Bridging the gap…

Here is the outline of a short speech given by Form partner Paula Benson at Design Needs You! – a campaign launched by Design Skills Academy and Creative and Cultural Skills to urge practicing designers to provide practical support to the next generation of talent.

(18th July, Design Council, London).


Hello, I’m Paula Benson, co-founder and co-creative director at Form.

We’re a small design and branding agency, and we’ve been going strong for 22 years. Over those years we have tended to employ graduate designers straight from college and they have worked with us very hands on – straight in at the deep end, and we train them well.

And over the years we’ve had hundreds of placement students and graduates working with us.

 For anyone that knows me, you’ll know I like a good old rant.

 One my rants is how free pitching is killing the design industry (but I won’t be opening that can of worms here).

 Another is how the standard of design graduates seems to have gone down.

This opinion is shared by many of the experienced creatives in my network who interview and employ people. And that’s not to say that there aren’t some brilliant design graduates coming out of our colleges and universities, because there are. It’s just that in running a design studio for 22 years I’ve observed a change in skills and abilities in the graduates we interview and finding brilliant ones has been harder than it used to be.

Many graduates have said to me that they have learned more in a month’s placement at Form than they did in 3 years at college. Which makes you think – what IS going on in schools, universities and colleges?

But – as I think it was Michael Woolf who once said –  “never underestimate your dissatisfaction”. So I decided to something positive. Because I believe that if design education and the design industry connect more we can work together to bring about change.

And the reason that’s so important is because I firmly believe design thinking and creativity are key life-bloods of our country. So I accepted an invitation to sit on the design advisory board for Creative and Cultural Skills and the Design Skills Academy because I feel I have experience to share. And also because I feel a lot of policies and the work of more formal organizations involved in the design world are not necessarily on the radar of all the smaller design companies:-

Because it’s the smaller agencies that make up the biggest percentage of the industry:

70% of the design industry are companies of 1-4 people

90% of the whole industry is under 10 people – We tend to work in small huddles, which is something I’m not sure government and indeed design colleges have quite got their heads around.

 And when you think, the number of students coming out of design colleges every single year is equal to the number of people currently employed by the entire UK design industry.

So we better tool them up. Make them savvy. And help them understand how they can contribute and shine.

We all need to understand better what design companies need to thrive. And I maintain that’s not just brilliant designers and problem solvers, but all those who support that process and the business of design: project managers, account handlers, artworkers, programmers, engineers, retouchers and so on, and the business and management people too.

 I think that there needs to be a stronger dialogue between design education and the design industry:

 -To inspire students

– To inspire people in the design industry who employ

and to ensure they get the skills and talent they need

 –  And to inspire tutors and the people that decide the curriculum too.

 I’ve heard some amazing and stories recently of  successful designers who’ve done a spot of teaching, either short term or long term. I spoke with Rob Oconnor from Stylorouge recently who has undertaken visiting lecturing and personal tutoring at Chelsea and Camberwell and is now an external assessor at Plymouth and has experienced some very rewarding results.

We’re all well aware how a longer term role can involve more politics and paperwork which can often affect the actual teaching , but perhaps if we encourage more one off visiting lecturers we can bring education one step closer to what’s really going on in industry. Rob and I discussed the culture of a studio and the strong team work necessary, which many students don’t seem aware of.

 We chatted how maybe there’s too much pressure on young people to go to university to do a degree, when in some cases another course might suit them better. There are other roles the industry could benefit from other than pure “designers” and those with university degrees. Maybe its plain snobbery that needs to shift.

Vaughan Oliver, one of the greatest music industry designers of our generation is what I would call a maverick mind, and he’s had great results teaching at Kingston, UCA Surrey, Epsom and Greenwich. And he told me how it’s been such a two way thing for him and his students – and he thoroughly enjoys it.

We discussed how the colleges are saturated with designers, and we toyed with the idea that many who don’t excel, or fail, may simply be on the wrong course. If young people knew the options open to them like all the roles I mentioned earlier, and which are highlighted on the Get into design website, they might excel and be brilliant with just a very slightly different focus.

My partner Paul West often teaches at a highly innovative design college in Mexico called CEDIM and the results he has achieved are just staggering. (Interesting that he has been invited from a college abroad but has rarely been approached to do so directly on his home turf).

 At Form we have also run occasional portfolio review workshops. And phone coaching on portfolio skills.

 So my call to action today, is to ask you to have a think if there are ways to strengthen this connect…

– Should visiting lecturing from highly skilled and experienced designers happen more?

– Are their colleges and universities doing this well already?

– Should tutors do occasional placements in industry?

– Which design colleges and which tutors are doing it brilliantly and how can we celebrate them more?

 If you want to get involved or have thoughts on the subject visit

or email

Let’s get the conversation started!