I want to make it clear that I experienced some of the best years of my life at University. I met my current partner of five years on the same course as myself (BA Hons in Graphic Design at the University of the West of England… what a mouthful), along with all my current best friends. It offered me much more than an academic experience and it helped me grow as a person and a creative.
I’ve always been very vocal about how I don’t feel it’s ethical to advise someone to attend, or not to attend a university course for design solely based on personal experience. After all, what gives me the right to influence a decision which could offer someone an incredible experience, or ends up being a nightmare. In the six years since leaving university, I’ve transitioned away from design and more towards strategy, although both play a core part in my professional life. It’s also become apparent to myself where the issues lie within the course content.
So What’s Missing?
Aside from maybe some of the more obvious points such as marketing, business. There are separate courses for those subjects after all. One crucial area which seems to go amiss is ‘strategy’.
If the design is the beautifully decorated house, a strategy is undoubtedly the foundation upon which the house is built. Like with any building, if your foundations are solid your house will brave the elements, take a battering and will continue to stand unscathed. If you decide to build an extension on top of the house the foundations will hold steady. However, if your foundations are weak, they’re rushed and incorrectly executed, your entire house will come crashing down around you. While maybe a crude metaphor I feel it articulates the point. Far too much time at university is spent focusing on the house rather than on the thing which is keeping it from falling.
A good strategy isn’t just formulating an idea around a topic you find interesting and then going to a computer, or library and carrying out research and it isn’t just being a ‘strategic thinker’, something which occurs daily within the design process. The strategy looks at the industry landscape in-depth, develops the projects end goals, it’s overall positioning amongst similar pillars, or when placed next to other projects following the same briefs (ISTD, D&AD) in the case of students. What it’s tone-of-voice might be, what it’s ideal audience might look like, how said audience will perceive the project and so on.
While I was asked to consider some of these things during my modules, experimentation with a layout and a focus on the overall ‘Big Idea’ was much more encouraged. This is strange considering how saturated the industry currently is, how competitive it is and how now more than ever students work needs to stand above the pack to be noticed. Something which can be easily achieved if more importance is placed on the initial stages of a project, rather than jumping straight into the experimentation and development. I get it, for visual people the visual aspects are normally the most enjoyable but are that down to nature, or nurture? Is that because they naturally don’t want to spend time looking at areas such as strategy, or marketing, or because those crucial topics have never had their importance stressed? After all, almost every successful Top 50 design agency will usually contain a strategy team.
If students were given a mandatory series of workshops which looked at how effective strategy can be formulated and implemented within their design process the standard of work being outputted by that course would increase tenfold. The reason being students would no longer be designing for purely aesthetic’s sake, based on shallow research. They would instead be working to find a solution to a recognised issue, a predetermined goal, for an existing audience while positioning their project for that grey patch within the industry. An area which has either remained untouched or contains the opportunity to be tackled in a new way.
Is this grid system interesting enough? Are these images eye-catching? Is this font nice to look at? These are all questions I remember being told to consider. What’s the connection? They all come from a personal perspective, or from the perspective of what my course mates or lecturers liked, not from the standpoint of what my desired audience needs, or what could stand out within the scope of the industry, or marketplace. While some personal responsibility is required students are still at the start of their journey. Often they don’t know they need to be aware of something unless they’re told about it.
After attending D&AD NewBloods this year and speaking to fresh graduates it became apparent that the issue I’m speaking about still exists. Students spoke unsurprisingly about feeling wildly unprepared, not knowing what to do next, or where they sit in the world and most said they didn’t even understand what strategy is. Something which could be avoided with a little more care and attention to areas which aren’t just their visual branding, business cards and website.
An effective strategy usually plays a key role in the positioning of brands, or new products. Each of the students graduating is a brand in their own right. If they graduated having solid insight into strategy, how they can develop themselves and how to utilise their strategy to brand themselves in a way which stands then maybe the prospect of graduation wouldn’t feel as daunting. They would understand where they sit in the world, how to communicate effectively with studios and potential clients and also have a portfolio full of work that contains depth, reasoning and strategy which all comes together to form a solid execution.
What can be done?
I don’t pose to hold all the answers if any. One thing I see as being a logical step for universities and lecturers to consider is that course content doesn’t need to be purely visual to be useful. The best lessons I’ve learnt since graduating haven’t even come from designers.
While attending my course I had endless lectures from guest speakers who held talks, creative workshops, feedback sessions etc but they were almost always from the standpoint of ‘Here is my awesome work… any questions?’, or they would try to make you think around a problem differently through the use of poster design or zine-making. I’m in no way saying this isn’t useful in the early stages of your development but surely there’s a balance to be found? especially when students enter their third year of study.
More authority should be given to individuals with strategy, marketing, and business backgrounds to help educate students in ways which aren’t focused on how to just make something look nicer visually. The world is already full of creatives who can make things look nice without finding actual solutions to problems. For a long time, I was one of those creatives.
Why don’t we start to move the focus away from the beautifully decorated house and more towards its foundations? Sure they may be boring to look at but as I stated at the beginning, you can’t look at a nice house if it’s fallen at your feet and shattered into pieces.
Ben Mottershead | Designer, Strategist, Coffee Lover | Website