What made you want to be a graphic designer?

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I recently did a seminar with two colleagues at a very well known college. The seminar, if I’m honest wasn’t that well attended, which could well have been a reflection on the three of us and our chosen topic, designing for charities. Not a subject that seems to be front of mind of the average graphic design student.

The gap between setting up and anyone arriving (and perhaps the rather low turnout) seemed to set off a conversation about what exactly was front of mind of the students (and what had brought them to art college in the first place).

What gradually dawned on the group of us was that we didn’t really know what propelled teenagers into thinking they should be graphic designers any more. Reasons to go into design are many and varied, but certainly graphic designers, for years, have often cited everyday graphics that somehow reached out to them as teenagers as the reason why they first picked up a rotring pen, or more recently a mouse. But do we really think that staring at Facebook, designing their own My Space page or customising a blog template is now really driving them to graphic design?

British designer Mark Farrow talks of his epiphany coming when he pulled a Peter Saville sleeve out of a rack, and the influence of the 12 inch artwork and three decades of album covers seemed to be a critical driver for many designers now in their thirties and older. For many, all those Hipgnosis covers seemed to be their entrance into commercial art, in some shape or form.

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When compiling a poster a decade ago on the life of a graphic designer, I jokingly threw ‘˜all the reasons why’ in as typographic ‘˜roots’ (eg ‘˜everyone at school said you were dead good at painting’, or ‘˜you always loved Tony Hart when you were a kid’, ‘˜you didn’t want to starve in a garret’ or ‘˜you can’t remember but it seemed like a good idea at the time’). These weren’t all MY reasons, just the clichΓ©d stuff that I’d heard people say, or I imagined they’d said. (For those reading this outside Britain, the recently deceased Tony Hart was the first ‘˜artist on the telly’ in the UK so possibly did propel thousands into art, at least).

The recent folding of design company The Designer’s Republic and the wake-like comments on the Creative Review blog hammered home the point that for a new generation studying in the nineties, their music industry work and club flyers had again pulled many into the business.

But now that record sleeves have gone, CD’s are slowly dying as a medium and albums are represented as 50 pixel square images on download sites or iPod screens, graphic design’s traditional flag-bearer, the killer app that drew in thousands, is going. Paradoxically though, it’s never been easier to do it. You can study graphic design GCSE (ie at 15/16), do design A-level, yet surely a whole generation isn’t being drawn to a profession based on their stumbling attempts at Powerpoint? (that’s a program destined to put people off design, not turn them on).

The rise of ‘˜everyday’ graphics at school and home is giving rise to a new phenomenon (in Britain at least) where students are skipping Art Foundation courses and trying to get to design college direct. I’m hearing of kids arriving at open days at school with their parents (sometimes the ‘˜Dad’ is armed with a clipboard I hear. Cue mortified teenager).

In a way, this ‘˜direct entry’ route is understandable. If Tarquin really wants to do graphics at seventeen and a half, well why bother messing about doing all types of art (ie on a Foundation course) when he could start learning to be the next Herb Lubalin rightaway (actually Tarquin Lubalin’s got quite a ring to it, when you think about it). The trouble seems to be, that it’s on Foundation where a lot of very good, art-based minds get intrigued by solving other people’s problems, and usually the canny teacher can spot this and direct them accordingly. I quizzed about a dozen students just last week on a college visit, and probably half of them admitted that there was a critical teacher (often on Foundation) who steered them in a graphic direction.

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I’ve also been putting out feelers with other tutors and colleges on this question and the results are illuminating. Just from one college, student responses can vary hugely.

‘˜My answer is simple… because of my Mums tattoos’ said Mark Simmonds, from LCC. From the same college Lucy Brown quoted Hyde at me. Whilst Hyde was talking about poetry, she felt the process was similar: ‘˜It means abandoning being a poet, abandoning your careerism, abandoning even the idea of writing any poetry, really abandoning, giving up as hopeless – abandoning the possibility of really expressing yourself to the nations of the world. Abandoning the idea of being a prophet with honour and dignity, and abandoning the glory of poetry and just settling down in the muck of your own mind… You really have to make a resolution just to write for yourself… in the sense of not writing to impress yourself, but just writing what yourself is saying.’

Phew, from ‘˜my mum’s tattoos’ to ‘˜the muck of your own mind’, from one college alone.

