I’ve developed a strong relationship with the Graphic Communications with Typography course at Plymouth University over the last three years, and it’s been a privilege to take part in their annual Industrial Liaison day twice in that time.

Every year the entire third year group is given opportunity to present their portfolio face to face with panels of professional designers – a unique and innovative part of the course. Not quite a job interview, the process nevertheless puts them in a position of pressure outside of their comfort zone, giving them opportunity to get fresh feedback on their work from those who have gone ahead of them.

I met some great individuals, as did my colleagues (designers were paired up and each panel saw 8–9 students throughout the day). As far as quality is concerned, the standard varied. Some blew us away with fantastic ideas and execution. Others struggled with nerves or weaker portfolios.

…whilst it’s important to challenge the students, it’s equally important to take a step back and get some perspective.

Don’t be mean

It’s very easy to become critical when we view the work with our professional heads on (I lost track of the times I questioned ‘what is the brief?’, ‘who is the audience?’ or ‘what is the call to action?’) but whilst it’s important to challenge the students, it’s equally important to take a step back and get some perspective.

And the perspective that I kept coming back to was this: most of these guys are better than I was.

What makes a good designer?

My own work at university was worse than a mixed bag. Fourteen years ago, when I joined the Graphic Design (Packaging) degree at Somerset College of Art & Technology in the third year, it was patently obvious how far off the pace I was compared to those that had studied their first two years there. The fact was, in my previous institution I hadn’t been taught half of the stuff these new course mates (and those on the Plymouth University course these days – a well structured and taught course with commercial, craft and concept all given plenty of importance) had been taught. I didn’t really get it.

I spent the year playing catch up. But wow – the challenge was the making of me. And THAT is the point.

The ones that make it are the ones with a bit of initiative…

In any degree there will be those that graduate and progress into the field they have studied and those that drift away – even in a very focused, vocational degree such as design. The ones that make it are the ones with a bit of initiative – that care enough to get their heads down and work hard to make sure they improve fast.

Natural talent?

As I said – as a young student, my work was pretty average (at best). My thinking was vague and unrefined and I had a lot to learn. I was recently made aware of actually how little natural talent I had/have – when visiting my parents a print out of some IT A-level work I’d done in sixth form was placed lovingly on my pillow. I could have thrown up. There it was: a print out of an Excel spreadsheet/database. And let’s just say there was a font on there. A particular font that those who know me would realise shouldn’t have been there. Or anywhere, for that matter.

Naturally I was shocked. Embarrassed. Disappointed. There was a little bit of anger, too.

I, Owen Jones, designer, creative director, long-time mocker of the font that shall not be named CLEARLY have zero taste or ‘natural talent’. What should I do? Run away and hide? Try to justify it? Write a blog article about it?

Taking the positives

As the dust settled I was comforted by a reassuring truth. I’m not trying to overstate my current ability or position but it’s a fact that I make a living by creating design that solves problems for my clients and, for that to happen, it figures that it (usually) looks pretty good.

To have got to where I am now, I must really care. I must have recognised my shortcomings and been ambitious and bullish enough to do something about it. I must have more about me than just skill on a computer (which, unfortunately, is how a lot of the world gauges designers). I must have worked really hard.

To have got to where I am now, I must really care.

That’s great news. And it’s great news for all the students I saw at the liaison day. Because I know the course is teaching them the key principles, I know the foundations are there. And even if they were the ones that I felt were lagging a little behind, it means that if they get serious, listen to those that are teaching and advising them, determine to continue learning, work REALLY hard at it and pursue it with everything they’ve got, I (and the rest of the industry) going to have some serious competition in the coming years. And that excites me.

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