Too much ‘show’ at the degree shows?

As degree show season comes to an end for another year, Hannah Ellis asks whether it’s time to rethink a concept that favours the spectacular over the thoughtful and fails to accommodate many aspects of design practice

There is some annual meteorological quirk in Britain that means that from the beginning of June until mid-to-late July the weather becomes some kind of lose-lose binary. Some days are oppressively hot, humid, airless; on others, the weather breaks and dissolves into (usually torrential) rain. There isn’t really an in-between.

It’s the same every year, and the reason I know it’s the same every year is because this weather system matches up perfectly with degree show season. It’s a great leveller, because even the most well marketed shows are at the mercy of the elements. Rain can be deflating, especially on a private view night; only the most committed visitors attend but they stay, spending longer with the work until they can psyche themselves up enough to brave the outside again. Hot days bring the crowds, and spaces can literally be swarming with visitors trying to dodge and jostle past each other, all the while fanning themselves with pieces of print and warm air – more intent on avoiding severe dehydration than seeing the work necessarily.

In the case of Central Saint Martin’s show this year, private view night drew such massive numbers that queues of waiting visitors filled and spilled out of Granary Square. Just as many people saw the lines and, exhausted just by the thought of waiting in relentless sunshine, turned back to King’s Cross, promising themselves they would (probably) come back another evening.

Show (noun): A spectacle or display, typically an impressive one

Anyway, my point in all this is that, as a visitor, the whole thing can sometimes feel a bit like an ordeal and especially so if you have no direct connection to the graduates. Graduate shows are becoming more visually demanding too, and maybe a bigger challenge to visitors than the environmental conditions is the increasingly overwhelming volume of work. Every year, the amount of things to see goes up; every year, the proportion of work that is good or even great goes up, too. Year group numbers regularly surpass 100, even 150 students, so that now it’s increasingly impossible just to see all the work on display, let alone appreciate the thought processes, digest and understand it and achieve all this in a two hours gap after work or carved from a weekend.

Kingston University Graphics show

You can, of course, bypass the visiting all together and just experience the shows, condensed and pre-curated for you by other visitors, on social media instead. Kingston’s Graphics show (which I was out of the country for) looked particularly well on Instagram, Peckham’s Bussey Building kitted out with multi-coloured tape signage and giant tape-roll sculptures (see above), the space curated and open instead of democratically divided up and cramped. Through the window of my phone’s screen, everything looked considered and thoughtful and it was the one I was sorry to have missed.

Ah, Debord! ‘All that was once directly lived has become mere representation’, how brilliant and terrifying that an entire show, a display of 100 individuals and their endeavours over the last three years – 300 combined years of experience – can be reduced down to a series of images posted online and hashtagged. That it could even be a more enjoyable viewing experience! Every year, the importance of spectacle creeps further to the forefront and, arguably, ‘being seen’ is now more important than communicating with an audience. Shows that were originally an annual tradition of inviting people in to the art school, removing the mystique of the studio and the practices that happened within that, have become – as universities themselves put it – ‘showcases’, both of the work and the students themselves.

And showcasing is exactly what it is: the projects that students have poured so much time and energy into are put on pedestals and plinths, pinned up on walls, or turned into a showreel to be screened. There they sit, passively waiting to be observed, one hundred finished pieces. They are present, inasmuch as each project marks a student’s public debut into “proper” design society, a hybrid networking-event-meets-coming-of-age-ceremony before they fledge into the world of work.

Show (verb): Be, allow, or cause to be visible

All of this is fine until we start to question what work graphic design or illustration or advertising students actually do on these courses, and what the shape of these creative industries are and might be. Is it as simple as the course titles suggest, or are our expectations as visitors trained towards the immediacy of the spectacle? Where do slower practices – the ones that require time to be fully understood – fit into this?

‘Showcasing’ as an idea carries with it a problematic suggestion that anything can be put into a white-painted room and it becomes interesting just by being there when, actually, an exhibition is a medium in its own right. It requires an understanding of space, of time, and – most importantly – of how these two things affect the people within; all elements that are malleable and design-able. Making the most of this as a publishing platform means that the majority of projects, especially those commercial ones with entirely different briefs, audiences and contexts, will need a bit of re-presenting and jiggling with.

Final year hand-in comes about four weeks before the show, two for students with extensions. It’s a recovery period for exhaustion and burn out. Except it’s also the time to curate and edit projects down, to gain some mental distance from just-submitted work so that it can be reconsidered for a format most students have never designed for. (What you have to understand about students is that this hand-in is a major mental milestone for many of them, to bring up shows any earlier can be panic-attack inducing rather than constructive.) It’s an enormous ask, and understandable that some, if not all, of the work on show is essentially the same as their submission. What does well against marking criteria doesn’t axiomatically make an interesting exhibition piece, unfortunately.

