From classroom to client: are young design graduates prepared for what the industry holds?

Grant Difford, founder and creative director of Waking Giants, asks why good professional practice is lacking in the latest pool of design graduates.

When I look back 15 years to when I undertook my design degree I look fondly on two key tutors; a children’s book illustrator and a renowned typographer. They both challenged us as young design talent in our own right, but also maintained credibility by actively working within their desired professions. In other words they were current.

It is only now being the employer of designers that I realise the influence they had on my career and my attitude towards the ‘industry’. They taught me that workbooks turn into pitches, the deadline turns into a demand and that the word budget is far more a focus than the next pint.

So thank you to those two tutors – you were current, commercial and supportive. Now I am the one looking to bring on new talent, secure the value of the industry and give a little back. A crusade no; a sense of responsibility yes.

Unfortunately, for myself and many other agencies, the past year has been a challenge to find talented and commercially aware graduates that understand the transition between the classroom and the client-focused world. A talented graduate with a strong portfolio isn’t translating into an engaged and profitable resource. (After all profit is essential to keep the employment growth on the upswing.) The impact on me now is far more serious along with many agencies looking to grow post GFC.

There’s this lack of understanding of what works in a commercial studio. There seems to be a weakness in the ‘professional’ studies aspect of current tertiary learning – little time on working to tight deadlines, budget and time management, client communication and colleague awareness – all important aspects of a good designer. Don’t get me started on the ability to prepare files for print, craft an email to a client or pitch an idea to another person.

Part of the argument is that you should hire experience – but then you support the growing numbers that can’t get a job because they have no experience and vice versa. Something as a company we want to break, by investing in young, commercially inexperienced designers to give them half a chance; that however is not always easy and many do not meet the grade on many levels.

I’ve always had a perception that the graphic design degree is a cash cow. The schools are pushing out hundreds of graduates, year by year, and the percentage of employable individuals entering the industry are very low. As an industry we have to identify where the responsibility lies and what can be done about it. Are students taught about their impact on the business beyond the creation of great work? From what I'm seeing, no. Don’t get me wrong – this issue doesn’t apply to all graduates, but ask any agency owner and I would be surprised if they were overly positive about the level of talent coming into the market.

The solution? Freelance, competitions, internships – all commercial experience that will give an agency confidence that the graduate can add value from day one. There are structures in place for placements and industry experience; at times we get one or two requests a day for placement. We have received feedback that simply getting a response from an agency is an issue: not a surprise when CVs are lazy, uninspiring and often have the company name wrong. 

There requires a serious shift in the tuition of professional practice and the importance of the profession coming to the table with opportunities that don’t leave the young designers with burnt fingers. Let's close the gap between the classroom and the studio and to improve the chances of success for the graduate and motivation for employers to give them a chance.