Archive for the ‘graphic design’ Category

Interns – something needs to be done

Friday, August 14th, 2009

I’m getting more and more angry about the subject of design internships and the bizarre excuses that many in industry and, let’s be honest, education, use to excuse the practice.

Internships, also known as placements, are “opportunities” for graduates to get experience of “real world work” which apparently makes CVs look better and increases your chance of getting a job.

The trouble is, the likelihood of getting a job is much reduced as a fair proportion of work is being done by interns working for free!
Or as Tory MP Philip Hammond recently told a constituent after being asked why he doesn’t pay his own interns: “I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing”1. This, unfortunately is the endless loop we find ourselves in: many people agree that internships are bad, however there are many people wanting to do them, therefore you either stick to your principles and miss out on all that lovely “experience”, or you give in.

Internships strike me as evidence firstly that the design industry doesn’t rate qualifications much, and secondly that it certainly doesn’t think “outsiders” (i.e. design educators) should be the ones to judge who’s good enough to work among its number2. To support the first argument we can point out that the majority of designers don’t have degrees – it’s not a “degree-level position” and many degree-holding designers work at the same level, for the same “salary”, as non-degree holders. In that sense, design is meritocratic – you’re valued on how good you are, not on how qualified you are.
I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is undervaluing graduates. Other sectors don’t do it – law, retail, medicine, architecture, teaching. What sets these apart is that either they recruit graduates in to well-paid jobs with responsibility and then train them, or they require a period of high-level apprenticeship which is highly structured and leads to a well-paid career at the end of it.

The argument that graduates shouldn’t be paid because they are not experienced enough is, quite frankly, one of the most stupid fucking arguments I’ve ever heard a supposedly intelligent person make.
(And yes, I said fucking. It’s unacademic, it’s unprofessional, but it’s how I feel, okay?)
Seriously, think about it for a moment. Try this scenario:

You go to visit your daughter’s school to find out how she’s doing. You chat to the young teacher who’s in charge of her class, and who your daughter absolutely adores. She’s young and you realise you’re getting old for noticing. She talks expertly about your daughter’s progress and clearly takes a lot of interest in her, and you’re grateful. You later go to the head teacher and compliment her on the quality of her staff, making particular mention of your daughter’s class teacher.
“Oh her,” she says. “Yes, if she keeps this up we might start paying her and take her on full time. But only during term. We can’t afford to keep her on during the school holidays”.

This is plainly nonsense. It doesn’t happen. New entrants to teaching are paid a decent salary (it could/should be higher, but let’s not get in to that – the point is, they’re paid a graduate-level salary and given responsibilities. They are also mentored and given time to continue with their development. Indeed, all teachers are. It’s how people stay on top of their game.
But can you imagine if you discovered that schools were employing unpaid interns to do the teaching?

Compare that to design. New entrants are not given responsibilities, they are often not paid (and if they are, it’s often peanuts) and, ultimately, they’re not trusted. Internships or placements are trials. A company that uses them as a way of recruiting new staff is acting in a bizarre manner. It makes little sense.

When I left college at 19 I got a job as a designer/marketing assistant. I hadn’t really wanted to be a designer but this was all I could get. So I effectively taught myself on the job, having gained a bit of experience with Pagemaker at college. Three days after joining the company, because of the oddities of their pay cycle, I received a payslip for three weeks’ salary. I’d only just started, and I wasn’t even up to speed. I didn’t even know how to use the phone system, or have my own desk. Yet there I was with more money than I’d ever had before. Because I was – get this – working for them. Giving them my time in return for money. They didn’t say “hey, you’re new. We’re effectively giving you our time so really, you owe us money. So how about we just don’t pay you and call it quits?”

Which is interesting because that’s exactly how internships work.

And you know how the company knew they wanted me to work for them and not someone else? They interviewed me. Twice. They looked at my work, they asked me questions about myself. They decided I was worth a chance and knew, as I did, that if it didn’t work out, either of us could say “thanks but no thanks” and I’d be on my way.
Yes, employing someone is risky, yes it requires time and effort on the part of the employer but you know what? That’s part of running a business. Building a team, nurturing it, valuing it.


I’m going to come back to this issue as there’s much more to say but let me end this first instalment with a pointer to Seth Godin’s blog where he talks about free work versus internships.
Like me he doesn’t like internships for some of the same reasons. “Most of the time, the employer thinks he’s doing the intern a favor, but he doesn’t trust the interns to do any actual thoughtful, intelligent work worth talking about.”

He loses me with the next bit: “And to be fair, most of the time the interns are busy hiding, not grabbing responsibility but instead acting like they’re in school, avoiding hard work and trying to get an A.”

I disagree with this assessment because an internship generally is not carried out as part of a course, it’s a prelude to employment. I think he’s mixing things up a bit here. Genuine work placements, part of a course, are rare. They shouldn’t be, but it’s not for want of trying. Many of the ones I know of are just a couple of weeks’ “work experience” but a truly educational placement should be well-structured, include shadowing, not working, and be assessed. Which means the host has to be heavily involved in planning, implementing and evaluating it. And if that were the case, then anyone “trying to get an A” wouldn’t do it by “avoiding hard work”. For one thing, they shouldn’t be working. That, after all, would be a case of the taxpayer subsidising free labour for the design industry, and in England and Wales, and other countries where students pay fees, it would be a case of the poor bastard literally paying to be “employed”. But really, if Seth’s first point is correct, that many employers don’t trust people on placements, then I really couldn’t blame anyone for not giving 100% in return. You get what you pay for, after all.

