Paper-thin job prospects

Recent design industry research findings have substantiated the fear that too many graduates are chasing too few vacancies. Colum Lowe voices his concern

It’s that time of year again, when all the young, enthusiastic graduate designers are unleashed on to a not so unsuspecting market, all desperate for their first job. So what’s new this year? Nothing really, except I stumbled upon some figures that made my hair stand on end.

The first was from the 2002 British Design Industry Valuation Survey that states around 67 000 people are employed by design consultancies in this country (and falling)*, which sounds a lot, but not when compared to the number of graduating designers this country produces which, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency report of 2001, currently stands at about 19 000 every year (and rising)*. If these figures are accurate then it means, assuming the average design career is 35 years, only 10 per cent of graduates will find employment in consultancy. I know many design graduates move into other fields that offer them deep, meaningful creative careers, but come on, 10 per cent. If I’d been aware of those figures when considering my career path I might have chosen differently.

I don’t want to get into the old supply and demand argument, nor the ‘isn’t it great that so many people are learning about design’ – the issue for me is expectation. The vast majority of design students enter college wanting to work in consultancy and are probably not aware that there is more probability of winning the Lotto Rollover.

My expectation on entering college was that upon leaving I would be equipped with the skills to find employment in my chosen career. Foolish, I know, but I was led astray by the Careers Advisor at school, by which I mean I never met a Careers Advisor at school, I must have been sick the day they talked about further education not being related to employment. Consequently, I was hugely disappointed with the quality of my design education. When I left college I didn’t have the basic skills to be a designer, I had little or no computer training, had never written a proposal, had no idea as to what clients wanted, had no market research skills, didn’t understand budgets and couldn’t do funny tricks with my pen. I didn’t fail, of course. I came third in the class and won an RSA Student Design Award?

The reason for this apparent gap in my education was explained to me in my final year, the Head of Faculty informed me it was not his aim to create good designers. Good designers, I was told, were ten a penny. He wanted to create individuals who would change the industry, push the envelope. As laudable as this undoubtedly was it created a disservice to the students. This is partly because colleges don’t make geniuses. Dieter Rams and Ettore Sotsass weren’t made at college, they made themselves, and partly because the nasty bits, the technical stuff for want of a better term, were generally ignored. And guess what, these are exactly the same bits that make a graduate designer useful to a consultancy, someone who can come in and draw and be immediately useful, who can ‘twiddle’ their pen without dropping it.

Having done a bit of teaching in the past year or so I know design education standards have improved since my time, especially with the spread of the fouryear sandwich course which includes one year in consultancy. But if the old adage is true that you learn more in the first six months of employment than during your whole time at college, why bother? Why spend five or six years getting your MA (Royal College of Art) when you can get a diploma from The Design School in one?

The answer is that if your goal is to work in consultancy, then getting your first position is by far the hardest step to take. To get your first position you must get an interview, so you’ll need an outstanding CV that differentiates you from the other 18 999 CVs. Saying you graduated from arguably the most prestigious college in the land is quite a good way of achieving this. RCA graduates don’t follow the same law of averages as the rest of us, oh no. Their figures state 92.5 per cent of their graduates find employment in their chosen fields, proof if it was needed.

It seems Billy Bragg, TV’s recently discovered socio-political commentator, was right when in the 1980s he sang, ‘Qualifications, once the golden rule, are now just pieces of paper.’ Especially if it’s a diploma with RCA stamped on it. If it isn’t, welcome to your first ‘real’ design challenge: creating a CV.

(* Figures kindly supplied by the Design Council.)

Colum Lowe is a director at Plan CreatifCrabtree Hall

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