A harsh lesson

Today’s design students are inured to the economic pressures of professional life, but Adrian Shaughnessy wonders why our education system fails to prepare them for its creative realities.

It’s been a busy couple of months. I’m an external examiner at three universities, plus, I’ve recently held portfolio surgeries and given lectures in five UK design schools. The result of all this pedagogical activity is that I’ve been able to inspect the personal hygiene of current graphic design education. Mainly, it’s been a fragrant experience, with only one or two worryingly malodorous patches.

The first thing I noticed was the extent to which design departments are under threat from collapsing budgets, unthinking bureaucracy and the uncertainty caused by massive upheavals in the world of media and communications. Does this remind you of anything? Well, to me it feels like what professional designers (and students and tutors) insist on calling ’the real world’.

I’ve always avoided the term ’the real world’ when talking to students. It’s a patronising and belittling phrase to use when students are wrestling with cutbacks, deadlines and the realism of paying for tuition – all of which strikes me as excellent preparation for professional life where this sort of brutalism is routine. Far from being unprepared romantic ingé nues, students are mostly astonishingly well-equipped for the non-creative part of professional life.

It’s in the creative arena where I’m less confident about student preparedness for the workplace. It’s not the lack of creativity that is the problem; far from it, I’m continually amazed by the sheer creative inventiveness of the current generation of design students. What worries me is the nature of that creativity.

Repeatedly I met bright students who understood creativity in visual communication to be solely about self-expression. I talked to dozens of soon-to-be graduates who spoke and thought like artists. This attitude appears to stem – at least partly – from the large amount of self-directed projects students are expected to undertake. Self-directed projects are an essential part of a designer’s education/ designers should not be unthinking automatons, and the designer who is self-motivated will always thrive in professional life. But, I have a fear that too much emphasis on self-directed projects is resulting in a generation of designers who regard graphic design as the art of self-expression. This belief among students is now so strong that it is in danger of obliterating the notion that the main part of a graphic designer’s job is communication.

Here’s another area for concern: I only seemed to meet students who were in thrall to print. I was continuously struck by the lack of interest in screen design – Web design in particular. In one university when I challenged staff on this, I was told that tuition in Web design was available, but there were no takers. This seems odd when vast swathes of visual communication have migrated to the Internet. Yet clearly there is something about Web design that repels students and something about print that attracts them.

To sum up, I’d say that design education in the UK is in a healthy state – with only one or two areas in need of rebalancing. I repeatedly encountered tutors who are passionately committed to their students, although it’s clear that bureaucratic pressure is reaching boiling point and life is only going to get more difficult for teaching staff. For talented students who know how to get the best out of the system, there is a fantastic opportunity to acquire a top-class education in most design schools. For the less talented, the prospects are less clear. But then isn’t that the way it’s always been?

Adrian Shaughnessy is an independent designer, writer and broadcaster, and co-founder of publishing company Unit Editions

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