Werkhouse: Industry-led design learning

It’s stating the obvious to say the world is changing rapidly right now, but it really is, and the impact on design services is clear. As well as affecting the types of projects we work on and the ambitions of our clients, it also effects the skills and talents we need to keep ahead of the game.

It follows then that design students, fresh out of Uni, will need to have experience of the changing needs of the commercial design industry if they are going to be successful. And, I think it would be true to say that, in our experience, this is not always the case.

Having said that, there are some constants that still exist, which any prospective employer will be looking for, and which should be integral to any design student’s experience. Things like, the ability to communicate your work with conviction; real-world knowledge about client expectations; and that all-hands-on-deck attitude that’s essential to any commercial studio. As a core team at Hello, we pride ourselves on being lean, while having the flexibility of a wider network. This is a common set-up. In fact, in the UK, 90% of the design industry consists of agencies that have 10 or fewer full-time people. It’s important that this core team can contribute across the board, from concepts and idea creation to the execution and presentation of work.

Learning never stops, so it’s no great revelation to say that, as in any other industry, design training must adapt and come together in its different forms to ensure its students have a fully-rounded and relevant skill set. Not only do any gaps arising from more traditional educational routes need to be identified and then plugged, but, for me, I think there also need to be other pathways into the design industry for talented, creative young people for whom university is just not on the radar.

I know from my many years in the industry that many of these people are, or have the potential to be, far more skilled and able to contribute than some we see coming through more traditional routes. It seems unfair that their only pathway into our industry is via higher education or an internship. To me this feels exclusive.

There have got to be other pathways in for those talented and creative thinkers for whom university is unaffordable or is just not part of their family’s — or their own — expectation.


Finding alternatives to the graduate pathway

Moving design education, or some elements of it, away from large institutions and into small apprentice-driven collectives was an issue raised at the 99U Conference in New York this year. “These collectives/micro-schools would be small gatherings of like-minded practitioners that lead workshops and have one-on-one lessons with students”. Online schools, such as IDEO U, are becoming available, where “anyone can unlock their creative potential to solve tough problems”. Fast-track approaches such as the graphic design course at Shillington, train people in three months and mentor students to work like professional designers. And Hyper Island offers learning experiences for an increasingly digitised world, “with a range of immersive programs and courses to lead the change”.

I’ve been aware of this shift, and this need for something else, for some time. So when I realised that other studios were feeling the same way and momentum was gathering for change, I was keen to become part of the changing landscape. We first got together as a small group of professionals, sharing the same goal, but with different insights according to our own experience and interests. For some, there was a focus on finding ways to bridge the gap between university and industry. For others, there was an interest in gauging the quality of design graduates, versus the smaller focus of graduates who had approached their individual studios over the years. There was a general interest in identifying whether the graduate route was delivering the quality of designer required for today’s market; and an overarching desire to explore whether we could ensure a better quality of designer by creating other pathways into the industry.

What started as a small group of like-minded colleagues, grew to a team of 20 design professionals, and the idea of Werkhouse was born. Werkhouse would be a weekend workshop of studio-led design training; fast-paced, client focussed and team oriented.


Werkhouse 1.0

June 2017 came around and the 32 successful participants, selected from 150 applicants, gathered in a commercial studio in Bristol, with some of Bristol’s and Bath’s most respected design industry professionals. Creative directors, strategists, designers and account managers took students and recent graduates on a deep dive into the creative and interpersonal skills needed to succeed in a design studio. Starting with a brief from an account manager, the weekend broke down like this…

Day 1
Explore the client situation: including meeting with client and their product.
Work in teams to generate ideas.

Day 2
Filter the previous day’s thinking.
Visualise and share team ideas with the whole group.

The expectation was that everyone would contribute and collaborate, share ideas and listen to each other.

It was both exciting and energising to be part of such an inspired and unique weekend. Myself and my colleagues found the exchange of thoughts and ideas between students and professionals thought-provoking and insightful. The standard of engagement, ideas and output was really high, and it was a great bunch of people to get to know and work with.

That said, with hindsight, I have to acknowledge that all of the conditions in that room were such that success was almost inevitable. The calibre and investment of the professionals and participants was high. Given the way the event was communicated, the selection process, and so on, I think it’s fair to say that, sub-consciously, students with a particular set of skills, life opportunities, experiences and drive were more likely to apply. It’s useful to be able to reflect on this — in fact, it’s necessary to do so if we are going to take every bit of learning we can from the weekend. So, with this in mind, I feel that the next natural step is to take Werkhouse to people for whom that’s not the case, to see if it genuinely has the potential to become another viable route into the industry. I’d like to think it does, and I’m open to finding out.

To learn more visit the Werkhouse website.

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