Sheffield Hallam University end of year show. Creative Spark 2012

Creative Spark

Yep its that time of year again. End of year student design shows. A time of aspiration and reflection. A time of late nights and spray mount asphyxiation. A time where the happy go lucky days of design study draw to a close and the door to the big bad world of the creative industries swings open. Well, for some anyway.

In past years I’ve found myself in the opening week stumbling around the popup exhibition spaces of the Old Truman brewery with fellow designers sharing a myriad of critical reactions to the student work, frequently impressed with some clever thinking and inspired execution but often disappointed by the same old clichés that seem to mar the design education establishment. I’m sure we’ve all seen them, student work which focuses on subjective pet loves, pseudo political agendas, night club rebrands and indecipherable info graphics which illustrate absolutely nothing.

Nevertheless the end of year shows mark a time in the creative calendar when a fresh new consignment of creative individuals hit the job market and in this rather drab financial climate they need all the help they can get. I’ve always been an advocate of helping young designers learn and improve so that they’re better equipped to face the harsh reality of working as a junior designer or junior intern getting paid probably just bus fare and enduring a baptism of fire into the world of mounting boards and stock image searching. This is a pivotal time for design graduates and sadly I fear that many of them will enter a world where they are somewhat out of their depth. Sure its always tough starting out as a designer but the question is what can the design education establishment do to mitigate the difficulty?

Well my first reaction today when visiting the Creative Spark show was that although a degree course in Graphic Design (or whatever its deemed to be called by any given establishment these days) is a time to grow creatively and experiment with ideas and media it shouldn’t necessarily lead students into an esoteric  cul-de-sac which subsequently leaves them dumfounded and disillusioned when they hit the workplace. Design courses should direct students to develop as designers within a commercial reality not just a sphere of unchecked artistic expression and this to me seemed what was clearly lacking today. Presentation is key to communicating ideas and there was little or no concept presentation which validated the work on the walls. Furthermore portfolios are fundamental in getting that first job or placement yet I was shocked to see the classic A3 ring binders with plastic sleeves on display with often poorly laid out pages and drably presented work. Why are students not informed that is the crucial step one in their careers?

The choice of final major projects also confused me and I don’t think its necessarily the fault of the student but rather a fault in the system. I remember as a 3rd year design student being told that we must come up with our own idea for a final major project and finding it difficult to solve a creative problem of my own making. Throughout the year briefs are set to the class and they are trained to react and resolve the problem. Then at the end of their 3 years they’re expected to create and solve their own problem. I have never really been to a show and seen this work well. If the students were set a final year brief or selection of briefs from which they could choose a project that they found interesting then there might be better results. Just a suggestion really, but the avid Marilyn Manson Fan is always going to produce his next album cover and the girly girl is always going to do a baby wear brand or children’s book. Its history repeating itself again unfortunately and its helping no one really.

Work wise the Creative Spark exhibition did have some highlights for me. Alexandra Watson’s intricate approach to book design and typography showed great promise and was executed professionally. Hayley Reid’s Origami type work was clearly the result of many arduous hours of folding and I’d say that level of focus and commitment certainly paid off and then beautifully detailed book ideas from Rhys Evans and Chris Stanley showed them as young designers to watch for sure.

I don’t by any means want to zap the confidence of SHU’s graduating design students they’ll soldier on as we all did and will learn their skills and improve through working in the real world. But I do feel that the creative industry and the design education establishment are culpable in not working more closely together to provide a more holistic creative education for students enabling them to step into the commercial world with greater ease. I for one will be happy to advise any design graduate or their career path and I think its the duty of individual designers to do the same.


Andy Richards
  • @
    Posted at 09:02h, 23 June Reply

    As a graduating student I found this article was not encouraging or helpful at all, you simply insulted me and all the students except four (who rightly deserve praise, they produced excellent work). Although I understand you are entitled to your opinion and there will always be some students who perform higher than others, I’m not sure I see the value in such a negative review of student work which has been put together lovingly and caused lots of stress and tears along the way! You may have a lot of experience of the industry but could you not let us have a few weeks of feeling chuffed and proud of what we have worked so hard for before we enter the industry ourselves and have to hear the cruel, hard truth that most of us are not good enough?!! Any graphic design students reading this I am proud of you all the exhibition looked fabulous to me :)

    • Andy Richards
      Posted at 11:52h, 25 June Reply

      I’m glad that someone has finally left a comment on this article but a little disappointed that my point was missed. My criticism was not of the students themselves but of the system which through which they are educated. Whether in Industry or education it is vital that junior creatives are conditioned for a real world experience and helped in focusing their processes and conceptualisation. No doubt many graduating students worked hard producing their show but many could have benefited from more astute creative direction. One thing that all graduates will learn over the next 5 years is that they’ll have to take criticism of their work on an almost daily basis and not get overly emotional about it. It is indeed hard to suffer but makes the designer stronger and better. So do feel chuffed about your achievements but remember that your work will be scrutinised and critiqued by your colleagues, creative directors and ultimately your clients throughout your careers. So learn to take it like a professional and grow as a creative.

  • Justin Williams
    Posted at 09:09h, 25 June Reply

    It would be interesting to hear if any of the teaching staff have a view on this.

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