How to prepare Design and Fine Arts students to be self-sufficient upon graduation from college.

Primary school art class, n.d., by Sam Hood

Here’s what we can do as educators to remedy a lack of entrepreneurship training.

I’m not going to sit here and preach about entrepreneurship itself or “following your dreams” but having studied and taught graphic design at an accredited post-secondary school of art and design, one thing is evident. Students aren’t prepared to be self-sufficient as artists upon graduation. Entrepreneurship courses do not exist in most curriculum, and students are too dependent on employers to create jobs for them. Students are lacking basic skills to survive solely with their degrees.

We, as creative leaders, have to change the mindset that a “starving artist” cannot survive without a second job, because the jobs are out there. The jobs are being created. As technology automates many different tasks, remember that creativity cannot be outsourced to machines. There has never been a better time to be a creative, but there needs to be an equal parts focus on art + commerce in education.

We as a society have lost sight of what America was built upon. Immigrants from different walks of life and cultures came to America to make better lives for themselves and their families. People who’ve started businesses out of necessity dictated their own livelihood. Those who’ve invested in themselves were the ones who created the foundation of the American Dream. That isn’t American entitlement it’s survival, and it’s not the same as stereotypical millennial Silicon Valley CEOs. I’m talking about the nuts and bolts of making it on your own, negotiating, contracts, running the numbers, and the degree of hard work it entails all in the context of actual projects and real-life scenarios.

What can be adjusted in curriculum to provide design students with a better foundation in self-sufficiency?

  1. Students need to be paired with mentors in their field. The benefits of learning alongside a professional will far surpass experience gained reading from a textbook or class projects. Determine objectives, meet quarterly, track progress and deficiencies.
  2. Internships should be treated more like trade schools. Students should spend one year working with a professional who is looking for creative help. A mentor with skin in the game is more likely to be invested in the individual as well. (In all honesty, I think this format could replace the college experience as a whole, especially with tuitions continually rising, but connecting the right students with the right mentors could prove challenging)
  3. We must teach the students core concepts of business. In which scenarios can designers thrive, and what are the differences between working in-house, at an agency/studio or working as a contractor? How many ways can a creative diversify their income? Do you want to sell products or services? What are the paths to take in order to become a successful educator within your field? What are the steps from initial contact to completion of a job? How much should I set aside for taxes?
  4. Place emphasis on creating more, marketing less. Students are not inept when it comes to social media. Most students are better at promoting their work than they are at actually creating solid work. Encourage building a following with a volume of quality work. Students should be prepared with the knowledge to talk about the work and have the work to back it up.
  5. Schools of Art and Design should create a student run design studio that operates within the guise of the arts institution. Department heads continually connect students (past and present) with clients who need creative services. Harness that overflow of emails and pump it into paid jobs the students can use to supplement such high tuition. Let them fall on their face and guide them in a controlled environment. Education is not enough, experience is the real game-changer.

Does an institution not thrive when an alumnus thrives? Does good press and success not reflect well on the student’s educators? People complain about the economy often, and rightly so, but how do we plan to create jobs if students enter the workforce just to get hired? Not everyone is cut out for, nor wants to take the risk of operating as a business on their own, but why are we as educators not putting an emphasis on the value of that skill set?

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