But Seth goes on to talk about the concept of “free work” like it’s something else entirely. Now I have long advocated “free work” to my own students but I mean working for non-profits – local groups, charities, schools etc – as a way to give something back to the community and to get something in your portfolio. I would never advocate working for nothing for a company that can not only pay you, but is getting paid themselves. Seth seems to excuse it by its networking potential or karmic value – but you can network without selling your soul. It’s this passage that really caused me to spit out my dummy:

“But you’d be amazed at how many fast-moving companies or influential individuals are all too happy to share credit if it helps the work get done.”

As I twittered to Fergus Bisset, ‘he says companies will “share credit”. Wow! Thanks! Er, why not the money then?”‘
If the argument is that a start-up needs help, and that if they’re successful you will be too fails on a simple logic test: if that start-up is going to be successful you can bet your life they don’t do it by doing free work for people. So why should you?3

And this ultimately boils down to the best argument against internships. I’ll discuss the social impact of internships and the legal implications another time, but let me leave you with this: if the company you are working for is making money from the stuff you produce, they should be paying you. There is, as far as I can see, no reasonable argument against this. To do otherwise is theft, plain and simple. And something needs to be done.

[end of part 1. Coming soon: why internships are unfair and why they are illegal]


Update: as you may see from the comments, as well as Interns Anonymous, you can also discuss internships at The Water Cooler

1For what it’s worth, I made a complaint about Mr Hammond to the Low Pay Commission. Phil Willis MP is, quite rightly, raising the issue on his site and via a press release.

2Easy answer: stop recruiting graduates and start recruting school leavers and run proper apprenticeships! Oh you used to do that. What happened? Oh yes, you “subcontracted” the role to colleges, funded by taxpayers, and saved the money didn’t you? Trebles all round, as Private Eye would say.

Graphic designers and cabbies

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

In a discussion with a journalist from Times Higher Education last week about Twitter he asked how I responded to critics who said Twitter threatened to “dumb down” education and research I speculated that the same complaint was probably made about moveable type (Guttenberg, not the blogging tool).

Stephen Bayley over in The Observer asks if technology makes us stupid.

All new technologies, going back to fire and the wheel, by way of movable type and light bulbs, de-skill people. Old crafts are abandoned or lost in favour of automation. And when you de-skill someone, you alter not only his culture, but his personality. Satnav has done this to black-cab drivers. Once this proud tribe had a private religion known as the Knowledge; all of London’s streets had to be memorised. It was an amazing feat achieved only after great effort, and consequently it was admired and therefore empowering and dignifying. The Knowledge gave black-cab drivers what the marketeers call a “point of difference”.

Now any larrikin can buy a satnav for £199 and tell you how to get from Edmonton to Peckham by using rat runs. The USP of the black cab has disappeared in a miasma of pixels. As a result, some urban anthropologists have noted a change in behaviour of cab drivers. Once known for courtesy and reliability, many have become sullen and aggressive. This is because technology has democratised their proprietary knowledge and beliefs.

When I read that I thought “you could say the same about graphic designers as for cab drivers”. By which I mean the invention of Photoshop, QuarkXpress and so on. I know, I was there at the time. My first job interview consisted of a guy throwing me out of his studio because he wanted a paste-up artist – a skill – not a Mac operator. His business didn’t last long after that.
Funny thing is, I still hear it. Bitter old men (and not so old, and not always men) bemoaning the loss of respect for their once proud profession.

The thing is, being a cabbie is more than just taking someone from one address to another. Surly cabbies are missing their real USP if they think the satnav has castrated them.
There is a difference between “skill” and “craft”. And “the knowledge” is more than knowing the quickest route from A to B.

Designers need to bear that in mind, too.

Why Friends Reunited Failed

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Andy Budd offers a couple of pointers to why Friends Reunited ultimately failed.
The first is familiar to anyone who understands the link between social viruses and biological ones, or who’s read The Tipping Point

Like all social sites, Friends Reunited relied on the network affect, so when membership reached its tipping point the whole site went viral. However a lot of viruses burn through their fuel so quickly they die almost as fast as they grow, stifled by their own success. So with Friends Reunited once you’d registered, seen what your old friends were doing, connected with the ones you’d wanted to and had a laugh at the (hopefully) tragic lives of your childhood tormentors, there was very little reason to stick around.

The second links to my oft repeated point about how the design of the site (in terms of its graphic look and feel) isn’t as important as people think.

The design of the site was delightfully amateurish, which was no surprise considering the background of the creators. However it had a low-fi ascetic that made it feel genuine; something it shares with it’s later contemporaries like MySpace. The truth is, while a better design would almost certainly helped its fortunes, people are willing to ignore bad design and usability if the perceived value is great. With Friends Reunited there were no credible alternatives or competition so people were happy to make do.

The greater the perceived value of something the less “good” it has to look. This is my Pizza Flyer Theory of design. Aesthetic value is inversely proportional to use value. The less useful something is, the more “beautiful” it has to look. Also the look of a thing has to match the purpose. For more see this article I wrote for Speak Up.

(Via Andy Budd::Blogography.)

What will we do?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Via hellojenuine

work+play: Notes from New Views

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

Laura Chessin’s thoughts on the New Views conference:

I was challenged by the view that ‘Graphic Design is in Crisis’. I developed a conviction that graphic design is undergoing an evolution and it is those who operated under previously–accepted assumptions and systems who are in crisis themselves.

