Fred Deakin is shaking up how art and design is taught at university

For someone who’s only just been hired as a professor, Fred Deakin is remarkably candid about what he sees as the failures of creative education in universities in the UK – and what he wants to do to fix it.

Following a career that’s included both a popular dance music act (Lemon Jelly) and co-founding, running and then closing one of Britain’s best-loved design studios (Airside), Fred has been appointed professor of digital arts by the University of the Arts London (UAL) – a group that includes Central Saint Martins (CSM, where Fred has taught on an off since graduating from there 20 years ago), London Colleges of Communication (LCC) and Fashion (LCF), and the Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Colleges of Arts ). He’ll be working across the colleges to bring together students from across the creative disciplines to work on self-motivated projects in tandem with industry.

Fred quotes educationalist Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, saying that "British education is all about producing professors. That’s the model that we aspire to."

Acknowledging that by his appointment, the UAL has produced another, he says that "there’s nothing wrong with professors, but that’s not what creates the greatest value in the creative industries.”

Rather than being honed for some academic ivory tower, Fred believes that the best UAL graduates will be ready for industry: creative but also business-minded, self-starters but also be able to work as part of a cross-discipline team. And, most of all, they must be able to work in areas of opportunity now and in the future – which means being able to produce digital projects.

"What I’m trying to do specifically is teach them through experience, the power of collaborating cross-discipline, the power of coming together as a team to deliver a project,” he says. "That’s one of the things that just does not get taught in conventional education. The essential DNA of any academic institution is that the students get marked individually and courses have their own particular discipline.”

Education by collaboration

The difficulty here is judging the performance of an individual as part of a team, but Fred feels its essential for creatives who will go onto careers based on collaboration.

"When I was running Airside, I knew damn well that was not Fred Deakin PLC. It was a team of people. Some had much more visible skills than others,” he says, noting that, "It’s important for people to realise that they don’t have to do it all. They don’t have to be a superstar, they can still be crucial as part of a team".

While graduates should be ready for creative careers, Fred doesn’t believe universities should be concentrating exclusively on delivering students to criteria set by industry either. While the likes of current much-loathed education secretary Michael Gove believe graduates should be what companies will offer jobs to, Fred says its as important – if not more so – for them to be able to go off an create a job for themselves: especially in a recession.

“There aren’t any jobs out there, really,” he says. “Every year you could fire everyone working in the creative industries and reemploy the entire workforce with [new] graduates.

"So what I want to teach them is ‘don’t go looking for a job, create your own job, do your own thing, create your own projects’.

"There is beginning to be a culture of that in various places around the country – but that culture is not coming out of education at all. It’s coming out of the workplace. The [emergence of digital project-based entrepreneurship] is encouraging people and empowering people to make these changes themselves. That needs to be integrated – and fast – into arts education.”

Fred also sees giving students the skills to set up on their own as a way to avoid the often exploitative right-of-passage that is a creative internship, bluntly claiming that for “many studios, their whole business model is founded on an unlimited supply of free labour from young people who are desperate to get a toehold in the creative industries.

"There are half-a-dozen people I would trust my kids with to have an apprenticeship with. The rest are all vultures.”

How to build a business from scratch as a graduate

To help students learn the skills they’ll need to build a business from scratch, Fred is working with students from across UAL’s colleges. He’s one of 12 newly appointed professors who aren’t tied to one college – a first for UAL – who can use different approaches to education. He says that his colleagues who currently work within a single discipline one establishment "do incredible things with the resources they have – but they don’t really have the space to engage with innovation and pushing education forward.

"They’re very pleased to support it and they are doing their very best within their courses, but fundamentally running a BA or MA course is plenty to get on with.”

One of the first programmes he’ll be teaching will be a pilot at advertising agency Mother, with 30 students who have been picked from disciplines ranging from fashion and product design to architecture and interactive media. You can follow their progress on the Modual Tumblr. While what the students will be working on will be under the broad heading of 'communication design’ to tap into the resources they’ll have available at the agency, beyond this the students will be free to pick their direction.

This approach is the opposite of most creative education, which like the advertising and design industries themselves is based on responding to set briefs. But the entrepreneurship that Fred wants to engender in his students relies on them conceiving the concept and setting the brief themselves – just as they would if they were building a business from scratch.

"I want them to have the idea,” says Fred. "I can teach them how to have that idea, but the core experience I want them to have is ‘we had an idea, we worked out it was a viable idea and worth spending two weeks of our lives on, we then produced that idea and it got a great response, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t do that again.’"

The skills to work out if a project is a viable idea is a key factor here that creatives generally get to grips with as they progress in their careers, as for their formative years in education and as young graduates they have constant feedback from tutors and bosses – but as entrepreneurs Fred says they need to learn this a lot earlier.

"I don’t want to get crass about it as it is art school,” he laughs, “but students need an understanding of the difference between a commercially viable project and one that's not.”

