The technofiles

The latest breed of digital creatives comes armed with a wide range of technical skills, but what really defines them is their grasp of the digital media world and their ability to grow with the medium.

Talent in digital media is evolving fast. The new generation of e-creatives keeps an open mind to changes in technology and commercial opportunities, and is keen to experiment. The designers may have a “traditional” background in fine arts or graphic design. They may have no design qualification at all. But what really defines them is their grasp of the digital media world and their ability to grow with it.

“There is a new breed of designer that is multi-specialised. The way that educational institutions and traditional design consultancies categorise people makes it really difficult for them to tap into that mentality,” says Rodney Edwards, director of digital media consultancy Edwards Churcher. He admits that academic qualifications have less and less value to a prospective digital media employer and what really counts is computer literacy. “It’s now a case of asking them which tools you understand, which packages can you manipulate and what can you achieve with them.”

Defining your average digital creative is complex, because the borders of creativity have evolved and changed. Traditional computer design was created by cognitive experts, a process of applying useability. The legacy has filtered into design, with a younger generation emerging from (a few) courses which combine knowledge of visual communication with software. Others who may have just landed in the digital world from alternative paths of life are picking it up for themselves. Digit, the London-based digital design and new media solutions consultancy, employs people from a variety backgrounds, ranging from graffiti to theatre design, while most of the musicians working in the industry are self-taught. Now that computers have eliminated the hard labour one had to endure to learn skills, it’s as if creativity has been finally allowed to roam free.

However, specific skills and design training are still important. A medium-sized digital media studio will offer a creative team comprising animators, copywriters, graphic designers and even musicians. But software for illustration, graphics and audio packages is similar to use. Once you become an expert in illustration software, the ability to manipulate audio software is a short learning curve away. Add to this the team nature of projects and you have a recipe for cross-skill pollination.

Deepend in Shoreditch, east London, resembles a human beehive. Teams of creatives from different sections of the studio (convergent media, Web design, multimedia, 3D visualisation and moving image) seem to join together, buzzing around project production, united by a common design and work ethos.

Crossing over doesn’t mean diluting talent or the identity of a creative. “We still want our illustrators to be the best, and the same goes for our graphic designers,” says Deepend design director David Streek, aka Gravy. “However, if our illustrators know how to do music and our animators know multimedia it’s brilliant, and if they understand typography it’s even better.”

On the creative interaction at Deepend, he adds: “We nurture people to cross over because it’s good for the atmosphere and you get better work out of it… Unlike consultancies such as Tomato and The Attik, which are renowned for a specific look, Deepend is not tied to just one house style.”

Most of the learning in digital media derives directly from new projects and the challenges they bring. When asked about the future, Fred Flade, graphic designer at Deepend, says: “I will be learning more and more skills. As new technology comes along, you have to pick it up quickly.” Updating skills is fundamental to survival, because as Simon Sankarayya, art director of Digit, says, “There is always a ‘next big thing’ in new media.” Digital and interactive TV, mobile communications, these are all new mediums that require a quick assessment of how to use the software to best exploit it for business.

Some companies take training seriously. AKQA, the UK’s biggest independent Internet services consultancy, organises Saturday and evening sessions. Executive creative director James Hilton says: “We have an in-house training programme. If someone is specialised in, say, a 3D package, he will do a seminar or a tutorial so that people can learn it. In this way everybody’s knowledge increases.”

The hard work that goes into updating staff is one of the main reasons why most groups prefer to employ creatives full time. The agreement is even more beneficial when projects are protracted. “We use staffers rather than freelances because of the continuity of the projects,” says Russ Sellers, chief executive of Blueberry, the digital consultancy behind e-commerce sites for retailers such as Ted Baker and Fat Face. Groups keep their employees pampered, especially if they have that highly-rated mix of design and software expertise.

So are e-creatives different from traditional designers? Not in terms of creative values, because good design is still good design wherever you put it, and talent to create good work is always prominent. But the game has different rules. Or rather, as Sankarayya says, “There are no set rules to practise new media or interactive design.” All you can do is adapt and change.

City analysts have predicted that the Internet bubble will soon burst and with it the flourishing creative input that drives it. But the bubble won’t burst. It may even get bigger.

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