I think she’s right here, and this is an important way of looking at it. To amend my earlier post, it’s not graphic design that’s dead, it’s the old way of looking at it that should be put to rest.

New Views discussion

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

It’s an hour or so long but if you really want to listen in on the (at times rambling) final conversation of the Responsive Curricula group at New Views 2 feel free.

Bear in mind some of the trains of thought relate back to two full-on days of discussion so may not make sense. Oh, and because I was holding the camera, my voice is the loudest…

Apologies for the jumpy video – something wrong with the encoding, not sure what, but the audio’s fine.

(If you were involved in the discussion, or want to add comments, use the (+) button to type your thoughts, bookmark important points or clarify anything that needs it)

Double standards from the design industry

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Design Week carried a story last week about some reaction to Kingston Council (outskirts of London) asking potential design companies to take part in a free pitching process. The story continues today:

The Design Business Association and the Chartered Society of Designers have both responded vociferously to free pitching, following the recent revelations reported in Design Week.

Transport for London is currently running an open competition to design a new bus for London. While the top three ideas will receive prize money totalling £45 000, none of the other entrants will be paid for their work.

‘Designers will want the prestige of having their name attached to the new iconic bus for London,’ TfL director of surface transport David Brown told Design Week by way of justification at the launch of the competition on 4 July.

The DBA says it wrote to the Mayor of London Boris Johnson ‘on this issue’ last week. ‘The Mayor has been illadvised on this,’ says DBA chief executive Deborah Dawton. ‘Both the DBA and CSD have extensive experience in running competitions that meet industry requirements.

This one is so far off the mark we’d have to go back to the starting grid. Prize money of £25 000 goes nowhere near covering the design investment.’ She continues, ‘I think we’d all rather travel on a bus that was designed by someone qualified to do it.’
[…]

CSD chief executive Frank Peters is calling on the Design Council to take a lead in stamping out malpractice. In a letter published in this week’s Design Week (see page 11), he urges the Design Council to ‘educate clients away from such practice. As a Government body, they should be wellplaced to ensure that no Government department adopts this practice [of free pitching]’. Meanwhile, Kingston Council has received at least two letters of complaint from designers angered by its unpaid tender to fill its graphics roster.

The latest, from Watershed Design managing director Paul Widdup, argues, ‘If you are tendering for accountancy services you would not ask them for an audit to prove their credibility.’ Kingston Council wrote back to Widdup, claiming that, ‘The council is not seeking “free” design work. To identify the most suitable candidates we need to be able to establish the quality of services that potential partners can provide and the value for money they can offer taxpayers. Our experience of procurement is that businesses are well versed with tender processes and see it as an opportunity to win work and develop their client base.’

Dawton believes that getting public bodies to observe best practice would be a major achievement.

‘A commitment from Government to drive up best practice in [its] procurement of design would benefit the whole country in one fell swoop,’ she says, adding, ‘Why should small commercial businesses subsidise it in this way?’ The DBA intends to start showcasing examples of best practice on its website. ‘We hadn’t thought about doing that before now,’ says Dawton.

Now think about this for a moment. The design industry is opposed to free pitching. Paul Widdup makes the very good point that accountancy firms are not asked to carry out a free audit before being given work.

So why does the very same industry allow many of its members to ask graduates to work for free before offering them a job? It’s variously called ‘work experience’ (I call it ‘work’ just without pay, so not really the full ‘experience’ wouldn’t you say?) or an Internship, which seems to give it a bit more credibility. This is an industry which claims to contribute billions to the UK economy, but thinks it acceptable not to pay its own staff. They may say that they need to do this so that they can employ ‘experienced’ staff but you know what, other jobs pay you while you gain your experience.
Imagine if every other industry operated like this – doctors not being paid until they’d done a series of two-month placements at different hospitals; policemen not being paid until they’d arrested 100 villains; teachers not being paid until they’d seen three whole classes through their SATs.

I heard a story the other week about a graduate who’s been doing the internship round for so long he’s currently on his second stint at a rather well-known agency, working on real briefs for real clients, but for no money. How does he live? On income support (i.e. the taxpayer) and his parents’ re-mortgaged house. Since when was advertising a state subsidised industry?

Asking someone to carry out creative work for no pay is wrong. So long as it’s called free pitching. But call it an internship and everything’s okay.

Double standards.

Why isn’t the Chartered Society of Designers doing something about this? And why isn’t Design Week reporting it with as much concern as a bloody meaningless ‘design a bus’ competition?

This US comment from Graphic Design Rants (20/4/07) sums things up pretty neatly, if somewhat ineloquently:

But the current trend where and INTERNSHIP is your first real job out of school instead of a Summer job. Rather SUCKS with your degree, $80,000 in Student loans, dropped $10,000 on Computer gear and Pro-class $oftware, and paying rent in NYC with four psycho roommates. And entry level salaries have slipped back to less than what a decent receptionist makes with a GED and a push-up bra.So I rather have an issue with our profession being not-so-gently-hammered down to working class.

Valuing design graduates and academics

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008



Skillfast 1.jpeg

On February 11, during London Fashion Week, Skillfast-UK staged a mock protest outside the Houses of Parliament in which models dressed in toiles (the technical mock-up of a garment) waved placards calling for, among other things, ‘pattern cutters, please!’ A press release sent out to the media entitled “Research Warns: Lack Of Technical Skills Threatens London Fashion Week” gave more detail:
“Today MPs including Skills Minister David Lammy threw their weight behind a new campaign “No skills, no fashion,” launched by Skillfast-UK, the Sector Skills Council for the fashion and textile sectors. The campaign aims to encourage fashion colleges and universities to put more focus on pattern-cutting, garment construction and other technical fashion skills.”

