Why designers are making a splash

The fashion for bespoke products has created a wealth of opportunities for freelancers

Art and design was once seen as a risky career path with limited job opportunities other than teaching for all but the most talented or those lucky enough to get the breaks to make it to the top.

Not any more. The trend for bespoke, hand-made products and the move away from mass-produced design to personalised clothes, homewares and interiors has created a wealth of new opportunities for freelance designers and small studios.

Easier communication through the internet and mobile phone technology has helped designers to showcase and sell their work, often in collaboration with specialists in different fields, such as engineering or computing.

As banks and big companies lay off their staff, the graduates of creative courses are well placed to ride out the economic downturn, according to the largest survey of creative graduates by the Institute for Employment Studies. It reported earlier this year that fewer than one in 20 creative graduates was unemployed, and though their earnings were low – half earned £20,000 or less – their job satisfaction was high. Three quarters were happy in their work compared to a national average of 44 per cent.

Nearly three quarters of the sample had returned to education for postgraduate study and, over the past couple of years, they have been joined by a wide range of professionals re-evaluating their careers in the face of the credit crunch which sowed uncertainty.

"A quarter of the graduates in the survey had gone back to do MA courses which have a lot of interface with industry," says Linda Ball, a senior research fellow at the University of the Arts, London which led study. "When we asked them why they had studied at Masters level, they talked about increasing their job prospects and becoming more professional in their approach to developing and marketing their designs. We found that the people who go into creative education are naturally entrepreneurial and resourceful, and a high proportion were working as freelancers while they studied."

Most of the students on the MA in art and design at Teesside University set up small businesses while on the course, says Joanne Riddle, who won the university's innovation award in 2008. "There was an entrepreneurial side to the course which encouraged us to turn our design ideas into products, and learn how to market and sell them," she says.

After graduating in art and design, Riddle, 33, worked as a full-time lecturer for six years, setting up two small businesses in her spare time. Her breakthrough came on the Teesside course when she teamed up with another student to form Ateliero Ltd, an innovative lighting design company which has now expanded to flooring and opened up a branch in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Her specialism is surface design, and the huge, colourful chandeliers are made of plastic bottles flattened and recycled. While her business partner, Ondrej Lewis (with whom she is pictured on the cover), runs the Bratislava outlet, she is working in Stockton-on-Tees through another of her businesses, Fuzzy Bridge Ltd.

Business skills have become a key part of most creative postgraduate courses over the past few years, and often include work experience and internships within the industry. In turn, management and business schools are including creative modules in their courses, and ESCP Europe, the international business management school, has launched a Master qualification in marketing and creativity.

The first 26 students on the £15,500 course which started last September are drawn from 17 nationalities, including the UK, United States, Hong Kong, Egypt and Lithuania, and include architects, engineers and marketers. Students spend six months in London and two in Paris, and then have six months to complete a three-month internship for the ESCP-accredited Master qualification.

A board of representatives from a range of companies, including Cartier, Apple, RBS, eBay and advertising agencies, advised on the setting up of the course, and provides industry links and experience for the students. The board's advice led to the expansion of the sales management content of the course and the introduction of a module on financial skills for marketers, says Professor Marie Taillard, the programme director.

"Feedback from students shows they greatly value the financial element, and two of them are now thinking of going into marketing within the financial services – something they had not thought of before," she says.

Postgraduate Masters courses in a broad range of creative areas are popular with career changers, such as Rafael Pavon who came to London from Madrid, where he had been the art director of an advertising agency for four years.

"I wasn't really happy with what I was doing, and didn't want to be the creative director of campaigns for the rest of my life," says Pavon, 30. "I'd noticed that some of the people I really admired had studied at Central St Martins College of Art in London, and it had been a long-held dream of mine to get there."

Pavon chose the MA in communication design because he wanted experience of a range of areas, such as media, photography, illustration and film. With a group of students from around the world from the course, he founded Watergun, an international audiovisual studio based in London, Madrid, New York and Los Angeles. He is based in London, and his clients include Sony, Warner and Disney.

Business has also taken off for Lauren Moriarty, another student of Central St Martins, after her MA in industrial design. She now runs a successful textile and product design company. She says: "My work was always product-related, but I didn't know how to design them. The best thing for me was working in teams with other students and being able to design my own products to support my business. It gave me the business skills I needed to get my designs known without having to water down my ideas."

'Furniture was where I wanted to be'

For Sivan Metzer, 25, Buckinghamshire New University was the place to go for furniture design. She signed up for the Masters a year ago, and had her final show in January. Metzer won first prize for a coffee table made of clear acrylic in a competition organised by John Lewis Partnership and the plastic stockholder Abbey Distribution Ltd .

"My first degree was in textile design, but furniture was where I wanted to be. Bucks is the only place with an MA in furniture design – no one specialises in this area. The MA was amazing. What was so fantastic was that the course leader, Lynn Jones, works closely with industry. I am looking to set up on my own now and to do a bit of freelancing."

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