Are Design Graduates Motivated By Success, Passion or Money?

Students: good hair, nice togs, the future of the creative industries. All photography: Thomas Ball
For CR’s Graduate Guide, 15 students set to graduate from LCC this year shared their ambitions, frustrations and opinions with lecturer Sarah Temple. Jonathan Ellery of design studio Browns (in green T-shirt) was also on hand to offer advice.
Giving advice to design graduates used to be fairly straightforward (writes LCC’s Sarah Temple): remember you’re a person and not a portfolio. Mingle at design events. Just call up your favourite creative director. Avoid portfolios with zips. But these days, graduation is considerably more confusing and challenging for students. For this reason, LCC invited 15 design students to have a conversation about their hopes, ambitions and concerns as they graduate this summer. [The following article appears in our Graduate Guide, free with the current issue of CR]…

Students
Students: good hair, nice togs, the future of the creative industries. All photography: Thomas Ball

For CR’s Graduate Guide, 15 students set to graduate from LCC this year shared their ambitions, frustrations and opinions with lecturer Sarah Temple. Jonathan Ellery of design studio Browns (in green T-shirt) was also on hand to offer advice.

Giving advice to design graduates used to be fairly straightforward (writes LCC‘s Sarah Temple): remember you’re a person and not a portfolio. Mingle at design events. Just call up your favourite creative director. Avoid portfolios with zips. But these days, graduation is considerably more confusing and challenging for students. For this reason, LCC invited 15 design students to have a conversation about their hopes, ambitions and concerns as they graduate this summer. [The following article appears in our Graduate Guide, free with the current issue of CR]…

Since the writer Bruce Sterling proclaimed an “amazingly different world” in terms of both culture and technology, students have been trying to prepare and adapt to the changing demands of this highly fluid and complex world of merging media and shifting terrain.

We asked our 15 students to consider their social and cultural context as they begin to practice: the aim was to give them a voice, allowing them to articulate how they feel about the exponential change that’s occurred since they began studying three years ago.

They came with different areas of specialism – information and interactive design, moving image, typo/graphics, illustration, advertising – and a range of backgrounds. We also asked the design profession along to join the debate in the form of Jonathan Ellery and Dan Greene of Browns and Joshua Blackburn of Provokateur.

What Concerns Graduates?

The conversation started, as most conversations about design do, with attempts to define “graphic design”. Is it now even an obsolete term? Surely definitions of what you’re doing are important when you begin to practice professionally? The first points raised covered issues of self expression, relationships with clients, multi-disciplinary working, designers with huge egos, and magazines that nurture designers with huge egos (that distract the designer community from more serious issues).

Marina Bowater, a Russian student, voiced her concern at being used as an ‘artworker’ in the early stages of her career. “I fear that I’ll be unable to practice conceptually, as I have been taught,” she said. But Kyle Wheeler, who recently interned with Angus Hyland and SEA, challenged this. “You’re making the mistake of separating conceptual thinking from the other skills and crafts of graphic design,” he argued. “There’s beauty and pleasure in designing something as deceptively simple as a letterhead”.

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For typographer Matt Busher, his concern was about the contemporary relevance of design itself. “I think my struggle with design is to do with the audience,” he claimed. “I just want my work to be relevant to people”. And there’s no doubt that the graphic design profession has changed dramatically in recent years.

Jonathan Duncan reflected, historically: “We no longer live in a Modernist world that seeks to affirm the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environ­ment,” he said. “The design community needs to understand its influence and effect in socio-political terms. As a profession ‘graphic design’ can be excused from some of its previous mistakes, just as a young child can. But now that the subject has matured, excuses for its lack of understanding and naivety are no longer accept­able. It is time that we all reflect and become more accountable.”

“We have a responsibility now that we have been equipped with such powerful ‘tools’,” added fellow student Nina Klein. “Our minds have been broadened, our eyes opened, but there will be no one standing at the door when we leave saying: Now go and use your skills responsibly! It is up to everyone of us to decide what it is we want to do.”

Indeed, getting the balance right between ‘live’ and self initiated projects was a concern to some of the students. “With neither a brief nor a client, how can this work claim to be graphic design?” proferred Singaporean student, Jiayun Fang.

Jonathan Ellery agreed: “As a studio we are very clear on our role as designers in that we require a brief and a client to define ourselves,” he said. “This is why I separate my own ‘art’ under the name Ellery from that of Browns. With my personal work there is no brief. It’s just for me”. Ellery also admitted that exclusively industry-lead briefs at college had driven him mad.

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But Nina Klein championed the UK’s commitment to a theoretical approach to teaching design. “I chose to study in London, rather than Germany because I knew that I would be taught design as an intellect­ual activity and not as a craft,” she said. “The briefs I’ve worked on have had very few restrictions and rarely dictated a format for the outcome. I’ve learnt to question everything, to develop strong concepts and to communicate these effectively. With my work, I might not end up selling a product but, instead, give someone a new perspective on a subject they might not have considered before.”

