Designers, Forget What You Learned at Art School

Advice for Creatives Who Want to Succeed in Today's Digital Workplace

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As a creative leader at a company that's expanding its global design practice, I spend a lot of time meeting, interviewing and recruiting designers at every level. I pour over hundreds portfolios filled with glossy images and tiny clever headlines -- the type of work the agency world refers to as "ad-like-objects" or "ad-lobs" for their resemblance to a print ad.

This has led me to a disappointing conclusion: Many art schools that have traditionally been hotbeds of talent, at the top of every creative recruiters list, are in fact out of sync with the state of our industry today.

Historically, the safest and surest path to success for a young person with creative talent has been to go into advertising. Schools responded by shaping curricula and programs to accommodate that career path.

For decades, the formula worked. But over time, the focus became increasingly narrow. It skewed heavily toward execution (the end product, or the ad itself) in order to help students build their books just enough to land that coveted agency gig.

This arrangement was mutually beneficial: Schools could boast about their high placement rates, and graduates could achieve great success by being the "big idea" person while they let the "suits" handle the rest.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the narrative. Design is, and always has been, about serving a purpose. Design provokes change and solves a problem in a way that's never been done before. It's the thinking that matters, and execution follows.

And if the thinking is there, format is irrelevant. So when I open a book full of highly stylized ad-lobs, I close it. Because most designers who are trained that way enter the workforce unprepared and ill-equipped to succeed in the multi-media, omni-channel and increasingly tech-focused world we live in today.

As traditional advertising methods become less effective and print advertising continues to decline, brands are increasingly seeking newer, better ways to reach audiences. There's also been a seismic shift in how big clients are moving away from business-as-usual bureaucracy toward creativity, agility and speed.

Here at IBM we've certainly seen it. We're undergoing a massive transformation to become an agile, design-led culture, using design frameworks and methodologies to solve real-world business problems.

Because of this shift, demand for talented designers is higher than ever. We are looking for true designers, not pixel-pushers. These are artists who thrive on discovery and learning, easily adapting to new ways of working and thinking about complex client projects. In other words, tomorrow's Paul Rand, John Maeda, Zaha Hadid or Joshua Davis.

Here's my advice to creatives who want to succeed in today's job market:

1. Accept that art and copy are not the only heirs to the throne. The traditional "art and copy" duo is largely a quaint symbol of a bygone era. In its place, multi-disciplinary teams, comprising design, technology, research, user experience, content, analytics and strategy -- and yes, even the "suits" -- working as equals and collaborators to come up with bigger, better ideas.

2. Become a jack of some trades, and master of one. As brands shift more of their advertising dollars to digital, and team composition evolves to meet the need, a crucial skill for any creative to succeed is to become "T-shaped." Develop working knowledge and understanding of other capabilities, while continually deepening your own expertise. Not only will it increase your value to any organization, it makes for healthy, high-functioning teams.

3. Understand that curiosity and adaptability are required skills; experience is a "plus." Being a creative in a digital world means that every project requires you to know and do things you've never done before. Embracing change, learning new skills and endless curiosity are just part of the job. And while experience and the knowledge gained from it is important, knowing when and where to apply it -- and when to let it go -- is even better.

More than ever, schools need to prepare students to work in an environment where the thinking is fluid, since creativity takes many shapes and forms. It's iterative, collaborative and never linear. Design schools should be teaching students to explore creative ideas and solutions in multiple formats, approaches and executions.

It's time to kill the ad-lob and prepare the next generation of talent for the digital workplace that's waiting for them with open arms.

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