Visual design students today

Guest blogger Adrian Shaughnessy shares the ten things he thinks you should know about today’s visual design students.

In my roles as an external examiner at a number of universities, and as an occasional lecturer and part-time teacher, I’ve spent most of the past two months in design schools in the UK and Ireland. Like a war correspondent embedded with a front line unit, I’ve witnessed at first hand the attitudes, fears, tastes, prejudices and creative output of a cross section of the current generation of graduating design students. 

Adrian Shaughnessy
Adrian Shaughnessy

Here are ten things you should know about today’s visual design students.

1. The good ones are as good as the best from any year you care to choose. In fact, I’d say the standard of top performing UK educated design students is so high that it is hard to distinguish their work from some of the best professional work. Or to put it another way – they’re bloody good.

2. Most design students have abandoned the design fetishism of the past two decades. There is far less emphasis on the stylistic beautification of graphic expression and in its place there is a renewed emphasis on content and returning graphic design to its Modernist roots of form dictated by function.

3. Many of the current generation of students seem to be motivated by social concerns. Where once their energies might have gone into designing CD covers and identities for cultural institutions, it is now commonplace to find students investigating ways in which design can drive social change. For me, this is the biggest single difference between today’s graduates and those from past years.

4. Student graphic designers are increasingly functioning like journalists: this is more noticeable at postgraduate level, but I’ve been struck by the number of undergraduate designers operating like self-publishing reporters. In recent years, an obsession with research for research’s sake has led to lots of dry outcomes, but now there is evidence of designer’s producing original research and then presenting it in a graphically coherent way.

5. It is getting harder to tell the difference between the work of students studying illustration and those studying graphic design.

6. In one school I went to recently, the tiny handful of failures and Thirds would have been top students 15/20 years ago.

7. Few students seem interested in web design. Most admit to being print fixated. This is a worry.

8. Many top students in UK schools are from abroad and many of them are exceptionally talented. What does this mean for UK design? Will they all go home to China, Korea, India and Brazil and join – or set up – world beating studios? Will they go back and teach in schools thus reducing the need for foreign students to come to the UK for an education? Will they stay in the UK and enrich the talent pool? Whatever they choose, foreign students are changing British design for the better.

9. I still hear professional designers and studio bosses complaining that students are not emerging as oven-ready employees. This is often true. Some students have no concept of – or interest in – the professional realm. But it is also true that many are more advanced, forward thinking and future-proofed than the studios demanding graduates with “real world expectations.”

10. A final thought for anyone who scoffs at student experimentation: students are told constantly by their tutors to “be original, be different and don’t copy.” If their attempts to do this sometimes fail, it should not be assumed that they are a lost generation. They are merely doing what generations of students have always done – trying to find what is new, fresh and vibrant. Why else would anyone want to study design? 

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  • GraceN November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    As a 2nd year Graphic Design student, I am really delighted about what Adrian has written. I was worried it would be very much ‘they have it easier these days’ and ‘they don’t care about getting jobs’. Thanks for beating my expectation, I think your findings are accurate and thanks for not tarring us all with the same brush. I am concerned about what potential employers are told about students, thankfully I’ll be happy with them reading this.

  • Philippa Aldrich November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Really interesting post, particularly the observation that today’s students are motivated by social concerns. I have just finished the second year of a competition with The Future Perfect Company/University of Brighton product design students where they have been required to design for the challenges of ageing. Some very interesting and thought provoking work has been produced.

  • Tau Siroko September 27, 2013 at 12:22 am

    As a graduating student this seems like an extremely insightful and accurate description of the current situation, at least at the GSA. The journalistic comment particularly rings true from my experience.

  • Thom L September 27, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Good, insightful article – I was wondering about point 5 though. Is this a bad thing or a good thing? Personally I like it as I’ve always admired designers like Milton Glaser, Alan Fletcher and more recently Geoff Mcfetridge.
    Now I’m not saying that all graduates that take this approach are of that high standard, but I think there’s the potential for really varied and interesting, expressive work to be done.

  • Adrian Shaughnessy November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Thanks all for supportive comments.

    Thom L – as regards point 5, I wasn’t making a judgement either way, it was really just an observation that it is not always possible to tell the two apart. Nor is it universal – just something I see more often that I once did.

  • Kuan Luo November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A great read, and I found it true to graphic design students in the U.S. as well. Due to the high volume of excellent design students, the competition is a lot rigid than ever before. It is exciting, but also quite frightening as a graduate trying to enter the market.

  • Jon Summers Muir November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    point 7.

    digital should be embraced as a positive companion to print, not an alternative.
    still, some students disagree with me on this.

    2nd Year @ LJMU, GraphicArts

  • Alex November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A wonderful insight into design students. I totally agree with point 1, Point 3 is really exciting, Point 6 is interesting and Point 9 is something we at Student Designers are trying to help with.

  • Jan November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Sadly, I have to agree with point 7. But that problem is also the fault of many design schools. I’ve been teaching web design at a renown university college in Brussels for the past five years and a lot of the older colleagues don’t know anything about web design. Worst part is that they also don’t believe students should be able to design websites. As for next year, there won’t be any web design courses anymore due to some budget cuts. Design education has been set back 10 years by a stupid decision.

  • patric king November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    point 9’s attitude is totally at odds with points 5 and 7.

    as a studio who does most of its work online—i simply cannot take the risk of hiring a recent grad because they almost invariably understand “web design” to mean “tumblr” or “flash.”

    we don’t want oven-ready employees. we want people with any production skills at all, and i’ve seen maybe one design department (NCSU, possibly SAIC) who has a solid understanding of what the medium is even meant to do.

  • Miles November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    11. They are going to be broke.

