Glasgow School of Art degree show review: A big show with little drama

The Drum is dispatching industry professionals to this year's advertising and design degree shows to see what we can expect from the next generation of talent coming into the industry. If you'd like to review a degree show for us, or see your show reviewed, please email

Equator creative director and co-owner, James Jefferson, finds sparks of good ideas, but little fire, at his old art school's degree show.

I love the Art School degree show. Ever since my own graduation I get a real thrill going back and bumping into old friends and soaking up new ideas. But let me get one thing off my chest before I write about the work at this year’s design exhibition.As much as I love the Art School, I really think that chopping up the old dear, putting her bits into anonymous glass boxes all over the city might be killing her. Ever since renovation started and students have been moved away from the ugly buildings with ugly names on that little Glasgow hilltop, things have been going downhill.The overriding feeling I took from this year’s design show was one of missed opportunity. The work felt meagre – as if holding back. Which, as a creative person eroded by years of professional life looking for a fix of youthful excitement, I found quite saddening.The whole thing needs a huge shot of adrenaline. Some work felt unfinished, some of it appeared to barely have been started. There were sparks of good ideas, but little fire.If you’re a graduate reading this, please don’t get angry (not yet anyway, and when you do, I’d love to hear what you think) - it’s not your fault. You are the blank canvas painted by the school, not the other way around. It seems that the god-awful monolith behind respectable shaded glass you’re working in has coloured you all safe and professional. It really should be inspiring anger and rebellion.It’s a missed opportunity because there’s never been a better time to be a designer. Innovation is exponentially accelerating, businesses are being radically reinvented, great ideas made in bedrooms are generating millions in minutes on Kickstarter. Companies like Maklab in the lighthouse are bringing amazing tech, like 3D printing, to anyone who cares to walk through the door. Not to mention the ever-growing energy, environmental and humanitarian challenges that can only be solved by the most creative minds. You've seen the TED talks right?Product designIt’s true that the landscape for wannabe product designers has changed a lot in recent times and PD courses have worked hard to try to keep up with the shift away from traditional manufacturing and growth in interactive and system design.But in design, some things never change. Good design has forever been about a great idea, beautifully executed. With the execution becoming increasingly invisible, the reliance on a great idea only grows. A few students got this, designing systems based on a strong idea; an idea that communicates a benefit and excites. The idea of a Good Dog Death (pictured above), by Kaitlyn Debiasse certainly resonated, the detailed thinking and crafting of the ‘death kit’ was really stunning. Also by Kaitlyn, the Domestic Bestiary - a really romantic idea, albeit less clearly presented – connects you to an adopted wild animal with a sensory device that replicates the animal’s heartbeat, breath and movement.The second idea that stuck with me was that of data as a gift. Circuits Confectioned by Alexandra Humphry-Baker imagined gift confectionary carrying unique personal data about the giver. I love this – it inspired me to think about this gift of openness between a couple rendered in the form of digital social data – imagine if you each swallowed a chocolate that relayed biometric and GPS data to a shared digital space, so you were intimately connected and entirely open, until the chip was digested.Communication designDownstairs, a similar restraint was holding back the communication design graduates. Communication design is just a language; you really need something to say to begin with.Among polite pieces of attractive graphics and some really charming illustration (Watering by Sijia Ke and Observations by Gregor Watson were my favourites) there were two efforts that stood out for me. Both employed a digital element (to which my geeky side responded) to create a piece of communication that blurs the lines between the communicator and the audience. Type Machine (above) by Victoria Kerr is a minimal installation that invites the audience to speak their mind. It renders the audio message into a typographical poster designed to convey its tone. The audience is given a voice. ID (above) by Jessy Wang also played with thoughts around self-expression. This time based on augmenting your digital personality with a series of virtual masks. Online, we can move effortlessly between identities; this playful interface brings a little of that into the physical world.Despite my upset, there is obvious talent in this year’s cohort of graduates - I wish you all the greatest possible success as you embark on your career. It’s exciting times with so much opportunity around; your challenge will be to remain focussed.Hopefully the future’s bright for the Art School too. It’s not too long before the return to Renfrew Street begins. Phase 1 of the Campus redevelopment is due to open in September. I really hope it’s designed to prompt the anarchy, energy and excitement that the old mish-mash used to. Perhaps next year we will start to see this creative powerhouse running at full tilt again.

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