Disegno #25

What is the Purpose of a Graduate Show?


19 May 2020

The design world’s obsession with the new is inextricably linked to the discipline’s industrial roots and its consumerist upbringing. The media and the industry are complicit in this, too. What designer Hella Jongerius and educator Louise Schouwenberg lamented as “the one and only, inherently desirable quality of commodities” in their 2015 manifesto Beyond the New is what helps reinforce the design media’s relentless logic of clicks and shares; what drives the mindless scrolling through design blogs in the hopes of keeping oneself updated; what sustains the many hours spent scouring design festivals and design weeks in search of next year’s trends; and what motivates the thousands of entries to design competitions and awards programmes that run every year around the world.

A particularly significant part of this well-oiled newness machine lies within the format of the graduate show. Usually organised by design schools, the graduate show exhibits end-of-the-year work by departing students at both bachelor’s and master’s levels. In the last two decades, it has evolved from a get together for students’ friends and family into something that resembles a fully formed temporary exhibition, visited by representatives from the design industry, journalists and curators, all searching for the newest and freshest talent.

Every October, the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE) organises a graduate show that coincides with Dutch Design Week. The school says that its exhibition attracts more than 55,000 visitors over 10 days. In late June, the Royal College of Art in London exhibits more than 800 projects by the same number of graduates, divided between several venues around the city. Not all graduate-show locations attract high footfall, however. As a result, some schools turn to platforms such as Milan Design Week, where institutions that can afford the investment exhibit selected graduate work in locations ranging from small, central palazzos (such as ÉCAL’s exhibition in Via dell’Orso), to larger group shows like Ventura Future, which this year included work from 18 European and North American schools, ranging from the Rhode Island School of Design’s Department of Furniture Design in Providence, US, to the Krabbesholm Højskole in Denmark.

It remains to be seen if the presence of schools at major design events of this ilk attests to the quality of the work being produced, but the validation that comes with that move (and the possibility of being seen by the media and industry, as well as prospective students) seems apparent. In October 2019, during Berlin Design Week, a new initiative focused solely on graduate work took off: the German Design Graduates (GDG). A brainchild of Berlin-based Dutch designer Ineke Hans, alongside German designers and professors Hermann August Weizenegger and Mark Braun, the GDG is a graduate show on steroids. It gathers work by students of 12 schools from around the country, and proposes to give an overview of young and contemporary German design with a web platform and an exhibition at the Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin. Alongside the show, which ran for one month, the GDG also bestowed a variety of awards and so-called “green cards” to participating students. These included the possibility to present work in a dedicated booth at the IMM Cologne furniture and interiors fair; a one-year mentoring programme with the Bosch Siemens group; and a PR coaching session with freelance journalist Jasmin Jouhar.

Hans moved to Berlin two years ago to become a professor at the University of the Arts Berlin and was amazed to find a lack of compelling graduate shows in Germany. “If schools have a show at the end of the year,” she explains, “it’s very often an open day where the first and the second years are also showing, so the quality is really poor. Still, Germany has a big history in design and this was one of the reasons why I thought something should happen.” After contacting GDG’s co-initiators Weizenegger and Braun, “we basically came to the concept of the GDG. We wanted to have a central place where lots of schools would show; and we wanted to get good schools on board.”

Putting together the inaugural edition of GDG took about two years, throughout which the initiators conducted a large awareness campaign. “We wanted to get all kind of ambassadors who could offer something for these young graduates,” says Hans. The GDG secured funding and interest from a variety of partners in the cultural realm, industry and even the German Design Council, which is the main supporter of the first three editions of the GDG, offering financial assistance but more importantly credibility. The initiators also mobilised students from the 12 participating schools who graduated in the last year to submit their work to the GDG’s website. This collection of projects, available online at all times, is the first step in what Hans hopes will become an archive that evolves and begins to show an overall picture of the young German design scene.

Alongside this online archive, Hans and her co-initiators put together a jury to select some of the submitted projects for an exhibition staged during the 2019 Berlin Design Week. For this occasion, the GDG also organised an opening event and talks on contemporary design themes, with awards and distinctions bestowed in a ceremony. The selection was mainly product- and home-furnishings-focused, with some explorations into the digital and analogue divide. “It was very important that this [the GDG] happened in Germany,” says Annika Frye, professor of design science and design research at one of the participating schools, the Muthesius Kunsthochschule in Kiel. For her, the potential for exchange between design students and professionals is one of the most positive aspects of the graduate show – something she says rarely happens in the country. “We [representatives of German design schools] always meet at the German Society for Design Theory and Research,” she says, “but we don’t have that in the practical side of academia.”

“I was astonished that the exhibition wasn’t very daring,” says Tulga Beyerle, director of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Museum for Arts and Crafts) Hamburg and one of the professional ambassadors of the GDG. She attributes this to the fact that “German design education is very product-based and quite traditional in many ways.” While the outcome of the first GDG does not reflect the broadness of the international design field, Beyerle notes that raising the visibility of young German design is a positive thing. “These platforms are important for students to present their work to a professional audience,” she says, while giving visitors “a chance to see what is going on in the students’ minds”. As an aggregator, the first edition of GDG offers an initial survey of the state of German design education, but it will need to grow to become truly representative. Hans is currently entertaining the idea of making the exhibition travel, or staging the GDG in different German cities in different years, a move that could benefit the initiative by raising its visibility and impact in such a large country.

