Eye Forum: first thoughts

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I really enjoyed the Eye Forum on Design and Education in London yesterday (22 January), although in the build-up I managed to get worked up about whether I’d be completely inarticulate or not. So I’m mightily relieved it’s over, even though I wish we could have gone on for longer. I think most of what I said made sense, wish I could have been more controversial, and apologise if I sounded like I was shouting all the time – the microphone wasn’t near me so I tried to compensate!

Design and education are two of the worst fields to work in, and to research, because everyone seems to think they know more about them than you do. Thinking about it, I should have gone in to law because even though that’s an area where people think they know better, at least you can jail them when you disagree. I went in to this debate thinking it would be a lot more argumentative than it was, but it turned out to be remarkably consensual. Maybe we should have cracked open the wine before we started instead of at the end…

I was a little disappointed with some of the questions, many of which seemed to regurgitate long-running debates that I thought had been put to bed. This was an opportunity to tackle some important issues about the future of design education, its relationship with industry, the role of the Design Council and Creative & Cultural Skills, the links between research and teaching, and so on.

However, on reflection I suspect that the fact these issues did not come up tells us a lot, especially that most people are simply not aware of them. The more I look in to CCSkills, for example, the less convinced I am that their claim to represent industry should be accepted without question. Their consultations don’t seem to have raised their profile, and their policy pronouncements haven’t filtered through to those they will affect. If I have to explain who they are once more I’ll start charging them.

Similarly, the role of the Design Council needs to be questioned as, indeed, it is being (especially by itself). I’m not sure the Council is doing itself any favours by allying so closely with CCSkills and the Government, and the consequence is that it will be seen as yet another agency that education has to deal with alongside others like the Sector Skills Councils, the QAA and so on. That is in large part a misrepresentation, but it’s a real one. Lots to think about there.

It was good the audience had a high proportion of students in it, although they were reluctant to speak up until the very end when one of them seemed quite angry that we were suggesting the role of design education is not simply to produce designers – that produced the only applause of the evening (from another student at the back), and we should have explored that further if we’d had the time. I guessed the motivation came from the fee-paying nature of education and the idea that paying fees enters you into a contract for a definite ‘thing’, in this case entry to a particular job. I could be misinterpreting that, of course – it may well be such a specific promise was made to that person and I did say that if we claim a design education will make you a designer, and that there’s a design job at the end of it, we’re lying.

Ken Garland got up at the end and asked a question that made me rather angry, especially as it seemed to completely ignore the previous ninety minutes of discussion. Again I could have misinterpreted him, but the way his voice modulated as he said that design education is vocational and this means there are ‘just too many design students’ made me think this was his personal view. Accordingly I took him to task. In fact his question was remarkably similar to the one I asked in my first ever blog post ‘Graphic Design Education is Failing Students’ when I dismissed the idea that the role of design education is a simple one of supply and demand.
My main argument on the night was that restricting design knowledge to a select few was a sure way of ensuring that design becomes a niche activity, opening up a space that will be filled with self-taught designers – exactly the sort of design-poor scenario I think the ‘rationers’ are worried ‘over supply’ of design graduates will create. (There were a few rationers in the audience it turned out who simply didn’t listen to what we were saying, which worried me a bit)

But I simply think the idea of rationing education, no matter what the subject, is stupid, and I’m not afraid to call someone who thinks that ‘stupid’, no matter who they are.
However, we do have a responsibility to ensure that our courses are liberal enough that we aren’t just churning out designers, but graduates. I’m fairly sure (in fact I’m convinced) that this is precisely what is happening – too many design courses turning out ‘graphic designers’ no one wants rather than ‘designers’ we all need. So maybe Ken and others are right to be concerned, but wrong to prescribe rationing as a way of improving the situation. Very wrong.

We could have done with another hour, but as one of the questions we missed was along the lines of ‘is design art?’ (oh good grief, no, it isn’t, why are we talking about this again?) and another on graphic authorship (or ‘design wank’ as I like to call it), and as it was getting rather hot, we concluded at just the right time.

So talking of conclusions, what can we deduce from the evening?

  • There is a large amount of consensus that the purpose of higher education is to educate, not to train, and that the needs of society and students are not necessarily those of employers who are increasingly demanding a say in what we do without making any sort of offer in return (e.g. funding). To cow tow to industry’s ‘needs’ rather than society’s is idiotic and short sighted.
  • There is no such thing as ‘the industry’ with one collective voice, so to align what we do to ‘industry’ is impossible.
  • Design is an intellectual activity and we need to raise our game in the quality of student we recruit, and industry needs to stop talking about design in ways that makes it seem to be simply a visual and decorative exercise.
  • There is little awareness of what it is academics do all day, or the mess of policy and pressure being placed on us.
  • People seem to think the role of universities is to teach current skills instead of developing new ones, and developing new technologies and knowledge.
  • And there is a need to get across how difficult it is to teach everything under the sun in three short years. Partly this is down to us communicating what we do a lot better, but it is also incumbent on the Design Council to start singing our praises a lot more instead of insinuating we’re crap (which is the impression we get, even if it’s not intended), and on industry to engage more with us (usually we’re told we have to engage more with industry, but the fact is we do, and we try, and we find it difficult to break in).

