Designers need to fuel the education debate

The biggest surprise in the Government’s second Creative Industries Mapping document is the size it puts on the design sector compared with advertising (DW 16 March). The report, from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, puts design revenue last year at £26.7bn, and advertising’s at £3bn.

What will leave the design industry unruffled is the Government’s concern, expressed in the report, over the quality of design graduates (see News Analysis, page 9). There’s no “shock horror” there for design bosses finding it tough to recruit the right calibre of graduate staff.

It is welcome news, though, that the Government is prepared to act, albeit through a forum. But the first thing that both the design industry and the DCMS’s Creative Industries Higher Education Forum must establish is what constitutes “quality” in new graduates. Is it an ideas-led approach, an impressive set of craft skills, business aptitude, knowledge of the market, or what?

It’s a long time since design came out of the art schools, which is where many consultancy bosses started out, and became a degree subject. But during the intervening period, education has been turned on its head, with successive governments pushing towards greater financial self-sufficiency of colleges and students and an emphasis on achieving vocational training rather than a broad education.

The upshot for design is too many students for the jobs the industry can provide – hence the wealth of “give me a job” letters consultancies and even media such as Design Week receive from unemployed graduates bewildered by the lack of interest in their plight.

Is it that consultancy heads such as Michael Johnson, quoted in our analysis, simply want less choice? Should courses be less specialist? Or should college tutors be more open in relaying their real job prospects in mainstream design, highlighting instead the other skills and benefits – the so-called transferrable skills – a design degree brings with it and diverting them early on?

None of these are new notions and various design bodies have tried to address the situation over time, not least through dialogue with Government departments. But the establishment of a forum across all the creative industries marks the first time that Government has intervened so directly and creates a great opportunity for design.

Rather than dismiss the idea as yet another talking shop, let’s get an agenda together to fuel debate. Given its active role in education across the creative sector, we should look to British Design & Art Direction to take the lead, but with input from everyone in design. We all stand to benefit from the outcome.

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