Archive for the ‘research’ Category

How do you define an under-utilised graduate?

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

My current research is looking at the way in which the design industry uses graduates of any subject in design and non-design roles (according to the Design Council only 15% of the UK design consultancy sector is made up of designers, and only 40% of those are graduates).

One of the central theses is that the design industry is not very good at utilising graduates, especially in design-related roles, compared with other industries. (This varies – I suspect that the service design sector does better here than the fashion sector but that some areas of fashion are better than others. The term “the design industry” is problematic).

An early issue in the research has been “how do you define a graduate position”? Mason (1999) studied the chemistry, steel and financial sectors and found that when the supply of graduates started to increase in the early 1990s different sectors took different routes. The steel industry started upgrading a lot of previously “non-graduate” roles so that they took advantage of graduate skills and knowledge, or began creating new roles to attract talent and benefit from what was available. In particular, they began to expand their employment of graduates in roles related to design of products and systems*.
The finance industry, on the other hand, simply replaced non-graduates with graduates often without changing the roles they were expected to do. This he views (rightly) as under-utliisation of graduates.

I suspect the UK design industry is more like the finance sector than manufacturing in this regard. The campaign by representatives of the fashion and textiles industries, Skillfast-UK, to get universities and colleges to ensure graduates are skilled to be pattern cutters is an obvious example of under-utilisation of graduates. But I’m also interested in how graduates from non-design disciplines are used, for example those from English, accounting, law and business. I have a suspicion that there may be a significant difference which points to a failure to acknowledge the potential degree-level design qualifications offer. However it will be interesting if there is widespread under-utlilisation of graduates in all areas of the design business. This would certainly change the current emphasis on blaming educators for the perceived malaise in the design sector and instead focus on how the industry recruits and uses graduate talent.

A common definition of “graduate level” employment is simply one of responsibility. Is a graduate employed in a role with some strategic responsibility, with a degree of autonomy? It’s not a satisfactory definition because you could categorise a lot of jobs in this way: someone working behind a perfume counter could be argued to be autonomous and to have responsibility to meet sales targets using their initiative. But basically working in a shop like that is not viewed as a graduate-level job while managing a branch of a large retail chain is. To many, including me, the reasons are obvious but the problem is explaining why. And linked to this is another issue, which is a value judgement. To many, managing a branch of a major retailer is not seen as “worthwhile” – I can imagine several former colleagues of mine thinking a graduate of theirs were a failure if this is what happened to them. And it leads to contradictions: a jewellery graduate working in a jewellers is probably seen by some to be working in a related field to their degree** while another who is training to be a police officer with fast track promotion is not. The former is in a non-graduate design-related post while the latter is in a graduate but non-design related post.
So who is better utilised? And of whom should we be prouder?

Something I found useful in Mason’s paper is a set of three simple criteria for judging whether a graduate is being utilised properly or not, and which removes the value judgement. I mapped these as a flow-chart for ease of reference:

utilisation of graduates flowchart.jpg

(The third criterion may be problematic for some but Mason explains it: “The latter condition is one way of testing for the possibility that graduate performance in unchanged jobs is significantly better than that of non- graduates and is recognised as such in higher salaries” – in other words, is the graduate performing better and being recognised as such even though the role does not meet the first two criteria).

This of course strips out questions of whether the job is a good one, if the graduate is enjoying it and so on, but I suspect it is value judgements like those that need to be removed from the equation, at least at the initial stage because it points to company policy towards graduates. Questions of whether the jobs are challenging, enjoyable, offer paths to promotion etc are important but can be tackled later. What the flowchart offers is a quick and simple way of evaluating if a graduate is being utilised as a graduate and this will tell us about the company’s attitude to graduates – are they employed strategically or seen simply as people to fill vacancies? In Mason’s research, the steel industry was doing this very well, while the finance industry used the sudden growth in graduate numbers to place graduates in to jobs traditionally taken on by school leavers.***

With some adaptation I think this flowchart could be a useful tool for very quickly judging if a design company is utilising its graduate workforce. If the artworkers are a mix of graduates and non-graduates, all on similar salaries, then the answer is no. If the pattern cutters are all graduates, the answer is no.
And if it turns out that agency X is utilising its non-design graduates well, according to the tool above, but under-utilising its design graduates, it points to a further issue which I’ll let you ponder.

My suspicion is that “the industry” is a mixed picture. That there are some companies that make good use of graduates from all disciplines, there are some that do not, and there are some that value graduates in some areas of its business more than others (e.g. a graduate in a business management role compared with a graduate artworker or pattern cutter).
What’s important is that the tool be used not to condemn those that don’t do it, but to educate them. It’s far better to change expectations and understanding of what a graduate offers a design company than to alter courses to meet incorrect beliefs. Instead of changing all fashion courses so that graduates are well-trained pattern cutters, we should change the fashion industry’s recruitment strategy so that it hires school leavers or manual workers from other sectors and trains them, and recruits graduates in to more strategic roles.

