Bill Strohacker on re-evaluating how graphic design is taught, and what needs to be done now!
“I think most graphic design courses don’t prepare students for the workplace. It’s a bold statement, but I think it’s true”.
What we’re doing at the Strohacker Design School, is addressing this shortcoming by providing students with a pathway that is increasingly absent from our overburdened modern educational system. We are offering them a direct path into the graphic design industry through an industry-ready course. I talk often in interviews about evolving education, and students will read it in the prospectus too, and this is what I mean.
When studying graphic design, I was taught by highly talented people from the industry, quality lecturers with industry experience. Today, there are so many courses that this talent pool has been spread too thin for students to get the design education they need. Furthermore, the way in which students have been taught is impacting how they are teaching the generations that follow. A generation of teachers is emerging with little or no industry experience, which means that the quality of learning is judged from an educational perspective rather than an industry-related one. When you add the reality of fewer jobs in a weakened marketplace and more debt than ever before to the equation, the end result is a harmful mix that is affecting the potential of students.
So, to lay it bare, what I’m saying is that today’s education system is delivering students who don’t have the skill sets they need to go straight into a job. And this is not just me spouting off in an attempt to promote my school. As part of my work in setting up the Strohacker Design School, I contacted almost 100 companies across the country and asked them what they wanted from graphic design graduates and what they felt they weren’t getting. The feedback was crystal clear: “They are not industry ready”; “Their portfolios look great but they aren’t equipped to hit the ground running and do some work”; “They haven’t got what we’re looking for”.
The need to better equip students for today’s workplace is what drives my school. How are we doing it? The quality of our teaching is one element. The average size of our classes is five or six students – we keep numbers limited on purpose – and the contact hours high. Each of the nine graphic design modules that we offer is taught by a professional industry creative. In fact, I believe we have the largest group of high-level creatives on a single course in the UK. For example, Nick Williams, who has held head of graphics positions at Levi’s and Puma, among other such jobs, teaches apparel and graphic design, while Sara Watkins, who can list Channel 4, Premier Inn, Sky, Cadbury’s and the Premier League on her CV, teaches UX and web design.
Switching the focus to the course infrastructure, our ability to adapt learning to student ambitions is integral to how we are achieving our goal. When we ask students about their hopes and dreams, it’s not sales patter to get bums on seats and money in the bank. I talk to each individual student, find out what they want to do, and mould their learning accordingly. If someone wants to work in magazine design, we can gear each project this individual works on towards their goal. You can’t do that on a traditional course because there are too many students and only one lecturer. This agility is invaluable.
Another way in which we are addressing the need for industry-ready skill sets is through our ability to integrate new technology as it emerges. On a normal degree course, it can take 2-3 years to introduce new elements, whereas at my school, we can be more responsive and react quicker. For example, we are discussing the integration of augmented reality technology into our course. From a graphic design point of view, this means giving students the chance to add augmented reality elements to their work, such as augmented reality to procuct, business cards and stationery in our self-branding module. We also have the opportunity to introduce 3D printing into our learning programme, working with the University of Chichester.
However, at the same time, it is important to point out that we also ensure that students learn about traditional skills and technologies. For example, we are working to introduce a letterpress module. This original letterpress work, and the understanding of its functionality, informs our design work today and how we design the future. These skills are just as critical to an industry-ready skill set for the modern workplace. This breadth of education, and the integration of old and new, is vital.
The Strohacker Design School is also better preparing students by offering an affordable alternative to university and the crippling debt that such a study path can incur. The level of student debt is debilitating and heartbreaking. I’ve read reports putting the average student debt at over £50K – a mindboggling statistic that we should all be deeply concerned about, especially as some design courses aren’t giving students the skill sets that they need.
In financial terms, our course is a different proposition entirely, and it is designed to avoid the scenario where heavily debt-laden students enter the job market without the skill sets to earn what they need. As part of our course, students get a year of post-graduation support to find a job, a component that is built around the contact books of the top-level industry creatives who teach our modules.
And we already have the success stories that prove our approach is working. For example, two recent graduates, having gone for interviews (at a leading communications consultancy and a large property firm), have had new roles created for them because their skill sets were so good. They have started on salaries of £35K and £40K. Compare this to what a graphic design degree-course graduate might expect to earn – £18-20K (payscale.com).
I’m not naïve or narcissistic enough to think that Strohacker Design School can fix all the problems surrounding graphic design education, but I do believe that we can make a significant contribution to the solution.