Masters of the universe

Does the world really need more creatives? Adrian Shaughnessy weighs into the education debate by suggesting designers are well-equipped for any career

The education of designers is a perennially hot topic. Among design’s chatterati it’s an issue that’s guaranteed to raise blood pressure as well as hackles.

Two unlikely bedfellows have recently chucked petrol on to the debate. In these pages Ian Cochrane has advised students to ‘Get out of this business. It is inundated with graduates and there aren’t the jobs, especially at this time’. And, in his recent D&AD President’s Lecture, Peter Saville questioned the point of colleges producing ’50 000 design graduates a year’.

Cochrane and Saville are riffing on a familiar theme. Warnings against the intensive farming of design graduates are nothing new. But is it really a problem?

Perhaps Cochrane knows something no one else knows – namely, that the current financial situation is going to last forever. I’d have thought that studying design over the next few years will allow graduates to avoid the worst of the current implosion. It could even see them emerging into a saner world where, after a decade of financial greed, fraud and ineptitude, design is valued as a force for social good rather than a lubricant of consumer indebtedness. I know of one university that’s had a marked rise in applications for next year – which it attributes to a desire among students to avoid the worst of the recession.

Saville’s lack of enthusiasm for the over-production of design graduates is easier to fathom. Since he is responsible for inspiring many of them to choose a career in design, he is perhaps experiencing a twinge of culpability.

But I think both are wrong. A design education – even a basic one – equips individuals with many of the skills that will prove invaluable in an information-based, digitally rooted global culture. Just as Britain produced engineers to forge the Industrial Revolution, the information revolution is being – at least partly – driven by designers. I can’t think of many skills that will be more useful in the coming years than a mastery of digital tools and the presentation of information across all media.

When I first started hiring designers in the late 1980s, most had been soured by their educations, and were in retreat from a process that had encouraged them to think of themselves as service-sector fodder. Towards the end of the 1990s, a new breed of tutors, radicalised by theoretical developments within design, started to produce graduates with a disdain for the old notion of design as a problem-solving process, and saw it as a means for self-expression and creative experimentation. The notion of design as art took hold in design schools – or at least in the imagination of students – and it has been hard to dislodge. It’s a question that Nick Bell is wrestling with in his new role at London’s Royal College of Art.

But after recently spending time in two universities, I think the balance has been redressed. Both knocked me out with the standard of teaching on offer, and the imaginative level-headedness of the students. I think we’ve reached a point where a design education is a bit like a history degree. History graduates don’t necessarily become historians. Instead, they use their analytically trained brains to work in business, research and education. Today, we can say the same about a good design education. Design graduates are equipped for life in the modern world.

Let’s have more of them.

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