Lammy was quoted as saying “The Government is committed to increasing the level of skills training and advice available to employers, as well as encouraging colleges and universities to form partnerships with local companies to ensure young people are equipped with the specific skills they need to succeed”

The campaign has so far gone unchallenged. But they contain a series of assumptions and misconceptions, as well as signalling a somewhat dangerous approach to the concept of ‘skills’ that is more of a threat to London Fashion Week than anything Skillfast-UK have identified.
At a very basic level, the questions we need to ask are these: if the fashion industry needs pattern cutters, why doesn’t it train some? Why does it expect degree programmes to do it? And why is the fashion industry recruiting graduates to be pattern cutters anyway? This is like asking history courses to award degrees to students who can colour in pictures of the Battle of Hastings without going over the lines.
In medieval times the trades and crafts established guilds, in part to retain independence from the role of the church in education. Taking control of who could practice, and what standards they had to achieve in order to do so, was vital to not only maintain quality, but to control demand, respect and prices.

Membership of the guild required the completion of a period of apprenticeship, resulting in an apprentice piece demonstrating the apprentice’s abilities. Successful completion of this period would result in entry to the profession, but starting at the bottom and undertaking another, higher level, apprenticeship.

Over time this responsibility for training, which involved broader in loco parentis roles, was passed to technical schools and colleges. The ‘contract’ between employer and college was that the latter was now taking on responsibility for training potential entrants to the profession to an accepted standard.

As educational provision expanded, and as courses began to develop in to degrees, the nature of this relationship changed. Degrees are not intended to train people for specific jobs but for a range of possible futures. And the number of students on such courses expanded to suit demand, destroying any link between the ‘need’ for new workers and the ‘supply’.

Meanwhile demand from students for vocational qualifications dropped in relation to degrees, and so the supply of the sort of entry-level worker began to dry up. But as degrees became more popular, they began to be seen as the basic requirement for entry to the profession and, as a consequence, a mismatch developed between what employers assumed degrees were for (apprenticeships) and what they provided (a liberal education).
The end result is that the ‘guilds’ are seeking to reclaim their authority over the ‘church’ (academia). But they are doing this not solely by developing an alternative (a new apprenticeship) but by simultaneously demanding that degrees become apprenticeships, imposing a set of standards on them that weaken any distinction between a degree and a vocational training-based qualification.

The danger is that degrees seeking approval from the trades will no longer offer broad liberal qualifications, and will restrict their numbers closing the study of design to anyone except would-be designers. Apart from the fact this would call in to question their status as degrees, it also flatly contradicts the need identified in the Cox Review for ‘design thinkers’ to populate all aspects and levels of society and industry.

The obvious solution to industry’s ‘need’ for core, basic and entry-level technical skills is for industry to initiate a new form of qualification – which they appear to be doing via the Creative Apprenticeship – and allow degree-level provision to remain independent, looking forwards and educating free-thinking and independent graduates who can transform the industry quickly, rather than entry-level employees who might take 5-10 years to emerge in to management roles.
According to Skillfast-UK “In the UK, approximately 3,000 students graduate from fashion courses each year – yet top designers and clothing brands say they struggle to employ quality staff, because new recruits lack the technical skills and production knowledge to turn their creative ideas into achievable designs”

On the face of it this sounds rather damning. But stop for a moment and think through this logically. 3,000 fashion graduates every year? According to Skillfast, (http://www.canucutit.co.uk/top-tips.cfm) “the supply of fashion design graduates outstrips industry demand by about 600%” (which means that there are only around 500 jobs each year, something that sounds unlikely, but let’s take their word for it). That means there are six candidates for every job. And out of those six, some employers are unable to find people with the right skills? How hard are they looking?

This is plainly rubbish, but sadly pointing out the obvious isn’t enough so let me try to explain through logic (if not in fact, as this requires more research) why I’m sure that Skillfast-UK are wrong in their assertions, and their strategy. And as a matter of convenience I’ll also try to show why the whole design industry seems to be getting things wrong when it comes to graduate recruitment.

Pop along to Careersbox.co.uk and you’ll see an interview with Linda Florance, head of Skillfast-UK. It contains some revealing information: http://www.careersbox.co.uk/video/skillfast.wvx

My interpretation of it is this: the fashion and textiles industry is in need of bright, talented, ‘young’ people from a range of disciplines. It requires people skilled in marketing, in technology, in chemistry and so on. Some of these people will develop new products and markets, and take British fashion and textiles in to new markets.

Oh and they also need ‘creative’ people to make things that look nice.
In other words, this is an industry that values and craves graduates in all sorts of disciplines, but undervalues fashion and textiles graduates, seeing them in very narrow terms.

Part of this relates to the problem that the design industry in general simply hasn’t grasped yet what the value of a design degree is. Evidence for this can be found on the canucutit.co.uk site, where potential employees are told “you are highly unlikely to walk straight into your dream job therefore show that you are willing to start at the bottom, will listen to others, are not afraid of hard-work and will be dedicated to the job.” This ‘start at the bottom’ attitude is typical of the design industry but what’s most disturbing is that this is the advice given to Masters graduates!