Mason. (1999) Graduate Utilisation and the Quality of Higher Education in the UK.

*It’s worth noting that despite what the design industry thinks, designers do not just work in design companies, but in-house. In this regard, its claims to be the “customers” of design courses are questionable. That would be like tabloid readers demanding that a newsagent stops selling broadsheets. Makes sense to the tabloid readers, but little sense to the shopkeeper.

**(And the former student will be seen by many in academia as “on their way” – it’s often claimed that design graduates take their time to make their mark which is an argument I get annoyed with. Barristers make their mark from day one. So do doctors, nurses, teachers. Why does the design industry think it’s okay that graduate talent languishes behind shop counters or in pattern cutting rooms? What if we changed that?)

***This, of course, inflates the number of graduates because if the only way to get an entry-level job is to get a degree, there’ll be a growth in demand for degrees. And if the only jobs on offer to graduates are entry-level, why bother putting in much effort? You can see where this argument leads: claims that the quality of graduates is dropping may be better explained either by the quality of the jobs on offer (advertising an entry-level job to graduates is not going to attract the best candidates) or by the minimum requirements (a degree). To further complicate things, expecting a graduate to have “school leaver” skills (a famous designer who shall remain nameless once complained he couldn’t find a design graduate who knew how to answer his phone properly) will only lead to a perceived lack of quality. If you hire a French speaker to deal with your Spanish customers, whose to blame when you find they’re not very good at it? Similarly, then, if you hire a design graduate to cut cloth, where should you look when it turns out they can’t do it?

Designers win medals too

Friday, September 19th, 2008

This is something I wrote for the study guide for my Design History, Theory and Practice (DHTP) module which starts next week. The first lecture asks “what’s the point of DHTP?” and I try to head off the usual complaints about having to write and read and go to the library. I’ve found spending the first lecture on making the case for approaching design from an intellectual point of view not only saves time later, it tends to improve attendance and grades!

Plus, I happen to believe in it.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics offered a showcase not just of excellence in sport, but in design as well. Everything from the equipment being used to the garments being worn was designed. Ask the average person what we mean by this and they will undoubtedly talk about what things look like – the ‘style’ of the outfits, the shape of the bikes and so on.

brennan_sydney_main.jpgBut to take a view like that is to miss what we might arguably call the ‘real’ design, the design that’s the product of years (if not decades) of intense research into textiles, alloys, aerodynamics, ergonomics and more. When people talk of the millions of pounds spent on sports in the UK, they may think that all gets spent on training. But it doesn’t. Chris Hoy’s bike, Rebbeca Adlington’s swimming costume, Charlotte Burgess’s bow, and Deborah Brennan’s wheelchair are all the result of investment worldwide in design research.

And then there are the games themselves – everything from the obvious opening and closing ceremonies to the transport networks, the global television feeds, the ticketing systems, the catering, even the queues — all designed.

Design history and theory are no longer simply endless slideshows of the great and the good; pictures of this designer and that piece. Over the next three years you’ll be exposed to, and encouraged to discover, not what’s gone before but what’s possible. DHTP is about the future as much as it’s about the past. It’s also about broadening your view of what design is, from the ‘man on the street’ idea of design as style to something a little more ambitious and all-encompassing. And it’s about encouraging you to pursue a role in the cutting edge through your own research.

If I get the time, I’m going to do a video to go with it too…

Designers asked by UK Government to tackle MRSA

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Design Week is reporting that five UK design consultancies are being sought by the Department of Health and the Design Council to collaboratte with scientists and healthcare professionals. They will be asked to develop “innovative design-led hospital furniture and equipment that could improve cleaning and reduce patients’ exposure to healthcare-acquired infections”.

The programme, called “Design Bugs Out” starts with a briefing on 2 September and will focus on research in three hospitals, identifying key problem areas.

Having identified five key areas, each team will be asked to focus on one and given a £25,000 grant.
After the closing date for submissions on 10 October, final teams will be announced ten days later and given seven weeks to develop prototypes. Winning designs will be exhibited next summer.

Indie Fever

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Michiel van Meeteren (University of Amsterdam) has published a study of the Macintosh independent programming community as a PDF. It looks like it might be interesting to anyone involved in programming, but also has wider implications for the studies of communities of practice and how people share knowledge to improve their own skills – in other words ‘design thinking’ in general.

