Where is the verve?

Is it possible to combine design flair with technical nous? asks Adrian Shaughnessy. Even the media-savvy Swedes struggle to pull it off, he finds, on a visit to Stockholm’s Hyper Island

Adrian Shaughnessy

A recent visit to Hyper Island, the digital media school in Stockholm, gave me an insight into an important question that is prevalent in contemporary design: what is being done to train the digital designers of the future?

It’s a pressing question. I know studio heads who are tearing out the hairs in their goatees with frustration because they can’t find designers fluent in the new digital disciplines; or, more accurately, can’t find designers capable of working in the digital domain with the sort of creative panache that they find in ’old-media’ designers.

I’m also surprised by the number of students I meet with zero interest in the digital arena. I’d go as far as to say that the most common response I encounter is mild hostility towards subjects such as Web design and mobile development. There’s boundless enthusiasm for poster design, logo-creation and book-making – but not much interest in catering for the biggest technological change to hit communication since Gutenberg.

How many UK design schools are offering digital media design as a discrete subject? Not many, I’d guess. There’s certainly nothing to rival Hyper Island, with its exclusive emphasis on the digital. Formed in 1995 by Jonathan Briggs, David Erixon and Lars Lundh with the motto ’Learning by doing’, the school’s aim is to ’create a unique learning environment, build relationships with the interactive/digital industry and to manage the team-building, course co-ordination and student development’. Hyper Island runs courses in Digital Media, Interactive Art Direction, Motion Graphics, e-Commerce and Mobile Applications. More than 260 students study full-time at the school each year. Most are required to have worked for at least two years before becoming eligible for entry.

But what makes Hyper Island different is that it functions without teaching staff. The students learn by doing projects brought in by commercial companies, or by working on tasks set by interested groups and individuals. Importantly, students are encouraged to work in teams. This seems essential preparation for working in digital media, where teamwork is obligatory. But you can also see how it flies in the face of the dominant view in design schools, which seeks to encourage the individual in the Alan Fletcher/Paul Rand/Stefan Sagmeister model of the solo performer.

By offering students on-the-job learning, Hyper Island encourages its students to acquire that elusive quality most frequently demanded by studio bosses – ’real world’ experience. I was mightily impressed with the students I met in Stockholm. They came from every corner of the globe. They were super-bright. And in their modern, open-plan studio (more Silicon Valley start-up than traditional design school) they exuded commitment and enthusiasm.

I saw some student work while I was there. It was mainly characterised by business and communication savvy. It felt closer to advertising than design and, although there was plenty of evidence of digital competence in their thinking, it didn’t feel tech-led – it felt ideas-led.

But there was one area where I detected a weakness: the good thinking and the business savvy couldn’t disguise a lack of design verve. It wasn’t bad design – far from it – but it was routine, unexceptional, conventional. Which takes us back to my friends trying to recruit digital designers: are they right to despair, or is it possible to combine design flair with digital nous? I’m beginning to wonder.

Adrian Shaughnessy is an independent designer, writer and broadcaster and co-founder of publishing company Unit Editions

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