Tom May dis­cov­ers why more and more stu­dents are opt­ing for short, in­ten­sive de­sign cour­ses over tra­di­tional univer­sity de­grees

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Tom May dis­cov­ers why more and more stu­dents are opt­ing for short, in­ten­sive de­sign cour­ses – and asks what this means for the in­dus­try

Alot’s changed at uni­ver­si­ties over the last 25 years. In the 1990s, the num­ber of stu­dents at­tend­ing in­creased mas­sively, as did the num­ber of in­sti­tu­tions, with all poly­tech­nics al­lowed to con­vert them­selves into uni­ver­si­ties. Main­te­nance, once pro­vided to poorer stu­dents in the form of grants, switched to loans; then in 1998, tu­ition fees were in­tro­duced at £1,000 a year. This was raised to a max­i­u­mum of £3,000 in 2004, and later, the tu­ti­tion fee cap in­creased in 2012 to an eye-wa­ter­ing £9,000 a year.

As a re­sult, many young­sters are now ques­tion­ing whether the huge debt as­so­ci­ated with a de­gree is worth it. And this is bring­ing re­newed at­ten­tion to a range of shorter, more in­ten­sive cour­ses of­fered by col­leges like Shilling­ton, Hy­per Is­land, Es­cape Stu­dios and the new Stro­hacker De­sign School.

Short cour­ses have al­ways ex­isted. But they’ve gen­er­ally been geared to­wards pre­par­ing for, or sup­ple­ment­ing, a three-year de­gree; foun­da­tion cour­ses be­ing the most com­mon ex­am­ple. But that’s not what we’re re­fer­ring to here: we’re talk­ing about cour­ses that ex­ist en­tirely out­side the tra­di­tional univer­sity sys­tem.

Many peo­ple in­volved in th­ese cour­ses have be­come dis­il­lu­sioned with tra­di­tional in­sti­tu­tions and as­pire to pro­vide some­thing qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent. Take Bill Stro­hacker. He’s run his own stu­dio for 15 years, and spent six years teach­ing graphic de­sign at a col­lege part-time. “But I didn’t like the way it was all go­ing,” he says. “The course costs were ris­ing; the cour­ses were open­ing up to more stu­dents. It’s re­ally be­come about: ‘How many stu­dents can you get on a course? How much money can we take?’” So he de­cided to set up his own Stro­hacker De­sign School, which opened its doors in Jan­uary of this year.

First, though, he did some re­search. “I spent a cou­ple of years talk­ing to de­sign agen­cies around the coun­try, and ask­ing what they re­ally needed, and what they were get­ting,” he ex­plains. The re­sults were re­veal­ing. Stro­hacker re­ports a

wide­spread dis­sat­is­fac­tion over the cal­i­bre of univer­sity grad­u­ates. “Sev­eral agen­cies in London told me they’d in­ter­viewed up to 50 or 60 grad­u­ates, but still couldn’t find the right fit for their com­pany,” he says.

That isn’t ev­ery­one’s ex­pe­ri­ence of course, and Stro­hacker is keen not to sin­gle out any par­tic­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion. But there are many voices in the in­dus­try echo­ing the idea that not every univer­sity de­gree is worth its weight in gold.

John Spencer, founder and creative di­rec­tor of Sur­rey de­sign stu­dio Off­thetopofmy­head, re­cently stepped down as an ex­ter­nal ex­am­iner at a lead­ing univer­sity. “The rise in fees has had the dev­as­tat­ing re­sult of chang­ing uni­ver­si­ties from places of learn­ing into com­mer­cial en­ter­prises,” he main­tains. “They’re churn­ing out medi­ocre de­sign grad­u­ates on a grand scale.”

And that has a di­rect im­pact on em­ploy­ers, says Lee Coomber, creative di­rec­tor at Lip­pin­cott: “De­sign cour­ses are not equip­ping grad­u­ates well enough for jobs in the real world,” he be­lieves. “I see many port­fo­lios that are full of pro­fes­sional, slick and con­vinc­ing work, but they’re in­creas­ingly generic and bland. De­sign ed­u­ca­tion must also fo­cus more on see­ing work through the eyes of the cus­tomer. It’s vi­tal that de­sign grad­u­ates can talk about their work in a way that makes sense to a po­ten­tial client or in­ter­viewer, some­thing which they’re cur­rently not ad­e­quately pre­pared for.”

