Making New Designers work for you

Mike Press
May 4 · 10 min read

The annual New Designers exhibition in London is both inspiring and intimidating. The talent and innovation on show continues to inspire visitors year after year, many of whom are there for the express purpose of employing the graduate designers or buying their work. For the 3,500 graduate designers who are showcasing themselves at New Designers, the quality and range of work on show can be intimidating. If you don’t win one of the 26 prizes awarded (and the maths suggest that exhibitors have a one in 134 chance of winning) then how are you noticed?

Far too often at New Designers I’ve sat in the cafe and overheard exhibitors complaining that they’ve gained nothing from being there, and have paid a considerable sum for that dispiriting experience. The key thing to understand is that New Designers is not set up primarily to benefit the graduating students. It is a commercial undertaking that clearly benefits the organisers, and it benefits those institutions who attend (especially if they win prizes) who have over the years offloaded the costs from themselves to their own students. It only benefits those graduates who totally understand what demands it places on them and who have a well considered strategy in place.

The elephant in the room — and the Business Design Centre is capacious enough for several herds of them — is that the majority of the exhibitors will not fulfil their current ambitions of becoming professional jewellers, product designers, interior designers, etc. True, most will apply their design thinking and sensibilities professionally, but not in the vocational sense that far too many courses continue to suggest they will.

Far too few design tutors appear to understand, or show much interest in, the seismic shifts in work, enterprise and employability that are taking place today — which I’ve written about elsewhere. As the competition becomes more acute, then our graduates need to become ever more enterprising and entrepreneurial in their approach, especially at events like New Designers. It is no longer enough to display fantastic work and expect one’s talent to be instantly recognised. Something else is needed: love.

All you need is love

Over the years I’ve had conversations with award judges, design consultants and others about what they’re looking for at New Designers, and the answer is fairly consistent: love and passion. They expect that the design graduates make their work “come alive” with their evident love for what they do and the passion that they bring to it. They want the story: why does this work exist? What does it mean? Where is it going? They want evidence that the graduate understands people and how their practice fits into the worlds those people inhabit. They want to be told about idealism and ambition. And they want somebody they can get on with. No pressure there, then. Love and passion will get you through times with no awards far better than awards get you through times with no love and passion.

Patricia van den Akker is Director of The Design Trust whose engaging talks at New Designers have become must-attend events is clear about the role of love: “I say to people that I can see who is going to succeed by looking in their eyes … if there is a bright spark they will get there. And indeed in the current economic climate I tell my clients now that potential clients shouldn’t just ‘like’ your work but need to fall in love — with your work and you!”

I am of the view that ALL graduates are capable of doing this, if they work at it. There are six key steps.

1. Have a story.

Who are you? Why do you do what you do? What does it mean to you? How did you get to where you are now? What excites you? Where do you want to be? If you are not clear on your backstory, then you cannot engage others. The story needs to be authentic and vivid. But begin by writing it out and practicing different ways of telling it. That story needs to underpin your social media presence.

2. Breathing, body language, smiling.

How you look, how you stand and the confidence you express are all vital. If you’re hunched with a facial expression that suggests you’re chewing wasps then it’s unlikely anyone will want to know your story. This excellent post on hacking your way to confidence is worth reading.

3. Use social media.

An event like New Designers is ideal for using social media to get noticed and to express your passions. Tweeting about other exhibitors and work you see that is inspiring is essential. So is self-publicity and linking twitter to your blog, Instragram, etc. The Guardian’s piece tweet your way to a better job provides some great examples. I expand on this point below.

4. Be a battery charger

A good colleague of mine divides people into two groups — battery chargers and battery drainers. The former bring forward ideas and solutions, they have an infectious passion for what they do, they energise those around them. The latter bring forward problems, they require support and encouragement — frankly they can be quite draining. So here’s a question for you. How do you think you’re perceived? How do you come over? What can you do TODAY to demonstrate that you’re a battery charger?

5. Be able to talk the money

Be comfortable talking about money. One of the UK’s most successful recent design graduates, Lauren Currie OBE, made this point about a draft of this post I shared with her “If I want to buy the jewellery you’ve designed how much is it?” The money is not incidental — your ability to talk about it speaks volumes about your professionalism and your passion.

6. Work as a team

What really stands out at New Designers are teams. Visiting a stand where all the exhibitors can tell each other’s stories with passion really gets noticed and talked about. Team working is vital (it’s what employers look for apart from anything else) — and it centres on social media.

Why a social media strategy is essential at New Designers

In 2014 the Dundee (DJCAD) crew had more social media coverage than the rest of New Designers put together! And what did that achieve? It contributed to a record increase in conventional media coverage, greatly increased visitor numbers to the stands, increased the opportunities for job offers, internships and exhibitions, and overall raised the attention and profile of all of our students.

