Dear University…

It’s that time of year again…degree show season. And with each year, I tend to find myself reflecting on the quality of the graduating year and lamenting certain aspects of the University product design curriculum. So rather than simply bitch about it, I thought I’d make some vaguely ‘constructive’ comments – for anyone willing to read this and not dismiss it as the rantings of a delusional middle aged designer.

I will caveat my comments on the basis that they are aimed at graduates and Universities looking to produce bona fide ‘Product/Industrial Designers’. Less so standalone Design Management or Design Research….although there are still benefits to those disciplines too.

1. The ‘Major project’

This is a tricky one, as I remember with alacrity, the anticipation of starting my major project as I approached my final year at University. This was the ‘biggie’, the project which would make all those design agency scouts shower me with business cards and job offers at my final degree show. The project that would be the pinnacle of my portfolio. The totality of thinking to showcase my skills as a shiny new product designer. Maybe not.

The major project has been the stalwart of the design degree show, and without it one might question the very need for a degree show at all, but I have concerns about the relevance of it nowadays. In talking to students over the last 4 years or so of graduating students at their respective shows, they talk of the lack of ‘tutor time’, the difficulties in getting prototypes made on a meagre student budget, the sweeping assumptions that were made in an attempt to progress the project towards a meaningful ‘showcase’ item. The list goes on. I am fully aware that these are aspects that ‘maketh the man’ i.e. these are skills in management, project direction and resourcefulness that are valuable assets in a recent graduate, but I genuinely think the time they have, could be better spent on more focussed, slightly smaller, less onerous projects that more clearly demonstrate the skills we – as employers – are looking for in a graduate. It is entirely unlikely that any single student will be responsible for developing a complete project by themselves in the first 3-5 years after graduating, so why ask them to do so at University. The courses need to reflect the needs of the employer and the employability of the student. I would argue that the major project is becoming less relevant in the guise it currently holds.

I am not suggesting that we ditch the major for a series of assignments per se. More that the Universities enable the students to demonstrate their wider skillset to the design community without the student feeling obligated to put all their eggs in one basket and sit it atop a white wooden plinth at a show in June, to be judged by all. I have seen many a design career misfire and falter because of a few miscalculated selection choices of major project sometime between the third and final years of study, when – in all honesty – the students know little about what they need to do at that stage.

2. Salary Seduction

As a small design agency attempting to recruit a shiny new designer, it is with a heavy sense of disappointment that I cruise the degree shows. Where there is genuine talent, I can almost see the vultures of larger corporations circling. We simply cannot compete. We have lost out numerous times to recent graduates enticed by the variety and opportunity we offer them, but with massive debts, each of these talented students is obviously attracted to the higher salary ‘packages’ offered by the larger businesses. Certain businesses (some that make domestic appliances for instance) offer ridiculously high graduate salaries and the promise of exotic foreign travel, healthcare, extensive training and career growth to naive young things, and like moths to a flame, they duly follow. They are willingly sucked into the career ladder machine, and I watch with interest as they invariably exit a few years later, disgruntled, yearning creative juices, seeking the job they should have taken after graduating from the ‘other’ company, but now with stupidly unrealistic salary expectations. I appreciate I am probably over simplifying things and painting a rather hostile picture of larger corporate business, but it is an issue that small business owners have to deal with.

It is a similar picture with placements. The Universities crave the big name ‘lists’ they can publish in their degree show compendiums. The superstar alliances they have forged with big business brands and top agencies. I’ve given up listening to the rhetoric. The gushing handshakes and name dropping. If you listened and believed it all, you’d think the Universities were placing students in the very management team core of many of these businesses. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the inside of some of these businesses. It is often a very different picture to that painted.

3. The ‘Marketing Team’

Each year, an eager set of volunteers from each University degree course, decides to form the ‘degree show team’. These are the guys responsible for the show ‘brand’, the ever-heavier compendium containing all the graduating year’s major projects, the degree show ‘look’ and the ensuing trip to New Designers. In days gone by, before the advent of email and social media, these guys and gals did this because they wanted ‘first dibs’ on any business who might come sniffing around for graduates to employ. It gave you access to the ‘little black book’ and the first opportunity to impress (or not as the case may be).