With a curatorial approach that handpicks a limited number of projects from a wider database, its thematic clusters – such as ‘Everyday life’, ‘Transport’ and ‘Leisure and travel’ – and its presentation in a traditional exhibition setting inside a design museum, the GDG is somewhat aligned with the formats of contemporary graduate shows. The model that seems to have inspired this approach, at least in part, is DAE’s graduation show, one of the most influential exhibitions of young design talent in Europe. “The story of the graduation show is that, until 2001, it was done in Amsterdam, because nobody would come out to Eindhoven,” says Joseph Grima, artistic director of DAE. “Then Li Edelkoort [who led DAE between 1999 and 2008] made what was seen as a slightly crazy choice to bring it to Eindhoven, and in the same year Dutch Design Week (DDW) began. Dutch Design Week has done very well. It is now – I think – the only serious contender with Milan Design Week. The graduate show played an important role in this; that’s a consequence of the very early choice on the part of the Academy to partner with the Dutch Design Foundation [the main organiser of DDW].” When Grima began his tenure at DAE in 2017, he changed the location of the exhibition from the school, where it was traditionally held, to Campina, a former milk factory building that is a three-minute bike ride away. In 2019, he further pushed the format by creating thematic divisions among projects, rather than sticking to the traditional organisation by bachelor’s and master’s programmes. “We really believe that this is a crucial moment for the graduates to make connections,” says Grima, pointing out that “the new location allows us to expand the possibilities of the show, making it into a place where you can really spend time pleasantly.”

One should return to the DAE exhibition several times over the course of the 10-day DDW – the 2019 show featured no fewer than 61 master’s and 120 bachelor’s projects, most of which (unlike those featured in GDG) were heavily conceptual, research-based, and mostly performative or tending towards immateriality. This trend is not unique – many design schools are seeing more and more work that is progressively more complex, doesn’t translate into objects, and, as Matt Ward, senior lecturer at the Department of Design at Goldsmiths, University of London, puts it, is “moving away from pedestals”.

“What is the purpose of a graduate show? Is it to get a job?” asks Ward. “Maybe so 25 years ago, but it’s not the way the design industry works anymore.” He argues that the graduate show is a “rite of passage”, a milestone and celebration for students and their families. “For a lot of students, it’s the only time hundreds of people will come to look at their work,” says Ward, noting the additional, empowering sense of community that is created when students and alumni come together at the end of the year. But as design changes and veers towards immateriality, Ward and his colleagues have tried to push other ideas, such as smaller clusters of students with project affinities exhibiting together in different formats and platforms. So far, they have been largely unsuccessful. On one hand, the traditional graduate-show format is well established and apparently successful – educational institutions, by virtue of their scale and complexity, usually tend towards risk-aversion. On the other, with limited resources and additional time and work having to be put into rethinking established structures, experimental ideas tend to be dropped once the deadline for putting the show together looms.

It may be that the graduate show can only be revamped when design education is rethought to reflect the realities of contemporary practice. Conversely, it may be that we have to change graduate shows in order to change education itself. For Jan Boelen, who was recently appointed rector of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, graduate shows are about “the art of balance – they have to support the students using that platform; and the students are there to support the school and to promote themselves.” A discussion on the format is certainly overdue: for Boelen, we should question the obsession with a concrete student output at the moment of graduation – which generates unnecessary competition – and perhaps focus on different moments throughout the year in which the design community can experience student work. “It’s not just about organising the graduation show, it is about organising a moment in the year when you look to the work of students,” he says, “and that also could happen by not just presenting the work itself, but focusing on the distance from the moment in time and the school where the project was made.” Boelen believes graduate shows must go beyond mere project display and should contribute to design discourse by offering proposals and treading new ground.

A possible alternative can be found in the Middle East. “A lot of [graduate] work is prototypical, but the impulse behind it is really understandable,” says Brendan McGetrick, creative director of the Museum of the Future in Dubai. “And then if you can speak to the authors about it, you can understand where they’re coming from.” McGetrick is the former director and current adviser of the Global Grad Show, which launched at Dubai Design Week in 2015 as an ambitious global survey of graduate work in design. In the first edition, the scheme comprised 10 schools and 35 projects; the most recent edition, which took place in November 2019, has grown to include more than 150 projects from 43 countries and more than 100 schools. As the venture expanded, “the main impetus was to really make it global, really put in the work to develop [it], particularly here in the region, but also Africa, South Asia, South America,” says McGetrick. “[We wanted to] make sure that places that really get ignored in the design press – and design conversations in general – are actively welcomed and approached.”

The projects are organised in clusters under broad themes – ‘Gender & equality’, ‘Healthcare’, ‘Sustainability’ – allowing schools to blend alongside each other, moving away from any kind of competitive edge. Because the show takes place in Dubai, a place where most passports are welcome and there are few visa restrictions, it is possible to fly all participants in. “That’s a unifying experience,” says McGetrick. “And I do very much feel that, particularly as we more and more come to understand that the West has kind of run out of ideas, it’s really important that we create spaces outside of the West for people to come together.” The Global Grad Show plants seeds for a design community connected through ideas and ways of making, rather than by nationality or school. It does not propose a competition among peers but seeks to connect lines of thought, offering inspiration and new proposals on how to think about contemporary issues. It displays objects, but, most importantly, it is full of ideas. And as with all other graduate shows, it brings people together, explores their similarities and differences, and does it all in a celebratory mood. Particularly in the “dark times” that we live in, McGetrick tells me, he finds reassurance in seeing young students come together. “You realise that we’re not out of ideas; we just have massive systemic problems getting those ideas to be taken seriously and be implemented.” He’s hopeful about the potential of this multi-national encounter of young people. “The way that young designers are being encouraged to think,” he concludes, “ultimately could lead to something much better.”