  • Arron Tierney November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Thanks Adrian, this was a very insightful and pleasurable read. As a recent graduate of 2010 Design & Art Direction at MMU I’m particularly interested in point: “7. Few students seem interested in web design. Most admit to being print fixated. This is a worry.” – this was a concern I found whilst studying my second year, I was obsessed with The Face, Raygun and Wired magazines but I couldn’t decide whether to hone my efforts on learning the skills needed for print or web in order to be more employable after graduation. I chose the latter and landed a job straight away. I’ve engrossed myself in digital and web culture over the past year at an agency with strategy as its core service and found that although we work mainly in web design – print, video or even a social media approach is just as viable in the right situation. I think these communication vehicles can sometimes be lost on visual design students, and although Universities could do more to encourage versatility in mediums, I think it is still important that they focus on the core creative idea, traditional graphic design skills and communication. A few more briefs that lend themselves towards a digital solution would be a good start though.

  • Narjas Mehdi November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Really interesting post – thanks for sharing your observations with us, Adrian.

    I’m quite surprised by the fact that many still shy away from web design. As a self-professed print designer this means that maybe I’m NOT having to compete with web design prodigies flooding the market after all.

    Maybe it’s time to get interested in web design – all of us!

  • Matthew Hollands November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Points 7 and 9 are interesting. They are both linked to design education and are areas I have had to develop after Uni to become employable.

    I think digital design needs to be brought into design education a an early level as it’s too important to leave out. As far as having ‘oven-ready designers’ that have a concept of the ‘professional realm’, this is something that can only be taught though first hand experience working with clients, and design businesses need to take this into account when employing a graduate.

  • Josh November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great article, and raises really interesting points.

    We as a country seem to create either print designers or web programmers. I did a purely digital course that failed it’s students with the lack of education of design fundamentals, and only people who came into the course with design experience came out as designers.

    I also strongly believe the industrly should be more hands-on involved with the education of students (like at hyperisland), to reduce the amount of students coming out with no actual clue about the industry and the idea of commercial projects.

  • M.Manning November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I think the voices and maybe even hopefully the texts of Papanek and Potter – and the old manifestos are being taught and read again by young people and re introduced into curricula by staff. Philosophical issues Ecology and sustainibilty are key points for this era and are being taken seriously again – like the RCA tried to do in circa 1990. There is a divergent spread still in the schools = some are still relying on an adobe software aesthetic in digital Print or via the screen that is becoming a little tired IMO and is limiting – and no matter how sincere the investigation or intention if the final outcome is homogeneous- then it is narrow optically and in terms of tactility ?
    UWE Bristol stood out for me this year again for the authorial and investigative social and individual awareness and variety of forms that in which the ideas manifested themselves . good article Adrian – really positive,

    In terms of Oven ready bakery metaphor – well
    I think the employers are spoilt for choice if they want thinkers and makers – and they can add some garnish to help flavour the graduates into post surely ?

    The growth and journey of the Creative is the best bit – ones never ‘done’ or ‘ready’ really

    Mark Manning External examiner at various Schools

  • Sam Morris November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Not sure I entirely agree with 5. A lot of illustration work at a student level is let down by poor typography. If you simply mean that graphic design students are more willing to illustrate themselves, then I have to agree. I don’t think it works the other way around though.

    In my year (I just graduated) loads of people ended up doing web and digital design, so hopefully I can ease your worries in point 7. Although not all successful, students were more willing to try digital projects, if only
    because they were the ‘thing’ to do. I think what needs to be made clear is the overlap that print and digital have. It took me a while to connect my hobby to the course and digital needs to be taught earlier on, on print courses (and the same viceversa). However, again I did find a lot of people doing digital because it’s new and trendy.

    I also think that’s why point 3 is there. Even if the reasons for doing social based projects is because it’s different and another trend, the kind of thinking on show will ultimately benefit everyone, something we as designers should collectively aim for.

  • jessica jenkins November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    very interesting. just slightly worrying if this means my first from 1989 is akin to a third in 2011.
    do you think this design as a driver social change will translate into professional practice?

  • Jon Gold November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The problem is web design is completely incompatible with the traditional BA ecosystem. However often you revalidate the course, it will be out of date in days or weeks. The flip side is that as brilliant as standards-compliant HTML5, CSS3 etc are, coding shouldn’t be part of a Graphic Design degree? I’ve always seen it as something to do in my spare time to ENHANCE my work as a designer; if classmates want to stick with print then that is their prerogative. But design degrees shouldn’t become Computer Science degrees.

    Another part of the problem stems from tutors with no knowledge of ‘digital’ (other than some Macromedia Director in the 90s) being forced by institutions to push web design resulting in students making Illustrator-y web design without knowledge of how a website works. Mocking up something on an iPad doesn’t make it digital, it just makes it a print designer’s idea of what digital might be.

    In fact, maybe that’s the answer. Teach and validate ‘design for the web’ (UX & IA principles, study great websites and web designers etc) whilst leaving the code (every designer should be able to code their work in my opinion) to the self-taught.

    With that said, I hope you enjoyed the Ravensbourne degree show 🙂

  • Megan November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    As a recently graduated designer, I agree with point 7. We has essentially only one course that even brushed the surface of ux or ia (same with HTML/CSS/action script, but you don’t need to code to make photoshop mockups). In a stroke of amazing luck I ended up working for a startup interaction design agency, and truely love it. Most of my steadfastly print-only friends are having trouble finding work. Also if more students knew the intense design thinking that goes into the web, I’ll bet more would be interested.

  • David N November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great article Adrian!

    I wish you had been a tutor on my graphic design degree course during the late nineties.

    It is interesting to see that not every design graduate is keen to go down the web highway – however – choosing not to go down that road can be detrimental career wise these days. I would rather change career than
    ditch print design for web design.

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