Suffering for their craft

A romantic illusion has always been attached to the notion of those with a creative talent. Pablo Picasso was supposed to have created his best work while starving in a Parisian garret. That was more than 100 years ago, but now there are moves in the design world, at least, to ensure that new designers get paid fairly.

The Brand Union has set a minimum wage for its trainees of £20 000 because its executive creative director, Glenn Tutssel, says he does not want graduates to be ‘used as cheap labour’ (DW 10 April).

It coincides with the Government launching its ‘first ever comprehensive action plan for the creative industries’ from its Creative Economy Programme earlier this year (DW 21 February). Culture Secretary Andy Burnham says, ‘The creative industries must move from the margins to the mainstream of economic and policy thinking, as we look to create the jobs of the future.’

Among the proposals unveiled by Burnham were plans to create 5000 apprenticeships across the creative industries. Most designers seem to be in agreement that students should spend time working in studios to comprehend how their creativity can be best applied.

Simon Waterfall, creative director at digital consultancy Poke and D&AD president, champions student placements – unsurprisingly, as D&AD is an educational charity which each year invests about £2m in running 18 different education programmes providing support for universities and colleges, students and graduates, as well as working to bridge the gap between education and the workplace.

Waterfall says, ‘Placements are great for young people to be able to see lots of areas of design and then find a focus.’ He explains that what he looks for in Poke applicants is passion, adding, ‘I can teach them business skills’.

However, not all employers are keen to set themselves up as ‘professors of business’ for potential employees.

Luke Pearson, industrial designer and director at Pearson Lloyd, says that the discipline of learning a craft has disappeared from modern design schools because of ‘the ridiculous numbers of students’ studying design degree courses.

He explains that when he attended Central St Martins College of Art and Design, there were 20 students in his year, but with design schools annually taking more than 100 students on to each course there simply is not the desk space for students to hone their skills. He says, ‘Practical experience is crucial, which is why the Government should introduce apprenticeships.’

The Royal College of Art provides business courses in both art and design that encompass how to calculate tax and VAT, charge and write a business plan. It also teaches presentation skills. However, Hilary French, head of the RCA’s architecture and design school, says, ‘We are not running vocational courses. Some of our students have already worked as designers and come to the RCA for a break – to get away from the compromises and grind of corporate life, or from the poor design that is happening in some commercial companies.’

She reasons, ‘University must be about education first, and training second.’ However, an extra year on a design course spent in a workshop could potentially equip graduates better. An architecture syllabus, for example, is split into three parts – part one is a three-year degree course, followed by one year’s experience in a practice; the second part is two year’s study to gain a postgraduate diploma; the final part is spent working as an architect’s assistant, which ensures students have learned their trade.

Tim Greatrex, an architecture student spending his last year at interactive designer and architect Jason Bruges’ studio, says, ‘The time here has been pivotal to my learning. Being on a project’s site, speaking to clients, contractors and other designers, instead of remaining in the isolated world of study, is a big jump.’

At digital design consultancy Airside, one student placement is taken on every three months and, according to an Airside spokeswoman, ‘We pay them, otherwise only rich students could take up the opportunity.’ Malika Favre, now a designer there, completed a placement three years ago when she was in her second year of a BA course at University College for the Creative Arts (formerly the Surrey Institute of Art & Design).

She says, ‘I was given real responsibility, and it helped motivate and focus my creativity, giving me a chance to boost my portfolio and show future employers that I could handle the stresses of design consultancies.’

John Dowling, graphic design tutor at Lincoln University, says, ‘More often than not, students need to show that they are prepared to work from the bottom up.’ He feels students who are outside London need to try much harder to be noticed, which is why Lincoln held a ‘design auction’ this month to raise funds for its end-of-year graphics show. For the project, students talked to consultancies including NB Studio, Johnson Banks and Turner Duckworth. ‘I always encourage my students to speak to working designers, as lots of appointments happen through word of mouth,’ he continues.

It follows that opportunities which put students on the design radar are worthwhile and ultimately may save them from starvation.

Skills learned in the workplace

• Working in a team, sharing workloads and ideas, and getting away from the individual approach taken by students
• Valuing the work of a design professional, by calculating day rates
• Assessing the effect that pieces of work – ideas realised rather than just drawn – have on the public
• Learning communication skills through exposure to clients, consultancies, other designers, and manufacturers
• Multi-parallel working – working on every aspect of several projects at the same time
• Conceptual, project and people management – delegating, budgeting for projects, fabrication, installation, and health and safety
• Realising non-standard methods of working – including bespoke and hybrid disciplines

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