John Spencer: “Universities aren’t the future of design education”

John Spencer – who recently stepped down as an external examiner at a leading university – on why he thinks universities are failing design students and how industry-backed social enterprises may be a viable alternative.


We love to bellyache about the failure of university design education to prepare students for a career in graphic design. One of the greatest complaints is that it hasn’t kept pace with the times and some say it’s decades out of date, but I don’t think that’s the problem at all. I reckon the real problem is that most universities have got hopelessly lost because they’re following industry trends instead of focusing on the building blocks of our craft. They’re trying to keep pace with an industry that can’t even agree on a definition of design let alone use coherent, bullshit-free vocabulary to describe the work it does.

Design education needs to be connected

The closure of the Bauhaus-inspired foundation course, which allowed students to cross fluidly between disciplines, is a horror story. We need foundation courses now more than ever. Design education needs to be connected, not specialised, because that’s how design is in the real world. It needs to prepare students for a career in an industry whose future is probably best described as a ‘known unknown’. If designers aren’t ready for anything they’re ready for nothing.

Nothing graphic designers do is very complicated

Universities have a responsibility to encourage students to be agile, resilient and adaptable. They’ve a responsibility to encourage an openness to new ways of doing things. And they’ve a responsibility to help students develop the means to work in different contexts. More than anything, their job is to provide students with the mental and physical space to experiment, to fail and to learn. Nothing graphic designers do is very complicated. Nothing we do has fundamentally changed in the last 50 years. Then as now, the most important thing we have to offer is our instinct and imagination.

Alan Fletcher was once asked by some students, “What is the most treasured and well-used piece of equipment in your studio?” He replied, “My head.”

Universities are a retail scam

Universities have become commercial enterprises and their pursuit of income is now an inescapable reality. They’ve sold their souls. They’re all about bums on seats – as many bums on as few seats as possible. And they’re churning out mediocrity on a grand scale. Universities are a retail scam.

The introduction of tuition fees has turned students into demanding customers. The student satisfaction survey has an inordinate influence on university league tables but more importantly, it’s altered the dynamic of the learning environment. It’s changed forever the relationship between teaching staff and their students because there’s friction between the educational call for critical assessment of students’ performance and the business need to keep the customer satisfied.

University design education is in irreversible decline

I’ve come across some excellent teaching by inspired, passionate and committed people who are well informed about our rapidly changing industry. But on the whole, design education is in irreversible decline with its indifferent teaching, routine pursuit of trivial research and unimaginative management. What’s more, its usefulness is being devalued by a fixation with dreaming up courses that sell – a marketing gimmick that exploits students and peddles unrealistic expectations.

Universities are behemoths driven by self-preservation. Competition between them has got out of hand. Yet they’ve no real idea how to compete because they’re not run by entrepreneurs, they’re run by risk-averse administrators and career academics who have little or no understanding of how the design industry works.

Design industry-funded elite design schools are the future

So if universities aren’t the future for design education, what is? There are plenty of commercial alternatives – Shillington College is a good example. But the School of Communication Arts is particularly interesting. It claims to be “the most successful ad school in the world”. It’s a social enterprise that’s supported by more than 100 advertising agencies. The course runs for 18 months out of which its 36 students get about six months of placements in top agencies. And the School has a network of over 800 industry mentors, so students learn from giants of the advertising industry like Sir John Hegarty, Alexandra Taylor and Dave Trott. It’s a bit like an apprenticeship.

We should try to stop fretting about what universities are getting wrong because it’s only going to get worse. The future of design depends on the quality of its “new blood” and it’s in everyone’s interest to keep the standard high. So if our industry is genuinely bothered by the poor quality of university design education we ought to do something about it. We should take our lead from the advertising industry and fund our own elite design schools that nurture real talent. And run them as social enterprises so students don’t get saddled with indefensible debt.

John Spencer is the founder and creative director of Offthetopofmyhead.

Hide Comments (13)Show Comments (13)
  • Richard McConnell November 26, 2016 at 11:11 am

    Art education in the UK is a shadow of its former self because it used to be entirely independent of the university system, but was forced into it by successive governments in the eighties and nineties. The old higher level courses (NDD and Dip AD) were always preceded by a largely experimental and wide ranging foundation course, usually of two years, before entering the more specialist course. Now this has been substituted by A-levels, which are completely inappropriate because far too prescriptive and narrow, and usually given only a fraction of the time.
    The forcing of art education (which used to be entirely independent) into the mainstream UK university system has been a catastrophe.
    Richard McConnell (Dip AD, Dip Cen SAD)
    Lecturer in Exhibition and Museum Design for 35 years,(now retired)

  • Maxine Hayes November 28, 2016 at 10:41 am

    I’ve never really understood why you have to do a degree to work in Graphic Design, as mentioned in the comment above, people used to do apprenticeships or HND courses. I would imagine practical experience is more valuable than constant research and dissertations, if you want to stay current and relevant.