University of Huddersfield, BA Graphic Design, won Best Stand at D&AD New Blood this year

Print, overwhelmingly popular in most shows, is pretty forgiving in that sense and adapts to different timescales to tell layers of information. Posters can convey a lot, quickly. Books can engage both immediately and longer-term, multiple copies can be looked at simultaneously or sold or taken away, and for those less able to self-edit they can be almost endlessly long. There’s a point, though, where even printed matter becomes inaccessible. This year’s D&AD New Blood meta-showcase bought together 73 disparate creative courses from around the UK at London’s Old Truman Brewery. Dominated by print and impossible to curate, books – so many beautiful books – were piled and stacked and laid out everywhere, melting together to become a indistinct mass of visual noise.

Reading is such an intimate act that it loses something when put into a show context. People tend to skim and get the gist of things in exhibitions, making the content difficult to recall, and it’s especially true if the book is a single edition fixed to one place. To get around this, the RCA’s School of Communication show featured a dedicated reading room (complete with that total novelty – seating!) that acknowledged this issue and gave visitors a chance to interact with the printed page in their own time and relative calm.

Judges, including CR’s Rachael Steven, get to grips with the Falmouth MA Communication Design stand at New Blood

Books can easily carry research, too, which is often integral to students’ practice. There’s something to be said, though, for a beautifully crafted object that evidences research-through-making, not as a gimmicky ‘hook’, but as a way to tell a complete story more quickly. At LCC’s show, Peter Roden’s Cooking with Wabi project caught the attention of many people for exactly this reason. The well-crafted but beautifully wonky dinnerware set said enough about the research process and captured the spirit and acceptance of wabi-sabi without tipping over into naivety, whilst a nearby publication documented it in use. It’s a bold move to show imperfect ceramics as part of your final major project. It might be, though, that LCC’s slightly ambiguous sounding course title, Graphics and Media Design, goes part of the way to help broaden students’ concept of “graphic design” and challenges the audience as to what exactly they might expect to see.

Peter Roden, Cooking with Wabi

Making it as easy as possible for visitors to be, and stay, engaged with the work is just as important with time-based digital pieces. Universally challenging, they’re often given screenings or rooms set apart in galleries, but in university shows they are largely defined by the equipment on offer in the AV loan store. Done well, lengthy pieces can be compelling in ways that print can only dream of; inspiration, though, might not come solely from ‘motion graphics’ or ‘animation’. Andres Jaque’s Intimate Strangers springs to mind. Shown at the Design Museum as part of the Fear and Love exhibition, the piece of performance architecture offered a fantastic and incredibly in depth critique of the social, political and even geographic effect of relationships formed through social networks. Layers of images and video on iPads and larger screens illustrated the commentary in different ways, seating and walls offered places to sit or slouch through the four looping episodes. Everything, even the language, was accessible; as a viewer, you got the impression that Jaque genuinely wanted you to be interested, engaged and – ultimately – active because of his work.

Promotional image for Andres Jaque’s Intimate Strangers

And perhaps this is the key to turning a graduate ‘showcase’ into something more: lowering barriers to entry and making it as easy as possible for a prospective audience to engage. It might mean thinking beyond the iterative shows of previous years – maybe even beyond the discipline – to reimagine how these events visually communicate. To do something radically different, though, relies in part on the expectations of the audience, too.

One thing that the ‘showcase’ doesn’t currently acknowledge is that not all graphic design students will become graphic designers. That’s not to say that they haven’t got the necessary talent or have somehow been failed by lecturers, it’s just a symptom of the political and societal churn of young people through education towards university (a separate issue in itself). Often three years of studying has taught them that they want to be teachers or service designers or project managers, or any number of careers that don’t currently shoehorn nicely into a graduate show. Geared towards beautifully finished final pieces instead of learning, the idea of ‘showcase’ casually dismisses them on their way out, their projects deemed unimportant despite being as well thought out, timely and relevant as any ‘designed’ equivalent.

If the platform needs reimagining entirely to accommodate these graduates as well, it also requires visitors to acknowledge and refuse the seductive creep of the spectacle, the smoke and mirrors protection that aesthetics can offer. A sort of empathy is needed, a willingness to have their own understanding of the boundaries of both the discipline and design education challenged. A great piece of work is no longer just something that photographs well; maybe if a range of thinking and processes can come to the forefront, then these students can make their debut, too.

Hannah Ellis is a designer and university lecturer

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