Excerpted from Michiel’s website: “

‘Indie Fever’ is the first result of a multi-year human geography research program to investigate the social and economical world of so-called ‘Indie’ developers on the Macintosh platform.  ‘Indie’ is the self-chosen nickname of software developers that serve worldwide markets from the Internet, hold their artistic values in high esteem and celebrate their ability to make high quality software as small companies.  […]

Indies have organized themselves informally but strongly in a virtual community.  Although they are scattered over several continents, they continuously interact over the Internet, share rumors and code, and discuss business and private interests as if they were coworkers while –technically– they are competitors.  They share a common culture which is intertwined with the history of the platform they develop for and the Cocoa programming environment in particular. […] it analyses how Indies sustain and reproduce their particular culture primarily through online means, something that is argued to be rather difficult in the social-scientific discourse.

Almost 50 hours of interviews were recorded for Indie Fever.  These interviews were combined with the results of extensive data mining of blogs and other online resources.  The resulting thesis focusses on both the cultural and economical aspects of the Mac Indie world and the ways these reinforce each other by applying theories of, amongst others, Pierre Bourdieu, Michael Porter, Norbert Elias, Chris Anderson and Malcolm Gladwell.”

Bourdieu and Gladwell, eh? That’s basically my reading list for my first years…

Check out the site for a link to the PDF (I would link here but I suspect Michiel would like to track numbers). There’s also a blog related to the research project.

Coincidentally, at the same time I heard about this I also read several reports about a new website launched by developers of iPhone apps for whom the Non-disclosure agreement they effectively signed with Apple means they are forbidden from sharing knowledge and tips – precisely one of the things that defines the indie culture. When you see the title of the site you’ll see they’re not best pleased with the restriction. According to a publisher (I forget the link, sorry) the NDA is also holding up publication of books on iPhone programming.

BBC News reports "Warning over universities’ future"

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

This article from the BBC backs up perfectly the predictions being made at New Views 2:

Some universities will face closure or merger as they struggle to compete for a dwindling number of students over the next 20 years, vice-chancellors warn.

A report for umbrella body Universities UK says unless institutions adapt quickly to the changing demographics, some institutions will become unviable.

The number of 18 to 20-year-olds is set to fall sharply between 2009 and 2027.
This means universities could face a smaller demand for places and hence a drop in public funding, it says.
The Universities UK report looks at three different scenarios predicting what will happen if institutions react in different ways to the changing demographics and a more difficult economic climate.


In the second scenario, non-traditional private providers enter the market pace and “cherry pick” course areas with low entry costs.
A greater increase in e-learning also leads to partnerships with private firms. […]
In this scenario, damage to the education system is predicted as private providers gain degree awarding powers and a small number of elite institutions seek to leave the publicly funded sector.

In the third scenario, the university sector becomes more employer-driven and flexible and there is full development of technology-based learning thanks to public and private investment.
Most students end up studying part-time on a virtual basis while they continue to work, but full-time undergraduate study does remain part of the system.
This leads to universities grouping together strategically with employers and establishing themselves as major regional providers along side further education colleges.
Again, private providers cherry-pick vocational provision which will net them substantial profits and they also take over failing institutions.

What this report suggests is that if design education is to survive as a university subject, it has to let go of its vocational roots, no longer training designers (leaving that to the FE sector and private colleges) but educating strategic thinkers. Exactly what we concluded.

It’s magic!

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

I’m giving a paper in New York in April on the way in which some design writers and designers describe creativity in almost magical terms.
Last night I woke up with an idea floating round my head – I want to do something a bit different from the usual dry conference paper and thought it might be an idea to write ‘extracts’ from books that feature magic but reinterpreted slightly.

Here’s my first attempt:

Gandalf looked at Frodo carefully. “Where is the ring?” he asked the hobbit.

“The ring?” stammered Frodo, trying not to look over to the fireplace where he had left the letter from his uncle.

“The ring” Gandalf repeated, moving slowly towards his little friend.

“Oh, that” said Frodo, giving in under the pressure of the wizard’s stare. He pointed to the hearth. “It’s over there. I don’t see what’s so special about it.”

Gandalf rose up – or as far as he could in the small burrow – and took a deep breath as he turned to see the open envelope. His eyes narrowed as he glimpsed a glint of cold metal. The ring!

In a pace he was there, picking up the envelope and allowing the ring to fall inside. But as it touched the bottom of the envelope and came close to his palm it seemed to burn him. Cursing, Gandalf let go of the package and it fell into the fire, incinerating the paper and leaving the ring sitting nestled in flame. “Now you will see what is so special about the ring,” he murmured to Frodo.

The hobbit crept forwards and, half hiding behind Gandalf he gazed in to the flames, expecting to see the ring melting on the coals. Instead he saw… “What’s happening?” he whispered.

“Magic!” exclaimed Gandalf. “No! Better than magic!” he corrected himself, grabbing a poker and pulling the glowing ring from the ashes. Frodo leant forwards to see a mysterious Elvish script engraved onto its surface. “ The ancient magic!” shouted Gandalf, “Typography!”

