Rising by degrees

Graduating from an arts course in 1989 led to the dole for most students, but some bypassed the DSS, as Liz Farrelly discovers

Despite the customary post-Christmas downer, there seems to be an optimistic note in the air this year. We’ve heard rumours that design activity is picking up, and we’ve been warned not to lose our heads in any form of feeding frenzy. But for a generation of designers that lesson has already been well and truly learnt. As the baby boomers enjoyed the boom, the first Generation Xers were waiting in the starting gates, with only a recession to cut their teeth on.

Through the last years of the Eighties, news of heady excesses filtered down to the student body, colouring expectations and fuelling ambition. And nowhere more so than at the Royal College of Art, where visiting lecturers and news of recent graduates done good sold MA students the dream of instant fame and success. Product designers wanted their mugshots on magazine covers, fashion designers wanted a catwalk show in their first year out, and graphic designers wanted big, fat salaries.

And what happened? After the cash was spent from degree show sales, and the job offers didn’t come in, it was a matter of taking Mr

Tebbit’s advice and getting on yer bike. Some left for more fertile shores – a whole colony of fashion and textile designers have settled in New York for example, a big bunch of others meanwhile got on with the business of survival.

How and why they managed it may provide us with a lesson for the future. Developing new skills; starting a business; learning how to work for someone else; teaching; diversifying; venturing beyond their chosen sphere to reinvent themselves, their strategies were as diverse as their imaginations.

This isn’t intended to be a glorification of the hallowed halls of the RCA, or the talents of its graduates. Yes, they’re made to believe they’re very good, and in comparison to other colleges RCA students are lavished with facilities, bursaries and exclusive competitions. With so much confidence-building, disappointment is hard to bear. As an RCA graduate in 1989, I witnessed optimism being nipped in the bud and periods of depression over the years. Not being a designer, my expectations weren’t as high – how many arts graduates walk straight into plum jobs? So I was as surprised by their determination as by their confidence.

These snapshots of careers in progress show that through the recession design has continued to grow and develop, with no thanks to professional bodies, or Government stepping in to help a profession in crisis, but by way of people aiming to be creative, to survive and to succeed.

Carolyn Corben


“I thought the RCA degree show was a pinnacle and, naively, that something would happen… that a plum job would come along. Then I realised it’s got to be self-initiated and set my sights high.” Carolyn Corben studied embroidery in the fashion and textiles department and was determined to make a living from her training. She signed up with the Enterprise Allowance Scheme and touted her folio around fashion houses and trade shows.

Working freelance from home, however, she missed the “one big happy family” feeling of college, and wasn’t keen on competing against friends for scarce commissions. By the time she realised the hand-to-mouth existence wasn’t for her, Corben was collaborating with RCA fashion student Harvey Bertram-Brown on his final year collection. “We both thought that fashion was about more than just clothes, and that there must be a market for people like us who wanted to work in a different way.”

Bertram-Brown wasn’t interested in working for a typical fashion company, so together they set up The New RenaisCAnce. “On foundation course I learnt the importance of presentation, so we set out to package ourselves, to be memorable,” explains Corben. And it worked. In February 1991 they launched with a publicity-grabbing exhibition which earned them a costume design commission from the BBC.

Jeweller Sophie Harley and eye-wear designer Felicity Jury-Cramp were part of the mix from the beginning, but it was Corben who travelled every day to Bertram-Brown’s home cum studio. “I needed that feeling of collaboration and mutual support. If you hit a bad patch it’s less painful when you’re not on your own. We fire ideas around and criticise each other.”

Early on they realised that designing and manufacturing for retail wasn’t their goal. “It’s not creative,” says Corben. “It’s more production than design.” That frustration reinforced their notion that fashion is all-encompassing. Instead of producing discreet garments or a conventional collection, The New RenaisCAnce was crafting “inspirational” images staged within a considered context. Unrestricted by media, they worked across the creative industries as costumiers and art directors. “We learnt to be flexible and were prepared to do a job for almost nothing, often just the materials. So we built up a reputation for being 200 per cent committed, never saying no and sticking to deadlines,” says Corben.

When they found themselves elaborating on directors’ ideas, Corben and Bertram-Brown decided to move behind the camera, encouraged by Paul Weiland who signed them to his production company. Admitting they went out on a limb, Corben was confident they had the skills to tackle a calculated gamble: “I think designers undersell their creative ability. Directing is about knowing what you want. We create a vision and the technical people make it happen.”

Corben’s credo is simple: “If you’ve got a dream, go for it.” That includes being voted director of the year, making a feature film, opening an emporium of New RenaisCAnce design… and who knows what else?

paul riley and gavin reay of riley reay

industrial design

For Paul Riley and Gavin Reay their first career move was, to quote Riley, “a mix of extreme naivete and extreme arrogance. In retrospect, it was crazy to start a business from college, because the usual way is to steal your boss’s clients!” With no illusions about the alternative option, having experienced summer jobs in various consultancies, they went for it. Reay remembers: “If we’d taken jobs, it would have been a case of last in, first out – and the salaries on offer were pathetic. We knew we’d earn less on our own, but it would be more rewarding and the potential was greater. And yes, we wanted to conquer the world.”

