The design industry versus the working classes

private school

One of the main focus points of B Corp Month this year is dedicated to celebrating workers and what it means to be a better employer.  A business is simply the manifestation of the people working within it, after all.  The same goes for an entire industry.  When it comes to its workforce, the creative sector that we operate within has a lot of room for improvement.  Leap’s senior creative Nathan Lance penned this piece to shine a light on the problem with privilege within the design industry, and the changes that he’d like to see to improve the situation.

According to the Creative Industries Policy And Evidence Centre there is a grand total of just 16% of people from working class backgrounds employed in creative roles throughout the UK.

As a designer working in not just the second poorest region in the UK, but in all of Northern Europe, I am not alone amongst my friends, colleagues and neighbours in coming from a working class family.  From my own experience I know that the path to making a career in the creative industries is hard, not only from a skills perspective but also from one of financial help. I had and still receive incredible support from my parents, both of whom have made sacrifices to help me throughout my education and career, and that puts me in a position of relative privilege.  However I still found myself coming against hurdles and factors beyond my immediate control that seemed to tip the scales in favour of those that had better connections, and deeper pockets.

The 16% figure quoted by the Creative Industries Policy And Evidence Centre surprised me initially, but with deeper consideration it is a very obvious result of class privilege and a continuous process of finance and “contacts” driven requirements rather than the hard work or skill level required for the job.

“If most designers are in the higher socio-economic classes, then the design economy is at risk of being considered as being elitist. This could present a challenge for the talent pipeline in the future, by alienating potential designers who do not feel like design education or design jobs are for people like them.”Design Council

If we first look at the cold hard stats: the numbers of design led courses are falling year on year. Not only has there been a downward trend in design subjects, but also a general decrease in working class attendance at university. Neon found that white students from working class backgrounds make up less than 5% of the student population at half of all universities.  It would be easy to tie these figures to the increase in tuition fees in 2012 but data shows that the number of working class full-time degree students has actually (marginally) increased year after year. Does that mean that the issue might be that design courses have a PR problem, rather than intrinsic classist issues? Well, I think it’s both.

Within my first year at university there was already an expectation of working within zero pay internships – working for 3 months or more at a studio for free (with travel and lunch paid for if you’re lucky) and without promise of employment at the end. That, combined with the need to build “contacts”, led me to believe that the last thing a future employer actually cared about was my portfolio. For some of my fellow classmates these conditions were annoying but acceptable – living in London or having parents who held high positions in companies within large cities made commutes and internships with the right studios easy. But, what about the students and graduates who lived hundreds of miles away from a studio with even a small degree of prestige? How could I afford 3 months in a shared flat (or any other type of accommodation) in London, so fresh out of university? I guess the point is that I couldn’t. I moved back to Cornwall to save up and hopefully secure that dream job once I had enough money to pay my way, a story that I come across far too often from returning students – but I don’t want this to be a woe-is-me type story.

So, with working class designers being a dying breed before they’ve even graduated, what does the future look like for the design industry? I worry that a true representation of society will be the casualty. Design is about the visualisation of knowledge; it’s there to translate and reflect society, to connect us with products, people and the planet. How do we design for 45% of a nation when their voices aren’t heard or represented?

And just to heap on the bad news (before it gets better), I’ve been using statistics in which gender hasn’t been taken into account. When you bring gender into the mix it highlights another massive layer of privilege: men from privileged backgrounds are 4.8 times more likely to secure work in creative occupations than working-class women.  Those with disabilities are more than 3 times less likely than their privileged, able-bodied counterparts to secure a job in a creative occupation. I could find no data that mentions the difficulties that members of the LGBTQ community face when seeking employment within the design industry. Which to put it bluntly, is a fucking disgrace.

The Design Council found that since 2010 the percentage of women working in the design economy has grown by 42%, compared to just 17% growth amongst men.  Whilst this data doesn’t take into account social or economic class, one would hope that this increase would include an uptick in the number of working class females entering the industry.

I was lucky enough to find LEAP after my education, and was offered a job that didn’t just focus on a bottom line business model but instead gave me a fair and equal input to a studio. That was something that I wasn’t taught to expect in university, and not something that I thought existed in the industry back in 2012.

Knowing all this and the trajectory of what’s to come, how do we turn this around? What can we do?

The first thing that I’d like to see change is to have better art and design awareness in schools. Secondary students need to learn why these subjects are important.  I’m sure that more students would be inclined to take a design focused subject if more time was spent talking about its role in society. And once they are studying a design based subject, more design firms should offer work experience placements to secondary school students to encourage them to continue with their design education at college or university.

The creative sector also needs to address the prevalence of unpaid internships and the work experience requirements that are expected of graduates.  The current system is unethical, acting as a barrier to many prospective designers and preying on the ambitions of those who are able to afford to work for free for a period.  Unpaid internships create a feedback loop that elevates those from privileged backgrounds and that have led to the homogenised status of the design industry.

Here at Leap we’re developing a blind recruitment process for design roles.  It’s still a work in progress and needs refining further, but the idea is that we make our initial shortlist based solely upon the portfolio of the applicant.  No names; no work or education history; no giveaways; we judge on talent alone.  We have some work to do to make sure that applicants can submit their portfolios easily and anonymously, but it is a good start.  For this technique to be truly fair and equal, we need a greater number of young people from a greater variety of backgrounds studying design in the first place.  It would be nice to see other agencies and studios, particularly those in larger cities, implementing something similar in an effort to diversify their workforce.

I don’t expect these changes to happen overnight; many designers are far too comfortable in their privilege and perhaps even unaware that it is even a problem, and it will only be through the actions of pioneering institutions, agencies, studios and practices that progress is made.  These beacons of hope do exist however, and as more designers wake up to the poisonous nature of an elitist industry and its impact on our society and planet I believe that we will begin to see progress accelerating and equality improving.  It needs to happen.  It will happen, and it is happening now.