The prospects for this year's crop of design graduates is probably better than at any time in the past six years. The industry was badly affected by the recession as clients decided they could do without new packaging, corporate identities or interiors. As a result design companies simply couldn't afford to take on new graduates. However, the situation is now improving; clients are once again commissioning, so design companies across all sectors need everything from complete beginners to those with two or three years experience.
David Goudge of the Brand Development Business, branding specialists, says: "We are desperate for a couple of juniors and one or two people with a couple of years experience. Because nobody recruited during the recession there is a real skills gap and a shortage of people with a bit of experience. The other problem we have is that we are based in Henley on Thames. While it's very beautiful, it seems that most young things want to work in central London."
Paula Carrahar of Major Players, design recruitment specialists, adds: "There are a lot of jobs for design graduates out there and the market is certainly healthier than last year. Once they get taken on they can expect a starting salary on average of between pounds l0,000 and pounds 13,000."
But getting taken on is the biggest hurdle. Although there is a shortage of good graphics graduates most design companies still operate a placement system which means that graduates join the company for anything from two weeks to a couple of months, are paid a basic salary, given some work experience and then, if they make the grade, are given a job.
It is a system open to abuse, and horror stories of graduates working for nothing but their bus fare and a sandwich, who are then turfed out having learned nothing from their placement but how to operate the photocopier, abound. However, design companies say that this sort of exploitation has largely disappeared and most pay those on placement a living wage of between pounds 100 and pounds 150 a week plus lunch and travel expenses. More important, they are also given the chance to work on real projects.
Simon Wright, senior designer at Newell & Sorrell, which numbers amongst its clients British Airways, the Body Shop and Waterstone's, is responsible for selecting graduates. He says: "When I started on placement I ran errands and did endless photocopying so I try to ensure that the people we get in on placement have a chance to get some real work experience."
One such is Nigel Coan, who graduated last year from High Wycombe with a BA in graphic design. He says: "After I left college I did some bits and pieces of freelance from home. I wrote off to between 20 and 25 companies and got eight replies, one of which was Newell & Sorrell. They asked me in to do placement and then offered me a job and it has been really good."
Another successful job applicant is Gary Deardon, who gained an HND in graphics design from East Croydon College last summer. He got his first placement as a result of a talent scout seeing his work at the college's end-of- year show and then after a number of unsuccessful attempts was given a job by Michael Peters Limited. However, Deardon says his search for a job might have been easier if a work placement had been a part of his course. "There is a big difference between what we learned at college and how design works in the real world," he says.
Certain colleges are more popular with creative directors than others. Mark Wickens, creative director of Wickens Tutt Southgate, says: "I look particularly at Kingston, Middlesex, Preston and LCP because they turn out graduates with the right attitude."
And attitude, it seems, is almost as important as creative ability. Simon Wright says: "I'm looking for people who can solve problems rather than a talent for drawing. I'm looking for portfolios full of ideas. So often college lecturers set the same brief year in, year out and I see the same sort of work again and again. I like people with ideas of their own - students who are aware of what is going on in the outside world and can come in with an idea to design the hard ecu, for example."
Colin Porter, creative director of Coley Porter Bell, agrees: "Ideas are very important. Finished work in a portfolio is not the be-all and end-all. I want to see how they solve a problem. Some of the stuff I see is all finish and no content. It is strength of ideas and the ability to communicate them that makes a good graduate really stand out."