Friday, 19 September 2014
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Visual design students today

Guest blogger Adrian Shaughnessy shares the ten things he thinks you should know about today’s visual design students.

In my roles as an external examiner at a number of universities, and as an occasional lecturer and part-time teacher, I’ve spent most of the past two months in design schools in the UK and Ireland. Like a war correspondent embedded with a front line unit, I’ve witnessed at first hand the attitudes, fears, tastes, prejudices and creative output of a cross section of the current generation of graduating design students. 

Adrian Shaughnessy

Adrian Shaughnessy

Here are ten things you should know about today’s visual design students.

1. The good ones are as good as the best from any year you care to choose. In fact, I’d say the standard of top performing UK educated design students is so high that it is hard to distinguish their work from some of the best professional work. Or to put it another way – they’re bloody good.

2. Most design students have abandoned the design fetishism of the past two decades. There is far less emphasis on the stylistic beautification of graphic expression and in its place there is a renewed emphasis on content and returning graphic design to its Modernist roots of form dictated by function.

3. Many of the current generation of students seem to be motivated by social concerns. Where once their energies might have gone into designing CD covers and identities for cultural institutions, it is now commonplace to find students investigating ways in which design can drive social change. For me, this is the biggest single difference between today’s graduates and those from past years.

4. Student graphic designers are increasingly functioning like journalists: this is more noticeable at postgraduate level, but I’ve been struck by the number of undergraduate designers operating like self-publishing reporters. In recent years, an obsession with research for research’s sake has led to lots of dry outcomes, but now there is evidence of designer’s producing original research and then presenting it in a graphically coherent way.

5. It is getting harder to tell the difference between the work of students studying illustration and those studying graphic design.

6. In one school I went to recently, the tiny handful of failures and Thirds would have been top students 15/20 years ago.

7. Few students seem interested in web design. Most admit to being print fixated. This is a worry.

8. Many top students in UK schools are from abroad and many of them are exceptionally talented. What does this mean for UK design? Will they all go home to China, Korea, India and Brazil and join – or set up – world beating studios? Will they go back and teach in schools thus reducing the need for foreign students to come to the UK for an education? Will they stay in the UK and enrich the talent pool? Whatever they choose, foreign students are changing British design for the better.

9. I still hear professional designers and studio bosses complaining that students are not emerging as oven-ready employees. This is often true. Some students have no concept of – or interest in – the professional realm. But it is also true that many are more advanced, forward thinking and future-proofed than the studios demanding graduates with “real world expectations.”

10. A final thought for anyone who scoffs at student experimentation: students are told constantly by their tutors to “be original, be different and don’t copy.” If their attempts to do this sometimes fail, it should not be assumed that they are a lost generation. They are merely doing what generations of students have always done – trying to find what is new, fresh and vibrant. Why else would anyone want to study design? 

Readers' comments (22)

  • As a 2nd year Graphic Design student, I am really delighted about what Adrian has written. I was worried it would be very much 'they have it easier these days' and 'they don't care about getting jobs'. Thanks for beating my expectation, I think your findings are accurate and thanks for not tarring us all with the same brush. I am concerned about what potential employers are told about students, thankfully I'll be happy with them reading this.

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  • Really interesting post, particularly the observation that today's students are motivated by social concerns. I have just finished the second year of a competition with The Future Perfect Company/University of Brighton product design students where they have been required to design for the challenges of ageing. Some very interesting and thought provoking work has been produced.

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  • As a graduating student this seems like an extremely insightful and accurate description of the current situation, at least at the GSA. The journalistic comment particularly rings true from my experience.

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  • Good, insightful article - I was wondering about point 5 though. Is this a bad thing or a good thing? Personally I like it as I've always admired designers like Milton Glaser, Alan Fletcher and more recently Geoff Mcfetridge.
    Now I'm not saying that all graduates that take this approach are of that high standard, but I think there's the potential for really varied and interesting, expressive work to be done.

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  • Thanks all for supportive comments.

    Thom L - as regards point 5, I wasn't making a judgement either way, it was really just an observation that it is not always possible to tell the two apart. Nor is it universal - just something I see more often that I once did.

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  • A great read, and I found it true to graphic design students in the U.S. as well. Due to the high volume of excellent design students, the competition is a lot rigid than ever before. It is exciting, but also quite frightening as a graduate trying to enter the market.

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  • point 7.

    digital should be embraced as a positive companion to print, not an alternative.
    still, some students disagree with me on this.

    2nd Year @ LJMU, GraphicArts
    twitter.com/jonsummersmuir

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  • A wonderful insight into design students. I totally agree with point 1, Point 3 is really exciting, Point 6 is interesting and Point 9 is something we at Student Designers are trying to help with.

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  • Sadly, I have to agree with point 7. But that problem is also the fault of many design schools. I've been teaching web design at a renown university college in Brussels for the past five years and a lot of the older colleagues don't know anything about web design. Worst part is that they also don't believe students should be able to design websites. As for next year, there won't be any web design courses anymore due to some budget cuts. Design education has been set back 10 years by a stupid decision.

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  • point 9's attitude is totally at odds with points 5 and 7.

    as a studio who does most of its work online—i simply cannot take the risk of hiring a recent grad because they almost invariably understand "web design" to mean "tumblr" or "flash."

    we don't want oven-ready employees. we want people with any production skills at all, and i've seen maybe one design department (NCSU, possibly SAIC) who has a solid understanding of what the medium is even meant to do.

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