process, they’d think very carefully about going again.
The same is true of the London shows. A lot of design firms go to have a look round, but if you’re not in the market to recruit and you’re not local anyway, you’d weigh up whether it was worth your time and money going just to be nosey. If visitors make that sort of informed decision, why don’t courses?

Everybody else goes

Stop being sheep.





There are advantages if courses are clever. At one university I worked at the students paid for everything and raised money through organising parties at local clubs, art sales and so on. In the process, they undoubtedly learnt a lot of business skills, teamwork skills and more. Mind you, this was a student initiative, not one from the course, and so all those good things were pretty much accidental and unassessed.

I also wonder how courses who make students pay to go to shows can then use the ‘it promotes the course’ argument without a pang of guilt.

My main complaint about the show mentality however remains an educational one. The briefs that are associated with the awards are often quite poor, and the awards themselves are usually given for art direction not learning, which sets up major contradictions back in the classroom because we should be rewarding process, not product. I’m not convinced, from what I’ve been told by a couple of judges, that the same is true when they make their decisions.

I also can’t see what advantage a graduate has when showing their portfolio to potential employers when the poor bugger they’re talking to has to look at the hundredth bit of packaging for this year’s trendy energy drink.

But mostly, it’s down to the pressure on other parts of the course. Try getting students in their final year to focus on their dissertation when the deadline for getting work sent off to D&AD is approaching. In fact, try to get them to focus on anything. Some courses even stop teaching (across all years) to focus on the bloody thing. I know one course that chooses the most likely ‘winners’ and essentially sends everyone else home while all the staff art direct the lucky few to completion. I think that’s not uncommon and it would be interesting for judges to look into this as it creates an unlevel playing field (I know a guy who was recruited by a course simply to work on getting entries to competition-winning standard – could we be seeing the start of ‘rainmaker’ appointments focussed not on good teaching but on winning awards?)

The stress is unwelcome too. Don’t pretend that it’s ‘realistic’ or a ‘taste of what happens in industry’ – it isn’t at all. I’ve done trade shows and I’ve done student shows and believe me, I’d take a trade show anyday.

And if a show like D&AD or Free Range or New Designers happens to be a bit early one year, it can have a huge knock on effect on courses that already truncate their teaching year to get their own local degree shows ready.

I think the whole student show thing needs to be looked at carefully. Organisers need to look at the timing of the events and the costs involved, especially for those students who don’t live in or near London. They need to be non-profit making or at least put any profits into some sort of bursary scheme to help those least able to pay to go. (Anyone who visits a show thinking they’re seeing the best students rather than just the ones who could afford to go is kidding themselves – think of the ones you’re missing if you only look at the produce on show).

They also need to be educational by putting on workshops and guest talks (but not the sort of ‘portfolio surgery’ thing that sees students queuing for hours to be patronised by a Dragon’s Den wannabe, or a talk from a famous designer who might as well be talking to a mirror – no, these need to be good, educational talks by educators, not egotists. Given that, for example, students don’t pay attention to talks on business skills while at university, a show like this might be a good time to address that).

They also need to justify the whole London thing. Smaller regional shows would be a better bet, unless you really are arguing that the reason the shows are in London is because that’s where the industry is predominantly based. In that case, why isn’t the industry paying for them instead of students? Student debt is already bad enough without it being made worse for the privelege of being paraded in front of bored designers for a week. And given the fact that the creative industries themselves acknowledge that the London bias is damaging us, and that we are recruiting far too few ethinic minorities or people from poorer backgrounds, it seems odd that these shows simply reinforce the problem.

Many of these shows sell themselves on the idea that they are ‘supporting new talent’. So not making money or benefitting from some great publicity. If the design industry really wants to put students through that process it should be prepared to dip into its pockets.

But, if you’ll excuse the cliche, at the end of the day we really need to ask ourselves, what is the point of these shows? It’s not to get students jobs, or to find employees as there are far better ways of doing that. It’s not to get publicity for courses as few potential students go along.
If, in the final analysis, it’s really just a jolly good opportunity for a piss-up and a social then why not stop pretending and just call it that?

Ultimately, however, I think students and courses need to think a bit more creatively and list all the things they think they get out of going to a show in London. Then they need to ask themselves if there are better ways, and cheaper, less stressful ways, of achieving the same ends. It’s ironic, given the industry we’re related to, that we don’t do this. If going to D&AD etc are really the only ways to get students out there, to get them jobs and to publicise courses then how do you explain the successes of students who don’t go to them, and of courses that manage to recruit without the expense of attending?

Could it be that it’s all a great big con?