Social media is not an optional add-on at an event like New Designers. It is totally essential. And it has to be considered strategically. Our graduates worked as a team to maximise coverage and to co-ordinate their efforts. All students from every institution should make use of social media at New Designers to maximise the opportunities of the event. It isn’t rocket science, it’s actually quite straight forward. But from our experience in 2014, nobody else was doing this strategically.

So, this is what you do. Just make sure that you actually do it.

Step One. Work on your profiles for twitter and linkedin especially.

This is the profile for Rebecca Black, who in 2014 was in the One Year On show. She was a perfect Social Media Ninja! Rebecca realised that the profile you use is vital! Take out any reference to you being a student, and especially reference to your age. You are not a student. At New Designers you are a professional. Ensure that your social media profiles express this. Consider carefully how you will describe yourself and brand yourself. Ensure that you social media profiles have links to any website. Use your best quality images in these profiles.

Beth Spowart was another star from that year, presenting a professional, expertly designed and informative profile for her twitter page. These things really matter. In fact they are vital if we want to be treated seriously and professionally. This has to be all in place before the next step.

Step Two. Follow people

Between now and the opening of the show follow everyone you can who is relevant to your aspirations. This is on the assumption that 30% of the people you follow will follow you back. So look at who people just a few years down the line in your field are following. Who are the journalists writing in your field? Ideally you want to follow people who are likely to visit New Designers, because that’s the trick here!

Put yourself in the shoes of a busy retail buyer or design manager who has 90 minutes scheduled in their diary to DO New Designers and look out for talent to hire. Well first of all they won’t DO New Designers — nobody can. They will do a small part. So, as they walk up Upper Street, they check their twitter feed. What’s trending on #ND19? In 2014 it was Dundee. So they made a point of seeing us.

You need to do some detective work on figuring out who to follow. But in an hour you could usefully double your followers IF you focus on key leaders in your field, seek some advice and trust your instinct.

Step Three. Have images, use hashtags

What tweets do you really notice and read? The ones with images. If I want to be noticed then I’ll use an image to ensure that my reader lingers on my tweet in their feed. Load your phone with at least 10 (or 20) of your most compelling photos of your work. You can use these to drive your twitter posts in the first day or so. But bear in mind that most twitter readers on phones show an image that is 1 high by 2 wide. It crops whatever you post. Use this to your advantage. Think killer images! And put text into them. If you don’t have space in the tweet to put the stand number or other details then simply put this into the image. If you don’t know how to do this then I’m not sure you should really be at New Designers.

Then ensure that in every tweet you use the correct New Designers hashtag, you refer to your institution twitter handle because then they will retweet (assuming they get social media) and you use the stand number. Make sure you find out what the hashtag is for the event this year. I think it’s #ND19. If you don’t put the stand number, how will they find you?

Step Four. Broadcast all success

Above is Rebecca McGill from 2014 having just won the John Lewis prize. Now, when a person in your team wins a prize EVERYONE benefits, if you pitch it right. There is an immediate increase in footfall to see what amazing institution the student is from. But we can help lift this even further.

Every time a person wins something, or gets a job or anything, tweet it! But always remember image, hashtag, institution twitter name, stand number. In 2014 within 35 minutes of me tweeting Rebecca McGill’s prize, the story was being run by STV back in Scotland. The more traction you get on twitter, the more it will be picked up at the event itself and rebroadcast. Following journalists back home, and asking them to follow you can really help here.

Step Five. Run stories on well known visitors

If a prominent visitor polls up, take their photo, name check them and broadcast, as we did here when the UK’s most prominent design blogger visited us. If a TV crew turns up then do likewise. You want to broadcast and share all evidence that your stand is the best show in town and that you know how to tell a good story. But ALWAYS remember hashtag, institution twitter handle, stand number.

Step Six. Retweet

Retweet what other people in your team are posting. You almost certainly have different followers, and in most cases modest numbers of followers, so you have to punch above your weight. You do this by working as a team and reposting or retweeting what your colleagues have posted.

Step Seven. Make a Wakelet.

One person should be tasked with collating a Wakelet of the week. Apart from anything else it gives you a great account of the week that you can look back on. But if you update it every day you can see how the strategy is working, and what things are getting attention. Here’s a Wakelet of the Dundee Service Jam. Putting the Wakelet out on social media gives people a story to read as the event is taking place.

Step Eight. Enjoy it

New Designers is an amazing experience and a great platform for launching your career. But the chances you get from it are not down to luck. They are a consequence of your strategic approach. Have fun. Be strategic. Focus on your objectives.