How can the design industry better promote itself to young people?

Faced with less students studying creative subjects at A Level and undergraduate tuition fees on the rise, D&AD senior foundation manager Hilary Chittenden is calling on the design industry to communicate what a design career offers to tomorrows designers.

D&AD’s Hilary Chittenden

Last week social media timelines were inundated by the envelope-clutching-jumping-for-joy photos of #ALevelResults2019. First off, huge congratulations to all of the students – and the teachers and parents and carers – who collected results last week. It’s a day I remember well – and it was terrifying. So hats off to you all.

However for design and creative subjects there was a 1.6% decline in students taking art and design A Levels, and a 2.5% reduction in students being accepted onto creative art and design degrees. So what does this tell us? About not only the mindsets of the bright young things collecting their results, but also about our education system, and our industry?

“It come down to money”

While there’s no hard-and-fast answer to understanding these declining numbers, I think it is important, if not already obvious, to point out that it comes down to money. From the cost of study, to the assumed salaries of designers, to the government funding or lack thereof.

With university tuition fees having risen from being non-existent just over 20 years ago to up to £27,750 for a three year degree today. it’s inevitable potential students are more critical about their options, job prospects, earnings and course success rates.

What if you have no mentor or reference point?

And it’s easy to be critical or flippant about job outcomes or career prospects when you’re looking into studying a subject that you, your family or your wider networks don’t really know a huge amount about.

The creative economy is one of the fastest growing in the UK, with creative directors earning on average £95,000 a year. (You can earn more about the earnings of Design Week readers here). However the earning potential of designers often goes unrealised, because by its nature our industry tends to be discreet.

Great design, advertising and communications are something we see everywhere, every day. But unless you’re in the industry, very rarely do people consider how these products, services and brands got there, or the types of jobs done by the people who created them.

While we have seen a mainstream boom in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), design and the commercial arts have quietly slipped into the background. STEM is itself a brand with brilliant products and government campaigns pushing it to the right people.

Designers need to take the initiative

Designers do things like this everyday so maybe we should be taking the initiative and showcasing our industry to the world. The more informed young people, parents, career advisors and teachers are of the opportunities, the less of a ‘risky’ subject design becomes and the more designers flourish.

Government funding and backing also plays an important yet diminishing role in supporting the wider arts. The wide-spread adoption of EBacc is making it harder for young people to justify taking a creative subject. I hope that the brilliant open letter by Rick Haythornthwaite, Chair of Creative Industries Federation – co-signed by hundreds of huge names including our own president Tim Lindsay – will be the start of a reinvigorated and collaborative charge against arts austerity.

Alternative routes into industry

But with the continuing decline in university applications there exists an opportunity to facilitate alternative routes into our industry. It is commonplace that a degree level qualification is essential for even the most junior roles. While a degree is undeniably valuable, it shouldn’t be that they are mandatory across the board.

Recently, more and more consultancies are supporting and nurturing talent from unconventional routes. Since launching D&AD’s New Blood Shift programme in 2016, we’ve now trained over 87 creatives in London and New York who have an abundance of skills – but no degree. Last year in London, 78% of those ‘Shifters’ secured paid placements, proving that there is more than one way to get a foot in the door.

Programmes like Shift (and other great initiatives – Creative Mentor Network and Brixton Finishing School to name a couple) currently only exist thanks to the incredible support of the industry. The huge amount of interest that we have from both agencies and individuals acts as a beacon of hope for the future of our industry.

Moving forward, I would urge every studio to challenge their preconceptions of what makes a recruit ‘qualified’ for the role, and see this vocational learning and on-the-job nurturing and support not as a Corporate Social Responsibility piece scoped by HR departments, but as a genuine investment in to our industry’s future and the talent who will be shaping it.

Hillary Chittenden heads up D&AD New Blood Shift, a free night school helping young people without degrees kickstart a career in the creative industries. Applications are open now until Monday 26 August.

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