For those who received their A-levels today, your day has probably been filled with all kinds of emotions - and questions. One of which may be if a university degree is still worthwhile. Well the answer is yes, it is, but...

When I got my results (could have done better) 19 years ago, zero fees, maintenance grants and Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education” mantra meant that going to university was a no-brainer; for me, at least. I would soon ‘drop out’ but try again a couple of years later and thrive in a degree that my school, with its narrow range of subjects and unenlightened careers advice, could never have imagined existed (Visual Culture, since you ask). 

Once-unthinkable tuition fees and the resulting debt mean that it’s no longer a straightforward choice

Careers advice hasn’t necessarily improved all that much.  A recent study by The Student Room went looking for guidance to make informed choices and found a “black hole”. As for going to university, once-unthinkable tuition fees and the resulting debt, rocketing rents and costs of living and high youth unemployment mean that it’s no longer a straightforward choice.

The luxury of education for education’s sake may be a thing of the past but the design industry still values degree-level study: research last year by Creative & Cultural Skills found that 76% of employers expect to employ only graduates in design roles.

The good news is that, despite a still-shaky economic recovery and a highly competitive job market, design has bucked the trend and kept growing.

However, the catch is that 58% of those employers also said that they are dissatisfied with what those graduates bring to the workplace, citing communication, commercial awareness and basic business skills as lacking.  This paradox is part of what fuels the regrettable culture of unpaid internships amongst graduates.
 
The good news is that, despite a still-shaky economic recovery and a highly competitive job market, design has bucked the trend and kept growing.  The creative industries are the second fastest-growing area of the economy, seeing 15.6 per cent growth since 2008, compared to only 5.4 per cent in the wider economy. And within that, design is the fastest-growing industry.

So, what should you do?  Here are my five top tips: 

1. Do the degree but get the experience too

Choose a course with good industry links and make the most of them – attend talks, respond to live briefs, seek out work experience. Take every opportunity to develop and demonstrate your skills – enter competitions (like our own Ones to Watch), volunteer to design for community events, take part in group exhibitions.

And as employers value your creativity above all, use every opportunity to develop it and, crucially, to document it in your portfolio. University is a unique time to tend to your creativity.

As Harriet Vine MBE, co-founder and artistic director of Tatty Devine (with whom, coincidentally, I did my A Levels), said when she visited New Designers recently: “Every student should be encouraged to go a bit bonkers, only then can you push the boundaries of what you and your discipline are allowed to be”.

Take every opportunity to develop and demonstrate your skills – enter competitions, volunteer to design for community events, take part in group exhibitions

2. Be curious and be informed

There are many sources of information on careers in the creative industries.  Two of my favourites are Creative Choices and Future Rising. But don’t restrict yourself – read widely around your subject, familiarise yourself with brands that appeal to you and social issues that motivate you to act upon.

The rising retirement age means that you’re going to be working until you’re 70 so a year off now won’t hurt.

Get yourself on Linked In and start making some connections; set up a ‘professional’ twitter account so you can ‘listen’ to the designers and thinkers who inspire you; do some face-to-face networking too.

And get to know your rights on issues like unpaid internships and protecting your intellectual property.

3. Consider a gap year

If you’ve got a place, the chances are that you’ll be allowed to defer it for a year.  Or you might want to re-apply if your results are not what you expected.

Designers get their inspiration from an endless range of sources.  Seeing a bit of the world, whether that’s in some far-flung exotic paradise or in a retail or hospitality job locally, will help open your mind to the everyday problems of individuals and industries for which designers seek to provide innovative solutions.

And, frankly, the rising retirement age means that you’re going to be working until you’re 70 so a year off now won’t hurt.

4. Consider an apprenticeship instead

Apprenticeships in design suffer from low take-up (130 a year compared to more than 6,000 in construction) but they do exist.  The Pathways to Design research indicated an appetite amongst employers for more entry-level qualifications.  This could be your chance to be a pioneer and earn while you learn.  And there is some evidence that you could do better as an apprentice than as a graduate.

There is some evidence that you could do better as an apprentice than as a graduate.

5. Look further afield

Of course we in the sector know that designers provide a magic combination of creative imagination with technical know-how but there is another good reason to study design.

Our Leading Business by Design research earlier this year showed that all sorts of companies are increasingly appreciating the value of design – counted amongst Barclays 140,000 employees worldwide are a skyscraper-floor’s worth of designers and a board-level Chief Design Officer to boot.

And in the same way that you’ll find engineers, with their advanced numeracy and problem-solving skills, running FTSE 100 companies, if you have mastered design thinking, there’s a wealth of opportunities out there beyond the creative industries.

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