Training Day

BillboardTo train or not to train? Can you teach creativity? Or is design a whole lot more? Drew Turney finds out…

If you’re entering the worlds of plumbing, mining or accountancy, training is a given. Not only do the qualifications or letters after your name give you inherent credibility to your clients, many industries restrict you from rising too high without them. There’s a big difference between a CPA and an accountancy graduate doing SME bookkeeping, for instance.

But what’s the difference between the creative director of a multinational ad agency and a sole operator, one-man band design studio? If the answer’s still ‘training’, there’s a huge amount of choice out there.

Of course, we live in a different world than that inhabited by the last generation of graphic artists who worked with bromide machines, dark room studio cameras and film cutting boards. Gone are the days of enormous ad agency creative departments full of specialists. The majority of ad agencies or design studios in the field now are run by only a handful of people, many of them young and without half the experience their forebears needed to do the same job.

When postscript and desktop publishing put the power of production into all our computers, it transformed the industry from one of unique skills to one of jacks-of-all-trades who could run a successful graphic design business with nothing but a Mac in front of them and some good ideas. Is training even still relevant?

The Skillset

We’ve all seen them – portfolios that make us seethe with jealousy. Why don’t we ever get time to do something as cool, we ask ourselves?

The answer’s probably in the question. Ask that irritatingly talented designer how long it took to do that project, and they’ll probably start talking about numbers of hours no advertising or design studio client would ever agree to – unless they were Nike or Coca Cola Amatil.

When you’re in design, it’s not just making pretty pictures, but delivering them in time and to budget, skills Andrew Barnum calls the ‘discipline of being a professional.’

Barnum’s the head of Billy Blue School of Graphic Arts, one of the oldest and most prestigious design schools in the country. Having been around since 1987 when it was spawned from a magazine, Billy Blue has watched the industry transform many times over and keeping training relevant has been one of Barnum’s biggest challenges.

“The students who come to Billy Blue now have been working with the technological aspect of being able to generate artwork since year 10,” he says. “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.”

Michael Lee, NSW marketing manager of Sydney’s qantm College, agrees. “Creativity is born but it’s right side of the brain,” he says. “The other side is more technical so those people born with creativity will probably go on to do amazing things, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to learn theories and practices like good colour matching.”

So a large part of being a successful graphic designer is plain old business sense, and that’s why it’s imperative to train you in everything from dealing with rotten clients to doing your masterwork with no budget whatsoever. Everyone contacted for this article stressed the importance of courses or study being close to the industry in some way or other, the result being students who not only design well but have been exposed to the nitty gritty of how the industry works.

So what if you just want to be a graphic artist and you don’t need to manage budgets or deal with clients? You’re still going to have to be productive, and that means working as well as you can as fast as you can, and that’s where knowing the tools of the trade is essential.

We’ve all heard the story about the poor schmoe who does a four year degree only to be passed over for employment by a one year TAFE Certificate holder, but it’s not called Technical and Further Education for nothing, and the hands-on skills are invaluable.

In design, you’ll inevitably be exposed to everything from drum scanning to computer-to-plate management, and TAFE Sydney Institute Des Pope explains that while the software’s getting better, it can’t do everything.

“Sydney Institute is the only institute that teaches graphic prepress,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of the sophisticated equipment a lot of the smaller colleges don’t have like digital studio cameras and drum scanners so it’s a lot more practical and technical rather than theory or application based.”

Beyond learning

While TAFE and the university systems can be invaluable when it comes to both the theoretical and practical knowledge of the design or new media fields, there’s more to finding your place in creative work than just knowing the software, the tools, or even just being a good designer.

As those of us who work in the industry know, there’s a very strong and distinct culture. Andrew Barnum thinks one of Billy Blue’s greatest assets is being not just close to the industry but also very much like it. Part of Billy Blue’s ethos seems to be letting students assess their suitability for the field just as much as the school does.

“The fact that Billy Blue is embedded culturally in the industry is what’s attractive to students,” he says. “If they go to university they may not be asking themselves what they actually want to become. When they investigate us, the industry links we have and projects we’re involved in they’re able to make a quick decision; ‘this feels right, I like the way it feels, I look around and see people who look like me and that I want to spend time with’.”

The training spectrum

The first juggling act to be negotiated when choosing a training provider is whether to go private or public. It used to be that University and TAFE colleges were much more accessible, but you don’t need to be in design or academia to notice all the media coverage since the 1980s about the rising cost of tertiary education and spiralling HECS debt. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that public-run courses can be as difficult to get into as those of private colleges.

Private colleges, like much of the private sector when compared to government-run institutions, operate more leanly and efficiently, often providing better training in a purely practical sense. Michael Lee of qantm college, points to the smaller class sizes and updated equipment qantm offers as an advantage.

Formerly a government provider, qantm took over a long-standing member of the graphics training industry several years back, the Computer Graphics College. And aside from the practicalities, Lee thinks qantm’s profile has social as well as software advantages, ones you might be hard pressed to find in the training industry’s fustier, government-run contemporaries. “It’s almost a family orientated environment whereas in a lot of school you’re just a number working to a set course,” he says. “Our teachers are more like mentors.”

Being ‘like’ the industry is important to Billy Blue too, who not only sprang out of the industry (as a magazine back in 1987) but also maintains very close links to it, including regular inspection of work by industry figures. It’s a connection head of school Andrew Barnum claims results in ‘over 90%’ of employment for graduates.

On the other hand, government colleges – in particular the TAFE system – have two things private colleges don’t, the name and the nitty gritty. TAFE courses are less about letting your creative spirit blossom and more about arming you with the arsenal of skills you need. Plus, no matter how prestigious private colleges are, a degree or qualification from a university has an air of credibility few bodies can match.

Delivering training modules online has become hugely popular with a time-poor, already-employed or far-flung student body, but ironically design is one area ill suited to the format. It involves a lot of complicated and expensive equipment and software out of the reach of an average struggling student, and in a field so intangible as design, communication of ideas rather than the correct tick in a multiple choice question is the key, so face-to-face interaction with your peers is crucial.

The DecisionSo how do you pick the college that’s right for you? Look for two things. The first is accreditation, which is a fairly easy job and one virtually done for you. The vast majority of colleges that operate at a professional level are accredited training providers recognised by the National Training Information Service, the national body formed by the state and federal governments that regulates and assigns accreditation to courses and competency standards.

A search on the NTIS website reveals literally hundreds of courses that are accredited under the system. In a practical sense it simply offers agreed standards of curricula, marking, and qualifications that are recognised so you can’t just emerge from training not having learnt what the industry agrees you should know.

The second thing to look for is people who’ve been there. Almost all the training providers Desktop spoke to for this article assured us their lecturers and teachers have industry experience, so the fact that it seems to be standard is be a good thing. In one sense, a shorter, more technical course like those offered by the TAFE system can be seen as a little more relevant as university tutors can be too far ensconced in the ivory towers of academia, a little removed from the commercial realities of the studio floor where results count.

There’s also the ever-present threat of obsolescence. By the time you finish a three or four-year degree, the technologies you started with might be passé – especially in new media where things like web standards change all the time. As such, the best approach to training might be to avail yourself of the theory with a degree or advanced diploma, then expect to spend much of your career retraining yourself (either formally or on the job) as the machinery and software inevitably changes.

Design in a workplace is a unique blend of constraints and freedom, of rigourous practical knowledge and gut instinct. The best way to manage design or creative industry training seems to be to find the same balance between practical skills and the thrill of knowing you’ve ‘got it’ we’ve all felt but can’t control or capture.