Thanks to a couple of good clients early on – Swatch and Häagen-Dazs – Riley Reay hit the ground running. But the consultancy also adopted a tough strategy of self-motivation. Reay explains: “We rented a huge office, and then thought ‘what are we doing here?’. That made us earn the rent.” Paying themselves bread-line wages they invested in capital equipment, “to stop us spending on sweets”, and decked out a workshop, eventually buying an even larger studio. Another strategy staved off both financial crises and mutinies in the ranks. “Our book-keeper puts out a statement for a Monday morning staff meeting,” explains Riley. “Everyone is accountable and knows exactly what’s going on.”

Naive or not, the duo were pragmatic enough to instigate a two-tier system of commissions. “We set our sights high and low at the same time. We pay the bills by doing exhibition and promotional design, which is lucrative and has a quick turnaround, but we also have long-term self-initiated projects.” Reay adds: “It takes at least three years to get projects past the earliest stages. Now we’ve got a few ideas close to being manufactured.” Far-sighted advice also came via Nick Butler, their former college professor, who suggested, “when things are going really well, start looking for new business”.

Riley Reay are able to say they’re just where they planned to be five long years ago, but they’re cagey about heeding prophecies of boom. “Some of our clients are acting all chirpy. A few years ago the food industry was booming, now it’s the manufacturers, but it’s too early to judge.” Reay agrees with David Jebb’s fears about “senior designers being replaced by

Mac-literate juniors” (Cool Running by Jeremy Myerson, DW 10 January), and thinks cheap technology could also undermine the role of consultancies. Especially now designers have to push their selling point. “We sell ourselves on the fact that we think, and can solve a problem, rather than just restyle a product. Clients now have the computing power to do that themselves. So we start with a blank piece of paper, then pick the clients’ brains, because they know more about their business than we ever could. But problem-solving is a difficult concept to sell.”

Riley and Reay set themselves a tough task, going it alone just as the recession began to bite. But they’ve survived and flourished. By targeting a range of clients across different industries and working speculatively, they’ve avoided thumb-twiddling. They also resisted the comfort of burying their heads in the sand, kept a close eye on finances and all lines of communication open – with the bank manager, clients and employees. So from a healthy mix of confidence and common sense has come a future.

Jphn Loader

Graphic Design

Without doubt the recession hit the retail-biased disciplines hardest. Consultancies specialising in packaging design were badly affected, and as lucrative clients went quiet, staff were ruthlessly shed. As a consequence of that down sizing there’s now a shortage of young but experienced packaging devotees. And as the industry begins to blossom again, companies in need of a new generation of senior designers are scouting for talent.

After five years in his first job, packaging designer John Loader decided to move on and realised his skills were in short supply. Able to write his own ticket, he’s now landed the role of senior graphic designer at Hurricane, an off-shoot of toy specialist IBH set up to challenge the retail design giants.

But back in 1989 recession wasn’t on the agenda. “I really couldn’t have had a better start,” remembers Loader, who was offered a job by Brian Tattersfield of Minale Tattersfield after developing a retail identity for a college project set by the visiting lecturer. Minale Tattersfield recruited five other graduates that year as it was a time of “endless expansion, with perks and a good atmosphere in the studio”.

With a sizeable chunk of foreign clients from economies which were either healthier or slower to experience the effects of worldwide recession, Minale Tattersfield managed to stave off the recession for more than a year longer than most. “A lot of friends working freelance were going through turmoil, others were in fear of their jobs, or lost them, but Minale Tattersfield was like a port in a storm. Loyalty went both ways,” says Loader.

Across the industry designers were also sacrificed in the race to embrace computer technology. “But it saved my job,” says Loader. I learnt the Mac in my own time, because you couldn’t make mistakes while working on a live project. No one knew how to use them but I just got interested.”

In 1995 Loader moved to Ziggurat. “It was an eye-opener, with totally different work, lots of big British brands, and a hike up in salary.” After three more job offers, he decided not only to make a career move, but also to radically improve his quality of life and leave London. Hurricane is based well away from the design ghetto, in the Cotswolds at Chipping Norton. Putting his Mac skills to full use, the job involves sending work via ISDN links, but far from being cut off from clients, Hurricane is well placed to reach headquarters which are now more likely to be situated around the M25 than in central London. “The location is a bonus, and getting here in the morning is stress-free. I think a lot of people will be taking this option in the future. There are more design groups outside London doing good work, so designers can rethink how they want to live,” says Loader.

In the world of packaging design, at least, the economic lesson – that the bigger the boom, the bigger the bust – should have been learnt. But as the rewards grow, will it be remembered?

