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?


3 comments on “Student shows in London. What’s the point?

  1. Nikesh says:

    I’m a student who was at New Blood. On the whole the experience seemed to be a bit wasted. Private view had the most people there, but we tended to just have a huge congested space around us, with not very many people being able to look at work (our tutors thought interactive screens would be the best way to display). We found not many people were recruiting, and they also didn’t have too long to look at work. Ironically you said it would be better to drive up to the companies in a bus – we did that! Only worked well in the morning however, most companies just said they were too busy (we had sent out invites)

  2. Jonathan says:

    That matches my own experience – most shows are dead except for the private view, and there are just too many people at those.Screens don’t work – no one will queue to use them and people don’t like being ‘trapped’.I remember New Designers was notable for hundreds of students just sat around doing nothing, cluttering up the floor…Shame about the bus. Too busy to pop out for ten minutes?

  3. Nikesh says:

    Well we had two really good responses, with agencies letting their staff stay and look at the work for over half an hour. Unfortunately, there was only one other company that showed any interest. At the same time, having organised the whole thing, I’m still happy that those two companies came out, it was invaluable feedback, the sort that students don’t normally get.

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