  • Jessica Jenkins November 28, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Many valid points here, but not sure about the proposed solution.

  • Richard de Pesando November 28, 2016 at 11:19 am

    It’s heartbreaking to say this, but I agree 100% with everything here. I no longer teach because I could not stand in front of fee paying students and tell them they were getting their money’s worth – as Course Leader – I was in a position to know exactly how short changed they had been, no matter how hard myself or the staff worked – trying to deliver a course that was at odds with what industry needed (and compensating for that) and managing a cohort who were generally too young, poorly informed and often misled before they went into H.E. Additionally – judging national and international competitions, I could clearly see which institutes were nurturing talent and which subscribed to what can only be called the ‘sausage factory’ approach to design education, taking fees and ticking boxes. It was deeply frustrating.
    Richard de Pesando MA/RCA

  • James Souttar November 28, 2016 at 11:57 am

    One of the issues to be considered here is how the ‘academicisation’ of art and design education in the 1990s, driven by an ambitious and rapidly expanding Higher Education sector, paralleled a move towards the conceptual in art and design. As British design became increasingly centred around the concept of the brand, the traditional emphasis on craft skills was replaced with a new focus on ‘creativity’. This also fitted well with the explosion of the internet, and the interest business was finding in intangibles.

    The problem we now face, in an era where the manic optimism and febrile enthusiasm of the 1990s and early 2000s has finally drained away, is that all of this feels a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes. The UK’s much vaunted Creative Industries are facing a huge challenge from Brexit, with cities across Europe and beyond keen to profit from London’s discomfort. To make this even worse, the capital has priced its once vibrant arts scene out, and its exorbitant rents are driving small firms away. The brand is not only yesterday’s news, but it is being aggressively challenged by the politicising of business (we no longer care what a company says – we care about its ethics, or rather its lack of them). And the contempt for craft skills is now showing: British design in 2016 is no MasterChef (indeed, following this metaphor, it still seems infatuated with the freezer and the microwave).

    The challenges are much bigger than education, but clearly education is a part of them. British design needs to reinvent itself for the much more difficult times that lie ahead. Only then can we decide what we are educating people for.

  • Freek Wallaard November 28, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Designers need to learn their craft really well, and indeed learn how to bring it across in an understandable way. Yet, many of the business stuff that comes with a design career, just doesn’t really resonate with creative youngsters yet.

    I think there’s a big need for companies to step up their game as well, and invest more in their design force. Designers love to learn, but as I speak with 100s of designers throughout the year, I find that hardly any get additional education after their Bachelor’s or Master’s.
    Learning at universities needs to improve indeed, but it also needs to continue way after university.

  • Pauline Amphlett November 28, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    John Spencer: “Universities aren’t the future of design education”

    Whilst I recognise there are a few valued points in this article, can I just point out that not all art school experiences are like this. I am the current Programme Leader for BA (hons) and MDes Graphic Design Multimedia/School of Creative Arts, Wrexham Glyndwr University and we really pride ourselves in the smaller art school experience for our students where they get plenty of one to one support from an extremely committed staff team and an opportunity to develop into rounded individuals who are prepared to gain employment in the design industry. Over 80% of our students gain employment within 6 months of completing the course. We have developed over the years an extensive Alumni network which not only covers the UK but stretches it’s fingertips around the globe.

    In essence I feel this article is about building up John Spenser’s own reputation and his article is about sensationalising things and blowing things out of proportion for our sector.

    Alan Fletcher was a mentor of mine whilst studying at university myself so I whole heartily agree with what he is quoted in saying , “What is the most treasured and well-used piece of equipment in your studio?” He replied, “My head.” As design educators we now have to build, nurture and encourage confidence and creative thinking in young student minds these days. Those that have chosen to follow the career path of graphic designer have often had all the stuffing knocked out of them by the school system and the National Curriculum. Where they have only been taught to remember facts and figures necessary to pass exams and this truly breaks my heart. Our industry is one of the only remaining that this country has and should be rightly proud of in the 21st century.

