Design underinvests in its people

This article was published in Design Week’s supplement on Continuing Professional Development (May 6th), and can be downloaded from the DW website.

Does the design industry actually need to take training so seriously? After all, design studios are innovative and creative hothouses full of naturally inquisitive and adaptive people who never stop learning and thinking. Everything they do deepens their professional experience and quality of work. We learn on the job, that’s all there is to it.

This sounds like a nice theory but the fact is it doesn’t add up in practice. At the end of the day, all the evidence suggests design groups just aren’t doing enough to train their staff. In fact, design consultancies have consistently failed to invest in the skills of their own people and even now the situation is not improving. Over the last seven years, levels of formal training have been visibly low. What with the recession, there is renewed pressure on budgets for ‘extras’ like training time or courses. And while design studios can be great places to learn the arts of designing and doing business, it would be naïve of any team to presume they have all the skills they need inside the business.

According to the latest Labour Force Survey, published in 2008, only 13 per cent of designers had undertaken some sort of professional training in the preceding three months. It’s a modest rate by any standard, one which is not only lower than for architects and software professionals, but below that of media professionals. Even artists sign up for more training than designers.

Curiously, research interviews with UK designers reveal it’s not a question of cost or time that are at the root of it, nor is it the suitability of courses that is responsible for this low uptake. In fact, according to the latest Design Industry Research report by the Design Council, forty per cent of design groups state that there are ‘no barriers’ preventing them from investing in training their employees. So, why aren’t they doing it?

It’s a good question. The business arguments for training – things like staff retention, replacement costs, succession management, productivity and general wellbeing – have been made so often they barely need explaining. Yet they still seem to do nothing to change the situation.

Laura Woodroffe, D&AD education and professional development is used to this sort of attitude. One of the arguments she frequently hears is ‘why train staff if they’re just going to move on?’” It’s a Catch 22 situation of course – if you’re not taking care of your own people they probably won’t feel inclined to stick around for long anyway.

For some reason there is less negativity towards training among advertising agencies. In Adland it is more accepted that good people need to be nurtured, are capable of performing better and will be more motivated if they have a career plan inside the agency.

Woodroffe believes lots of design groups have never quite got to grips with continuing professional development, not because they can’t afford it but because they are so client focused they often just don’t get round to it. She saysthe situation has been improving though, and that things are better now then they were nine or ten years ago.

‘It used to be the case that the creatives were given a case of beer and a dart board and told to get on with it, but things have changed a lot,’ she points out.

Some design consultancies ‘get it’ much more than others. The figures show that in-house design teams on the client side invest much more in their CPD than consultancies do. And if you’re in digital and multimedia you’re more likely to invest in training than the other disciplines. The communications fields like graphics and branding apparently do the least.

Surprisingly, the Design Council figures suggest product and industrial design consultancies do less training than average, while interiors and exhibition designers do slightly more.

Surprisingly, it makes no difference whether you’re a big or small consultancy as to how much training you invest in. If you are a Top 100 behemoth, with senior staff on six figure salaries and a network of international offices, you will be virtually no more inclined to provide your staff with training than if you’re a three man start-up struggling with your cash flow.

Entrenched attitudes to training are changing though, particularly with the arrival of new generation digital initiatives that can take advantage of social networks or build new training and talent platforms online. Alongside the established training courses from places like the Design Business Association, D&AD and the Chartered Society of Designers, we are starting to see newer initiatives like the one Hyperisland recently launched with D&AD to equip strategists and account people with digital skills. New ventures like Wieden+Kennedy’s ‘creative talent hub’ Platform also offer a model for the more progressive design groups to build their own talent communities too.

If truth be told the training and skills arena has always had a bit of an image problem in the design world. And let’s face it, CPD is never going to be sexy. But now we know the issue is not time or money, there’s really no reason to keep ignoring it.

Mike Exon

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