Creative weaving

Do design courses need to be structured differently? Glenn Tutssel thinks so, and he argues that rather than producing specialists early on, art colleges should concentrate on turning out graduates who are adept at using a range of creative skills

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Is the quality of our business in design going backwards or is it symptomatic of the recession that work is wanted quicker and cheaper, which equates to less is less, not less is more?

Have we stopped insisting that the decorator paints behind the radiators, that pasta has to be al dente and that typography is kerned properly? When was the last time you saw a really great piece of typography? I don’t mean okay typography, I mean drop-dead gorgeous typography. When did you last read a piece of copy that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, or see a visual image that was such a big idea that you wished you had done it? Maybe it’s the clients not letting us do great work. Let’s blame them.

It really just comes down to setting standards and sticking to them, the sort of standards that Apple lives by. The standards in your own consultancy that sets the standards for your team and, in turn, our industry; standards that put the ‘great’ back into Britain and make it the leader in design. The sort of standards that make you fume with anger when they are not met, as when you don’t get into the design awards that matter.

Maybe we are being over-generous in praise for our design graduates. Should we be tougher with them? Should we be more honest?

I see a lot of design students’ work, from foundation to graduation, and most of it isn’t good enough to carry on our country’s creative legacy. Maybe it’s the tutors fault. Let’s blame them. Or is it the students who are not pushing boundaries and challenging the way we solve problems in a new and innovative way? The truth is we are turning out too many design graduates with only a small number getting work.

The recession hasn’t helped any graduates, but is the way we prepare them for the real world at fault? It has always worried me that art colleges are rapidly becoming universities. While I welcome academic status and a degree at the end of it, too much emphasis has been on revenue generation. Instead, we should start with skills our industry is looking for and how to best educate students to fill that need.

It’s not the tutors’ or the students’ fault. It’s the way we are structuring our design courses that needs questioning.

They are run too much by administrators rather than people who understand our business. We are ‘boxing’ our disciplines too early. By having a one-year ‘experimental’ foundation course we are closing down too soon the many directions and skills a young designer can take.

The art colleges are producing specialists too early on in the student’s development and what the industry is looking for is more of a ‘Renaissance man’ approach. The guitarists of The Rolling Stones, each a specialist, adapt to musical creativity. ‘We had two guitars weaving around each other. We’d play these things so much that we know both guitar parts, so when we got to the crucial point where we got really flash, we’d suddenly switch. The lead picks up the rhythm, and the rhythm picks up the lead. It’s what Ronnie [Wood] and I call the ancient art of weaving,’ says Keith Richards.

Our industry needs more of the modern art of weaving creativity together, based on sound craft skills. For example, drawing is disappearing from our skill base. It is not being taught as a fundamental basis to everything we do. The lack of drawing skills is a flaw in our art college education. Painters, sculptors, fashion students and ceramicists are taught to draw, while designers revert to the Apple Mac, the saviour of making bad things look great, or great things look even greater.

Design graduates’ sketch books inevitably show thumbnails and reference points for their ideas that sit in the portfolio. These thumbnails are the portfolio and often the wrong idea is worked up. The power and energy that these little drawings have contain the big idea. But drawing used as a means of exploration, inventiveness and discovery is so often not in evidence. Why don’t we teach people to draw any more in art school? We have started our own drawing classes in the studio to add that vital ingredient, the ability to see.

Typography should be getting better with technology at our fingertips, but it’s the same old story – whose fingertips? Typography is not drawn enough. It’s like drawing the human figure – you only get a better understanding of it by studying every detail. The same applies to typography.

There is too much style over substance and a lack of great ideas. The combination of art and science will generate a freedom of creativity that will make designers indispensable to industry. The idea that the late John Gillard had for the School of Communication Arts was ahead of its time, but it is now so needed. The concept was that of the Bauhaus, of different skill-based designers working together, which must be the future. We need to put more pressure on art education to provide the talent and skills that we need to feed the creative juices of our industry.

We need to be stricter in the way in which our new blood is stored and nurtured.

Foundation courses give the student a vital broadbased experience, which is the basis of how designers will need to adapt for the future; the ‘weaving’ of disciplines so that designers become problem-solvers in any area. Our three-year specialist degree course needs to become a three-year foundation course, allowing students to flourish, experimenting and making mistakes, to find new avenues of creativity. Designers who can deliver the big idea beautifully crafted, with multidisciplined applications of problem-solving, will be our legacy to the economic upturn. Get weaving.

Glenn Tutssel is executive creative director of The Brand Union

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