All degree courses are not the same

The 2017 discussion chaired by Emma Blackburn

The 2017 discussion chaired by Emma Blackburn

The starting point for creating Werkhouse was that we felt there was a lack of ‘design studio reality’ knowledge amongst graduates – the pace, the client perspective, the team working. So, an important part of the first Werkhouse weekend in 2017 was an open conversation about design training, chaired by Emma Blackburn as MD of the West of England Design Forum. The whole group shared and compared the experiences they had at a variety of University courses, across the UK as well as overseas.

A clear message was that University design courses vary. Some are excellent and students revealed just how much they had learnt and how much experience they had been able to gain. Others raised issues about unmet expectations or a lack of facilities or industry connections.

There was a general sense that design courses carry a message of ‘the grade is not the focus’. Importance for a creative career is placed on developing a portfolio and the ‘extras’ such as work experience, collaborative projects or working on real briefs. This sub-text is perhaps appropriate for the nature of creative courses over academic subjects. But the situation also seems to reflect that the assessment process for achieving grades is not suited, and sometimes prohibits, the ability to award marks for team projects, work experience or extra curricula effort.

Given that all courses are ‘priced’ at the same rate, it was also felt that it can be hard to choose between courses or know exactly what to expect. Website information can be vague and some people felt they had ‘gone in blind’. The costs of courses was also something that was felt to be hidden in the way it is paid. ‘We never see or touch the course fees, it’s like they don’t exist. And then you start to pay them when you have a job and you go WOW, that’s a big investment.’ Would they have felt differently if they been asked to sign a cheque for £27,000 before starting? ‘Yes’ one of them said, ‘if the money had been clearer, I would have thought about it more’.

Werkhouse is not about criticising courses. Everyone involved appreciates that resources are tight and expectations can be too high. Universities cannot provide everything. They are not there to spoon-feed. And they cannot guarantee anyone a job – it’s competitive out there! What any of us gain from a learning experience is proportional to the effort and commitment we put in. We all have to grasp opportunities and step forward to take them. As one participant put it: ‘It was only after I left and got a job that I realised just how much I had been taught and how relevant it had been. In hindsight, I wish I had taken more advantage of the resources that were available.’

If you are thinking about doing a degree course in design, here we share the attributes that were felt to make a good course (regardless of the specific design discipline), and some question to ask about them before you decide:

Studio space

Where will you work and what is the set-up like? Are working spaces designed as ‘studios’ to encourage shared and open working? Will you get your own dedicated space?


Are you expected to be in every day? Will your colleagues also be in every day so you have a shared working experience? Or, do people disperse when working on projects and only come together at review points?

Review time

Will tutors be in everyday and available in the ‘studio’ for assistance and motivation, or are they only available at certain times? How often will you get the chance to critique the work of your fellow students and have your own work peer reviewed – daily, weekly, monthly?

Work experience

Will the course involve work experience? Will you be expected to find your own design industry connections and placements or will you be helped with contacts, introductions and supervision?


You will undoubtedly be expected to have your own laptop, but what other facilities are available and how easy are they to book? Will you be given training for equipment or software, or will you be expected to take advantage of online tutorials and be self-sufficient?

Live projects

Will the course involve live projects? If so, is there a focus on certain types of clients – small businesses, corporate companies, charities, the public sector or even cross-sector situations? Does the University have existing good relationships with the client world?


Will you get the chance to work across subjects? This might be projects with the other design courses but what about access to students in other departments? Will you work with others learning the sciences, business studies or other non-design topics?

Client management

Will the course cover the commercial side of working? Whether planning and pricing your time as an aspiring freelancer, selling ideas, or knowing how to discuss ‘return on investment’, will there be some grounding in the financial realities of working? 

Implementation vs ideas creation

Design projects all involve a mix of early-stage creative thinking, refining and then execution. Does a course put more emphasis on one aspect more than another? Do you have expectations about learning tangible skills or methods of thinking?

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