Many creatives in this day and age see themselves as ‘multi-disciplinary’ – whether that’s a designer who can illustrate, an illustrator who makes films, or a photographer looking at themselves as more of an artist. This double-barrel is usually seen as an admirable asset, but is this always the case? For this week’s debate Pete Nencini asks; “Do we specialise too soon?”. Go on, stick your oar in.
We specialise too soon. Post-school, Art School. Foundation Course, a compact descendant of the Bauhaus’ Preliminary Course. Ignited by two months of polymorphic play. Then we stop and sign up for life, aged 18, to an homogenized pursuit of one from Archi/Graph/Illus/Anim/Fash/Text/Photo/Paint/Sculpt/Prod/Craft/ography.
For example, you specialise in Illustration. How to be an illustrator? What’s on the booklist? Some revelatory reads: David Mamet’s ‘On Directing Film’; Umberto Eco’s ‘Six Walks in the Fictional Woods’; George Perec’s ‘Species of Spaces and Other Pieces’; Paul Thek’s ‘Four Dimensional Design’. You probably won’t find them in Magma bookshop, or on the ‘Visual Communication’ library shelf. But each (in talking about writing, filmmaking, looking, thinking making) offers much, from a refreshing distance. A set of ‘manuals’ for a parallel process in your specialism. Without telling you how it should look. Because they talk about process rather than fashion. Much more useful than a subject-swatchbook of styles with a one-year lifespan.
This is not an argument for dilletantism, nor multidisciplinarianism (even the word is too much!). Specialist expertise is slow-grown, rooted in natural ability and will-to-learn. But our specialisms are conjoined. The conjunction. The in-between. The bit where we talk to each other. And where we make things together.
Technology is giving us the space to talk and to make fluently. Is our shared vocabulary up to it? In truly innovative, more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts collaboration, it’s not just about how well you understand your own process; it’s about how well your process is understood.
Look at the Bauhaus’ concentric-circular-curriculum. Compare with Design Academy Eindhoven’s Kompas subjects (colour, music, form, technology, culture, craft, economy, social science). Consider IDEO’s T-shaped designer (vertical stem equals deep specialist knowledge, horizontal bar equals understanding, empathy, passion for other subjects). Assess Martí Guixé’s self-defined status as an Ex-Designer. Toy with the craft-rooted notion of Vrije Vormgeving (‘free design’).
This is about your education in, experience of, passion for conjoined specialisms. As an Illustrator that could readily mean, for example, Typography. To support, some Linguistics? A dose of Sound Art? And so on. Hands on and time spent. Too much? Three years’ degree is a long time specialised. Especially when you’ve got the rest of your life. So, do we specialise too soon?
Peter Nencini is a freelance illustrator and designer; his recent work has been applied to sets for BBC’s Glastonbury Festival, ITV’s ’Hell’s Kitchen’ and Channel 4’s ‘T4’. After graduating from the Royal College of Art he worked as a graphic designer in Brussels before returning to London. He now teaches illustration at Camberwell College of Arts. www.peternencini.co.uk
Agree. Even multi-disciplinary degrees tend to assume students should define and demonstrate a specialism. Generalists are often considered indecisive. We need both. Pigeon-holing ourselves by discipline courts conservative business based upon its typical output. The brave practitioner either charts a distincive specialism and/or is unconcerned with boundaries, acknowledging that it is the project that need to work within a defined context, not the practitioner.
Everyone’s practice and ability is so diverse that no one umbrella shaped course title will keep a class within it’s definition. Terms like Visual Communication help to add a subtitle to the story and can give it’s applicants freedom to experiment within it’s ‘Visual’ boundaries. (But is it too vague?) It’s hard sometimes to focus on graduating not really knowing what you’re graduating in and Art School can begin to feel like a lesson in semantics.
This is really interesting, and I agree too. Especially the part about foundation degrees. I chose to do illustration and then 2 months later we had to apply to unis… I didn’t even know what illustration was during a-level, foundation was literally a crash course, but because I loved it so much in that short space of time I wanted to do it at uni. However when it came to applying to unis, I feel that I didn’t get in to my first choice because I was expected to be a professional illustrator at the intervew! And not a learning art student. Very strange atmosphere. But I got into my second choice and off I went, and three years later, I’ve graduated. Still don’t know if I want to just do illustration… there’s so many things out there I want to try.
Jack of all trades, master of none. Although i think its important to have an understanding of many disciplines its also nice to have one you are really an expert in. If there was enough time in the world to be an expert at everything then great. But that would be a long degree.
