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Design Education is rubbish | icon 012 | May 2004

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photo: Jamie Robinson

words Marcus Fairs

Design education is rubbish

Graduates are clueless about the real world

This is a terrible time for design

These are some of the opinions aired at a round table discussion hosted recently by icon and Nesta – the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. The purpose of the discussion was to hear the views of design professionals who scoured last summer’s degree shows, talent spotting for Nesta’s Graduate Pioneer Programme. We expected a bit of moaning about the quality of some of the work they saw, but we didn’t expect such widespread criticism of the education system and the triviality of contemporary design. Here is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Marcus Fairs: What were your impressions of the work you saw at the degree shows?

Tony Dunne: I was pretty shocked. I was quite surprised by how homogenous everything was. Everything was just really uniform in its visual language and the types of issues being dealt with.

Scott Lyons: A lot of it was a rehash of stuff that had been done already. There was really no innovation.

Shona Kitchen: I was looking at architecture and interiors and I was shocked at how bad it was. You’ve got one extreme where the work was really basic and looked like it was designed ten years ago. And then at the other extreme you had colleges where it was completely, purely conceptual. There was no in-between.

MF: Why are things are going wrong?

SK: I think it has a lot to do with tutors. You see so many occasions where they’ve got jobs and a steady income and they’re not willing to push ideas. The most important thing is for the students to pass.

Hugo Mannasei: I think that’s completely right. Degree shows are fabricated by education institutions and are of no value to the graduates. It’s probably the most stressful part of a designer’s career, because you’re leaving this fantastically creative environment and heading into another environment where other issues like paying the bills come into play. There’s no sense of anyone encouraging people to be creative in that transition. It’s panic stations and creativity is the first thing that goes out of the window.

TD: It’s not necessarily the tutors’ fault. And at the moment the students aren’t producing very interesting work, but there aren’t many people in the profession that are producing very interesting work either. It’s a very narrow, short-term agenda. And I think this is reflected in the design media. There aren’t many journals that are really sexy and inspiring, but also intellectually challenging.

Chris Downs: I agree. We complain that we go round the degree shows and everyone’s making another chair, and yet we hold Tom Dixon up as a great example of a designer so it’s a real mixed message there. I mean there’s no alternative path.

HM: There seems to be a huge number of designers at graduate level – designers who I think are changing this landscape – who are hugely confident in their abilities and hugely comfortable with their notion of creativity. But there’s also a huge lack of confidence due to the fact that no one’s telling them that it’s OK to be who they are.

SK: To be freaks. (laughs)

HM: They feel marginalised.

TD: Students need to be turned out in a way that equips them to make things happen, to set up new kinds of design companies, new roles for design and things like that. I don’t necessarily think that they have to be turned out to match what the world wants.

SK: Students who do try to follow a new direction tend to get pushed back. I think that’s where the lack of confidence comes from. They know what they’re doing is interesting, new and exciting, but in the colleges, they’re always being questioned about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

SL: I agree. When they leave, they don’t really understand how they can actually apply what they do best in the real world. I think that’s a big issue. I think it’s also frustrating, interestingly enough, with the state of the world at the moment – with terrorism, the war in Iraq and so on. They feel that it almost belittles their work, because they’re thinking: “Why am I doing all this when people are dying all over the world?”

SK: We had a job in Kuwait and we were actually working on site during the war. We were there, getting the shop finished, and we just felt really cheap and nasty.

SL: But it’s true though, you do feel that. You sit in your office, when the war was going on and you’re trying to meet deadlines and stuff and it’s just sort of meaningless. You want to be designing stuff that helps society.

TD: I agree with that. I think that it’s a kind of wake-up call, because a lot of design is unbelievably trivial. And the thing is not to get depressed, but to think how can we connect design to more important and complex issues? Move it up a few notches instead of just pandering to consumerism.

MF: Historically there have been design movements that have tried to improve society,
but today design seems to just be about consumption. The recent Design Biennale at the Design Museum was just full of pretty stuff; it
was like a shop.

HM: I found that exhibition particularly depressing.

TD: There is amazing talent in that exhibition, without doubt, but the subject matter is just unbelievably trivial and you think, why can’t this talent be connected up with more interesting issues?

SL: I do feel there’s some great design out there, but it’s few and far between. It’s not as much as it was maybe a couple of years ago. We could be in a lull at the moment. Things go in cycles.

MF: At the moment there are all these glossy magazines – including ours – celebrating the fact that there’s a surge of interest in design and saying it’s a great time to be a designer; but is the situation actually the opposite? Is this in fact a terrible time for design because the discipline has lost its way?

TD: I think for a designer who wants to design chairs, maybe it’s a terrible time – the market is saturated. But to be a designer now is really exciting because of the world we live in, and because design can begin to mature. Design can shift its attention to more interesting and serious issues.

MF: How could tutors make the courses more relevant to producing the kind of designers you’re talking about?

SL: I think the bottom line is to make it more realistic. You’re in this kind of safe zone when you’re at university – you’re not affected by a downturn in economic situation. So tutors have to educate people as to what’s really going on in the world and really prepare them for going out there. I think a lot of people are unprepared completely for that.

