Design agencies search for elusive talent | Sector Focus

A dilemma is facing design agencies in the packaging sector. Fewer graduates are attracted to the market and those that do emerge aren’t all up to scratch. Simon Creasey finds out how firms are searching for fresh blood

There’s a perfect storm of negative factors affecting the packaging design community at the moment. Reduced client budgets put pressure on margins, the number of jobs agencies are being invited to pitch for are rapidly dwindling and many of the projects they’re asked to pitch for are so small that they barely merit the effort that goes into a pitch. And then there’s the dearth of talented graduate designers entering the industry.

This latter factor is a major concern. Although the ongoing economic uncertainties mean that it’s as good a time as any to be hit by a talent shortfall, as the economy slowly recovers design agencies are worried that if the problem isn’t addressed it could become an even bigger issue over the next few years.  But just how big an issue is it? What are the factors behind the lack of emerging talent and, just as importantly, what are the design agencies themselves doing to try and address the problem?

For David Rogers, owner of brand design and packaging design agency We Are Pure, the scale of the problem is monumental. “Around May/June time we get sent hundreds of portfolios and the quality is poor,” he says. “We interview a lot of them to give them experience of the interviewing process and they haven’t got a clue. It doesn’t matter what university they come from – they all come out with the same rubbish and it’s incredibly frustrating.”

Ben Sillence, design strategist at Path Designs, shares Rogers’ frustration. “There’s a general concern among design agencies that the new talent pool will be a lot smaller in the near future due to a decrease in the number of university graduates. I think there’s a fear that packaging design isn’t given as much publicity as say engineering or industrial design.”

The scale of the problem is even more severe when it comes to structural design, according to Stephen Shortland, managing director of New Vision Packaging: “There’s a real shortage of quality people wanting to go into structural packaging design. It tends to be at the bottom of the list in terms of sexiness.”

The  financial climate hasn’t helped matters, with more brand owners opting to use standard packs; a fact confirmed by Jill Marshall, managing director at Bloom: “It is a niche industry and one that is struggling given that few brand owners are willing to invest the capital expenditure required to create new structures, especially in these economically uncertain times.”

And regardless of whether or not you’re seeking a structural designer or a packaging designer, the talent recruitment problem is further exacerbated for design businesses situated outside the capital, says Shortland.   “We took on a new graphic designer a couple of years ago and the quality wasn’t very good,” he recalls. “If you’re an agency in London you’ve got the pick of the crop. If you’re in the sticks like we are there are fewer graphic designers from packaging in this area so we ended up recruiting out of commercial printing and then training that person to think about packaging.”

Student shortcomings

So what’s behind the problem? “The environment that students work in at university or college is totally warped because it’s not an actual work environment,” says Mark Stringer, managing director at Ahoy Creative. “The time allowed for students to spend on projects is way too long. We have had placement students who have amazing portfolios but when asked to create an identity or pull together new packaging concepts in 48 hours, they are totally winded by the lack of time available in a commercial environment.”

The problem doesn’t just surround the standard of design courses on offer throughout the UK – it’s also connected to the generalist approach to training taken by the design colleges and universities.

“I’m always daunted by just how many students have come to the end of their design degree and still don’t have a solid idea on what they want to be doing or which discipline of design they want to go into,” says Andrew Lawrence, creative director at Elmwood Leeds. “I think this might be an indication of just how generalist some of the design courses have become and it is increasingly difficult for students to focus on a narrow course of career such as packaging. There are a few courses that give weight to packaging but in general the majority seem to only touch on it when setting student briefs.”

Although there’s recognition that students need to leave fully armed with information about the industry’s commercial constraints, Holmes and Marchant’s UK managing director Simon Gore thinks that there’s a danger of snuffing out talent if you impose guidelines that are too strict and restrict the freedom to think freely.

“They’ve got to learn the commercial side and probably the colleges have a responsibility to give them the sort of projects that will help them to understand what it’s like working within a very tight brief, but they shouldn’t have to work within these constraints all the time,” says Gore.

His business is one of many design agencies offering additional training to people fresh from university. Indeed almost all of the design industry experts quoted in this feature have some kind of formal or informal training programme in place, which offers graduates invaluable on the job experience, says John Ramskill, deputy creative director BrandOpus. “Every year we take on several graduates on a paid placement and we offer positions to the designers that best fit with our agency style and ideals.”

Ahoy’s Stringer prefers to take the traditional approach of teaming a graduate with an experienced team member. “They simply need someone to shadow and give on-the-spot advice,” says Stringer. “However, it’s also important to make sure that team member is ready to be a mentor and that time is accounted to mentor in their billable day. If that person has to start working late to catch up on work they will resent new graduates coming on board.”

Of course even finding the best crop of graduates to offer training to in the first place can be a difficult ask but for those struggling in this regard Bloom’s Marshall offers the following advice.  “There is talent out there but you need to look in the right places to find it – go to the degree shows and understand what their course structure involved in order to review their portfolio objectively. Earlier this year we sent one of our senior designers to Norwich to meet the best undergraduates. We shortlisted seven and offered one a job as a junior designer. Interestingly we had another graduate who hadn’t made the shortlist in on a placement and subsequently offered him a job as well; proving that you can’t always see potential from an interview and a portfolio.”

The p-word – ‘potential’ – is the crucial factor in all of this. Graduates are the lifeblood of the industry and without a constant stream of them coming through, design agencies risk missing out on invaluable creative input.  BrandOpus’ Ramskill says: “You can teach someone design, but enthusiasm and ideas are infectious. Besides, old-time designers like me who have been around for years come with baggage.”