It’s not a bad place to work, as long as the dog likes you.

Educating a new generation of digital service designers.

I lead one of the longest-established digital service design companies in the world. We’re in our 13th year, and we now have teams in London, Sydney and Auckland, undertaking projects for clients all over the world.

Many of those projects have been firsts; landmarks in all sorts of ways. Along the way we’ve pioneered many of the techniques now in common use across our industry; an industry that has exploded over the last decade. We love what we do, and our work has a big impact on millions of people arouind the world every day. The work is genuinely rewarding: digital service design is one of the most exciting areas of the design industry to work in.

So why do we still find it so hard to recruit, especially graduates? In the last 12 years, we’ve hired a handful of people direct from education. And by a handful, I mean literally, five. Less than a person every two years.

You would think that given the ongoing explosion in digital services, and the simple truth that every aspect of daily life will inevitably be powered by them, people would be queuing up to work in this area. And they are.

The problem is, if you’re a young person these days with ambitions to be a digital service designer, the education options available are far from ideal. It’s hardly surprising: our sector moves so fast, in so many ways, that it’s difficult for educational programmes to keep pace. General Assembly, Hyper Island and others have stepped up to provide short courses that help people develop some skills in digital service design, and they’re helping serve the ‘crossover’ crowd well. What they don’t do is help graduates bridge the gap between the skills they learned at degree level and the standards required for professional practice.

Our experience to date has been that the gap between the skills a graduate (degree or masters level) arrives with, and the ones we need them to have to be useful takes about a year to fill. Much of that is centred around professional practice, working in multi-disciplinary teams, and knowledge of current, real-world practices.

I’ve been asked regularly over the years how to get into what we do, and I’ve typically responded with ‘get a role and learn on the job’. Internships and junior roles should be the perfect way to develop the real-world skills needed, but in reality they’re often not. Interns and juniors are all-too-often used as low-cost production people, hindering their skills development but adding nicely to the bottom line of the agencies using them in that way.

The good agencies (and in-house teams) out there do the opposite: helping them build their skills by exposing them to as much as possible as quickly as they can cope with it. That takes time and effort, but the investment is well worthwhile, because we desperately need an influx of talented young people coming in to our industry.

Last year, I was moaning about this situation to a course leader from Brunel University, who said “hmmm… well, if you could create a Masters programme that would fix the problem, I know the University is looking to develop new, innovative courses and I think they’d be interest in this”.

So we did. Working with the great team at Brunel, we designed a new Masters in digital service design that is aimed at giving its students a different option to the ‘straight to work and hope for the best’ approach. The aim of the course is to provide a broad, intensive exposure to the practice of digital service design, based on real briefs and techniques that we, and a group of our peers, will provide. It’s more akin to an academic apprenticeship than a traditional theoretical course, and we hope it will create a group of graduates each year that we’re all fighting to hire.

Students will work in a team much more than solo. They’ll work on real-world briefs that we issue as close to the time they’re needed as possible, so they’ll always be current challenges requiring current practices to solve them. Each student will undertake three internships in the year, and will be mentored 1:1 by an experienced practitioner (I’ll be one of them — I hope you like wine, whoever ends up with me). Speakers will be from industry, topics focused on currency and professional value over abstract theory. There’ll be enough ‘academic’ content to ensure that the Masters moniker is meaningful: this is no lightweight option.

By the end of the year, I’m looking to hire someone(s) who I can put straight onto a project team to work alongside experienced practitioners without them feeling overwhelmed or being unable to contribute substantially. Day one, they’re a part of the team and they need to be able to function that way. I’m confident they will.

The course launches this September. We’ll have changed the plans for term two by the time we reach it I’m sure, and year two will be very different from year one. Just like the world we operate in every day.

If we’re to build a new generation of digital design talent here in the UK, we need to invest time and effort in building the skills of the young designers that we want to join us. This is our investment in that agenda, and, alongside the many generous industry partners who have agreed to play a part, and the team at Brunel who are making it happen, we hope it will play a big part in helping to fuel our industry with qualified, talented young designers for years to come.

You can find out more about the course at: http://www.brunel.ac.uk/courses/postgraduate/digital-service-design-msc

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