My reflections on a return visit to NUA

I knocked on the vibrant red door at mark-making* with sweaty palms, rolled up jeans and a portfolio I hoped would display at least an ounce of potential. Fast forward just shy of three years and I find myself on a hot and sticky road trip to my old stomping ground, to discover this year’s crème de la crème at Norwich University of the Arts.

The work on display was second to none – delightful and quirky self-initiated projects, communication solutions that took established brands and their purposes to another level. There was political work on a scale I’d never seen before – it’s fair to say Brexit and Trump gave students plenty of ammunition to use design as a form of self-expression about today’s society.

As with anything, a lot’s changed in those three years. On my return, I couldn’t help but feel a small amount of jealousy. I missed the excitement of pulling together a portfolio of work that you’ve poured your heart and soul into – not to mention those generous deadlines!

Yet the deeper I delved, the more I found myself questioning whether our design education and the way agencies engage with design students are giving a false idea of what it’s actually like to work in our industry.

There are design bodies such as D&AD, YCM, The Drum and Penguin Random House taking existing global brands or titles and pushing for groundbreaking outcomes. Then you’ve got large agencies like Design Bridge who write an exciting brief before opening it up to university students to solve.

I can’t deny that the competitions are a great opportunity for students to get to work under the noses of top creatives and receive recognition within the industry. But for me, these wide-open briefs (take Design Bridge’s “win us over on something you’re passionate about”) can sometimes miss the mark. Because in real designer life, you have to conjure up a passion for something you’ve never heard of before, your bread-and-butter briefs just aren’t always the glamorous ones.

All that takes some getting used to after years of fictional projects for iconic brands, unrestrained by real-life considerations like time and budget. I’m all for throwing the net wide open, but I think agencies that set wide-open briefs would do better to set real-world briefs that require the skills students need to be successful in the industry – on top of thinking outside the box.

University fees are continually in the balance and only last year Design Week released an article revealing that creative arts and design is still a popular subject group at 230,000 applicants – behind only medicine, biological sciences and business studies. That said, there was a drop of 17,000 students compared to the previous year.

With rising fees and the changing focus of the national curriculum, further declines are probably inevitable. But art and design have a greater impact on the country’s economy than most people realise, so investing in creative education seems like a no-brainer.

It’s my belief that now’s the time not only to think about the design challenges facing the next generation of creatives but also to review what age they start thinking about them. Education funding cuts are never far from the news headlines, and the turnaround won’t be quick, but surely it’s worth encouraging students at secondary school level to explore their interest in design and the visual worlds around them.

And I believe we can do this without dumbing down the ideas and concepts that designers grapple with. After all, boundaries are there to be pushed, and that means pushing beyond the edges of what young minds think is possible.

But for all that, I also believe we need to be more transparent and open about our industry. It’s not always about TV campaigns and slick mocked up case studies – and that’s OK.

What I’ve learned over the last three years is that while a big brand name or a big budget might get us excited, it ultimately doesn’t matter. The reason I walk through that bright red door every day is because solving problems with design is what fires me up. I get to apply my skills to design problems – to come up with different solutions based on the information in front of me, coupled with my unique way of looking at the world, and then see them turned into real working reality.

I hope the final year students whose projects I enjoyed discover that rush too, no matter what brands they end up working on.

About markmaking*

mark-making* is an award-winning creative agency specialising in branding, campaigns and communications