The art of getting into business

Helen Hague takes notes as 4,000 of Britain's young art and design graduates show their wares - and impress leading politicians
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The Independent Online

The cocktails were flashy, the chatter animated and the setting couldn't have been more appropriate. Movers and shakers from the design world were at the Business Design Centre in Islington, north London, to check out what the cream of creative talent, freshly disgorged from universities across the UK, had to offer.

Leaving the cocoon of university product-design, textile or jewellery departments to get a job or start up on your own is serious business, especially when you are saddled with student debt.

But at least politicians realise that, in the "knowledge-based economy", the creative industries have an pivotal role in boosting the coffers of UK plc. But it's tough out there, so what support is on offer to ensure businesses are not snuffed out in their infancy?

Gordon Brown opened New Designers exhibition, where 4,000 graduates from disciplines as diverse as ceramics and computer animation showcased the best of their degree work in pursuit of exposure, networking and maybe one of the many private-sector bursaries, work placements and prizes up for grabs.

The Chancellor spoke of the mobility of labour in a global economy and how the "power of ideas and innovation will make the difference between economic success and failure, between prosperity and falling behind". Standard Brown-speak - but there was a tantalising promise. The Government had a responsibility to make the transition to jobs, training or self-employment far better for young people, he said. It was looking at how to provide cash and access to better premises and how to help employers to recruit more people in the design and creative industries.

Brown is behind the Treasury-sponsored yet independent National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, up and running for the past 18 months, to encourage more business start-ups. It offers "Flying Start Rallies" where industry practitioners and insiders give advice on the tools needed to go it alone. Lorna Collins, director of Flying Start, is well placed for the job - she set up three companies and even has a PhD in entrepreneurship.

The Crafts Council has been nurturing young designers/makers for 30 years - and says they are now far more focused about how to acquire the necessary business skills. Demand is surging for the council's Next Moves residency programme for new graduates.

The Crafts Council was at the exhibition, staging decidedly non-fluffy workshops such as Protect Your Most Vital Assets, on copyright and design, one of the most popular sessions. There is graduate hunger for business expertise.

Bethan Laura Wood, who has just got a first from Brighton University in 3D design, seems pretty clued up when it comes to marketing, but keen to learn more about setting up on her own. She offers an eye-catching business card, laser-cut from wood and has a CD to distribute.

Her glass-topped collapsible umbrella table is both functional and aesthetically intriguing, and could even live in a bed-sit. Bethan is buzzing with talk of batch production, collaborations, projects - and what she can realistically achieve in the short-term without having to rent a workshop. "I'd like to go on to the Royal College, but have no qualms about starting out on my own, though it is a bit scary. I'm ready to get stuck in."

Michelle Luker has just topped up her three-year course in 3D design at Manchester Metropolitan University with a one-year graduate diploma in creative business development - and picked up a £250 prize for design initiative.

She specialises in witty "readymades": the candles she casts as mini-Bunsen burners are already sparking interest. She puts mundane objects to fresh use: inverted snooker rests are reborn as coat hooks with the addition of a back plate. A magnetic dish that car mechanics use to hold screws in becomes a key-holder, embossed with a logo and fixed to any suitable metal surface.

"I'm quite lucky," Michelle says. "I won't have to invest in expensive kit to carry on working - just place orders with the wholesaler and concentrate on sales and packaging. I've got the ideas - the course taught me how important it is to know your market and to make sure stuff is properly priced. It gave me the skills to take it that one step further."

Boris Johnson was there too. He toured the show on preview day and was recognised as "that bloke from Have I Got News for You. The graduates did not know until then that he was also Shadow Minister for Higher Education. He went down a storm, engaged and eager to learn, stopping off to lay down a track on The Battle of the Bands, an interactive computer game devised by Chris Wood from the University of Northumbria.

Chris, who has just graduated with a first, is creative director of a web design company set up with a fellow student. He also helped to design a website for the Northumbria Association, which wants to bring the Lindisfarne Gospels back home to the area, as part of a coursework brief.

Breaking away from his minders, Boris shared a few thoughts. He said the work on show was "a withering retort to those who denounce design courses at university as soft". The key message he took away was how creative and competitive we Brits are.

"It's a mistake to go round slaughtering so called 'Mickey Mouse courses' that are not classically academic," he says. "Creative industries are a vital part of the economy. We lead the world on this one, so there's no point running down a world-beater." Even though Labour has been making all the running on the creative industries and the knowledge based economy, Boris's enthusiasm for design can't be dampened, it seems.

The growing number of young art and design students in the UK equals the entire population of Renaissance Florence, according to Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art and chairman of the Arts Council. And, foreign nationals apart, they all have votes. With a little help from Gordon Brown they may also have jobs.

New designers will show a range of the best work from this year's exhibition during the London Design Festival, 21-24 September, at Studio 95, Old Truman Brewery, 95 Brick Lane, London E1

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