Halcyon days

Should art school prepare designers for the real world? David Bernstein argues that those years of freedom are precious and ought to be used wisely

Should art school prepare designers for the real world? David Bernstein argues that those years of freedom are precious and ought to be used wisely

‘Seven Ages of Design’, the Design Council event at the Victoria & Albert Musuem, provided a forum for seven designers to talk about their approach and the future. It was a worthwhile four hours, thanks to host Charlie Leadbeater and interviewer Vicky Richardson.

I was surprised how little the views of the seven diverged. The real difference came in the concluding panel session when they discussed education. How well does art school prepare potential designers for work in the real world? Ron Arad was quoted as saying, ‘The briefs at art school make the employable unemployable.’

It was a feeling I shared in the 1960s when I first interviewed art students eager to enter advertising. The commercial purpose of graphic design was barely envisaged, let alone covered in the syllabus. If, and when, students were employed, we had to educate them in the realities of the business, especially the commercial pressures and the disciplines of time and money.

My agency’s views were shared by others. We compared notes at the Advertising Creative Circle and liaised more closely with art schools. We gave presentations, not simply on design, copy, typography, production and television, but also on account handling, media and planning. They left with a better idea of what the business was about.

Some were less than happy with this reality check. At one event, I screened six ads and asked the audience what they had in common. I hoped someone would appreciate that each was a promise. A tutor shouted ‘Debasement’, which reminded us of the barely submerged hostility towards advertising which existed among some of the teaching staff. Is it any wonder that their briefs, if written at all, were less than professional?

The situation gradually improved, and art school curricula began to shift emphasis towards vocational training. But some of us began to worry. Had the pendulum swung too far? Was so-called academic achievement being measured only by success at the job interview?

Of the ‘seven ages’ on the V&A panel, five felt the need for more business education at art schools, or actual experience while at school – time out at placements or (like the final year students on the panel, Fabian Hermann and Danny McNeil), simultaneously starting a company. The two who opposed this view were at the upper end of the age scale – product designer Kenneth Grange and architect Sarah Wigglesworth. For them the focus was in danger of becoming too restricting.

This controversy will continue wherever art and business co-exist. My sympathies are with the older minority. While I believe briefs need to be professional, and tutors au fait with current business practice, I am alarmed at the prospect of early specialisation and limited horizons. Three years of reaching out, being buffeted by ideas, making connections (often by accident), pursuing subjects not overtly related and being surprised – it’s not so much a window as a Crystal Palace of opportunity, and one unlikely to be repeated.

But, asks the anxious student, will it help me get a job? To which this ex-employer replies/ before you equip yourself for a job, equip yourself for life. And, who knows, that could make you more saleable.

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