running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Deliberation and Authenticity

Saturday, 19 April 2014

It will soon be interview season again. I can expect to look through upwards of 150 portfolios, samplers and applications, but there will only be between 20 and 30 places on offer across our Visual Communication courses. Some very tough choices lie ahead. So we have to try and get it right. Mostly I think we do, but the process is organic rather than methodical.  Getting onto a good course is the first step to a career in the Creative Industries, and things are definitely looking up for design graduates.

Upbeat Government figures published earlier this week, and reported in the DRUM, suggest that the creative industries produced a growth of almost 10% in 2012, outperforming all other sectors of UK industry by generating a stunning £8m  per hour. 

Design saw an employment increase of 16.2 per cent, and in publishing, the figure was up by 7.5 per cent. Publishing in particular has been reinvigorated by digital technology and the introduction of new formats. But the reality is still that one third of art and design graduates are without permanent work a full three years after completing their course.  Competition for work has probably never been higher. So for prospective designers, whether school leavers or career-changers, getting onto a good college course is more crucial than ever. Which brings me to the question which prospective applicants always and ask, and which the process of interview must answer - what are you looking for in a prospective design student?

Generally speaking, design is about problem solving skills, from those that are strictly rational, analytical and objective, to those that are much more imaginative, artistic and subjective. And students need to have the potential to develop in this way, to grow into the role of problem-solver, creative thinker, decision-maker. It goes without saying that a strong interest in art, the ability to draw (or continuously doodle), and an aptitude with computer skills are beneficial, but these are secondary to the urge to create visual messages, and evidence of that urge. And that's what we as tutors are required  to quantify at interview.

As well as an up-to-date portfolio (which must include solid sketchbook work), students must have something interesting to say about why they want to be a designer. Maybe they fell in love with record sleeve art, or graffiti, or movie posters, or film title sequences, or the labelling on clothes, or the livery on the side of a jumbo jet. Or maybe they just want their artwork on a roadside billboard in foot-high bold lettering, or in Empire Magazine. They'll get about 40 minutes or so to convince, but at the very back of everything, if they want to contribute to that £8 million an hour, we will be looking for good evidence of two latent qualities - deliberation and authenticity.


Back in the 1960's, the Swiss-Style acolyte Karl Gerstner stated that in graphic design, the creative process could be reduced to a series of informed and rational choices made by the designer.  This is a good rule-of-thumb, where a level head and a propensity for considered analysis and attention-to-detail are prerequisites.  How is your portfolio organised? Can you assemble the various bits of an idea into a coherent narrative, into something people other than yourself can understand? Can you do with pictures or shapes what a writer does in an essay? Do you lose sleep over work that isn't as could as you'd like? Your portfolio and its presentation generally reveal this.  At its core design is an organisational discipline, the technical assembly of visual elements, and you will spend a lot of your professional time trying to convince clients that you understand them and that you are in control of their information, or their brand identity, or the message they want to disseminate in whatever format or channel is required. So whilst inspiration and basic creativity are useful to the novice, the urge to be deliberate is the real key to opening your mind to learning and using the design process.


It's a well-worn cliche that a designer needs to be a sponge - and there's no doubt that having a broad general knowledge and an eclectic variety of interests is a major tool for any designer. A real love of popular culture, and its provenance, is a good place to start.  The more you know about stuff, the better you'll be at generating and communicating ideas, the easier you'll find research, and the faster you'll make connections and devise concepts using visual signs, symbols and ideas.  This will make your work authentic, and that in turn is what makes it clever, relevant, well-executed, and on brief.

The independent film maker Jim Jarmusch explains it perfectly -  “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent."

So if there is good evidence of deliberation and authenticity in a portfolio and if we hear it in a candidate's answers to our questions, and in the questions we are asked, then the road to a successful career in visual communication will be one step closer and we can tick the 'yes' box in our list.