Tom May discovers why more and more students are opting for short, intensive design courses over traditional university degrees
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
“OUR COURSES ARE FAST: JUST LIKE THE REAL WORLD... THEORY AND PRACTICE ARE WOVEN TOGETHER FROM DAY ONE” SARAH MCHUGH, SHILLINGTON
– 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.