Designing our way out of the background

Design needs to attract the best graduates more than ever, but Elliot Wilson argues the industry’s lack of visibility is holding it back

I love design. I love the design industry. And I love the branding and design company I work for. All of this, the last bit especially, might sound a little bit sycophantic. But it’s true. And what gets my dander routinely and rigidly up is the fact that outsiders don’t even seem to know about us.
When I say ’us’, I’m not just talking about Elmwood. I’m talking about all the design consultancies out there. It is only those of us in the industry, and those who want to be in it, that know just how magical, creative and exciting our world is. Beyond this seems to lay a mass, blanket ignorance where, at best, we’re obscure – ’design’ covers a lot of bases – and at worse, we’re invisible.

My younger self was a prime example of just how invisible. Not too many moons ago, when I came out of university looking for work, it was advertising I was drawn to. AMV, Saatchi & Saatchi, BBH – it didn’t matter where. Because advertising was beautiful, it was glamorous, it was famous, and outsiders – myself included – wanted in. The lure of advertising is still as strong. It’s not just the pretty faces and sharp suits of Mad Men that have made it TV’s sexiest, glammest show in years. But if I hadn’t chosen advertising then it would’ve been banking for Goldman Sachs, or TV for the now defunct Planet 24. The point is, I wouldn’t have been interested in looking at the design industry.

What gets my dander routinely and rigidly up is the fact that outsiders don’t even seem to know about us [the design industry]

I now know better, but I believe today’s graduates are still none the wiser. As someone who believes the biggest challenge to Elmwood’s continued success is the recruitment of high-calibre people, it is in my interests to make the industry more attractive to the very best graduates. In design, recruitment is normally focused on attracting quality designers. But we ignore the strategic and account management side of the business at our peril. These individuals that have the talent, ability and drive to be the face of our industry and to fly the flag for their design brethren. These young, high-calibre guns should be banging on our doors, hungry to work for us. So why aren’t they?

The first, obvious reason is that some will only be interested in how much money they can make. There are more well-trodden routes to big bucks than the design path, and salary-chasing graduates will always take them. But there are plenty of top-quality graduates who are just as turned on by power, exposure, challenge, excitement and, yes, glamour. All this we’ve got on tap. So where do we begin?

Other industries do it so why can’t we? If the design industry offered challenging, desirable training experiences with clout, prestige and supported by plenty of publicity, we’d soon be beating the créme de le créme with a stick. The BBC does for its over-subscribed graduate schemes as does global advertising and communications services group WPP for its Marketing Fellowship Programme, through which graduates and MBAs get to learn different disciplines in different agencies in different countries. The design industry needs a similar gateway, garlanded with a more confident ’come hither’ attitude.

Why shouldn’t good design be integral to working practice everywhere? Take Apple. The reason its products look as good as they function is because it’s got a fantastic design champion in Jonathan Ive. If every major organisation, from FMCG to retail to corporates, had their own ’Jonathan Ive’ or a similar design-savvy figurehead, the profile of design would rise and rise, not to mention the profile of their own product.

Yes, there’s a recession to get through. Yes, competitive pricing tops most clients’ priority lists. But we should also remind ourselves that underselling, and by extension, devaluing, what we do encourages the same behaviour in our clients. It’s essential that clients fully understand, respect and value what we in design do – in the way that they understand, respect and value what ad agencies do. Asking for more money might not be something we can consider right now, but we should never lose sight of how much our work is truly worth.

We might think graduates are missing a trick, but maybe we are missing it first. If we have the career paths, diverse opportunities and global presences to attract graduates – and we do – then we need to use these to start designing our way out of the background and into their bright and promising futures.

Elliot Wilson is managing director of Elmwood London

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