HM: But there’s a good reason for that, and this is the fundamental problem. When I was at art school, I was taught about business issues and I just thought, “yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s fine, I’ll deal with that when all of this is over”. What I wanted to do was be creative. That creativity gives this country the reputation it has for higher education and it’s much more about thinking that a degree is no longer enough. We need to introduce postgraduate courses which help people to explore their creativity in new ways and explore how creativity can survive beyond the course.

MF: The organisers of the New Designers show [a showcase of graduate work] told me that graduates aren’t very interested in the business seminars they organise. I mean, I didn’t attend any of the business modules when I was at college.
(murmur of agreement)

TD: We shouldn’t just train designers to turn their thoughts into business opportunities, but teach them how to get out into the real world and subvert it a little bit, play with it a little bit, use it for their own ends. I think fine art courses do that. The best students pick up a savviness about how to get out into the world and sell really abstract thinking. And maybe design can learn a little bit from that culture. I don’t think there are techniques, just kind of an attitude.

SK: You would never have an artist who then does a business course. But designers are expected to understand business. But I think it’s to do with collaboration. You know, setting up designers who don’t have that business side and putting them next to a business person. Because the designer wants to focus on creativity.

SL: I think it’s really important for someone leaving university to understand what the pitfalls are. I think a lot of people are completely oblivious to the fact that they can be taken advantage of when going into a work environment and that isn’t dealt with in a university setting. I speak to a lot of people who’ve been taken advantage of quite badly, through contracts or tie-ins, where they just didn’t know what they were getting into. Their attitide was “I don’t care about all that stuff, I just want to do what I do”. And that’s wrong.

SK: I don’t think it’s that they don’t care … I think it’s seen as a rite of passage, though. When you leave university you’re expected to rough it for a while.

SL: Yeah, but it doesn’t need to be like that.

MF: It’s interesting what Shona was saying earlier, comparing design graduates and fine arts graduates. I did a design course and my sister did a fine art course. The difference was the expectation of what would happen afterwards. My sister was happy to go and live in a tumbledown cottage in Cornwall and carry on painting, but I felt obliged to embark on a career – and I felt I had failed when it didn’t happen.

TD: Yeah, we’ve been having this kind of conversation with the students I teach. We try to take a very experimental approach and, of course, I’ve been feeling guilty as to whether I’ve been misleading the students or not …(laughter)

TD: I think you’re right, a lot of students expect that they’re going to be prepared to fit in, and it’s a shock when they don’t. Now I take the fine-art line and say: “Look, we’ll try and give you a really stimulating two years, but if you go down this route, it’s going to be really tough when you leave. We’ll do our best to help you but it’s up to you to make your way. We’re not preparing you to fit in.”

CD: But we’ve had a struggle with our students when we’ve tried to teach them from a different angle. They revert back to the old orthodoxies and start asking questions like “where’s our booklist? What kind of career will we be going into? Can you bring in some people who have those jobs?” And we say: “Look, we’re trying to train you to be something new, something different, something that doesn’t exist yet. Work with us on this and have some faith and be brave.”

SK: Yeah, it’s funny when you give them briefs and they’re almost like lawyers. They say: “What exactly do you mean by that?”

CD: Yeah! They ask: “Can we do this? Can we do that?” And we’re like, “You’re in design school. You’ve got permission to do anything!”

SL: “This is the only time you can do this. Take advantage!”

SK: It’s almost like they’re scared …

TD: I feel a lot of them expect to be successful within a couple of years. But it takes maybe ten years, and if you’re doing something really experimental, it could take longer.

SL: Yeah, there’s that big pressure there. You pick up the glossy mags, you see all these people who’ve made it. Big pressure.

TD: That definitely warps a lot of expectations and affects the style of degree projects that come out.

SL: I agree. But I think that’s a product of the industry at the moment, of people picking up these magazines and reading about all these people and saying “I wanna do that.”

CD: Yeah, but it’s pretty sexy. Take Paul Cocksedge, who graduated from the RCA a couple of years ago and now
his work is being shown at the V&A. He’s developed new types of lighting and the path he’s taken is one that a lot of people want to pursue.

HM: But there’s absolutely no support whatsoever for people who are more disruptive and who want to confront the way things work and behave in new ways.

CD: An example that’s cropped up this year is the black and white credit card that came out of the Northumbria industrial design course. They designed a credit card that was black on one side and white on the other, so if you bought something from a company that you think is a great company then you pay with the white side. But if you buy a pair of trainers but you don’t like what Nike do, you pay with the black side. It’s not an industrial design solution – it’s just a nice, simple idea. It’s got some kind of commercial value but talking to their tutors about the project, recently – I don’t want to discredit them in any way, because they’re great people – but they were really arguing against that kind of design and holding on to the old discipline of industrial design with their fingernails.

TD: Well that’s interesting because that’s a really hardcore course, from an industrial design point of view.

HM: I mean, let’s not forget; that course produced Jonathan Ive.

CD: The most dangerous designer in the world, that Jonathan Ive …

MF: Dangerous?

CD: Yeah, because he’s just too fucking good. (laughter) He’s too successful. He’s the thing we’re battling against and he champions that old school of design so brilliantly that he’s hard to argue against.

SK: It’s sad when you actually find a product that’s that beautiful.

CD: Yeah, because then you’re like, “Look guys, we don’t want you to do this!”

TD: Just when you thought design was on its dying legs, Jonathan Ive rushes in with something new and it just
rises again!

CD: Yeah, thanks Jonny.

Last modified on Monday, 01 August 2011 14:50

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