Design Education: the profession and the student

Liam McComish
Liam McComish is a Senior Lecturer in Visual Communication at the University of Ulster.

The NI Design Alliance has just launched (Jan ’11) a Design Competition for 2nd year Visual Communications students at the University of Ulster, with 6 local design companies participating as mentors. The aim of the competition is to help students develop their professional design skills and for local designers to shape what they are learning. Liam Mccomish shares his thoughts on this project and the relationship between the profession and the student.

Education is a perennial hot topic and University education in particular has been much in the news this last year. As with any good debate, the closer you get to the fundamentals the more interesting it becomes, similarly in design there have been constant debates bubbling beneath the surface about the nature of the subject and the part that education plays.

There are numerous strands to the education debate but of importance here is the relationship between the profession and the student.

The basis of our Visual Communication course at the University of Ulster is graphic design. The visual design of words and images often for applied contexts requires a broad range of abilities and techniques that blend the cognitive and practical realms.

Somewhere among drawing, composition, typography, colour, software, marketing, video, printing, writing, photography, illustration, interaction, semiotics and psychology a student must a find an individual path that will meet their requirements.

Whether designing a children’s book, a brand identity or an online experience the fundamentals are often similar, to conceive and visualize a new idea and realise it through the precise application of techniques for public consumption.

Some students are naturally inclined to technology as the key to advancement. Adobe Master Collection has 15 applications, half of them lay claim to the student designer’s soul- learn me, I will make you faster, richer, better! In truth any one of these major applications could take years to master and I rarely meet a professional with extensive knowledge of more than one or two. None of them are likely to make you more genuinely creative, more articulate in meetings, more subtle and nimble in client relationships or more acute in business matters.

Other students are not that keen on technology and software and yet everyone has to work digitally in the modern world, don’t they? Technology has certainly transformed the design world along with the wider society- as Katherine McCoy states in The Education of a Graphic Designer ” it may be that within an environment of abstracted technologically generated data, the designer’s personal viewpoint and interpretive forms may be the humanising element essential to make the vast quantities of abstract data meaningful, useful, comprehensible and compelling to our audiences.”

When we use terms like students, professionals, designers, and industry it is important to bear in mind the individuals behind these labels. Students, like professionals, have ambitions and passions of their own which are diverse and evolving. Some may want to work for themselves on their own terms or be keen as mustard to get a foot in the door of a particular studio whose work they admire. They may want to be creative director of a global agency or teach art and design at a school close to where they grew up.

A key aspect of their education should be developing awareness so that they can make better informed decisions that will benefit them and any future employer, and make design better. That is why this NI Design Alliance competition is so important. Dialogue between professionals and students should serve to not only inspire but inform, to reveal some of the intangible realities- good and bad- of studio life. What will be gained? More informed and aware students and professionals, and an ever growing network of like-minded creative’s. The participating individuals and companies should be congratulated on this excellent initiative.

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