The salary new entrants are tempted by, for this ‘start at the bottom’ opportunity is just £12,000. Compare this with Arcadia, Britain’s biggest fashion retailer where graduates are offered £20,000 and a structured, fast track training scheme leading to a management position within a year. Next, the retail fashion chain, offers pretty much the same along with share options and health insurance. Not bad.
Given a choice between working in fashion as a buyer for £20,000 or being expected to ‘work your way up’ from cutter for £12,000 a year, what do you think a lot of graduates will say? Could this be why “top designers and clothing brands say they struggle to employ quality staff, because new recruits lack the technical skills and production knowledge to turn their creative ideas into achievable designs”. It’s nothing to do with the skills or the quality of the graduate, it’s more to do with the attitude of the employers, still stuck in 19th century ways of doing things and seeing ‘production’ as the least important part of the business and – worse – design graduates as shop floor fodder.
An industry that rapidly promotes graduates is likely to be one that develops quickly and stays ahead of the competion.

And industry that hides its graduates away until they emerge after years of working their way up is likely to be one that is overtaken by the competition. And this is exactly what is happening with the design industry, according to their own predictions. But apparently it’s all the fault of universities…

The design industry doesn’t value design graduates. There are glowing exceptions but these do rather prove the rule. It should also be remembered that the big fashion houses we talk about are actually not representative of the industry as a whole which is not the modern, high class vision we tend to see promoted in the media.

Design graduates are seen as entry-level employees because, among other things, a lot of design courses see their role as producing entry-level employees. Too many degree courses turning out graduates who are trained to very narrow ideas of what a design graduate is for.

It could be argued this is not restricted to design, and that the general ‘oversupply’ of graduates is a universal problem wherein “Many graduates are doing fairly menial jobs for which they do not need a degree (or anything like it)” (Fantasy Island p. 78) But a quick overview of destination figures for graduates from UK universities shows that those who study non-design subjects are more likely to enter graduate-level employment than those in design subjects. Even the usual claim that many undertake part-time work while developing their practice appears not to be borne out by longitudinal data and, anyway, surely a graduate could undertake a graduate-level job while doing this instead of working full time behind the counter in a chemist?

Perhaps the answer is that we are either not equipping our graduates with truly graduate-level skills (a skill that can only be exchanged within a closed system is not really a skill at all but an ability) or we are producing graduates who think, rightly or wrongly, that they are only qualified to work as designers, or failing that as shop assistants.
In this sense we need to ask what a design degree is for. What do four years at university offer that couldn’t be gained on the job? On the face of it the only attractions are the social life and the debt.
There must be something more distinctive about a degree.

Charles Handy in The Elephant and the Flea describes how his classics degree landed him a job in an oil company where he quickly became an economist. He realised then that his degree wasn’t so much a license to practice, but a license to learn.

Angela McRobbie in British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry? notes that graduates from London fashion courses who were most successful achieved their success not by using skills learnt in college but by using the cultural and social capital they had developed incidentally. This use of social and cultural capital was also identified as a key factor in the cultural industries by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

Even outside design, the most valuable contribution university makes to a person’s future has long been recognised as the network it gives you – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Of course, with the expansion of higher education and the focus on skills, the one thing that has clearly disappeared from university life is the time to build this important capital investment – another contributor perhaps to the decline in ‘quality’ graduates, perhaps. Too skilled, not enough nous.
But all these ‘incidental’ or even ‘accidental’ benefits aside, why else would someone go to university? I’ll come to that question later because it’s becoming even more urgent.

Skillfast-UK’s cognate sector skills council is Creative and Cultural Skills which covers many of the other design disciplines and the industries that use them. It has been working with The Design Council (too closely, some would suggest) and in 2007 published High-level skills for higher value, a policy document outlining some issues and strategies for developing skills in the design sector.
The document outlines that the design industry needs to develop its base of knowledge (not ‘skills’ – a key differentiator I’ll come to later) in cultural awareness, global awareness and business awareness. These are undeniably important.

But the report cancels this presience out by going on to say that university courses need to focus on technical skills and on business skills such as accounting and business planning. To explain why this is a little odd, imagine if accountancy degrees suddenly had to teach students typography…

Go back to what I said about ‘global awareness’ and ‘business awareness’. This is about understanding how design impacts on different cultures and how it is itself affected. It’s about understanding the effects of globalisation and the threats and opportunities it offers. We could teach that on design degrees – in fact we’d love to. But when it comes to teaching ‘business skills’ we actually focus on showing students how to use Microsoft Excel and how to write a business letter. Or we do to those who bother to turn up because, even though we’re accused of not teaching these things, the sad truth is we do, but students vote with their feet and don’t come. Don’t blame us, blame students!

But is this really what the design industry needs from graduates? People who can create a simple spreadsheet but don’t know why they’d need one? Especially if their job has been taken by someone from abroad who thinks business is a little more complicated in today’s world than just working out how to create a macro?

The design industry does need higher level skills, and degrees are exactly the place to develop them. But where’s the incentive when our graduates are being taken in to such crappy jobs and when we’re brow beaten in to dumbing down our courses into a check list of low level ‘skills’ like pattern cutting in fashion and its equivalent in other disciplines?

The content of a ‘core curriculum’ is a tricky one. My first job interview was for a job as a layout assistant for a small design firm in Harrogate. I went along with my portfolio containing the sort of thing they did – a series of two-colour leaflets I’d done for my local MP’s constituency office.