Other student responses are equally revealing: as suspected, some of these ‘˜digital natives’ are propelled into design from their adventures online. ‘˜I got into graphic design because of Neopets when I was about 14′ reveals Lincoln student Kimberley Chan. ‘˜You used to be able to edit your profile page with HTML an add background images and each pet was given their own blank HTML for you to use, which got me into web design. Then I decided I liked it a lot and wanted to do it all the time’.

Some actually want to change the world: ‘˜Most of the visual ephemera that surrounds us is actually pretty rubbish. That leaves us, the viewer, being surrounded by messy graphics that don’t really achieve what they were designed for. I guess I always felt that I wanted to change that to some degree. I used to see things a lot and think ‘I could do that’ or ‘Why didn’t they do it like this…’, so here I am’.
(Alec Farmer, Glasgow School of Art).

As predicted, a critical experience either on placement or Foundation can make or break the career decision. ‘˜My friend got sent to a graphic design agency. She hated it and in telling me all the ‘˜bad’ things, I decided they all sounded quite good. The other positive was that it provided me with an opportunity to leave school early, which was my ultimate aim at that point’. (Ella Dalby, Glasgow School of Art).

But the most revealing responses have come from the course tutors themselves. The fact that the subject has boomed in popularity has caused issues for some. ‘˜The problem is that as courses get bigger and bigger, we get more folk that are there just because it was the path of least resistance rather than actually choosing a subject they want to study, or for that matter want to follow into employment’ says Barrie Tullett from Lincoln School of Art and Design. ‘˜Some students are still inspired by the nature of the subject, they have come through Foundation courses and were introduced to, and inspired by working with texts, or saw a book and knew that was what they wanted to do. Some of them thought it was a niche subject and would therefore be quite a rare bird if they studied it (they found out how wrong they were on day one at Uni).’

David Smart, from the University of Plymouth, revealed that ‘˜when students come for interview to join the programme, one question we ask is: ‘˜Who is your favourite designer?’ It is astonishing how many candidates cannot answer. Now that Graphic Design is taught at schools, I suspect that students ‘˜fall in love’ with The Subject just as much as (if not more than) individual heroes. They have an awareness of brand, product, pack, information, virtual etc that I certainly, personally never had. I suspect that for many now, the subject may be sexier than the designers who practice within it?’

Neil McGuire, tutor at Glasgow School of Art, feel that as Tibor Kalman’s work got him through college, his best students eventually find and follow new heroes – ‘˜looking to the likes of Troika, or possibly Eatock, operating from a base which allows them to make forays into the world of technology, product, art, event, installation design without being fussed about whether a label can easily be stuck on it. I think we’re guilty in art school of ‘˜silo-isation’.

Also at Glasgow, Steve Rigley reveals ‘˜I am always surprised at how little the average applicant actually knows about the industry. An alarming number think that they are coming into advertising. Most cite the usual suspects at interview: Escher, Warhol and Salvadore Dali! There is a residual Carson influence too which is really surprising’.

And art itself seeps through again at the RCA, as course leader Jeff Willis admits: ‘˜The best designers from here think they can change the world with through graphic design. They do of course, (especially in this department) get distracted by ‘˜art’.’

But perhaps I should end with a quote that illustrates how someone’s life is genuinely changing through graphic design: here’s Rhiannon Jones from Lincoln talking about her route into the subject.

‘˜When I was 13 I was diagnosed with Dyslexia, which was a bit of a relief really – ‘˜good I’m not thick – just a bit slow!’ I threw myself into Art & Design – something I was good at, something I could push and challenge myself with, without getting a headache! It just seemed an obvious choice when it came to college choices’¦ then came Graphic Design oooo now it was like having Art & Design as the wrapping paper and Graphic Design as the present underneath. It was an amazing feeling to actually be good at something – at no point did it feel like ‘˜work’, it was just fun. The feeling of making my dad proud as he’s watched me grow as a designer makes me really happy and it’s the best decision I’ve made!’

Can you sum all this up? Well, with difficulty, but perhaps whilst the era of the ‘˜hero’ designer may be over, it seems the era of the ‘˜hero subject’ may just be beginning. From the niche subject that just a select few took, it’s now the domain of many, and perhaps the ‘˜easy option’ (at college at least). How Graphic Design copes with being quite so popular, and quite so generic, will be fascinating to watch.

By Michael Johnson, and many appreciated contributors, to many to mention.

If you have a particular view about why you came into graphic design, please email info at johnson banks dot co dot uk and we will post a follow-up piece with the most illuminating suggestions.