Joshua, of Provakateur, agreed that a designer no longer necessarily needs both a client and a brief. He suggested that designers actually only need a brief and a ‘purpose’ to achieve a result, commercial or otherwise. Creative people must always consider these possibilities.

Are We Equipping Graduates For the Future?

Inevitably, when assessing the future, students speculated whether their education has equipped them well enough for the transition from education into work. No, was the overriding consensus. Student Jiayun Fang was adamant in claiming that, “British design education is not critical or strict enough with its students.”

And Alex Graul, an information designer, also complained about the lack of business knowledge he’s gained. “Nobody during my education ever explained that a practice does not exist unless you find a client who is willing to pay you,” he said. James Gilpin, who is off to the RCA in October after a placement in China, agreed. “Courses are not really equipping
us with the entrepreneurial skills we need to get out there and make things happen.”

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Design and Other Disciplines

The conversation then turned to motivation and the mood became more positive. “I love that graphic design encourages me to observe the world more carefully,” said Fang, “drawing me into territories that I don’t know much about. I think this partly explains why design is so unique and why designers always seem so passionate about their work”.

Miranda Iossifidis had the opportunity of working with Rem Koolhaas at OMA last year and has since developed and interest in urbanism. “I have found it very useful to utilise various research strategies from other disciplines in my problem-solving, now that disciplinary boundaries are obsolete”, she said. Fang agreed, claiming that “when my research strays into science or mathematics, my outcomes were generally much more original”.

Joshua Blackburn of Provokateur, who studied politics at university, endorsed this thinking by suggesting that design actually often gets in the way of seeing a problem. He felt that when he involves himself in his clients’ real problems, he can often solve them better than those in his design team who’ve had a more traditional creative education. This is why he is keen to refer to his business a communications agency and not a solely design studio.

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Design as a Career Choice

Student Matt Blusher spent six months last year as a researcher at Eye magazine. He reminded the group of a 1950s board game called Careers, in which there were only three objectives: you worked for love, money or success. Everyone around the table agreed that they loved what they have chosen to do.

But Joel Bailey was critical of this approach. “This is one of the main problems with this industry,” he said, “designers love the subject itself too much instead of concentrating on what it can achieve. Love is blind: if you love something too much, you can’t see the faults in it.”

Ellery urged the graduates to be excited about their design futures, reminding them that they were only just starting out and the real opportunities to make a difference by design had yet to emerge. Design, he said, was a great career choice. He urged the graduates to be “uncompromising and focused”. Joel Bailey, musician first, advertising graduate second, passed on some advice he had recently been given by agency Wieden+Kennedy. “A solution is successful if it answers the brief – but the client should be just a little scared to use it.”

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The New Creatives

In 2007, Tim Delaney described the New Creatives emerging from the chaos of a dying ad industry. “They are individual, adaptable with an instinctive grasp of new media,” he proclaimed. Graduates are increasingly like this.

They are no longer one huge homogenous body of raw talent, blind optimism and employable/unemployable potential. They cannot be addressed and categ­orised en masse in the way they have been before. Like the professionals, graduates realise that when things get messy, they are at their most interesting.

When there is little consensus, and when things are turbulent, as they are at the moment, a lot of energy is created. At a recent Eye/LCC debate, Burning Issues on Design and Education, Tim Molloy of the Science Museum noted that “It is difficult for some young designers to explain what they are doing and why.” Even more experienced designers can find it difficult to articulate exactly what it is they do and why they’re valuable.

While educators struggle with the pressure to expand, yet keep their disciplinary identity intact, students have to decide for themselves whether to be playful or to work to order. And they are doing so. Just this week, in my office, I was consulted on a wide range of graduate enquiries from setting up a design business in Mumbai to intellectual property rights for light or sound installations.

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“In conversation with these students it became clear that they wanted design to serve a function and a purpose,” Ellery remarked later on. “They’ve seen through the self-initiated, egotistical bollocks that wallpaper the pages of some design magazines and crave a sense of purpose to define their work and, there­fore, in a way, their own moral selves.”

Advice For Design Students Now

So giving advice to design graduates still isn’t easy. But be agile and adaptable. Value how you think more than what you create. Try not to compromise. Try not to be overheard using the term “blurred boundaries”. Get out of the UK and see how the rest of the world operates. Continue to avoid portfolios with zips.

Sarah Temple, the coordi­n­­ator of this discussion, is a senior lecturer in the school of graphic design at the London College of Communication. The graphic and media degree show, Dialogues, opens on June 19. More details at lcc.arts.ac.uk

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