He stopped suddenly and peered intently at the cooling metal, grabbing it from the poker and, wincing slightly at the heat, he let his eyes drop, giving out a disappointed ‘Oh”.

“What’s wrong?” said Frodo, worried at the disappointment in his friend’s normally sparkling eyes.

Gandalf turned to face him slowly, a look of disgust on his face. He showed the ring to Frodo, the strange Elvish words still dancing with flame. “It’s Comic Sans”, he said. “I hate that font”.

A Vision of Students Today

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

Yes, the earth moved. Proof at last!

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

You see, this is what academic research is all about. Sorting out age-old arguments!

“The Quirkology team has joined forces with Professor John C. Brown, Astronomer Royal for
Scotland,to provide an answer to the age-old question “did the earth move for you?”
The answer, it seems, is always yes, but we have gone all the way to find out just how far.”

Work out your prowess here.

New push to design against crime

Friday, August 10th, 2007

According to the BBC:

“The government is launching a new drive to cut crime through innovative design.
It wants designers to develop new theft-proof products to try to reduce the number of items being stolen.

These would include things such as theft-proof bikes and buildings which are more difficult to break into.

The Home Office says one example is the 51 per cent fall in vehicle crime which can be attributed to design improvements such as immobilisers and toughened glass.

The Design and Technology Alliance will be made up of a panel of independent experts, who will work with the design industry to develop new products.

Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker said clever designs alone cannot stop a criminal.

‘Designing to prevent a crime isn’t the only solution. Of course tough law enforcement goes alongside that and criminals will always try to get round the new techniques that are in place.

‘But I think that what you can say is that improved design makes a phenomenal difference.'”

See also:

Design Against Crime

The Home Office Design Against Crime site

DAC @ Central St Martins

The secret of great photography? Use someone else’s…

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

BBC News reports:

Digital photographers could soon be able to erase unwanted elements in photos by using tools that scan for similar images in online libraries.
Research teams have developed an algorithm that uses sites like Flickr to help discover light sources, camera position and composition in a photo.

Using this data the tools then search for objects, such as landscapes or cars, that match the original.

The teams aim to create image libraries that anyone can use to edit snaps.

James Hays and Alexei Efros from Carnegie Mellon University have developed an algorithm to help people who want to remove bits of photographs.

The parts being removed could be unsightly lorries in the snaps of the rural idyll where they took a holiday or even an old boyfriend or girlfriend they want to rub out from a photograph.

(In the example above, the house in the first photo has been isolated and replaced with boats and the rest of the lake found in someone else’s photo of the same scene, taken at a different spot)

To find suitable matching elements, the research duo’s algorithm looks through a database of 2.3 million images culled from Flickr.

‘We search for other scenes that share as closely as possible the same semantic scene data,’ said Mr Hays, who has been showing off the project at the computer graphics conference Siggraph, in San Diego.

In this sense ‘semantic’ means composition. So a snap of a lake in the foreground, hills in a band in the middle and sunset above has, as far as the algorithm is concerned, very different ‘semantics’ to one of a city with a river running through it.

The broad-based analysis cuts out more than 99.9% of the images in the database, said Mr Hays. The algorithm then picks the closest 200 for further analysis.

Next the algorithm searches the 200 to see if they have elements, such as hillsides or even buildings, the right size and colours for the hole to be filled.

The useful parts of the 20 best scenes are then cropped, added to the image being edited so the best fit can be chosen.

Early tests of the algorithm show that only 30% of the images altered with it could be spotted, said Mr Hays.

The other approach aims to use net-based image libraries to create a clip-art of objects that, once inserted into a photograph, look convincing.

‘We want to generate objects of high realism while keeping the ease of use of a clip art library,’ said Jean-Francois Lalonde of Carnegie Mellon University who led the research.

To generate its clip art for photographs the team has drawn on the net’s Label Me library of images which has many objects, such as people, trees and cars, cut out and tagged by its users.

The challenge, said Mr Lalonde, was working out which images in the Label Me database will be useful and convincing when inserted into photographs.

The algorithm developed by Mr Lalonde and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon and Microsoft Research analyses scenes to find out the orientation of objects and the sources of light in a scene.

‘We use the height of the people in the image to estimate the height of the camera used to take the picture,’ he said.

The light sources in a scene are worked out by looking at the distribution of colour shades within three broad regions, ground, vertical planes and sky, in the image.

With knowledge about the position, pitch and height of the camera and light sources the algorithm then looks for images in the clip art database that were taken from similar positions and with similar pixel heights.

The group has created an interface for the database of photo clipart so people can pick which elements they want to add to a scene.”