Miranda Bolter: Junior designers should learn to be creative, not balance budgets

Courtesy of G Stock Studio

A recent report from design studio Michon suggested that students and graduates lack the skills needed to help them get by in the working world, and appealed to professional designers to take responsibility in teaching them these things.

It’s great to see design studios looking at ways that the industry and those in education can work more closely together, and how we can all help graduates find their feet in a fast-moving and highly competitive business.

We should hire creative minds, not business managers

But I must admit, I found parts of the “Designing the Future” report slightly depressing. I can understand studios’ frustrations when taking on graduates, only to find that their skills are lacking – however, the emphasis placed on certain skills worries me.

The report talks about the importance of “real world” skills such as understanding timesheets, working to deadlines and budgets, and managing client expectations. Designers will have a lifetime to worry about these things. When taking on a design graduate, you should be hiring a creative mind, not an apprentice business manager.

Even software skills should not be a priority; yes, it’s important to know the basics, but certain things can be learnt on the job. When hiring a junior, you should see their potential, not a finished product. An enquiring mind, an observational eye, a brain full of ideas and a genuine enthusiasm for design: that’s what I look for. Those are the qualities that should be nurtured through university, rather than quashing inspiration with seminars on budget forecasting and time planning.

Studios should shape design education

The aspect of the report I do agree with wholeheartedly is that studios should take more responsibility for helping young designers develop. They are, after all, the future of the industry and the ones who will return the favour and push us when we start to feel out of touch. There’s nothing like someone snapping at your heels to make you up your game.

So I agree that, as an industry, we should get involved with universities in any way we can: setting briefs, running workshops, helping with portfolio reviews, mentoring. We should work more closely with tutors to understand their objectives and challenges, and help shape the agenda of design education.

Help those who won’t go to university, too

But we should not only do this at university level. If we are to successfully combat the primarily white, middle-class appearance of the creative industries and build genuine diversity – which can only be a good thing for fostering diverse creative thinking – we should be reaching students earlier, to help encourage those who may not have university in their natural path.

Inspiring the Future is a great initiative that joins schools with volunteers from different professions, to introduce young people to career paths they may not otherwise have considered. Another is the Creative Mentor Network, which, while specific to London, looks to diversify the creative workforce by opening up jobs to those from disadvantaged communities and ethnic minority backgrounds.

By working with local schools, we can show students what potential exists within the creative industries and inspire those that have an interest to find a way into the business, which may or may not involve a university degree.

Leave the spreadsheets and teach them how to critique

And honestly, whether young designers learn through higher education or on the job, there are certain skills that are more important at the start of their careers than their ability to understand a budget spreadsheet.

Problem-solving and getting to the core of a brief; knowing how to generate and critique ideas; having a point of view and the ability to communicate it; working collaboratively. These are key skills that all good designers need in their armoury.

I recently judged the New Blood Awards for Design and Art Direction (D&AD). While I was really impressed with the best work, it was frustrating to see other submissions that had the seed of an interesting idea but the designers hadn’t then known where to take it. Young creatives must learn how to critique their own work, how to push an idea and expand a project, and how to edit and refine. This is what we should be teaching – so leave the spreadsheets for another day.


Miranda Bolter is design director at Superunion, having previously worked as design director at The Partners before it merged with other studios to form Superunion. She has responded to research conducted by Michon with input from the Design Business Association (DBA) and Design Council, which suggests that design graduates are not learning skills that equip them for the working world. 

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