Are degree shows still relevant?

RCA tutor, studio owner and design critic Adrian Shaughnessy considers whether graphic design final shows are worth all the effort.

For graphic design students, the final degree show is a rite of passage – sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, always eventful. Exhibiting work after three, perhaps four years of study is an unavoidable step on the way to emerging as a battle-ready, design-world combatant. It's like going to Glastonbury for the first time, or sitting a first driving test. You have to do it.

Except the degree show is unlike a trip to Glastonbury in one key aspect: if you arrive in the fields of Somerset without your wellies, or get your tent pinched on the first day, there is always next year to try again. It's the same with a failed driving test. No problem – just sign up for an immediate re-sit.

However, there are no second chances or re-sits with degree shows. For the student designer it's a one-off shot at making an all-encompassing personal statement about their work after a period of intense, and increasingly expensive, study.

But in the age of the internet, with its global reach and its always-on omnipresence, what exactly is the point of a degree show?

The easy answer

It's a question every student and tutor at some point asks themselves – usually at 11pm on the night before the public opening. For some, there's an easy answer. If the degree show is for awarding academic grades, then the purpose is clear – it's an exam. But not all courses use the show format to make a final assessment: for most schools it's a shop window for industry. (Why is it only academia that refers to the design profession as 'industry'?) For others, it's a family affair.

"We hold two opening nights, one for industry and the other for parents," say Matt Edgar and Pam Bowman, leaders of the Visual Communication course at Sheffield Hallam University. "They are very different occasions but without them the final contact point with students would be at a hand-in for assessment, whereas the show really becomes a celebration."

For Edgar and Bowman, the requirement that their students constantly present their work is fundamental to the way they prepare graduates for post-university life: "We have found the London shows such as New Designers and D&AD New Blood to be another, very different experience, and encourage students to make contacts with employers before they go, rather than relying on what may, or may not, happen while the show is available to the public."

But is it possible – even desirable – to present graphic design in a gallery setting? Illustrators and moving image designers are well suited to the gallery format, as evidenced by popular shows such as Pick Me Up, Pictoplasma and the numerous film and animation festivals around the world. On the other hand, graphic design is required to live in shopping malls, high streets and the vast publishing and communication matrix of modern life. And at a time when many students are designing user-interfaces, fonts and apps, it seems that the degree show, like so many other aspects of contemporary life, could do with a format rethink.

Rite of passage

But of course, it's not really about the work on display. It's about the ritualistic marking of the transition from the world of study to the world of work, and – more than anything – it's about the learning experience of staging a show. Every student hopes to get hired by someone attending their degree show. It often happens – I've hired people on the basis of work in shows. But for most students, the benefit lies in the host of valuable skills that are acquired when staging a public show: shows have to be promoted, and jaded 'industry' figures, journalists and potential employers have to be persuaded to attend; institutional protocols, health-and-safety policies and course budgets have to be negotiated; tutors have to be appeased; shows have to be designed, as do items of promotion such as catalogues, flyers, mail-outs and so on; friends and family have to be catered for; and finally work has to be produced that demonstrates time (and money) well spent.

In other words, the degree show is a superb pedagogical experience, and forms the defense's case in favour of keeping degree shows as a fixture on the design education calendar. Of course, hovering in the background is an even bigger question: what is the point of a design education in a world of constant change and perpetual workplace reinvention? But that's a question for the future. In the meantime – on with the show!

Words: Adrian Shaughnessy Illustration: Zaneta Antosik

Adrian Shaughnessy is a graphic designer and writer. He runs ShaughnessyWorks and is also founding partner of Unit Editions, producing books on design and visual culture. This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 230.