Sean Thomas, creative di­rec­tor at Jones Knowles Richie, con­curs. “There’s a hand­ful of col­leges do­ing great work in pre­par­ing stu­dents for the world, and what we are see­ing from them is bet­ter than ever. But there’s a greater vol­ume pro­duc­ing grad­u­ates dis­con­nected from the in­dus­try, mak­ing vis­ually poor work to a for­mula.”

Sim­i­larly, while Alas­dair Len­nox of FITCH feels uni­ver­si­ties are do­ing a good job of pre­par­ing stu­dents for spe­cial­ist and dis­ci­pline-spe­cific work, he ar­gues that “for those in­ter­ested in brand­ing – which re­quires de­sign­ers to cross dis­ci­plines and think strate­gi­cally, even at ju­nior level – the cour­ses are lack­ing. As a gen­eral ob­ser­va­tion, it’s sad to see de­sign cour­ses close ex­pen­sive work­shops in favour of cheaper com­puter rooms and ren­der­ing pro­grams. While the sav­ings might be im­por­tant, the hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion po­ten­tial of a work­shop is in­fin­itely more in­struc­tive for the learn­ing process.”

Of course, such cri­tiques ad­dress fail­ings with spe­cific cour­ses and spe­cific grad­u­ates, not univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion in gen­eral. But it’s no co­in­ci­dence that the most com­mon com­plaint


– that some cour­ses are not suf­fi­ciently prac­ti­cal in pre­par­ing stu­dents for real-life work – is be­ing ad­dressed in in­ten­sive short cour­ses.

One ex­am­ple is Shilling­ton, which has col­leges in London, Manch­ester, New York, Syd­ney, Mel­bourne and Bris­bane, and has just cel­e­brated its 20-year an­niver­sary. Rather than pas­sively at­tend lec­tures, stu­dents are in class­rooms that are as much like stu­dios as pos­si­ble, where in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als ask them to ful­fil de­mand­ing, re­al­is­tic briefs to short dead­lines.

For this rea­son, UK di­rec­tor Sarah McHugh ar­gues the brevity of th­ese cour­ses is ac­tu­ally a pos­i­tive. “Of course three months sounds fast,” she says. “It is fast: just like the real world. Our cour­ses are de­signed for stu­dents to work hard and get the most out of every minute. The­ory and prac­tice are strate­gi­cally wo­ven to­gether from day one, so stu­dents’ brains are trained to think like prac­tis­ing de­sign­ers straight away – keep­ing on brief and meet­ing short dead­lines.”

Hy­per Is­land, which has cam­puses in London and Manch­ester, as well as Swe­den, Brazil, the US and Sin­ga­pore, takes a sim­i­larly prag­matic view. “Our cour­ses are 100 per cent con­ducted by in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als,” says Ines Lopez, pro­gramme man­ager for the 45-week Mo­tion Creative course, which fo­cuses on an­i­ma­tion and mo­tion de­sign. “We rely on them to de­liver the most rel­e­vant, up-to-date knowl­edge and set tasks that will help our stu­dents de­velop. Com­bined with projects in­volv­ing real clients, this gives the stu­dents the op­por­tu­nity to de­velop skills that are rel­e­vant for to­day’s in­dus­try.”

Sim­i­larly, those wish­ing to de­velop their il­lus­tra­tion or an­i­ma­tion abil­i­ties into movie-level CG skills can take one of Es­cape Stu­dios’ re­cently in­tro­duced 12- or 18-week cour­ses in London. Again, deep in­te­gra­tion in the in­dus­try is key. “Of­ten our in­dus­try part­ners will men­tor our cour­ses,” says Es­cape’s Mark Spe­vick. “So the likes of Dou­ble Neg­a­tive, MPC and The Mill will watch their projects be­ing de­vel­oped over the course, and of­fer their feed­back and ad­vice.”

It’s this close in­dus­try in­te­gra­tion that largely ex­plains the suc­cess of such cour­ses in get­ting grad­u­ates into paid em­ploy­ment quickly. Their web­sites are filled with glow­ing tes­ti­mo­ni­als from stu­dents who’ve found jobs or be­come suc­cess­ful free­lancers as a re­sult of their course, and we cer­tainly found it hard to find any­one who’d had a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Bill Stro­hacker is keen to fol­low a sim­i­lar, in­dus­try-led path with his new in­ten­sive, three-month graphic cour­ses. He’s al­ready signed up the likes of Jamie Hewlett

(co-cre­ator of Go­ril­laz and Tank Girl), cel­e­brated Aus­tralian graphic de­signer Vince Frost, and Ian Ed­wards, a head creative for JWT. Stro­hacker also plans to dis­tin­guish it­self from ri­vals through its very small class sizes (“eight to 10 stu­dents, max”) and a more flex­i­ble ap­proach to the cur­ricu­lum.

