Showing off used to be so straightforward

The nature of the graduate degree show is changing – but for whose benefit? asks Michael Johnson

Thousands of pieces of polyboard have been care­fully trimmed, run-outs have been run (and re-run). Plastic sleeves have been bought, by the thousand. Scalpel blades have snapped and shattered, panics have been had, plasters have been found. It is, of course, degree show season and tens of thousands of arts, design and media students have just gone through the stresses and strains of preparing for their spell in the spotlight.

Sticking one’s best pieces of work on a wall and inviting all-comers to come, see (and crit) is a time-honoured ritual. For decades, if an employer wanted to ‘see what was out there’, the only real way to do that was to clear a week of their June diary and tour the shows and scour for that key addition to the team or influx of raw creativity, either to slot in as an assistant or to put a creative rocket under slightly-too-settled senior designers.

But the ‘old way’ has been under pressure from all sides with the advent of multi-college shows like D&AD’s New Blood (in the UK), the rise of the digital degree show, or online portfolios of students’ work. Bit by bit the whole idea of an analogue show at all is being called into question.

Add in the seemingly insatiable growth of courses across all aspects of communications, all frantically direct mailing all the same creative directors across town, and you begin to see how potential employers can become confused and jaded, in equal measure.

There’s no doubt that a carefully curated wall or space at an exhibition can make a huge impact. And now that the world’s visual bookmarking sites image-crawl constantly for the new and notable, a stand out student project can become an internet meme in a matter of hours. For example, Falmouth student Alan Clarke’s set of Olympics posters got the cyber-Hoffman-Brockmanns all book­marking furiously in double quick time. It satisfied all the requirements – it was quasi modernist, looked great 400 pixels across and needed no explanation. (Is that the current defi­nition of ‘great design’, we wonder?).

Students at the recent RCA show had the benefits of a world class gallery space to show their wares, and some careers could have been kick-started accordingly, as magazines such as this one have gradually featured theirs and other student shows on their blogs. It’s interesting, cheap content, after all, no-one complains about the publicity and copyright clearance is no huge hurdle – what student could possibly turn down the PR?

But those Olympics posters were picked up via an online degree show site, not via a personal visit to Falmouth itself (that’s a long way to go to check some polyboard). Other colleges like Brighton have continued to show their work digitally as well as physically and were joined online this year by an interesting presentation by Ravensbourne students. As more and more graduates present their work online, the pressure to present digitally will grow – private views have long been more of an excuse for alumni to return ‘home’, check peer group progress and drink the free beer (whilst agreeing with tutors that ‘their year was actually the best year’) than for any actual genuine talent spotting.

The digital degree shows present a different spin on a traditional conun­drum – how to sift the wheat from the chaff? In a ‘real’ show you can make an instant assessment, in theory. Inter­esting work on wall = quick look at folio. Good folio = ferret about for sketch­books or other stuff. Still enthused = leaving card or sending an email.

But in a physical, ‘greatest hits’ type of show like D&AD’s New Blood, there isn’t space to show everyone’s work, whereas online each of 50 students can have a scrolling page all to themselves. Trying clicking through dozens of pages of a degree show site and you’ll soon realise that four images each is a very arbitrary way to come even close to making a judgement about a designer. After 50 clicks you’re glazing over. After 100 you’ll never want to see any graphic design ever again.

The emphasis in the future may be towards curated digital shows, in the way that colleges have sneakily done for years. It’s no accident that the best students will often get prime position near entrances and exits, where the light is good and you’re well away from the bar. The selection gets even more savage when you get to the shows like New Blood, when over 130 colleges vie for the attention of thousands of visitors and each tries something a little different, trying to stand out in the semi trade-show environment of units, cubicles and ever present lounging students. The brave ones put sofas on their stalls and let the students lounge in public, but that’s always a recipe for disaster.

You can distil your best 70 students down to a dozen images, and risk the wrath of the 58 ignored and disen­franchised ones. Or give each student half a square metre of space and collectively merge into mediocrity. Perhaps you could create an environ­ment all of your own and genuinely try to ‘own’ the space. The only guarantee? The final show is going to annoy someone, and visitors to ‘greatest hits’ shows can only really benchmark the level of a college as a whole – finding or selecting one single student from the thousands on offer is virtually impossible.

Perhaps we should turn back to the old way of doing it. Put a line through that week in the diary, go to the shows, enjoy it. But when you get there, find the course tutor and get a list of the eight best students and er, ignore the rest (sorry). Do that for three days and you’ll get a result. It’s guaranteed.

Michael Johnson is design director of johnson banks and editor of the thought for the week blog, johnsonbanks.co.uk/thoughtfortheweek

More on D&AD New Blood at dandad.org/education/new-blood.html and the Student Awards http://studentawards.dandad.org/2009. University of Brighton’s graphic design and illustration graduate work can be viewed at http://www.gdi09.co.uk; more details on Ravensbourne’s via rave.ac.uk

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