Take a Different Course

August 1st, 2008 Design Features, Desktop, Tech

Training’s changed dramatically since the advent of the desktop designer, finds Drew Turney, but it’s still as relevant as ever.

When Desktop was in high school, computer training amounted to five or six successive periods where we typed about 1,000 lines that looked like this; PLOT: 43, 456, 213, 98, 543, 234, 876, 56, 431, 765… The end result was a line drawing, on the green-on-black of an old dumb terminal-style monitor.

Now you can learn the basics of Photoshop in high school. Kids not even in the workforce are turning out projects that would have made art directors of in the prime of their careers 30 years ago salivate. By the time they join the swelling armies of employment seekers, it seems they know everything. What’s left to teach them?

To begin with, though they may have a beautiful portfolio that they’ve crafted lovingly over months on their bedroom iMac, does that mean they’ll be able to do the same two days before deadline with client screaming down the phone?

"The students who come here have been working with the technological aspect of generating artwork since year 10," says Andrew Barnum, the head of Sydney design college Billy Blue. "So where once they’d come in with scraps of paper and pencil drawings, they’re now walking in with beautiful artwork and typography, scanned images and flash websites and you have to keep relevant by saying ‘even though you’ve got skills there’s a whole lot you don’t know.’

"We want students who are fresh and expressive and colourful but at the same time have the discipline and utility to be able to slot into a work situation. It’s no good if someone says ‘I loved your portfolio’ and they find it took you three weeks to draw one line. You can’t just prepare students with skills, you need to prepare them with contexts."

The design world was completely different in the pre-internet, pre-OSX, pre-Adobe Creative Suite days of 1987 when Billy Blue was formed. Advertising agencies and design studios were companies who could afford bromide machines, courier accounts to rush film across town and hours or days to spare to deliver assets to print or client proofs.

Now anyone with an Internet connection, a half decent computer and creativity can be a one-man marketing machine. How does training stay relevant not just in today’s world, but tomorrow, when it’ll be different all over again? The best way to keep your skills relevant is to select from courses or colleges where the teachers have been drawn from the industry. While at the coalface they know the changes not just in software versions and technologies but trends and client expectations.

Because whether you want it to or not, design will probably involve a lot of other, more technical disciplines. You might produce a beautiful design, but how much confidence will you give a client when they ask for dyelines prior to colour proof or whether they need to provide you with the imposition and you just stare blankly?

Knowing the nuts and bolts of the post-design process will give you an edge. Just like a lot of people are interested in learning Flash to make great websites, you should be as interested in bleed settings and emulsion to make a great printed product. They’re all tools to solve communication problems on behalf of your client, and if you just want to make great art and be revered among the gentry maybe you should study interpretive dance instead.

So a good strategy is to look at shorter TAFE courses as well as longer degree and graduate courses in design. The latter are still valid — it’s said you shouldn’t break the rules without knowing them, and there are theoretical design fundamentals that have been relevant for centuries and across cultures.

But it’s the technical tools of your trade that are changing all the time, and arming yourself with a working knowledge of them might help you stand out among a hundred other applicants with portfolios just as lovely as yours.

TAFE courses tend to place more emphasis on experience in the real world too as part of the course curriculum can sometimes be a day or so every week at an agency or studio. You can’t put a price on such industry experience, and there’s a side benefit. If you really impress, the creative director or studio manager will remember you, and when it comes time to staffing, they might decide to avoid a time consuming and expensive application process and just offer you a position.

So how do you pick the college that’s right for you? Look for two things. The first is accreditation. The vast majority of professional colleges are National Training Information Service. A search on their website (ntis.gov.au) reveals literally hundreds of courses, and the advantage of accreditation is agreed standards of curricula, marking, and qualifications so you’ll end up with qualification the industry agrees you should know.

The second thing to look for is people who’ve been there. All the training providers investigated for this article assured us their lecturers and teachers have industry experience, and it’s the least you should expect.

It’s a funny duality. You can be the most eager student and amass the broadest knowledge of technical skills and it won’t make you creative. On the other hand, you might be truly gifted but too aloof to bother getting you hands dirty with emulsion or irate clients. Which kind of designer would a studio employ? It’s impossible to say, so hedge your bets. While you doodle on your Wacom to flex your left-brain muscles, invest in quality training to make yourself the whole package.


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