    There are pockets of excellent teaching practice across the country if you look for it led by inspired, passionate and committed people. I am an external examiner and practitioner myself so I do see plenty of good practice myself across the sector. Please don’t tar us all with the same brush. Here we encourage our students to be agile, resilient and adaptable and we encourage an openness in approach and thinking to building new ways of thinking to move things forward for the future. And through our extensive Alumni network and annual Creative Futures Conference where the likes of Dick Powell and Andrew Cheetham have spoken as keynote speakers our students really do get their foot in the door to job opportunities much earlier than other universities in our region. We also take on a fair amount of outside community projects we believe to be of value where our students gain meaningful client experience through the work they produce and we do assist our students develop the means to work across print and screen and in different contexts, to experiment, to fail and more importantly to learn from first hand experience.

    We are not a university that has a bums on seats mentality. Nor do we churn out mediocrity on a grand scale and not please do not say all universities are a retail scam. Come and visit us Mr Spencer when you are next passing Wrexham and I will be more than happy to have a chat with you, show you around and even pop the kettle on for you and possibly bake you a lemon drizzle cake to prove that Wrexham are the acceptation to the rule.

    Oh and there’s no ‘sausage factory’ approach here Richard de Pesando. We don’t hold people to ransom just to get them through the door, promise them the earth, take their money, run and then turn them out into the cold here. Nor do we just tick boxes. We really do what we say on the tin, we care about our students and they care about us and maybe that’s why they keep in regular contact with us going back over 30+ years I have actually worked here…

    • Maxine Hayes November 29, 2016 at 8:26 am

      I’ve always been impressed by the quality of work produced by Weston College and The University of the West of England (purely as a spectator). I’m reassured to hear that your establishment is so successful, it certainly indicates that good education is available – if you look for it.

    • Richard de Pesando November 29, 2016 at 5:16 pm

      Pauline, I’m delighted to hear this – partly because before I went to Camberwell /RCA – I did BTEC then Foundation at Wrexham (83/4), I know the area and local industry very well. My point were observations taken directly from what I saw and refused to participate in and trends that I thought were unacceptable. My PT staff and VT’s were some of the best people I have ever worked with and all of them worked beyond what they were paid and contracted for – but battling the unrealistic expectations of management and often distorted expectations of students and their parents leads me to believe that there are too many students being promised too much on courses that are frequently detached or at odds to what the creative industries and wider workplace offer. I suppose the best example I can think of to demonstrate the ‘sausage factory’ approach (and yes, I concede – it was a bit glib) was the time 2 years ago when I was on the judging panel for a student design award, one of the larger, better know colleges had upwards of 25 entries, all of them almost identical in approach and structure – all missing one key component from the brief and all containing a single error that could only have come from the lead tutor not concentrating on the brief before delivering. Additionally – each entry was to exactly the same standard – clearly a component of a marking module where a pass was required but no need to do any more. It was very disheartening.

  • Trevor Wilson November 28, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    The whole direction of this piece is rubbish. As a design professional and part-time tutor I can see a few valid points, but is this guy serious? I agree that students who don’t come from foundation course backgrounds can suffer and the larger classes that universities want for more fees, affects quality for some students. But that’s how higher education is. The course I tutor on focuses on ideas over everything else – not to train Mac artworkers.
    John Spencer’s comments are maybe more an indication of his declining standards if he’s championing Shillingdon College and an advertising college as examples of his recommend future of design education! He obviously hasn’t been involved with a quality university before!

    • Sarah May 6, 2018 at 4:59 pm

      “The course I tutor on focuses on ideas over everything else – not to train Mac artworkers.”. THIS is the problem, we need people who can actually do the job at hand, not ideas people. Sure ideas are great, but executing those ideas are equally as important, if not more so in my opinion. Sad to say my university had the same approach.

  • Iain Cameron November 28, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    ‘Nothing graphic designers do is very complicated. Nothing we do has fundamentally changed in the last 50 years. Then as now, the most important thing we have to offer is our instinct and imagination.’

    Great article, and that is a beautiful statement. As a graphic designer I will of course steal it, and pass it off as my own. Hey kids, that’s 1 graphic design lesson you can have for free!

  • John Wood December 3, 2016 at 12:28 am

    I agree with many of the observations – too much style and too little thinking. But would love to hear more about the context and values that would help society, not just. Design industries emerged over a century of capitalism as a disjointed but sophisticated set of hyper-marketing skills. Whether these need a university to teach them depends on what you think the world needs. The design courses I wrote (since 1988 at Goldsmiths) were expressly designed to transcend current trends in business. We always put eco/ethics issues before ‘skills’ and produced some quite radical, and successful students. After quarter of century the Guardian rated this Department top in its 2016 universities guide. Nonetheless, it is hard not to add to the waste economy that is killing us. I am enjoying working in the commercial world for the first time, having retired 5 years ago. What is needed is some smart, very long-term business logic in the service of humanity and our fellow creatures. Anyone want to join me…?

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