The only trouble was, I’d done them using Pagemaker on a Mac Plus. This was 1989 and the technology was still very new. The owner of the business gave me a long lecture about how I’d wasted my time learning how to do it on a computer, and that he needed someone who knew how to use Cow Gum. (For those who don’t know these things, graphic design included the ‘paste up’ process where artwork was cut up into pieces and laid out on paper or board using a type of glue that kept things in place but allowed you to reposition things and peel them off again).
In fact I’d been taught (or rather, as is often the way of things, left to find out) how to use Cow Gum and was not bad at the job. It’s just that I wasn’t overly bothered with it, given as I’d seen ‘the future’ as it were and could think of much easier ways to do the job. But for this guy, there would always be a need for people with traditional skills that would never die out.

I meet people like that all the time but over the years they’ve gone from protesting about the need to learn how to stick things down with glue to learning how to process film, how to program in Lingo, how to use Pagemaker, how to… you get the picture. For every profession there’s someone who thinks the way they do things is the only way, and always will be. Some people are simply sad that traditional crafts will disappear, and I can understand that, and sympathise, but the role of higher education is not really to keep ancient technologies on life support but to advance things. We won’t lose the skills, they’ll be reborn and rediscovered.

Let’s go back to Skillfast-UK and their Westminster protest. This is what they had to say about it: “To make it to the top in this competitive business, you need the skills to turn a great idea into a practical garment that can be produced and sold.”
Let’s rephrase that. To make it to the top in the old days, you had to not only design it but make it too. Maybe that’s not the ideal way of doing things? It’s certainly not the way things are done in the countries that are apparently about to drain the lifeblood out of our fashion industry. Employing someone to design and make clothes makes one wonder if the fashion industry ever heard of Adam Smith and his peculiar obsession with pins.

But let’s get one thing clear. I’m not suggesting that a fashion designer doesn’t need to understand how clothes are made, and I can imagine how a designer who makes the clothes will have a deeper understanding of the process than one who doesn’t. (Although I don’t think it’s a given). But it may help to take a slight diversion in to the world of architecture for a moment.

Some time ago I was discussing this issue with some Masters students, one of whom was a graduate in architecture. “You were taught how walls are constructed, weren’t you?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said. “And about load bearing, stresses, and different materials?” “Yes”.
“But you weren’t taught how to lay bricks, were you?” “Of course not”, she replied.

And there’s my point. There’s a difference between an architect – a designer – and a brickie. You don’t go to university for four years (more, in fact, for architecture) to learn to lay bricks, and if the construction industry stopped training brickies and instead waited for them to graduate, there’d be no construction industry. And if it recruited architects and put them to work laying walls, the same thing would happen: bye bye construction industry.
So why does the fashion industry expect its architects to be brickies? It makes no sense.

Maybe though design education does have a lot to feel guilty about. Industry thinks architects should be brickies first, and so do we.
We construct courses based around the idea of an apprenticeship and the linear accumulation of knowledge. There are certain things it’s essential to know before you can move on and learn the next thing. And then when you’ve done if you’re lucky you can go into industry and start at the bottom and work your way up.

That’s how it was for us, and that’s how it will be for you. And then if you ever become a teacher that’s how you’ll do it because that’s the way of things.

Except it isn’t. Or it shouldn’t be.

The design industry is vibrant but it’s under threat. And the reason it’s under threat is not because of a lack of technical skill, it’s because all these wonderful thinkers are recruited in to firms that then put them to work in beginners jobs. They’re lost, and their knowledge is wasted because – well maybe because the old timers who worked their way to the top feel threatened?

Design educators need to educate employers about the true potential a design graduate can bring a firm. We need to stop training employees who then undergo yet another apprenticeship and instead start educating game-changers who’ll transform the industry and take it forwards.
And if we don’t do this because philosophically we know it’s the right thing to do, then we’re going to have to do it because we ourselves are under threat. There are some new boys on the block and they make four year degrees look like a complete waste of time.

There have always been alternatives to degrees. In fact, the design degree is relatively new on the scene. You don’t need a degree to be a designer: I was a successful graphic designer for ten years and my degree is in history.

But over the last few decades the design industry has begun to see degrees as a key entry requirement.

This is changing. The Foundation Degree was launched in the early part of this decade and has replaced the old Higher National Diploma (HND) in England, and is likely to do the same in Scotland. The HND was a good old fashioned vocational qualification (whereas the BA is supposed to be an academic qualification). Its purpose was to train people to work in certain industries. There’d be an academic element but many courses paid little attention to that. After all, why do you need to write an essay if you’re going to be a designer?

The Foundation Degree (FdA) is a slightly different beast. For one thing the academic aspect is more heavily emphasised, on paper at least. It incorporates formal work-based learning, and it is designed to be studied part time by people working in the industry they’re learning about. In that sense, it’s a lot like the old ‘sandwich courses’ people used to do, working three days a week and then going to college to learn the trade for two days a week. Finally, it’s two years instead of three or four for a degree.

Despite a lot of criticism, the FdA has been very successful and there are thousands on offer around England, many of them in creative disciplines.

As an alternative to a degree it scores on several points. Firstly, it’s work-based. Secondly, it’s two years in length. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it offers exactly the same curriculum as a four year degree.

I’ll say that again: there is nothing to distinguish a Foundation Degree from an Honours Degree. But there should be.

A former colleague of mine once described a degree as an HND with a bit more writing, the purpose of the extra year being to get a bit more practice and a bigger portfolio for job interviews. That view is entirely wrong, however it’s not uncommon for people to see the extra year or two spent on a degree as a chance to refine skills rather than extend knowledge and understanding.

It’s the fact that we can’t seem to explain what it is that doing a degree offers over a Foundation Degree that poses the biggest threat to our recruitment – and to the employment of our graduates. Ignoring the cultural and social capital, which most of us do anyway, what does an honours graduate have that an FdA graduate doesn’t, apart from a bigger overdraft?

