Research shows that people with design skills, contribute more money, in more sectors of the economy, than anyone ever realised. Design Council is committed to making sure that all industries can access the design talent they need. So at New Designers 2018, an expert panel talked to graduates and their tutors about the opportunities available to them and the skills they need to nurture.  

The students and graduates exhibiting at New Designers 2018 are picking their way through a new economic landscape. One that needs and values design, but not always in the usual places. Design Council’s talk was a chance for new design talent to discover how to stand out and to find out about the many career opportunities available to them across sectors.

Here’s a summary of the panel’s advice. If you prefer to sit back, close your eyes and listen, click below for the audio recording of the event.

The New Designers panel

Sarah Dawood (chair), Joe McCullagh (Manchester School of Art), Oliver Marlow (Studio TILT), Kati Price (V&A) and Ellie Runcie (Design Council).

A new design economy means new design careers

Panellist Ellie Runcie, Design Council’s Director of Growth and Innovation, painted a positive picture, “In our recent research, we’ve found that most design is happening outside of the traditional design industries,” she said. “That means lots of jobs, in lots of different industries like aerospace, automotive, manufacturing, entertainment, construction, retail or banking. The top job skills identified by NESTA and the World Economic Forum are also extremely aligned with a design skillset. Critical thinking, complex problem solving and creativity are all becoming more important.”

This is excellent news for design graduates, presenting a far greater choice of career trajectories than they might have realised. However, it does mean that the traditional skills associated with being a designer are no longer sufficient to excel.

In demand design skills

The panel’s discussion centred around four skill sets that the new design economy has created a demand for, and which new designers should be mindful of nurturing.

  • Interdisciplinary working
  • Soft Skills
  • Design Leadership
  • Digital capability

Interdisciplinary working

In the post-war period, the idea of a specialist that solves a given problem developed. However, as Oliver Marlow of Studio TILT pointed out, “We won't solve the societal problems we are facing today like that. It takes many disciplines working together, not specialists.”

“It’s no longer enough just to be creative,” said Joe McCullagh, Head of Design and the Associate Dean at Manchester School of Art. “Twenty-five per cent of our curriculum is interdisciplinary.” At Manchester, they have coined a new term to describe the skill set you need. 'Design Versatilitism' is a new angle on specialism, which allows designers to maintain an interdisciplinary capability. The way to learn and develop it is by working in interdisciplinary teams, and the employability of Joe’s students has gone up since they started teaching in this way.

Soft Skills

The rest of the panel also put a big emphasis on soft skills. “They are less exclusive to design practice,” said Kati Price, Head of Digital Media and Publishing at the V&A, “but they are crucial to the human-design process during which you have to rely on leadership skills and the ability to articulate yourself.” Oliver Marlow agreed. “It’s about the ability to work as part of a team, and the social intelligence to understand your role in a bigger organisation and bring people together,” he said. “But within that, as a designer you need to be able to keep your objectivity, and your ability to question things, intact.”

Design Leadership

This new breed of designer is increasingly taking on a leadership role, and this is particularly true when working outside the traditional design industry. “In one of these industries you will not just be a designer, you will be a design leader, a design facilitator,” said Ellie Runcie. “You need the confidence to be able to take people back a step and ask them the question ‘why are we doing this?’ rather than just accepting the brief.” Kati Price elaborated, “I think that’s a great example of where soft skills come in,” she said. “You need them to be able to challenge and reframe the brief for other people.”

Digital Capability

Technology is very much a ‘macro-theme’ affecting everything, and the panel agreed that designers need to get to grips with it, moving between the physical and digital worlds in their work. “There has been a merging of those two worlds,” said Kati Price. “A brand’s product or experience can now exist in both of them, and you need the skills to deal with that.”

New and old ways of standing out in the crowd

So bearing all this in mind how can designers stand out from the crowd during their job hunt? The panel had some concrete ideas.

1. Get experience

If you can find a way to get some real-world experience while you are still studying, do it. Employers increasingly report a gap between the skills that graduates possess and the skills they need to have. So any time at a company or organisation you can get will help you to stand out. Since many of the skills employers require are not design specific, that work experience doesn’t necessarily have to be at a design agency. If you attend a college or university that runs Design Council’s Design Academy, then you’ll get a head start. It is a programme that has been created to complement existing curricula across university departments. It aims to close the skills gap before students leave education. There is a list of organisations that can help you get a job in design at the bottom of this article.

2. Be a self-starter

Both passion projects and self-employment demonstrate that you are a self-starter, who can get on with things without lots of support. Employers in and outside of the design industry are hungry for people with this crucial skill.