I could go on, so I will! I’ll write posts on individual questions and link to them here later.

Thanks to LCC for hosting the forum, to my fellow panellists for a stimulating discussion, my various friends and former students for putting me up on my trip, the audience, the questioners, and of course Eye for asking me.

As well as my thoughts here you can read (or add) your thoughts to the forum comments thread over on Eye’s blog.

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4 comments on “Eye Forum: first thoughts

  1. Craig Burgess says:

    Although this is well-trodden ground, I’d like to express my opinion on this section of your article:…and that the needs of society and students are not necessarily those of employers who are increasingly demanding a say in what we do…As I draw ever nearer to finishing my 2 year HND Interactive Media course (couple of months now), on reflection I’d say that the lack of almost any involvement from design professionals is what has really annoyed me over the last two years.They all gladly take part in interviews on prestigious blogs / newspapers / magazines, but when it comes to giving advice to students I still sense an attitude of secrecy, and that us students will be ‘stealing’ their work.This point was amplified recently when I started a designers and students forum. The primary purpose of me starting this was to get designers involved in our education, allowing students to ask questions to professionals without getting flamed on one of the ridiculously alpha-male design forums.I started eMailing around design studios and designers I knew or had acquaintances with (and even the ones I didn’t know) and overall the response has been embarrassing. So far, one person loosely involved with the design industry is posting regularly, and everyone else has completely ignored me.If this is the kind of response that the design industry gives to students and people just entering the industry, I don’t know how design studios have the cheek to suggest that design education is wrong or that they are producing the wrong kind of graduate.If they bothered to get involved more constructively instead of only when they could get a picture or 300 words in a design mag somewhere for ‘caring about design education’ then this wouldn’t happen.p.s. I’m only speaking generally here, and I’ve love people to prove me wrong.

  2. Jonathan says:

    It’s a huge problem, I agree. It makes me angry to be told that we’re not doing enough to engage with industry when actually I have in the past tried desperately to get them involved.There’s also the issue of quite a few guest speakers who have been bloody awful, and live briefs that were basically just getting students to work for free…Having said that, I can also recite a long list of fruitful link-ups with industry that not only benefit students but benefit the company too, in learning something about their own work.One thing I think is true, though, is that it’s not productive to leave it to the students. Some are confident, others aren’t, and we have to be fair to all. Colleges and unis should invest in staff whose job it is to nurture these partnerships. But these should never turn in to businesses telling us what and who to teach.Craig, you should leave your thoughts over at the Eye forum – I think people would be pleased to read them!

  3. Craig Burgess says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with you Jonathan that colleges and unis should invest in staff that nurture partnerships with the design industry. In many ways we’ve been lucky on our course with having a lot of previous students on the course coming back to give us a chat about how they are finding it in the big bad world, but other than that our course leader has little success with attempting to get anyone else in to talk to us.Although it is quite a crude way of looking at these things, it’s a shame more studios don’t see the business value in coming to chat to the students. They have an opportunity to come in and tell these eager young minds what they need to do or need to have to grab a job in the industry, but alas; nothing ever comes of it.I’d also like to point out that while I was mostly negative in my previous post, there are people out there willing to help us young ‘uns, and that is how this industry should be.If the design industry was more open to students and education and weren’t seen as some crazy opposite then we’d have an even more thriving design culture than we already have in this country.Surely that is a reason alone to open up the doors?!I’d love to leave my thoughts over at the eye forum, but I can’t seem to find anywhere to leave them! Did you mean on the Blogger account they set up?

  4. Jonathan says:

    It’s here:< HREF="http://eyeburningissues1.typepad.com/forum/2008/01/tonights-forum.html#comments" REL="nofollow">Eye Forum Comments<>One thing we have to be careful of is people from indusry coming in and contradicting what we teach students – had one come in and say that it was a waste of time reading, another that the secret of success was going to the right parties. I’ve heard worse.On the other hand, I’ve had some come in and say exactly what I’ve been saying, but because it’s someone from industry suddenly the students believe it!But yes, a useful contribution needs to be planned beforehand. I stopped visits after a few disasters, it has to be said… 😉

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