In recent years, this team is now a fully fledged marketing machine. Or at least it believes itself to be. They have titles like ‘Marketing Manager’ and ‘Operations Director’ and they seem to spend more time on these aspects than they do on their own project work. I have spoken to countless students who have quite simply let their own degree project slide into oblivion for the sake of getting the degree show book printed. Where is the logic in that??

My personal view, is that it is not at all the fault of the students involved. They are led to believe that involvement in the degree show ‘team’ will somehow set them apart from the rest of the year. It is the entire fault of the Universities who feed this horseshit to the students in an attempt to shift the workload onto an already overloaded, debt laden set of individuals with careers to forge. In an age where institutions are charging phenomenal amounts for these courses, I feel it is their (the Universities) responsibility to ensure that their students are given the best vehicle for their work that they possibly can – to stand apart from the competition. They need to develop a slick and efficient system to allow the students to simply concentrate on their work, and be confident that the University supports them when they come to showcase this work to the wider business community. Its not difficult. It’s the same every single goddamned year. Venue, boards, pedestals, book, website, invites. Sorted. I personally find it shameful that the students are still expected to do this themselves. Any business who hires a graduate on the basis simply of their contribution as the ‘Marketing Manager’ of a Product Design degree show, is talking shit. They should be hiring them for their abilities as a fully rounded designer as demonstrated by the work they have produced, or the person they have become as a result of their time as an undergraduate. End of story.

4. The ‘Book’

It still amazes me that we need a book the size of the Guinness Book of Records to simply catalogue the final year output at a degree show. Even more amazing, is that the bigger the book gets, the more complex it is to understand and navigate. I found myself discussing this with a graduate last year who argued vehemently that their book’s complexity was to allow the University to promote the course to schools and other such institutions throughout the year. Seriously?

There was me thinking that it was in the interests of the University to ensure that the graduating year were given the best bloody chances of finding a decent job and continuing the legacy of the course and the University by being great in their careers. Go figure. Apparently the book isn’t for employers or graduates, but for University promotion purposes! I defer to my earlier point about unfair responsibilities on students (see point 3).

I know there is an element of the ‘yearbook’ about the degree show book. I get that. But the aim of the book should be to engage potential employers and match them with potential employees. Make them easy to find. Help those businesses build strong links with the University. Keep them coming back for more graduates each and every year. Don’t weigh them down with impossibly convoluted tomes. How about something a little more modern…something digital maybe? That way we could simply email, call and connect to the best students and see their work in a medium most of them are designing for in the first place. Much like the major project, it feels like University courses are simply repeating a ‘Groundhog Year’ with an obligatory book. Is it time for something a bit different and more relevant? It seems ironic that courses and degrees that aim to produce radical new thinkers adhere to age old traditions in peddling their work.

5. Relevance

Looking at typical portfolios, there is a clear structure of task based modules followed by a major project. Some Universities include National competition entries or wildcard briefs to provide the students with some more colourful collateral, but there seems to be a distinct move away from demonstrable projects that aim to develop the core skills required of a product designer.

For instance, very few graduating students have a working knowledge of manufacturing processes. I’m not suggesting they need to know a lot, but a bit might be useful. In terms of injection moulding (which most grass roots product designers will have to come to terms with pretty darned quickly in the workplace), there are some simple things that can be taught to ensure that they have an elementary knowledge which in turn means they can design realistic product concepts. This seems to be lacking. I’ve seen plenty of KeyShot renders of surface modelled computer mice or power drills, but not one showing how that computer mouse or drill was put together. Some would argue that this is the stuff that can be learned after graduating. To a certain extent this is true, but a solid grounding in simple processes will produce exponentially better design graduates that can hit the ground running. I would love to see graduates with examples of project work that *really* withstand scrutiny and criticism, not only subjectively, but also functionally and commercially. A truly brilliant product is not only one that satisfies the end user need, but that can be feasibly produced and to a certain price. Teaching the students these simple but critical elements though ‘total’ project modules would be hugely beneficial, and I rather suspect the design undergraduates themselves would love it too. This stuff isn’t THAT tricky.

6. Industrial preparation

I’m well aware of the ‘industry links’ that each and every ‘top’ design university claims to develop. The collaborative projects and partnerships that yield a smattering of major projects or conceptual futures. I’m not suggesting these are a bad thing. On the contrary.