Lawrence Zeegen


A year out between BA and MA provided Lawrence Zeegen with a “whole heap of clients” before he hit the RCA. “So I knew that when I graduated I didn’t want to do what every illustrator does, and end up working in the bedroom or garden shed at home.” Before the dreaded day, and with the aim of providing mutual support, the idea of Big Orange was hatched between a like-minded group of graduates. “We simply uprooted part of the department and moved it to a studio in EC2, to deaden the blow of leaving college. Then we put together a collective portfolio and sent out joint publicity.”

Working part-time as a graphic designer at Lamb and Shirley and teaching at the RCA, Zeegen was busy. “I came out of college with preconceptions about how a career would map out. I thought I’d be an illustrator for life. But when you’ve done one book jacket or poster, you’ve got to do more and the pressure on a freelance to invoice every month is pretty daunting.”

Looking to reduce his dependence on commissions, and building on Big Orange’s informal structure of cooperation, Zeegen moved on to set up Heart back in 1994. Together with fellow illustrator Darrel Rees he represents a select peer group. In an industry which trades on “signature styles”, Heart is unusual. Having seen the industry stifled by safe commissioning, Zeegen and Rees encourage their illustrators to experiment and develop using new technology, especially computers and photography. Their aim is to re-educate a generation of young art directors who “think illustration is a filthy word”.

While all this was going on, Zeegen was running the part-time graphic design course at Camberwell College of Art, and after a stint as acting head, became course director of graphic design at the start of the last academic year. With his knowledge of industry attitudes,

Zeegen intends to steer the Camberwell course towards the cutting edge. “The boundaries between graphics and illustration are blurring, and illustration is splitting two ways, either towards design work and on to the Mac, or towards painting for exhibition.”

With studio visits and guest speakers drawn from across the visual arts, and live projects set by outside organisations, Zeegen’s students are “served up with a slice of reality”. Being made aware of the various possibilities means students won’t be graduating with unrealistic job expectations, or subsequently despair if they’re forced to compromise. With the course gaining a reputation, by winning competitions and sending a high percentage of students to the RCA, job offers and commissions are rolling in.

For Zeegen it’s a project. “After five years I’ll do something else. I won’t stay in education until I retire. But for the first time in my life I’ve got a salary,” he says. And with Rees and his wife Lesley running Heart, Zeegen is keeping his options open.

Yorick Benjamin

industrial design

When Dr Yorick Benjamin graduated with an MA in Industrial Design, he wasn’t too enamoured with the RCA: “I received a better education at Ravensbourne. Everything I learnt at the RCA came from my peer group.” One thing he had realised though was just where he didn’t want to be: “I hated the idea of consultancy work with its unrealistic deadlines, I thought that whole framework for design was wrong.”

An undergraduate project, linking technological advances to social change, prompted Benjamin to redefine design “in the widest sense”, and in the process create a new role for himself, that of design researcher. “On a 12-week project I’d spend ten weeks researching the concept, and two weeks in the workshop articulating design styles. I got into eco-design and life-cycle assessment, and ended up with the scientists.”

As Benjamin’s career expectations had little to do with acquiring unrealistic levels of wealth, the boom and bust cycle hasn’t been cause for concern. After college Benjamin travelled to Brussels in search of European Union funding to develop a design guide for eco-labelling; signed up at Brunel for a doctorate and took on some teaching work. He also started his own company, EDEN, developing software packages for assessing sustainability. “My survival strategy? Always have more than one proposal out there being considered, and never compromise. You can’t achieve a good result by compromising.”

In 1994 Benjamin landed a post in The Netherlands, which he praises as having “a much more vibrant eco-design scene than the UK. Research has gone through a transition thanks to new technologies and multimedia. It’s not happening at a consultancy level, but in industries with big budgets and within academia.” Funded by the Dutch government, he organises a team of students and researchers from a range of disciplines, who make up the United Nations Environment Programme’s Working Group on Sustainable Product Development – “or UNEP-WG-SPD for short. I’ve had to learn new skills, to set up an office and produce documents, but my design background helps, particularly in presentations.

“We’re looking at the concept of sustainable product development, which goes further than eco-design. It’s about recognising how new products, services and systems can fulfil needs, especially in developing countries. Our aim is to use renewable materials and indigenous knowledge to reduce the environmental burden of manufacturing.” Fundamentals up for discussion include methods of assessing need, and a number of design approaches, such as dematerialisation (software replacing hardware), longevity of products and optimisation (one box, many functions).

Benjamin admits that his criteria for good design directly oppose the unwritten laws of mainstream product design… “do a product, get it on-shelf, take the next project. Research is about the long-term, evolving the questions, developing knowledge and evaluation tools. There are no real answers.”

Having side-stepped the troubled commercial scene, Benjamin is realistic about the political sphere and its agendas. Public funding is never a safe career option but, he says, “I’ve got a really interesting job”.

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