I agree, I think that the more knowledge of other disciplines you have the more you can be aware of pushing a different discipline forward. For example a knowledge of film techniques may open a door in a printed application. It often requires a lot of self learning though. You can expect everybody in a course to want to do everything. I did a 3 year course and that simply would not be enough time to have professional skills in a single discipline if i was doing film, photography, illustration, cake decoration etc with any seriousness though they were touched on. (minus the cake decoration, literary flair)
I think the most interesting things happen when you have a broad range of executional knowledge (including some specialisms) and a good general creative approach. Surely you’ll make better creative connections if you have broader knowledge?
‘Multi-disciplinary’ is another term to place before designer, why can’t we be designers with no pre text required? I come from a degree that only could be said to specialize in encouraging an intelligent questioning approach to design where ideas are expected to stand up to critique. When you graduate you are a designer, how you describe yourself is up to you. I have a strong sense of what my principals and beliefs about what I desire design to be and mean. I am not too concerned with what I am beyond a designer, skills can always be learnt but ideas are harder to come across. Does having a discipline limit the potential of our creativity and ideas? Not knowing how to do something or not being sure of where it’s going can bring around the most interesting ideas and doesn’t have to be scary.
Not interested in labels either. Also, the jack-of-all-trades comment above misses the point. I’m talking about the substance and detailing of our practical and conceptual approach. To make for better, more innovative work. I think it’s fruitless to make a distinction between ideas and making skill. Who decided that one holds the other back? Making is thinking. Intimacy with process fosters invention. A Cuneiform alphabet’s beauty is in the creative permutations coming out of a articulate understanding of a limited tool and writing surface. I’m really not proposing that we try to make everything or become polymath-super-designers. Just that, given the incredible access we now have to information and each other, is our empathy with each others’ (thinking or making) process developed enough? Regarding hours in the day and sufficient time to learn… I learnt more through one month in a graphic design studio than a year in college. Don’t get me wrong. My course was great; it was my capacity to learn under real pressure that HAD to develop. We can learn quickly and learn more. I’m convinced that knowledge beds in rhythmically and feeds our creativity.
I think it’s true that we specialise too quick. Life is fast moving now and too often mapped out. We do this and then this and then this; we’re making decisions and before you know it you’re deep into it, not realising whether you yourself chose this outcome, or if you’re just the unlucky bugger who ended up following some shoddy life advice…from the careers councillor.
It is sometimes if not always reaaally good to stray totally from what we think we should be doing. We should go learn about geology, learn to cook, learn about how we learn, learn crazy unnecessary theories, learn binary, learn off QI, learn absolutely anything at all, even something you hate.
And even if all we learn after that is that we’d just quite like to sit: pen in hand, paper at the ready, crouched over a table, drawing, painting, making for the long forseeable future… At least we know theres nothing out thre that we’d rather be doing.
Look back to the renaissance period and that was a time of huge… change(as best I can describe it)many of the players at the time where multi-disciplinary or did not ties themselves with what they came up to be thought with, they kept changing,of which the pieces of work,created in that period are still relevant to this day
I may be approaching this at a tangent but I had a similar experience to Peter, the ‘road to Damascus’ moment of clarity when first working in a fast paced and commercial environment. This kind of experience has become a determining factor in the curricular world of Higher education. There is major/confused emphasis on the need to meet the requirement of industry and it is predominant in the Creative Arts [possibly because of inherent course and resource costs/four year as opposed to three year programmes]. Referring to Industry [and its ‘needs’] in a bid to better understand the requisite ‘skills’ in our graduating student body has benefits and disadvantages. It is the driver for a number of initiatives/individual student projects and a new fervour for educational programmes in well established companies [including the new Wieden and Kennedy ‘school’ for a new breed of advertisers], it is also the reason that so many bespoke courses have emerged in our Universtites over recent years AND more importantly it is having a net effect on the priorities set on the student experience overall. greater emphasis on the acquisition of skill sets [transferable and otherwise] have required greater specificity, greater accountability, more ‘box ticking’ exercises, an audit culture that is both ambiguous and unneccessarily specific.
Tail wags dog.
I am offering up this mono-context/soft rant about Education in order to give an opinion about our approach to specialism. My view is that students will be required to specialise earlier and earlier [it is happening this year with the abolition of route B, the old ADAR route tailored specifically for Art and Design students] because of the overall pattern of ‘third way’ Education. Specialism or naming of a discipline is often done for the sake of convenience/marketing/recruitment and the nuts and bolts of delivery and curriculum content are driven and defined by those people responsible for writing the projects. An holistic approach to Education is not particularly fashionable, because it is ambiguous, underpinned by beliefs and principles, difficult to describe and difficult to explain and deliver. However education is what we should all aim for, in its truest form, the cultivation of experiences/situations/spaces that enable individuals to develop within and without of a particular context, that process of ‘drawing out’ [ I reluctantly use the epithet; education is ‘lighting a fire’ not ‘filling a bucket’]. The radical in me says that we should be driving this in conjunction with Industry not passively asking them what they want, the latter may be the most practical, short term solution to whatever those uninterested Whitehall statistic mongers want but it will not serve either individuals or Industry well, it is a reductio ad absurdum, a hiding to nothing but mediocrity, bland and formulaic passive non creativity.
