Visual design students today

Adrian Shaughnessy shares the ten things he thinks you should know about today’s visual design students.

In my roles as an external examiner at a number of universities, and as an occasional lecturer and part-time teacher, I’ve spent most of the past two months in design schools in the UK and Ireland. Like a war correspondent embedded with a front line unit, I’ve witnessed at first hand the attitudes, fears, tastes, prejudices and creative output of a cross section of the current generation of graduating design students.

Adrian Shaughnessy

Adrian Shaughnessy

Here are ten things you should know about today’s visual design students.

1. The good ones are as good as the best from any year you care to choose. In fact, I’d say the standard of top performing UK educated design students is so high that it is hard to distinguish their work from some of the best professional work. Or to put it another way – they’re bloody good.

2. Most design students have abandoned the design fetishism of the past two decades. There is far less emphasis on the stylistic beautification of graphic expression and in its place there is a renewed emphasis on content and returning graphic design to its Modernist roots of form dictated by function.

3. Many of the current generation of students seem to be motivated by social concerns. Where once their energies might have gone into designing CD covers and identities for cultural institutions, it is now commonplace to find students investigating ways in which design can drive social change. For me, this is the biggest single difference between today’s graduates and those from past years.

4. Student graphic designers are increasingly functioning like journalists: this is more noticeable at postgraduate level, but I’ve been struck by the number of undergraduate designers operating like self-publishing reporters. In recent years, an obsession with research for research’s sake has led to lots of dry outcomes, but now there is evidence of designer’s producing original research and then presenting it in a graphically coherent way.

5. It is getting harder to tell the difference between the work of students studying illustration and those studying graphic design.

6. In one school I went to recently, the tiny handful of failures and Thirds would have been top students 15/20 years ago.

7. Few students seem interested in web design. Most admit to being print fixated. This is a worry.

8. Many top students in UK schools are from abroad and many of them are exceptionally talented. What does this mean for UK design? Will they all go home to China, Korea, India and Brazil and join – or set up – world beating studios? Will they go back and teach in schools thus reducing the need for foreign students to come to the UK for an education? Will they stay in the UK and enrich the talent pool? Whatever they choose, foreign students are changing British design for the better.

9. I still hear professional designers and studio bosses complaining that students are not emerging as oven-ready employees. This is often true. Some students have no concept of – or interest in – the professional realm. But it is also true that many are more advanced, forward thinking and future-proofed than the studios demanding graduates with “real world expectations.”

10. A final thought for anyone who scoffs at student experimentation: students are told constantly by their tutors to “be original, be different and don’t copy.” If their attempts to do this sometimes fail, it should not be assumed that they are a lost generation. They are merely doing what generations of students have always done – trying to find what is new, fresh and vibrant. Why else would anyone want to study design?

By Adrian Shaughnessy

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