It’s not just the FdA that poses a threat. In the last few years the ancient concept of the apprenticeship has been reborn (as the ‘modern apprenticeship’) and marketed to kids who don’t want to, or wouldn’t be able to, study at college. An apprentice goes to work with a firm where they are trained, and that training is accredited leading to a qualification.

At the moment there are apprenticeships in areas that overlap with design subjects, including graphics, jewellery and textiles.
But in the creative disciplines the apprenticeship is about to be replaced by: the Creative Apprenticeship.

The Creative Apprenticeship has been developed by industry and is backed by some big names including Aardman Animations and the BBC. Within graphic design and advertising there will be apprenticeships that give young people the opportunity to leave school and start work – paid work – with a leading company, being trained on the job.

While the plain old apprenticeship is perhaps aimed at those who might be perfectly competent, it’s likely the Creative Apprenticeship will attract ‘high flyers’ – exactly the sort of people design courses used to prefer. After all, if you’ve got the choice of going away to university to study design, or going to work in the BBC’s graphics or scenery departments, which would you choose?

The UK Government announced (22 February 2008) there would be 5,000 apprenticeships of this kind available at first – that’s a significant figure when compared with the number of applications to study design at university.

So with FdAs being aimed at vocationally-minded students, Creative Apprenticeships being aimed at vocationally- but not study-minded young people, and modern apprenticeships being aimed at the educationally ‘disaffected’, what does that leave for design degrees?

Well if we do nothing, it leaves us in a mess. But if we do something it leaves us with an opportunity.

And this to me is what was so exciting about some of the outcomes of the New Views 2 conference – a large gathering of academics and practitioners in London that really seemed to conclude that something has to change, that degree-level and postgraduate design education has to resist the political push to follow industry, to see its role as training workers and instead do what they do in other disciplines: lead, innovate, transform. The British design industry makes big claims about its contribution to the economy and says this gives it rights to demand things of universities and colleges. But the UK higher education sector takes every £1 of taxpayers’ money and turns it in to £5 – it contributes far more to the economy than design does. If this were a pissing contest then it should be the design industry asking universities how they can help rather than the other way round. But this isn’t a pissing contest. So let’s stop the sort of language that permeates the websites and publications from Skillfast and Creative and Cultural Skills.

An industry that says it is under threat from external competition and poor skills firstly needs to put its own house in order: start paying decent salaries (in fact, just start paying salaries – asking design graduates to work for free is criminal), and start offering decent career paths with proper training. Start recruiting talented graduates into graduate-level roles instead of letting them disappear into entry-level jobs. And start doing what other industries do: treat universities with respect instead of disdain and recognise that what they have to offer is not an endless supply of pattern cutters and Mac monkeys but innovation and understanding. You don’t see the biomedical industries demanding that universities churn out lab technicians; you see them encouraging research into cures for cancer, and lapping up graduates taught within that culture of research-led, not industry-led, teaching.

Imagine for a second what a design industry with that sort of relationship with universities could be like. Then stop imagining and get on with it.

D&AD is on its last legs too, it seems…

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

While at New Views 2 I happened to take part in or overhear about a thousand conversations regarding D&AD’s education briefs and the New Blood show.
Everyone involved had one opinion: if they had their way they would not set D&AD briefs anymore and would spend the money for New Blood on something more productive.

I’ve long been a critic of the D&AD briefs and it was interesting to hear such views expressed publicly and with such strength. The consensus is that the briefs are pedagogically unsound, and that there is nothing to be gained from students doing the same things as every other graphic design student in the country. The industry reps I spoke to or heard were in agreement here: if you’re coming for an interview, don’t put a D&AD project in there. They want to see something more representative of you and your course.

So will courses start pulling out of D&AD? Mmm… I think this is one of those ‘either we all jump together’ things. No one wants to be the first (although having said that there were a few leading courses represented there who said they refuse to set D&AD briefs and don’t go to New Blood). But I certainly think if there’s another gathering like this there could be an agreement for a mass pull-out. But most concerned said their preference would be for some negotiated remodelling of the relationship – less preachy, less ‘industry telling education what to do’, less patronising and more supportive. Design educators feel hard done by at the moment in the UK, and it’s no wonder. If D&AD were to remodel itself as a representative of academia to industry it might have a future but for now, I’d say the relationship is on seriously rocky ground.

Graphic design is dead. Long live… what?

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

The New Views 2 conference held in London last week produced more light than heat – something far more design conferences would do well to aim for.
All credit to Teal Triggs (LCC), Laurene Vaughan (RMIT) and the organising committee for arranging it around conversations rather than presentations. (Russell Kerr agrees – this was an engaging format)


(picture from cluster 6 via Flickr)

I heard that some of the conversations erred on the argumentative side but, surprisingly, the one I was involved in, looking at the area of graphic design education, was remarkably consensual.

Despite the various focuses of each cluster, the subject of what we teach and why seemed to come up everywhere and when the final presentations were given at the end of the two days it was clear that there was one overwhelming conclusion: graphic design, as we know it, is a dead subject. As we recited at one point in the international language of Monty Python, it has ceased to exist. It has gone to meet its maker.

This does not mean we think graphic design itself is no more, but that as a university subject it makes little point to teach people about something so limited in conception. Almost everybody complained that students arrive with what they think GD is, which means any attempt to broaden their horizons meets with resistance. Meanwhile, as my talking point made clear, too many employers are recruiting our graduates into unpaid (or at best low-paid) jobs at the bottom of the food chain instead of strategic roles.

