What does the design industry really need from its graduates?

David Smith at IADT sees no problem with an academically inclined pedagogy for designers: “Skills acquisition is less of a priority for me,” he says. Today, there are others in this relationship too – government, university authorities, student loan providers, technicians, administrators, even parents. But this soul-searching has triggered numerous questions. Is it worth it? As you might imagine, we encourage a high level of crossover between these two methods.”
This fusion between studio work and theoretical investigation is typical of many courses, and seems logical for an ever more demanding and complex world where knowledge is the most important currency. What is the validity of studying a discipline at great expense that many claim can only ever be learned in a professional studio setting? It seems logical, then, that the emphasis should be on creating thinking practitioners willing to embark on a career of continuous learning. It might just be that a design education, with its emphasis on continuous learning, is an excellent grounding for a life of perpetual change. “And no employer or client asks you what degree award you got – they are more interested in your work and your personality.”  
Preparing for the workplace
In recent years, the trend in BA design education has been a drift towards a postgraduate climate of self-directed and self-reflective study. In other words, what was once free is now eye-wateringly expensive, and a new marketplace logic permeates all aspects of higher education. Design education at university level is like a slightly wonky triangle. “These are easily acquired, and honed with practice and dedication. Are there alternatives to three or four years of formal study within an academic institution? As a consequence of fees and a world changing at supernova speed, design education is going through a tumultuous period of internal and external scrutiny. Jonathan Hitchen, a tutor at Manchester School of Art, MMU, describes his course structure. But should all design tutors be graduates from design courses? Many spend part of their working week running courses, organising workshops and teaching classes within the university system. “Three quarters of our curriculum is based around practical responses to project briefs, where we engage students in a creative studio culture that includes workshops and group discussion. Are graduates under-qualified – or perhaps over-qualified – for the current job market? “This places all the emphasis on academic achievement as being the passport for a job as a graphic designer or illustrator,” notes Ian Mitchell. Each looks for something different, but each is dependent on the other to find it. Besides the obvious advantage of accessing new talent, another far greater benefit is the clarity of thinking and the self-reflection that comes from being forced to explain your processes and methods to young designers. Students complain about fees, poor student/tutor ratios, and bleak job prospects; teachers protest about increased workloads and the commercialisation of education; and employers grumble that students are ill-equipped for the sink-or-swim nature of commercial life. Nothing new in that, you might say. Is this a feedback loop that needs to be broken? They often require more time to adapt to the different learning environment.”
This ‘different learning environment’ has been mostly brought about by the upgrading of art schools to full university status. But what are students actually getting when they sign up for a period of study? There are always obstacles and every generation has them, but so far every generation has overcome them. The Guardian recently reported that university applications for this coming year are up by 4 per cent. But despite these problems, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. The number of people studying creative arts and design in the UK, in the latest figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (2012/13) stands at 157,955. Most designers reach a point when they feel an urge to pass on their knowledge. University applications on the rise
There’s certainly no lack of students. So what is the true state of modern undergraduate education? What is the point of creating thinkers and practitioners when huge numbers of employers can only offer graduates low paid, or worse, unpaid internships? They are even advertised on primetime television. Perhaps it is already happening: just as design students are being edged towards prioritising academic grades over studio work, teachers are being forced into becoming academics ahead of being practitioners. Hovering over all of these groups is the storm cloud of tuition fees. That’s more than the numbers studying engineering and technology (124,025). It has lots of students at one point, far fewer tutors at another, and what academia likes to call ‘industry’ at the third. Nevertheless, the academic regimes of universities mean that grades matter. These jobs are thin on the ground, so it’s not uncommon to find the talents of young designers being under-utilised. Foremost amongst them is the scarcity of jobs (especially among the 20–30 age group), the changing nature of design in a networked world and student expectations. Yet for a lot of students, many coming straight from school, this fusion of practice and theory can be bewildering. However, Jonathan Hitchen warns against over-prioritising the need for self-reflection: “When push comes to shove, there are some harsh commercial realities that tend to override a more critical, reflective approach. A capacity for independent thought is also vital if students want their work to stand out from the obvious and familiar styles or trends that saturate modern practice.”
Future employment
It is in the nature of modern business that all employers want an education system that gives them a supply of oven-ready employees they can slot straight into productive activities. As Hitchen notes: “Most art students used to study a foundation course before starting their degree. Other detrimental factors hang over the employment scene. At first glance, it looks as if no one is happy in our triangle of education. The no-client, no-budget, self-authored graphic design that tends to be widely celebrated has never seemed more distant from the over-cautious, mass visual communication that is the mainstream of the graphic design industry today.”
Who is doing the teaching?

Updated: 04.11.2014 — 09:10