Fuelling UK Economy Growth: The Stigma behind Creative Design Careers and Educational Failures

UK creative industries were worth £84.1 billion to the UK economy in 2016 (gov.uk, 2016) with job growth in the sector at 2.6%, higher than the rate for the economy overall (at 1.6%), making it the fastest growing industry (Gov.uk, 2015). 

Within the sub-categories of this sector, design jobs (fashion, graphic and product design) were the area with the biggest growth, increasing by 22% from 2011 to 2013 (gov.uk, 2015). Therefore, this begs the question as to why there is a stigma against taking creative design degrees at university when the UK economy needs designers.

Seeing the economy growth as fuel behind my investigation, I began contemplating why I chose to pursue a Product Design degree over a more traditional core academic subject at the request of my parents. This seemed to be a common theme amongst my course mates and other graduate designers I have spoken to in the past. The idea of taking a creative degree at university is sometimes seen as a ‘waste of money’ or an ‘easy pass’ compared to the gruelling material content of subjects such as Mathematics or Chemistry. Speaking to a final year Chemistry student enrolled at the University of Warwick, he described the perceived differences in our courses. “I think overall the fact that you learn a variety of transferrable skills from analysis and evaluative work in Chemistry is a big draw for people finishing their GCSE’s. They are looking forward to the future and are encouraged to think about their career path already at such a young age. I know I didn’t know what I wanted to do at 16 years old, but I thought sciences or maths was the most stable bet”

A study from Arts University Bournemouth, interviewed a group of young people who were put off from pursuing a creatively led career. Over 1 in 5 said “they didn’t feel there were enough opportunities to progress with a career in the arts”. This coupled with parent’s expectations to choose a degree that is “good value for money from today’s tuition fee” (Hunter, 2014) encourages students to hedge for the ‘stable’ bet. A parent of an upcoming university student elaborated: “there aren’t as many job opportunities” and “you are narrowing your career path for later in life”.

This is reflected in the amount of design-based university courses offered to A-level students at just 847 in 2013 (Mathers, 2015) compared to the figure of 105,000 courses being offered overall in 2017 (UCAS, 2017). There may have been an increase in the number of design university courses since 2013, but overall this represents just under 1% of the courses available in the UK. So, with a pre-existing stigma and limited opportunities at further education, students are being discouraged from taking design degrees. But are the skills you learn in a creative design degree as useful as core academic degree skills?

From a Product Design graduate’s opinion, the course is “intensive with long working days and concurrent projects”. This gives students developed skills in organisation and multitasking, as well as the ability to problem solve on the spot because it is a practical based course and you gain skills to make something functional (Bright Knowledge, 2015). Modules studied include links to scientific based curriculum, such as materials science, mechanics and electronics as well as product analysis, which enhances evaluative skills. These skills, although learned in a more practical setting, are all transferable to other jobs in other industries. However, the thought of pursuing a career in creative design may be being stifled earlier in the educational chain.

In 2016, there was a 10.5% drop in students taking design and technology at GCSE (Dawood, 2017) and only 12,477 took A-Level Design and technology compared with the large core subjects of Mathematics and English, at 92,163 and 84,710 respectively (Kirk, 2016). This shows a large unpopularity of the subject in earlier education, which leads to the lower number of students taking design based university courses. The implementation of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) in 2010 by the government can be seen as a main cause of the decline in students taking creative subjects. Students must take English, Mathematics, History or Geography, Sciences and a Language at GCSE (Gov.uk, 2016). A survey performed on 1,800 classroom based teachers by researchers at Kings College London found that around 80% had seen a decrease in the uptake of creative subjects by pupils after the EBacc was introduced (Adams, 2016). This is because of all the compulsory EBacc subjects taking up pupil’s options and leaving just 2 spaces for the inclusion of optional creative subjects (Dawood, 2017).

However, creativity is important to brain development. It is an “active process of fashioning, shaping, moulding, refining and managing your ideas and thoughts” (Craft, Jeffrey and Leibling, 2001) and it is important to ‘flex’ the parts of our brain that aren’t used often, such as the medial prefrontal cortex, which is active during improvisation (creativityworkshop.com, 2017). It is in the same way you go to the gym to keep your body healthy, all parts of your mind need exercise too and the importance to do this in conjunction with the body is developing is paramount. A natural ability for using imagination is fostered at a young age but many can lose this once faced with rigid school structures and can never regain it again (Craft, Jeffrey and Leibling, 2001). Therefore, the government should be encouraging the uptake of creative subjects at GCSE and beyond, to help people retain creative skills for later in life.

Seeing evidence that design led careers aren’t encouraged in earlier education makes me think that the government are missing a trick. Creativity is important for the development of everyone in daily life and with the largest design sector in Europe being in the UK (Mathers, 2015) the growth in this job sector will only continue. Overall, jobs in the creative industry made up 5.6% of total UK jobs in 2013 (Gov.uk, 2015) and with these types of jobs the least likely to be lost to automation in the future (Kampfner, 2017), more people should be encouraged to pursue a career in design. I believe the way to draw more people to the design economy, is earlier education in schools and advertising of the benefits of design careers to the general population. Then maybe the stigmas of ‘fewer transferable skills’ and a ‘narrowed career path’ will be a thing of the past and people seeing design as a viable professional career will be a thing of the future.

Article by Hayleigh Mcaleese

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