Future proof design

Author: Paul Wyatt

For the 21st century designer it would seem that diversification is the spice of a continued working life.

The creative industry is changing and not just because of the recession. The business is becoming savvy enough to realise that creatives offering a broader range of skills are more financially viable for their businesses. A convergence of skills is happening.

What design convergence isn’t about is simply being skilled in the complete Adobe Creative suite. It’s having an understanding of how another side of the creative process works. How pace and rhythm plays such an important part in animation, how typography can make or break a design, why the user journey is so important to a piece of interaction design. Understanding these principles and being able to apply them is what being a generalist or multi skilled designer is all about.

“A specialist generalist. “is what Marketing Consultant, Julie Lane, calls this new breed of designer. “Crunch or no crunch, everyone loves a true Renaissance creative” To me that means a specialist who can diversify.”

Executive creative Director of Syzygy London Aaron Martin knows the impact the all round designer can make to a business “ Not only are they more flexible at a time when flexibility is key for digital agencies, their greater breadth of experience also tends to help them think in a broader fashion about their work: so their work is often better.”

As design skills converge is it time to readdress how designers are educated? Are University courses giving adequate real world training?

Illustrator and animator Paul Davis found his College course left him ill prepared for the real creative industry.

“The syllabus was focused on conceptual idea generation rather than the practicalities of actually producing animation” Davis’s complaint is not an uncommon one. He found the problem exacerbated by having limited use to industry standard software.

“Due to this i left university and discovered a big gap in my skills and felt totally unemployable”

Like many design students Davis retrained “on the job” to bridge the gap between specialist learning and a more multi disciplined skill set.

“I remember being given a few real-world projects at university” Digital designer Tom Harding remembers “They helped but in my first job, I learnt so much in a short space of time and that experience was priceless to me”

“I think in the long run it stands you in better stead to have done a taster of everything” advises packaging designer and graphic artist Sam Garrard ”As I later found out two years after graduating I went into Packaging. An area of design I shied away from at University”

“The way advertising is taught has changed little since the 1980s” says Alex West founder of The Future department believes that advertising teaching techniques have changed very little since the 1980s. We’re churning out designers with cookie cutter thinking processes, ill equipped to tackle the challenges of the current industry” West believes that the generalists of the design world, those with multi skills, will emerge as winners in the competitive job market. “Those driving innovation will always be the generalists” he enthuses.

At the Arts Institute in Bournemouth practical experience is given precedence as course leaders and lecturers keep one foot in the “real world” industry and constantly use this experience to shape Students teaching.

Becoming a successful Digital designer, print and brand specialist was a two fold process for Luke Woodhouse. First there was the BA in Graphic design at the Arts institute. A multi disciplined course which involved print, animation and web based project briefs. In Woodhouse’s second year briefs became more self initiated and dependant on the Students interpretation as to what medium best suited the project to meet the brief.

“This meant we were able to draw on our skills acquired in the first two years and the final format of the solution was dictated by the ideas” explains Woodhouse.

The second stage of Woodhouse’s immersion into the digital world was using a philosophy instilled in him during his course – that of autonomous learning. In a nutshell this means always saying yes to a task and if you feel out of your depth “ask peers, refer to books or just use Google!” advises Woodhouse. This “Can do” approach has enabled Woodhouse to work on a diverse range of projects from web page designs for Figleaves through to marquee work for Wilbert Das Industrial design.

Ravensbourne College of Art and Communication is one of the most forward thinking Colleges when it comes to future proofing student skills and being progressive in their approach to teaching. Students are given regular insights and views from industry figures to give a cross discipline take on what’s happening in the current and future world of design, art and communication. A recent initiative was the multi disciplined T shaped Futures Industry leaders day.

Chris Thomson, Head of Enterprise and innovation at Ravensbourne explains “I’m a big champion of diversification especially in these times of converging technologies and the opportunities they offer. Don’t get me wrong there is a place for specialism but future professionals need to be both specialist and multiple skilled at the same time. T shaped!”

Ravensbourne focuses on a number of related sectors such as broadcasting, interaction, moving image , animation and product design “It is so apparent today” says Thomson “That these sectors overlap and work more interpedently than ever before. Ravensbourne students get to experience this from day one of their education rather than it being a wake up call when they enter the world of work”

With a changing economy some dyed in the wool designers used to working with more traditional techniques have been shaken out of their comfort zones and have had to embrace new ways of thinking and new tools. “Remember that at their hearts all designers are storytellers”, says Bafta award winner developer and digital creative Paul Filby “The medium you’re using to tell this story may not be your cup of tea.but the important thing is to challenge yourself. It is this drive which will make you stand out” Nicky Gibson, explains that at Poke London they still rely on a number of specialized people but have an increasing reliance on those with a more broader range of talents.

“Some designers also code their CSS, some Project Managers know their typography pretty well even!” she says “Some of the front end coders also work on user experience design, while so do some of the Art Directors. Some designers are illustrators also, some aren’t. Some designers used to be programmers. And everyone writes copy!

Source Personnel’s Marc Shelkin believes that digital designers will have to wear many more hats when entering agencies “This could mean conceptualizing , storyboarding designing, and coding” he explains. “In the past couple of years there was a need for more specialist skilled creatives but things are changing and agencies require all-round designers.”

The full package of hybrid talents can not only be beneficial to a business but could prove financially rewarding for a prospective candidate. Sam Pettitt from innovative recruitment consultants Blue Skies has the daily challenge of finding candidates who can meet the hybrid brief. Does that perfectly packaged multi media lingual hybrid designer exist in the market place? “Yes” says Pettitt “but that type of designer rarely comes cheaply”

Are the generalists cleaning up in these tough times. Yes. It would seem so. “Account managers, especially those who have one eye on their budgets and spreadsheets know they are getting more for their money.” Says Paul Davis. Julie Lane agrees and knows that the popularity of the generalist designer is not just a fluke of the current credit crunch “one stop shop designers are a must have in this or any economy”

Future proofing skills and dipping into the many worlds of the creative business are essential undertakings for the 21st Century creative. Design convergence brings these elements together across a number of disciplines and makes the designer a powerful player in the market place. Specialism will never completely die but as Luke Woodhouse aptly says “There will always be a need for specialists, but by the very nature of specialism you’re placing yourself in a niche. If you’re going to specialize make sure you’re the best”


This article first appeared in issue 119 of “Computer Arts projects”


Recent Projects


Click for love

Single and ready to mingle Paul Wyatt goes online for love

launch project


That’ll teach ’em

Ideas are power and everyone loves a good one.

launch project


Regenerating the Doctor Who website

How the BBC revamped the website for a new audience

launch project



Magic and spreadsheets with a trip to SFX house Framestore

launch project


A New Normal: Smile Plastics

Fantastic plastic in the heart of London.

launch project