Bridging the Gap

University-run enterprise schemes allow students to work on live commercial projects while studying. But how exactly do they operate, and are all students fairly rewarded?

Offer anything, do anything. Your goal may be to get a job but your first task is to crack open the door.” D&AD chairman Dick Powell’s speech on starting a career in design, delivered at this year’s New Designers exhibition, kicked off a heated debate about the ethics of unpaid internships. But the sentiment of his talk – that to get ahead, students and graduates should seek out real world work experience opportunities – is one that’s being acted on at advertising, design and communications courses across the country. In a market where one third of graduates will reportedly struggle to find employment, having a good degree is no longer enough to get you noticed.

With placements and summer jobs scarce, many universities are helping students boost their commercial portfolio through enterprise schemes. Such schemes vary between institutions but the basic premise is the same: students complete a project for an external client, supported by their tutor and receive a prize, payment or course credit for their efforts.

At Norwich University of the Arts, clients propose a brief, teams of students compete for the work and the winning proposal is brought to life. Companies are charged a small fee and the university keeps most of the profits but gives students a small financial reward. The University of Reading takes a similar approach, as does the University of Salford, where most clients are charities and community organisations.

Projects range from designing a logo to an entire brand identity. At NUA, students designed an identity and packaging system for a local beer brand, Redwell, that was featured on the Creative Review blog in July. At Salford, students have designed websites, exhibition graphics and promotional posters.

At smaller institutions and universities facing funding cuts, these schemes are a valuable source of revenue. They also give students experience of delivering presentations and negotiating with clients. For Laura Slater, a Reading graduate and designer at London studio graphicks, it was a stressful process “but totally worth it”.

“My first client wanted a logo for her pilates company but went AWOL. My next wanted a toy brochure but was so vague and the project so long winded that I ended up passing it on to some second years as I was leaving uni. My third attempt at a real job – designing a poster – had a week turnaround, but I got there in the end and the client loved it. It did seem a lot of effort sometimes but it boosted my confidence at pitching and my experience has made me stand out from other graduates,” she says.

At London’s Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art, students are encouraged to work on commercial projects devised by the college and selected external ‘partners’ (usually a household brand). These collaborations help further boost the participating university’s reputation and allow students to add an impressive client list to their CV. CSM’s budding graphic designers recently worked on a photography project for Beefeater, with the winning image being selected to appear on the gin brand’s bottles, while RCA students have designed Christmas cards for Tate and packaging for Marmite.

“The top priority for us is to choose a project that will benefit our students the most. We ask potential partners to come to us with an inspiring project brief to give students the maximum space for creativity,” explains the RCA’s corporate relations manager Su-Fang Hsiao. “Working with a designated academic tutor, the partner is always involved with the project from start to finish. Depending on the requirements set out in the brief, students will have tutorials, crits and seminars to help support them throughout the project’s development,” she adds.

Both brand partnerships and traditional enterprise schemes have clear benefits for students – “Industry collaboration is a crucial learning process,” says Hsiao. But are small cash prizes, competition awards and course credits adequate payment for what may be weeks of hard work?
Nathan Littler, a designer at Academy Print & Design in Lancashire, worked on two commercial projects while studying at Salford – a rebrand for Manchester charity Carisma and branding for Media City exhibition Create at Salford Festival. He wasn’t paid for either project but believes this was fair: “The experience was invaluable and counted heavily towards my grades, helping me achieve a first class honours degree in graphic design.”

D&AD CEO Tim Lindsay, however, believes that “no one should work without pay, even if the work is part of an academic course. If students are deemed capable of solving design or communication problems for clients (and if they’re not, why bother?) they should be paid a proper wage and bonused on the basis of good business results.”

Nigel Ball, a designer and graphic design course leader at University Campus Suffolk, says he is “inundated with requests from people wanting students to get involved in a live project…many are just after a free piece of design.” As well as the danger that it could lead to students being exploited, Mark Offord, a lecturer at UCS and director at Firebrand Creative, says the rise in enterprise schemes that offer design services for little or no cost is causing concern among local agencies, who feel they will be undercut by students.

“But if students did charge a higher fee, there’s every chance the client would pick our work instead of theirs. It’s very difficult to convince clients to agree to a set rate,” he adds.

This puts universities in a difficult position: raising fees would increase income but deter potential clients and reduce the volume of projects available, while keeping them low could attract criticism from the wider industry. But there are alternative solutions.

CSM part funds a commercial arm, Jotta, which is run by a curator, experienced creatives and visual artists. Jotta has produced water-based film installations at music festival Latitude, live performances involving robots, paint and lasers for a Sony Xperian product launch and Remastered, an award-winning project for Intel which invited contemporary artists to reinterpret classic works of art. It operates as an independent business but recruits up to 30 students a year.

Students – particularly those with specialist expertise – are paid for their work and get the chance to work on impressive, unusual and expensive projects while being mentored by Jotta’s full-time staff. “We work really closely with the students – helping them recognise the important parts of a brief and helping develop their ideas. We’d never just say here’s the project, send us a response because that just doesn’t work. It’s give and take, and we’re there to help throughout,” says Jotta’s creative director Ben James.
Meanwhile, in Stowmarket, a small market town in Suffolk, youth charity The Mix has set up a scheme called BRIX in partnership with local design and creative firms. Companies approach the charity with a short term project and buy the time it will take to complete (this must be a minimum of 20 hours). The Mix sub-contracts this work to students and young creatives, who work from its offices on a shift basis. They are paid an hourly rate of £7.50 and receive mentoring and support throughout the project.

“It’s designed as a stepping stone to help students and fresh graduates go from education to full-time employment. But it’s also beneficial for agencies – they can work with and utilise the skills of emerging designers without feeling threatened. And for students, it’s more collaborative than freelancing,” says UCS’s Offord, who is involved in the project.

For Salford graduate Littler, taking on commercial work as a student helped him secure a paid role soon after graduating. “I hadn’t done much placement work within the industry but employers were impressed that I had already beaten the competition to have two projects go live. Initially, the company I now work for wanted two senior designers but with my live projects and the rest of my work they were impressed with what I had created and gave me a trial day to prove myself. I think they saw my potential and offered me a job,” he says.

Lee Hall, a student at Northampton, was also offered paid freelance work after designing logos and promotional posters for West Bletchley council while studying at a University of Bedfordshire link college. “I wasn’t paid for the first project I undertook but because I did it well, I was asked to work for them for the next three years and am employed on a paid freelance basis. I wouldn’t apply for an internship because I don’t live at home and have bills to pay, so this is a way to build on client experience and I received an A and a B+ for my work,” he adds.

All of the universities mentioned in this article are working hard to ensure commercial projects undertaken by students are meaningful and worthwhile. But perhaps if all schemes combined business models like those employed by Jotta or the Mix, with partnership projects like those at RCA and CSM – the rewards could be bigger, the projects bolder and the experience even more valuable for future generations of creatives.

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