So are th­ese short, in­ten­sive cour­ses the fu­ture of de­sign ed­u­ca­tion? The short an­swer is: it’s a lit­tle more com­pli­cated that that.

While th­ese cour­ses have de­vel­oped a good name for them­selves within the in­dus­try, they’re still very niche, and their grad­u­ate num­bers re­main pro­por­tion­ally small when com­pared to the alumni of tra­di­tional uni­ver­si­ties. It’s dif­fi­cult, then, to find a de­sign stu­dio head in 2017 with strong views ei­ther way as to their ef­fec­tive­ness; the sam­ple size is just too small – for now.

Per­haps more im­por­tantly, the main route into many big de­sign stu­dios re­mains a univer­sity de­gree, and some em­ploy­ers refuse to even in­ter­view any­one with­out one. Plus there are many ways to gain added in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­ence or knowl­edge to sup­ple­ment your univer­sity

course if needed. Many agen­cies, such as FITCH, of­fer a sand­wich pro­gram that lets stu­dents get to grips with the in­dus­try for their third year of univer­sity, be­fore go­ing back to fin­ish their de­gree in their fourth. Oth­ers, like Jones Knowles Ritchie, get in­volved in stu­dent de­vel­op­ment by run­ning port­fo­lio ad­vice ses­sions dur­ing events like D&AD New Blood.

To fur­ther com­pli­cate mat­ters, it’s worth not­ing that short, in­ten­sive cour­ses are not just for teenagers out of sixth form. They’re as pop­u­lar, if not more so, among older cre­atives wish­ing to change ca­reer mid-stream, or those wish­ing to de­velop their study be­yond univer­sity.

“Let’s be clear, we’re not try­ing to com­pete with or re­place uni­ver­si­ties,” says Sarah McHugh of Shilling­ton. “In fact, many of our stu­dents have al­ready com­pleted de­grees, or worked in a wide va­ri­ety of in­dus­tries, or both.” So the ques­tion is less about which is best and more about which is the best fit for the in­di­vid­ual. “We al­ways en­cour­age prospec­tive stu­dents to weigh up all their op­tions and re­search like crazy,” she con­tin­ues. “Go to info ses­sions, view stu­dent work, con­nect with grad­u­ates: you’d be sur­prised how much you can dis­cover. In­vest­ing in your ed­u­ca­tion is a big de­ci­sion, so re­search away and find your own best fit.”

The rise of the short, in­ten­sive course, then, stands not in op­po­si­tion to tra­di­tional de­sign ed­u­ca­tion, but as just an­other choice in a buf­fet of life op­tions. Whether you’re a young adult con­sid­er­ing a creative ca­reer, a re­cent grad­u­ate look­ing to spe­cialise fur­ther, or an ex­pe­ri­enced creative wish­ing to start a new chap­ter, it’s more likely than ever that you’ll find a course for you.

Far left: Shilling­ton grad­u­ate Adam Mor­gan’s hand­made, mixed-me­dia paint­ing for the Univer­sity of Utah’s new Las­sonde build­ing.

Left: Adam Mor­gan’s brand­ing and pack­ag­ing con­cept for health sup­ple­ment brand Peak Nat­u­rals.

Be­low: Work by Se­ri­ous Busi­ness, an agency formed by Hy­per Is­land stu­dents, for London jobs start-up Cat­a­pult.

Fac­ing page, top: Il­lus­tra­tion by Hy­per Is­land grad­u­ate Linn Fritz for Face­book’s new plat­form, Work­place.

Above: The re­design of jobs start-up Cat­a­pult’s web­site by Hy­per Is­land grad­u­ate Thales Ribeiro’s stu­dio, Se­ri­ous Busi­ness.

Top: Shilling­ton grad­u­ate Charly Tu­dor’s de­signs for Frame­work, a monthly e-pub­li­ca­tion and app for road cy­clists.

Fac­ing page, be­low left/right: In­for­ma­tion book­let by Shilling­ton grad­u­ate Adam Mor­gan in both print and dig­i­tal for Gold­ing Group.

Left: Brand­ing and pack­ag­ing con­cept by Shilling­ton grad­u­ate Adam Mor­gan for a pitch to Peak Nat­u­rals.

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