seeking & creating : researching & discovering : applying & practicing

sustainability in design = changing mindsets + deeds

Friday, August 20, 2010

Conflicts of Interests

Excuse the long rant, but it's been a while, and this blog needs some original content for once!

A phone conversation with our RMIT lecturer, the esteemed Sue Thomas, some time ago, keeps coming back, a brain bug that nags and nags for some kind of release...

I've also just had a pretty sobering conversation with someone who graduated over a decade ago from the same course, and hearing about her experience and opinions has driven me to write this.

As new and struggling designers foraging for work and forging our own identities in industry a.k.a. the real world, we have to document our struggles in order to reflect upon the issues we are facing in an intellectual/rational way, and in doing so, pragmatically find sustainable solutions that we can achieve with our own limited resources. At the very least, we should be asking some big questions.

Reality can make quick cynics of even the most idealistic creative.

In school we had freedom of expression and intellectual pursuit, despite having briefs that we may have felt constrained by. Yes, we had to compete with peers for grades, but there is a support network in place, with teachers and friends (who are in the same boat as yourself) forming a kind of safety net.

There was also, arguably, more room for failure and turnaround. If you failed, you repeated the course or switched modules, even changed course; as long as you were still interested in getting that piece of paper and can afford to keep going until you passed, you kept going.

However, in some ways a structured cookie-cutter education system, in this case to train designers, can fail to deliver genuinely effective qualifications. Not only is the eventual certification suffering from deteriorating value in the marketplace, the education-as-profit-making-business-product is a pretty lousy process in itself. (Not particularly sustainable, given its complete reliance on the financial capabilities of masses of students, who may or may not have parental support.)

Education should constantly evolve to train students to deal with a changing marketplace and working environment, especially considering the post-recession cloud of gloom that has settled onto the collective consciousness worldwide. But let's leave these structural problems with the learning system and its delivery an unopened can of worms for now.

What I am not sure about is whether my education has adequately trained me at all.

Truly, just from my own P.O.V., this 'designer' (I have the degree, but I still hesitate to inform people that I am a designer, strangely) never felt more helpless or inadequately equipped to face the uphill task of finding employment after stepping off the threshold of graduation.

Let's temporarily disregard personality issues, e.g. the innately self-absorbed, diva-ish, fussy anal-retentiveness of what I call the "classic designer's personality".
(It's my way or no way, I have the most exclusive perspective/taste/aesthestic sense, I am especially talented and I want the world to realise that)

All the negative bullshit and attitude coming out of quirky characters which might harm relationships with future boss(es), if that is one's personal barrier to meaningful employment, it's one's own personal struggle...on the flipside, who knows how many psychopathic bosses one might encounter in one's lifetime, anyway?
(Hang on, if you have the classic narcissistic designer's personality, you might end up being one yourself!)

But I digress.

Creative industries are all alike in some ways, aren't they? Creativity presumably accompanies youth and vigour. (We still have to deal with a deeply ageist society, don't we.) Plus all the bonus prejudices on the side, be it ethnicity, gender, marital status, looks, nationality, whatever. Consider this: do the creative industries treat their talent in a sustainable manner?

We all have our own burdens to bear, but here are some over-arching questions with regards to the quest for sustainable personal development, career development, and fulfilling life-work...presuming that sustainability is a way of life designers should be aspiring towards and adapting their practice for.

With sustainability in the back of the mind colouring one's perspective, it's easy to conclude that we are just naive, ignorant, unprepared newbies entering a huge, complex and ruthless business system obsessed with profits, competition, volume, efficiency and image, with blatant disregard or superficial interest in ecological issues tied to waste mismanagement, product life-cycle problems, and etc.

Yet how long do we submit to working for free to gain the experience industry demands just for the basic entry level design positions? What do we do in the meantime? Retail? Hospitality? Pizza Parlour? Bartending? Make teddy bears? Alterations? Working for free is hardly sustainable, nor is it ethical.

Yes, suffering is like the whetstone that sharpens you up and hones your skills, but the crux is, why are graduates from a so-called prestigious fashion design school (I've not checked in/compared statistics with how the Whitehouse/Melbourne School of Fashion/RMIT Fashion & Textiles Brunswick kids are faring, though, so please educate me) having so much trouble finding relevant employment on home ground? What's missing from their training?

Those who have left Australia seem to have found jobs more easily. Is it the same situation in London, Paris, Milan? Are there possibly a ton of Central Saint Martin's graduates milling around jobless in London, and escaping to find jobs elsewhere?

Of course, retail is a great stepping stone into higher level positions in marketing, supply-chain management, buying, merchandising and other business operations, and learning to be a great sales-person is definitely valuable skills development. However, is it possible to eventually end up back in design, and how long is that going to take?

At best, finding work in the other levels of garment production pays a decent wage. At worst, you find yourself, a university graduate, struggling to keep up with people with decades more experience and triple the speed and efficiency, doing CAD, pattern-making, cutting, and machining.

And in school we are repeatedly told:" We are not training you to become machinists..."
Yet it seems that there is more demand for pattern-makers and machinists, the so-called lower-level production positions. Is this our lot, then?

Or do we all start our own practices, not out of readiness, but out of joblessness? And begin yet another round of struggling to find validation in the fashion business system?

Building your life's work is an endless learning curve, and we have to accept that we will never really be ready, whatever it is we are aiming to achieve in the end for ourselves.

The big question is: what do you want to achieve with your creative life? And how are we going to achieve those goals in a sustainable manner?

Is there value in attempting to form a group to share this experience together, sharing resources and costs to collectively create a sustainable fashion business practice? Or is it just too difficult to reconcile all these different designers' personalities? Are designers really meant to work alone?

Notably inspiring, though, has been DISCOUNT, belonging to our seniors Nadia and Cami, whose graduate collections literally drew gasps from the audience last year. It is exciting to see how they will innovate and conceive a new kind of independent fashion label, going against the grain and formulaic approach of "the system" they are fighting.

The Restructors story is far less optimistic. Perhaps we lack faith in the cause and fail to find the motivation we need to commit to making this work, but for now it seems much has stalled and we are mired in this muggy maze of conflicting interests, struggling to find time between school, paid work, unpaid work, internships and personal interests...depressing, but true.

Perhaps after rock bottom the ascent will be sweet.

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