Professor Dale Harrow on design careers today

  • Professor Dale Harrow, Dean of Design, Royal College of Art
  • Vehicle Design MFA Show 2013

Professor Dale Harrow, Head of the Vehicle Design programme and Dean of the School of Design, has been teaching at the Royal College of Art for over 20 years. Drawing on his experience working in vehicle design and product design, and his two years as Dean, he spoke to FuelRCA's John Bound about professional development in a design context today, and how students can make the most of their time here to maximise their chances of a fulfilling career.

The School of Design is one of the biggest schools in the college. It has six programmes (courses) within it: design products, global innovation design, innovation design engineering (IDE) which is a joint course with Imperial College, vehicle design, design interactions and a new course called service design.  We try to cover more or less every aspect of design within those six programmes. So we have a group of students here that are very different in their ambitions, aspirations and backgrounds. 

When I first came to the RCA a lot of students saw the two years of their MA as a chance to explore. Obviously the pressure to get employed afterwards has changed that. People come here because of the reputation of the college and wanting to develop in individual ways. But increasingly it’s also about giving themselves an opportunity for better employment and for working in many different fields.

The landscape for any graduating student now is difficult but I don’t know whether it’s any more difficult now than it’s ever been. There are probably more opportunities as well as more problems. Design is now a fundamental part of many companies’ make up. Designers are not being used to pretty-up engineered products any more. They’re fundamental to the development of products and they have many varied skills now.

The opportunities for developing new businesses at the college, using InnovationRCA for example, are very different from the old days of people just wanting to learn some skills for employment. We’re not just taking people who have a specific career in mind and will go and do it for the next 20 years; we’re trying to create people who can be adaptable and develop their own long-term career path, and that’s a different challenge.

One of the major attractions of the College is to get to that point of design leadership where you can go out and lead from the front. Companies now expect people to be up and ready when they leave; they need to be able to hit the ground running. Companies are prepared to pay good salaries for those sorts of things, and graduates need to be able to perform fairly quickly. Someone can graduate and be straight away developing a new car for Jaguar or whoever, and seeing it on the road 18 months later.

"You need to be thinking 'What if?' all the way through your studies"

The sorts of skills that employers are looking for are not just in the design field; they’re in business understanding, being able to work with other people and other disciplines, developing ways of presenting work that are very different, and understanding a bigger landscape than just the immediate product. Furthermore, 'soft skills' such as personal resilience, confidence, tolerance of failure and ethical values are increasingly valued by employers across the creative industries. The most successful RCA graduates are able to bring those things together.

Most companies now will have a designer on the board. That was unheard of 10 years ago. Certainly the biggest change I think we’ve seen in the last 10 years is the opening up of new markets and new possibilities. Even if you’re a European company, nowadays you’re going to be in China and business is naturally going to move to those new areas: China, Brazil, India. I think designers have got to be prepared to move around the globe to where the interesting work is and be part of that.  So they’ve got to be much more outward looking.  And of course sustainability needs to be taken on board.  And also issues to do with personalisation, customisation, being able to manufacture and print components at home and so on. 

The great thing about the school is that we offer the extremes of the design industry. From people who want to explore thoughts about cultural objects and how they appear, to people who want to do very practical things. That’s a really good mix of ideas and interests. But whatever you do, you do have to make a very conscious decision: what am I? What am I going to be? I don’t think you can be a designer who moves seamlessly from high-end work to more corporate work in a very easy way. I don’t think it works like that. You have to build the network, you have to build the support around it, you have to know the market you’re pitching into and you have to understand how you position yourself. 

"The Royal College opens doors"

The reality is that students want to have a career when they graduate. They need to think about their professional development and that can be done in a multitude of ways. College programmes give you some support but alongside that there’s an opportunity to build your network, position yourself, find your voice. You can do that through using services like FuelRCA.  You need to use your time at the college very wisely to make sure that you don’t fall off the end of a conveyor belt and then think, “What now?”  You need to be thinking, “What if?” all the way through your studies here so that you develop  your vocational skills and your professionalism, alongside those ideas about what a career might be.

The great thing about when you’re here as a student is that the Royal College opens doors. I have students in vehicle design who are very interested in a particular brand. The easiest thing they can do while they’re here is to contact the chief designer of that brand and go and speak to people and understand it in more detail. It’s the hardest thing to do when you’ve left the college and are just another person wanting that information. You have to be strategic and quite mercenary in how you get the best for yourself while you’re here at the college and think about the overlap so you don’t fall off the conveyor belt. There is something about the transition between student life and professional life that you need to manage in order that you don’t have a dip in between. 

There is probably too much emphasis on the degree show in that a lot of students still believe firmly that if they have a good show it’s going to set them up to a good career. I think the show is only one part of it. In my experience it’s not the place where people get a contract for employment necessarily. It’s very important that students don’t think that the show is the end point to their academic career and somehow it naturally links up to their commercial and business career. It’s just another stepping stone.

The first thing that most people do after they graduate is have a rest.  They say, “I’ve done that, that was fantastic.” And then it takes a bit of time to re-engage with things and that time is very easily lost. So I think you have to be able to network, use AlumniRCA and FuelRCA, keep connected to the college because the college is a fraternity and it’s a very good way of staying involved with what’s going on. Just move forwards as quickly as you can. The danger is that you can lose momentum immediately after graduation.

We’re all here because it’s an enjoyable experience and you’ve got to be able to not be overwhelmed by the task ahead. There are challenges in working life and there are challenges being a student, but they’re just life so don’t get overwhelmed by the prospect of finding a job or starting your own business. Even you have to start somewhere. 

Watch a video of Professor Dale Harrow speaking at the 2013 RCA Show.