It’s degree show time yet again. Another generation of hopefuls unfurl their wings and leap into the unknown. Only this time, it really is an unknown. Never has it been so difficult for graduating designers to look for their chosen careers. What awaits them, after three or four years of personal exploration, pushing individual boundaries of creativity, responding to fictitious briefs and listening to practitioners and tutors telling them what it will be like. And now it’s real, your portfolio in your hand and a degree in your pocket, where do you go next?
It’s never been easy. Only a proportion will make it to that Holy Grail of consultancy. But don’t let that make you feel bad about what you’ve just done or what you’re going to do.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about why we educate designers. In Design Week’s Letters pages, some have said we shouldn’t attempt to generate any more designers. There’s a strong case for saying ‘no more designers’. But that’s not the same as saying ‘don’t teach any more design’.
One reason we need to educate designers is that there is still relatively little great design around. Whatever type of designer you are, you would have seen great ideas disappear; not because they’re particularly bad, but because the processes and people who make them find it difficult to know what to do with them. They are generally people with lots of power, but no understanding of what people might actually want.
But before we blame them, let’s reflect on the role of the designer. You ring up for a brochure; we’ll give you a brochure. Want a website, a brand, a logo? We can do that. Designers deliver: whatever you ask for, they’ll deliver it, whether you need it or not.
One of the strengths of design in the UK is that almost everyone agrees design is about business. Adding value, communicating benefits to customers, creating innovation, effecting internal change, these are just a few of the tangible benefits that good use of design can bring. This is not as assumed across the UK and Europe as you might think. There are many who see design as a cultural attribute, about aspiration or art rather than delivery. For most of us, design is not just a pretty face; it adds value and makes local or global competition possible.
Another strength of UK design is its ability to specialise, but that means designers sometimes fail to see the big picture. We’ve seen enough architects design the logo, graphic designers design products and engineers design the interface and website to know there is real value in understanding the particular subtleties around a design discipline. But this makes designers poor at seeing the big picture and what is right for a particular company. Helping clients and employers make the right decision, based on people’s real needs, is the job to be done.
So back to graduates. We already have enough designers. What we also need are design-aware accountants, bank managers and lawyers. That’s why design is a crucial part of the education process. The Government wants to remove design as a compulsory subject past the age of 14, but it’s a crowded curriculum with little chance for creativity or the opportunity to use your hands and make something. Despite design being the most popular subject in the curriculum, the big fear is that design will revert to what nice boys and girls don’t do. So there go the design-aware accountants, bank managers, project managers, journalists and future leaders.
Designers; think about what is right for your clients or employers. Give them the tools to use design to their best business advantage. Find those customer needs, moments of delight, communicate that message and make it connect. Headteachers; make design the beacon of your school, explain its value to future citizens and stop them becoming academic robots unable to create societies’ solutions. Design graduates; think broadly, you can do anything, it needn’t be called design. You will do more explaining the needs of your customers to a chief executive than a design superstar designing exclusive novelties for the rich will ever achieve.
You are a pioneer, you know things that have value and make a difference. Just don’t limit it to your craft. Create the new businesses, with the values of future society: authenticity, emotion and security. Don’t be scared, it can only go up from here on.