In short we need names, its a question of semantics but we need our education to be broad – wide and deep [yes T shaped], we need it to be at times complicated and problematic, at times simple and skills orientated but at all times part of an education not simply a ‘training’. We have big brains and opposable thumbs, lets use them wisely!
Late to the party as ever … my short answer is yes; specialism comes all-too-swiftly for art students, or indeed prospective students from all disciplines. What eighteen-year-old knows exactly what they want to do, anyway? Personally, I vaguely wanted to be a lawyer at eighteen … five years later I am finishing an illustration degree where my main focus is moving image. Go figure.
Back to the topic at hand. Feeling your way through to a correct working practice. I think it’s very individual and for some perhaps it would come easier if on a generalised art/design course for three years, rather than a niche area. No labels. Just finding out what clicks and who you click with and deriving something that comes from this very organic process and hey, eventually you’ll come out on the right track. For others, you need the security of a specific skill-set – something tangible that you feel can directly transfer into a career path. On the flip side, this niche can actually give you something to kick and rebel against, where in the nebulous breadth of a generalised course there would be nothing.
Ultimately I subscribe to this notion of deep understanding of a specialism combined with communication and cross-over between other disciplines that you mention. One area often feeds another, promoting creativity and intuitive leaps in our prospective practices that otherwise might not have occurred. This is important, not least because it ultimately means you have a personal practice which is both communicative with other areas AND more uniquely your own, as you have sought out the connecting threads that ultimately make what you do more substantial.
So what to make of all of this at the start of your degree? Well. I tend to think a lot of people are all-too-ready to nail their colours to the proverbial mast and label themselves (for better or for worse) because it’s more comfortable than the alternative. There is such a need to define yourself at a young age, there is a security in tunnelling your vision like this. In wider society, your BA is often viewed as a means to an end rather than an opportunity to expand your ideas.
Maybe it’s worth pointing out that although you specialise, that’s not the final word. Things can change, your ideas can jump. Just because you ticked the photographer box when you were eighteen doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind, find the deep specialism at a later date (maybe not for a few years), etc. Your education does not stop when you graduate. You educate yourself if you are engaged and enthusiastic about the world around you. If nothing else, a good degree – regardless of specialism – teaches you to get interested in stuff – even if that stuff is the exact opposite of what you are meant to be learning at the time. You’ve still got the time and the space to get passionate about something and chase it. That’s the key. Your time isn’t wasted if you get the label wrong.
So I think what I am trying to say is that specialising in art/design at such a young age is tough. It works for some, not for others … there probably should be more allotted time for play before you subscribe to something more rigid. But with things as they are, keeping your eyes and ears open about what is going on in other disciplines (and not just artistic, but scientific, mathematical, whatever) not only feeds your own practice but also may set you off on another path altogether and that is fine. It’s up to the individual to keep looking and learning, though. College can provide a structure where this is possible, but it’s really up to you to keep things interesting and keep questioning what you do and why.
It’s not so much about working in the gaps in between disciplines, which I don’t think exist anymore, but working in the areas of overlap. It’s important to have a broad knowledge that allows us to either make work that stands up to criticism from both disciplines or that lets us realise the limitations of our expertise and choose the right person to collaborate with. Choosing a good collaboration comes from an understanding and ability to identify ways that each of us approach making work, because the fundamentals of our approach are interdisciplinary even when the outcomes are not.
I too think branching out is very important, however, I do agree with “ Object Thinkings” point. If we are seen to venture too far from our discipline we are, the post-graduate, seen as being indecisive and unsuitable for the job. With all that said I do believe there are universities out there that offer courses that offer a focus, but provide the insight and flexibility to redefine how we solve problems. And even if your BA/MA/HND was particularly restrictive there is still hope!
Work placements! They are a great way, if you can afford to work for free, to have an insight into disciplines outside your training. I spent the best part of a year working under Architects, Branding specialists, Packaging designers, Interactive media specialist and others while I was in limbo between Uni and work. So if you can, I believe it is an invaluable experience.
Now with the financial upturn employers are looking for ‘multi-disciplinary’ students to employ to service their clients. The specialist are dieing breed, they are being replaced with polymaths and cross-disciplinarians to solve problems in a different. After all the problems are all the same–how can we make our product/service more visible to increate sales/shares/brand equity–It’s up to the creative to produce new solutions.
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