‘Over our dead bodies’ was the response I got when proposing to my final year undergrad Graphic Design students that we phase out the Design Agency scheme. They proceeded to explain how they would carry on with this decade-old project regardless, even if it was dropped from the curriculum, such is the value they place on it.
Design Agency allows students on the Graphic Design programme to graduate with four years of full-time education with an honours degree and, simultaneously, four years of work experience. Each year, senior students team together in Creative Director roles to form their own profit-generating agencies. They brand and advertise themselves, and recruit first year students as interns, second years as junior designers and third years as senior designers. Each agency is mentored by a voluntary design professional.
Within this scheme, regardless of experience, year level or ability, students work collectively towards a common objective. Projects are set by staff and mentors, with students themselves sourcing new business and clients. Independent of staff, students peer review, critique and support each other vertically across year groups on a daily basis. What is particularly significant is the breadth of experience each student has throughout their time in Design Agency, working in up to 4 different teams with a variety of peers and mentors from a broad spectrum of the industry. The long-term relationships built with both mentors and peers ensures that the students have the chance to show, over a sustained period, what they are capable of. This has led to some unexpected partnerships and immediate positions within the business post-graduation. As each student progresses through the role of Design Agency intern, junior, senior, and director, their level of responsibility and workload increases. Each encounter of this spiral curriculum is assessed through reflective documentation often using diaries, blogs, films and pecha-kucha style presentations.
Creative Director, Julia Beck, from Agency Bec, has this to say about the programme:
The Agency programme has given me such a unique business experience throughout my 4 years. In particular, co-directing my own agency has made me really understand my strengths and the role I could see myself working in when I leave university for a real job. This experience has also allowed me to develop my people skills and create friendships and connections with all the years in Graphic Design.
The academic environment provides a safe testing ground for Design Agency participants: risk-taking and experimentation within leadership and management roles, business structures, and presentation styles are all encouraged. If, however, things get too predictable, an external ‘fly in the ointment’ appears and students find themselves with unexpected challenges. Creative directors being tasked with making one senior designer redundant over the Christmas period was particularly memorable…
It was the final day of Semester 1 and a Creative Directors meeting revealed all was going well with the Agency – perhaps too well, I thought – and was not quite reflecting the challenges of finance and personnel problems encountered within a professional design studio. In the national news that week a number of businesses faced mergers and take-over bids with inevitable redundancies. I decided to echo what was happening externally and tasked the Creative Directors with ‘losing’ one of their key members. My final year students were both concerned but excited by this unexpected problem to solve. They cleverly decided that, at the start of Semester 2, they would team up as a fourth year cohort to announce the ‘bad news’ to the third year senior designers en masse. This was quickly followed by the good news, announcing how this allowed the agencies’ to refresh their philosophy, enhance their skill set and headhunt a senior who in turn would benefit from the experience of a new agency.
I have listened to the students’ insistence about the viability and longevity of Design Agency and, far from phasing it out, I have in fact expanded it into distinct 20 and 40 credit courses, some of which will be open to learners outside of the discipline in academic session 2018/19. It’s expected that by welcoming others from across the University our own students will be challenged in a completely different way.
You can read more about this project in this conference paper.
Related blog posts: Graphic Design in a Box and Career Design in a Box: Embedding Career Education in What We Already Do