The way students do this is based on one of Fred's mantra, which comes up many times in our conversation: “learn by doing”. It’s why he’s running his pilot at Mother rather than at one of the colleges: real-world experience, success and failure will be more beneficial to students, he feels, than in the artificial environment of a academic institution.

There is one part of building a creative business that Fred’s course can’t replicate, and that’s the necessity of working with individuals from non-creative backgrounds. Being able to work well with team members from business or technical backgrounds is as important as working effectively with creatives from different disciplines.

This is something Fred accepts and would like to build into his course in the future, noting that Central Saint Martins has collaborated with Kings College London to bring together creative and science students on projects about the communication of the importance and findings of scientific research.

"I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of partnering with someone like the London Business School,” says Fred, who studied what he describes as a ‘mini MBA' there. "There’s always been a brick wall between business and creativity: the ‘suits' and the 'stupid designers with their flash sites'. If people can tear that wall down, there’s a huge amount of power there.”

While this course in its current form may not help students learn to work with colleagues from non-creative disciplines, Fred believes that by bringing out entrepreneurship in creatives, he’s helping them “get in the room”. He sees a major problem with today’s startup culture – that they’re driven by people from business or tech backgrounds, with designers usually working to briefs set by those two. He says that design should be on an equal footing to those other disciplines.

“You need three different skills on a board of a startup: a business head, tech head and design head. If you have all of those in the room then the startup has a chance of succeeding. If one is missing, you’re missing a crucial ingredient."
The lack of a focus on digital and commercial skills is something that Fred feels will lead to fewer people entering the creative industries, or even applying for creative courses.

“[We need to] build clearer career paths into our creative education,” he says. "You and I know there are plenty of career opportunities within the creative industries, but if Mum and Dad can’t see why paying nine grand a year to study [at a UAL institution will lead to a good career], then those kids are going to get pushed into law or finance – and crucially we will lose any lead that this country has in the creative industries.”

Digital education

Moving onto broader topics, Fred is broadly in agreement with the oft-repeated criticism that arts education needs to be more digital – not only in what it teaches but in the tools that it uses. He agrees that it needs more educators experienced in commercial digital practice (like him) but does take issue with the idea that students today are digital natives and know more about digital practice than their tutors.

He describes a “distance” between students' understanding of how to use digital products and services such social networking tools and how they work. He describes four levels of skills that he sees in students from pure consumer (level one), to content creator with off-the-shelf-tools (level two), to being able to produce more advanced digital content as part of a team (level three), to digital polymath (level four).

“Level two is a minimum for anyone in arts education,” he says. "[Students who can achieve Level 3] is where I’m most interested in teaching, as the most exciting digital projects are by their very nature cross-discipline [and created as part of a team].”

There are fewer students who enter university already at level two than he’d like, but Fred hopes that better education in areas such as programming at schools and in extra-curricular activities such as Code Clubs mean that in a few years incoming students will be more digitally experienced.

Until then, he sees courses like his as essential to build those skills, delivered in the same way that he (and I) learned those skills. His mantra of “learn by doing” comes out again: "I didn’t get that. You didn’t get that. We learned by doing. Give [students] hands-on experience of projects where they’re using their core disciplines but there’s also a strong digital element. And hopefully an innovative digital element too.”

And by a “digital element”, Fred doesn’t mean just teaching students craft skills using the current generation of creative applications such as Photoshop – but teaching them the mindset of producing a project or service that users will interact with digitally (whether exclusively or as part of the wider set of touchpoints).

"I don’t want to spend my time teaching remedial graphic design for online use,” he says. "There’s no point teaching people specific platforms because things are changing so fast that the equivalent for a skills based course in arts education that focusses on online is a very difficult thing to nail down."

The ability to teach this mindset is something he feel arts education establishments (including those at UAL’s colleges) aren’t good enough at delivering – “a lot of those skills aren’t known by the people teaching the courses,” he says – and they need to change what and how they teach to accommodate it.

Fred says that at UAL’s colleges, “the staff are as keen to do it as the students, but they haven’t been empowered to do it. There’s only recently become the realisation within UAL that this is necessary shift. It’s going to be difficult. We’re in the middle of a revolution. The opportunities are unprecedented – but so are the challenges."

The other link between digital and education that Fred wants to see grow as the expansion of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) into creative education. Currently online learning tools are focussed on teaching specific skills, whether programming using Codeacademy or languages using MIT's Open Courseware for Foreign Languages and Literatures, rather than developing talents – where a level of communication between tutor and student is essential.

"There’s a real opportunity for teaching creativity online,” he says. "One of the reasons why it hasn’t happened particularly well so far – except the Standford D School – is that very hard. It’s not a modular thing. It’s not like teaching French.

"But one of the responsibilities of arts institutions like UAL is to create a situation where we can apply our creative and design skills to that very problem. We need to get to the laboratory stage, the experimental stage, so we can start working towards [creating great online learning systems]."

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