There are plenty of vocational qualifications out there that produce well-trained graphic designers. When the question was put forward “what is it that a degree, an academic qualification, offers that is different”, nobody had an answer. We could say what we thought it should offer, but were frustrated that we didn’t. There was also a strong rejection of the notion that universities should follow industry; instead we should be mapping out new territory through our research and involving our undergraduates in that so that when they left us they could go in to industry – and not just the design industry – and start making changes.

So differentiation is the key. Degrees shouldn’t be technical qualifications with a bit more writing, and an honours year (or even a Masters year) should not simply be an opportunity to make your portfolio fatter. There has to be a difference.

Having agreed that, the next question was “what do we teach” and there was a struggle to move away from the desire to list core competencies. Instead we tried to imagine what somebody graduating in 2028 would need to be able to do, not just as a designer, but as a person.
We came up with an impressive list which, when I get hold of one of the photos that was taken will post here. What was impressive was not its comprehensiveness but the fact that when we looked at it the word ‘design’ wasn’t there and it very closely matched the description that the UK Quality Assurance Agency already has of what a generic ‘graduate’ should be. As a few of us Brits lamented, if only people running courses would actually read those, things would be miles better.

We had been looking for a paradigm shift and this was it: we currently see design education as teaching people to design. Instead we want to teach people through design.

So we believe that graduates need to be politically and socially engaged. You’ll never achieve that teaching Photoshop and yet this is what we fool ourselves in to thinking and claiming. Instead we shift approach and teach students about the world in which they are living, using design as the tool to do that and allowing them to demonstrate what they have learned through design. Learning Photoshop then becomes a skill that is picked up to show understanding of the world, not because it is a skill in itself. This moves us away from training designers to educating graduates. They can still design, but what they are designing is a model of the world, a worldview if you like, rather than (god help us) a double page spread and a web site.

There’s no point in teaching people to design web sites, magazine layouts and so on – certainly not at university. Instead there’s an urgent need for graduates who can identify problems and design solutons to them, and these go way beyond the narrow concept of ‘graphic design’ – graphic designers can’t tackle crime, for example unless you think a nice leaflet will do that. But as ‘Design Against Crime’ has shown, designers can. Losing the word ‘graphic’ opens up so many possibilities it’s hard to understand why anyone would resist.

This philosophical difference between a degree and other qualifications is one that I think everybody at the conference with one or two exceptions subscribed to. So the next stage was “how do we do this?”
The conference was attended by over a hundred designers – practitioners and academics – from all over the world. In my group we had representatives from the US, New Zealand, Australia, the UK (including England, Wales and Scotland), Qatar, Turkey and a few others I forget. We also had people who were at the beginning of their careers, students (as delegates and as observers recording the proceedings), those in the middle of their working lives and those approaching or even past retirement. To get so much agreement considering this range of people was amazing but as I pointed out to Teal and others, the danger with conferences like this is that you get comfortable thinking “Wow, I’m not the only one who thinks like this” but then you get back home and find that there, you are. Most people I spoke to knew that even though the conference had a large claim to legitimacy, that it was a gathering of experts and leading thinkers in the discipline, that they would arrive home and be told by colleagues that the future lies in not changing a thing. Yet the clear message coming from every country represented there was: change or die. In the US and Turkey, delegates warned, the rise of private universities offering narrow vocational qualifications is sapping students who simply want to fit in to a junior and well-defined role. This leaves the students who want to think and explore a discipline, but they are simply being given exactly the same courses except over a longer time and for more money. If we don’t offer something different we’ll lost them to other subjects.

(Interestingly, when I said I wondered why we still insist on taking students who study art at school, then braced myself for the reaction, others agreed and two delegates said they’d already stopped looking at portfolios and instead made offers based on school grades. As a result they’d started recruiting students who had studied languages, sciences and more with no fall in standards and often better results. Although it’s something of a stereotype there was agreement that the danger of insisting students took art at school is that we attract people who think that’s all you need to do, or that our subject is easy. What these approaches seemed to do was filter out those who were good at painting and drawing but didn’t read or think or write critically. Design’s future lies in people like this, not people who have nice portfolios demonstrating skills in different mark-making media).

So lonely though it may be at the front of the pack, we need to keep going and for this we need someone to help us keep the pace. And that’s where networking comes in. We were determined for this not to be another conference where we collect business cards and then put them somewhere ‘safe’ on our return. I offered to look in to making a networking bid to the AHRC to get us back together soon, and there was an offer from Qatar to do something similar.

We also talked about an Open Source model, that instead of prescribing a curriculum as industry is attempting to, we agree on an international set of principles with our list as a starting point, and that individual institutions decide how they are going to get there. AS we develop modules or projects we share them with others so they can use them or adapt them and share them back. This could even be done by students who could build their own programme by matching intended outcomes (“understanding of ecological impacts” to give a deliberately broad example) and find a project brief from the library that they adapt to their circumstances. There would even be room for collaboration between students in different countries.

So we’re hoping to set up a web site that will allow the conversation to carry on, and to begin collecting ideas for this library of open source materials.

We all agreed, I think, that this is not the sort of change that should happen slowly – we haven’t got time. To misquote Terry Pratchett, if you drag this sort of change out people resist. If you do it quickly you just move from one state of normal to another. Graphic design hasn’t got 20 years. It has to change now, and degree-level design education needs to define itself so that it offers something to the world beyond simply churning out people who can make a leaflet selling crap nobody wants.