However, these are all ‘managed’ links between a connection within a business and a representative at the University. They are staged and controlled with a view to ensuring the University fosters the industry link and the students get a brand to place alongside their work. It happened when I studied at Uni and it will continue to happen.

I’m more concerned with the lack of industry outreach there is from the students, particularly in the run up to their degree shows. Apart from a very few savvy individuals, there is still the sense that they all have to work like stink (in solitude) towards their final degree show hand-in, and then sit back and expect industry to attend. They all have lovely professionally printed business cards, but very few have a LinkedIn profile or an up to date website behind the URL they have printed on their cards. Following 2 degree shows this year, I have requested digital portfolios and CV’s from 8 individuals, and only 1 has replied with anything attached. The rest (of those who have replied), have apologised for the lack of portfolio as they are currently pulling it together now that the degree show is over. Again, I don’t blame the students. They have a huge amount on their plate (primarily preparing the show that should have been done by the University…in my opinion…see earlier point!). Why can’t the University structure the course to better allow the students to prepare themselves for industry? Delay the degree show by a week maybe? They need to engage with anyone they want to work with, BEFORE the show opens. With so many social media channels available it is stupidly easy to start a conversation with anyone you wish to talk to or impress. Students should be taught (and supported) to take the initiative and promote themselves, their work and their opinions throughout the months leading up to the end of the year.

I know it’s a tricky thing to manage and teach, and it feels all too easy when you are sitting on the other side of the fence. It’s scary going out in to the wider industry community and leaving the comfort of the course, but it is incredibly worthwhile and students need to know that most experienced practicing designers are truly willing to help and guide if there is positive intention and genuine eagerness from the student. We were all in that position at some stage.

7. Teachers vs. Lecturers.

This is delicate and I’ve been debating whether to mention it, but I have to if I am to address the issues I think are relevant. Schools have teachers. These teachers – DT teachers specifically – are usually passionate and have worked hard to become exactly that. They trained to be teachers. Whilst they vary in confidence and skills, they tend to have the students’ best interests at heart and seem to be adapting to the changing technological landscape rather well. Better than some in the industry itself, it would appear!

University lecturers on the other hand strike me as a bit of a rag bag of disparate types. I can pretty much guarantee that most of them never set out to be so. Many have landed there as a result of a number of circumstantial factors. Some are seasoned professionals in the twilight of their careers, wishing to finally hand down their hard earned lessons in patronising diatribes. Some are eternal researchers, drifting from original BSc to MSc to PhD to Fellow (you get the picture) – they simply teach because they are there and it helps to supplement their meagre research salary. Some are failed industry practitioners who attempted to enter the big wide world of design but were quickly jettisoned and decided it was safer to return to academia. Some have managed a modicum of industry experience and trade on it like they were the centre of the design universe….

I apologise for my apparent cynicism. Many lecturers are passionate, well-intentioned, intelligent, savvy people who teach the students incredibly well, but there is a worrying large proportion of the University education system that is filled with the detritus that I have described above. I wouldn’t be so concerned if they were aware of their failings, worked with the wider design industry and pushed the students to forge links with people who can better advise them, but I have spoken to far too many students who seem to have lived under an effective dictatorship of opinion by some of these incompetents. The sad thing is that many of the students don’t know this and believe what the are taught…as they should  expect to.

It would be refreshing to see some of the Universities paying top dollar (not just goodwill and reflected PR) to recruit decent industry heavyweights to – at the very least – critique the work, advise on the course structure and give the students a realistic expectation of what might be expected in the wider design community. I saw an advert recently for a ‘Product Design lecturer’ role that put much more emphasis on academic research qualifications than it did on ANY industry experience. Where’s the logic in that? As you can tell…I feel very strongly about this.

There is more to write, but I’ve just looked at the word count and had a mild palpitation. Good luck if you’ve made it this far! I know I sound like an opinionated sod, but I care passionately about my profession and want it to continue to be fed with talented young product designers that can keep the rest of us constantly challenged and on our toes. However, I get the sense that much design education is churn, and I’m left with a sickening sense that things are slowly getting worse.

I think it’s time to change. Don’t you?

Comments – as always – are welcomed.

One thought on “Dear University…

  1. Very interesting article. You certainly sound like an opinionated sod, but it made a good read and highlighted some quite apparent issues within the product/industrial courses opposed to life in industry. Not agreeing with all of your points but as a current finalist I fully understand where you are coming from!

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