3. Reflect on your practice and demonstrate that you see the big picture

The shift towards service design and the use of design to tackle societal problems such as health or social care requires designers to think well beyond the traditional boundaries of the discipline and beyond the traditional job roles. Joe Mcullagh went even bigger, urging designers to think about their subject in the context of the epoch in which we live. “Designers today are arguably entering the Post-Anthropocene epoch,” he says. “They’ll be practising in the context of dealing with plastic ‘fossils’, the rise of AI and data. How do you respond to that? How do you disrupt the AI?” Oliver Marlow recommended the book “What is a designer”, by Norman Potter, to help you reflect on the ethical questions you may face as a designer.

4. Learn to code

Kati Price was unequivocal about this. “I strongly believe that designers should have coding as part of their skillset,” she said. “Design is part of the digital realm now, and the blurring of the boundaries between the two disciplines will only increase.” All the designers on her team at the V&A can code, and perform UX testing and research. There is a list of places to learn to code at the bottom of this article.

5. Nurture your soft skills and become a facilitator

Human capabilities like empathy that can’t be automated underpin your soft skills. Another reason that they are increasingly important. Oliver Marlow emphasised the role of the designer bringing people together. “Anything that helps you to do that will make you stand out. Speaking a second language is a great example.” Developing your soft skills and learning how to facilitate is best achieved by doing it. So this might mean a passion project co-created with a team to show you play well with others, or work experience in an interdisciplinary environment. There are also plenty of courses out there that teach soft skills like negotiation, presentation or collaboration.

Summary

In short, getting a job working with design may no longer be as straightforward as it has been in the past. But the panel all agreed on one thing; there has never been a more exciting time to enter the profession. Designers have the opportunity to work in all sectors of society, making a material difference to their environment. There are many ways to find support and this article has given a few of them. These lists are by no means exhaustive though, so be sure to do your research.

With thanks to New Designers and of course our expert panel who gave their time freely:

​Where to learn to code outside higher education

codeacademy.com

Structured online courses in lots of different languages and frameworks. You can work through all of it for free, but they also have a premium service if you want to take things further. There are lots and lots of sites on the web like codeacademy so do your research and find the best one for you. Articles like this one will help.

Udemy

Udemy is an online marketplace for online courses with plenty of options for budding coders. Sign up for their email updates to be alerted of their flash sales where you can grab classes at significant discounts and work on them entirely in your own time.

Coursera

Coursera is one of many open education providers that provide an online portal to informally study courses from academic institutions for free. They have a wide range of coding options and combining this with codeacademy to create a bespoke learning programme could be the way forward if you are short on cash.

Kano Computing

If you learn with your hands, then products like Kano are the way forward. They physicalise computing. In Kano’s case, you build a computer module by module learning about coding in the process. If you like this approach and already have a bit of coding experience then getting your hands on a Raspberry Pi and making a few projects will have a similar effect.

Digital Pipeline LDN

A free night school where you’ll gain a foundation in Front End web development coding from General Assembly, with additional design training from D&AD and support and guidance from A New Direction on getting your first roles in the industry. Run by Create Jobs LDn.

Superhi

Getting a bit more serious, Superhi offers a more formal learning environment online at a competitive price. If you are going down this route, do your research as there are a lot of providers out there. General Assembly is another popular option, who also run IRL coding boot camps.

Makers Academy

If you are extremely serious about coding and want to frame your design practice around it, then Maker’s Academy might be for you. It’s an intense 12 week IRL boot camp with a hefty price tag. Only for the truly committed. 

Organisations that help designers develop their skills and find a job

Design Council Design Academy

A programme embedded at colleges and universities, created to complement existing curricula in design, business and engineering schools. It aims to close the skills gap before students leave education.

D&AD Shift

D&AD New Blood Shift is an intensive night school programme for raw, untrained talent. The programme is purely for people without a higher education qualification.

D&AD New Blood Festival Fringe

The D&AD New Blood Festival is well known for the exhibition of graduate talent. Less well known is the Fringe Festival of events that take place throughout London. Thousands of free places for students and graduates at workshops and talks that will help them make the first steps in their career.

Create Jobs LDN

Create Jobs LDN is an employability programme for young Londoners. The aim is to transform London’s workforce by supporting and developing individuals who are under-represented in the creative and digital industries. They run a range of courses including Digital Pipeline LDN featured in our list of coding course providers.

Creative Industries Federation

The federation advocates the case for creative education to government and also delivers practical interventions to help young people, teachers, careers advisers, and parents better understand the range of creative jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities that are possible, and how to pursue them.

Creative Access

Creative Access helps young people from black, Asian and other non-white minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, to secure paid training opportunities in creative companies, and supporting them into full-time employment.

Sector trade bodies

All sectors of the economy have their industry trade bodies, and it is often through those trade bodies that they look for talent or advertise internships. If you are interested in pursuing your design career outside of the design industry, research these bodies to see what they offer. Perhaps even call them up and ask for their help. Don’t forget public sector organisations like the Local Government Association. Local authorities are increasingly looking for design talent.

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