7 Things This Academic Learned from the World of Brand and Design

Design library, reorganized by topic
Design library (Photo credit: juhansonin)

I spent a postgraduate gap year working for the brand and design agency Ingenious Rapport, first in business development and then shortly after as Creative Account Manager.  In addition to working with some extraordinary colleagues (indeed, some leaders in the field), I had the opportunity to work on thrilling accounts, including a major UK bank, government agency, and several popular restaurants.  The experience was as eye-opening as it was edifying.   From thinking about how to use super high-speed personalized printing to promote books and cars, to tracking down someone who could make me a giant illuminated sign in 48 hours, my days were filled with extraordinary (and often extraordinarily fun) commissions.  I also learned a bit about print and digital design, social media, and the business world in general through the process, all of which has contributed to my approach to teaching, research, and academic practice.

  1. Design does matter. It was fascinating to see the design process take place.  A key part of my job was to meet with clients and figure out what it was they needed and how they wanted their brand to be communicated through print and/or digital media.  I then translated that into a brief for the designers, who would take it from there.  Serving as the intermediary between the designers and the client, I was often right at the centre of debates between design and practicality, between function and form, and I took one important thing away from this:  people choose to spend their time with the objects that intrigue them most.  This doesn’t just apply to advertising and websites, but to everything around us.  And, because of this, I have maintained my interest in design and typography into my academic life.  Is it something to become obsessive about?  Perhaps not.  But using BlairMdITC rather than Times New Roman for a syllabus is a simple detail that can make a difference to how your ideas are viewed, understood, and remembered.
  2. Paper matters too.  In the design studio there was a large cabinet filled with reams of paper samples, one small piece of which would hopefully be perfect for the job at hand.  For one client I had to track down special bespoke paper that was made with the sediment from the beer making process (not an easy paper to find, as it turns out).  And not only did we spend lots of time looking at and experimenting with beautiful paper, we also used lots of paper in our day-to-day business. Of course, there were countless MacBooks and iPads floating around the office, but everyone had his or her own trusty notebook as an analogue friend. As an academic I do have a strong interest in technology and the digital humanities, and I know that technology has improved or at least supported my learning and teaching in many ways.  However, I have never lost my appreciation for the printed page, and know that some lovely paper (whether 350gsm or not) will be a part of my professional life for a very long time indeed.
  3. The process of publication is a long and strenuous one for both the writer and the publisher. I saw first hand the huge number of people–from designers to artworkers to typesetters–involved in producing even simple, small publications.  It’s a lengthy process that requires a huge amount of experience and ability in different areas.  As an academic I now have a much better appreciation for the work that editors and publishers do, and understand the kinds of pressures and constraints they are under.  I’ve also realized that I had better check my work thoroughly even before the final proof phase–while it might seem like a small amend to the author, it could create several hours of re-typesetting in studio.
  4. Social media makes you into your own PR agent, and that is a really exciting thing if you know how to work it.  Far from being restricted in our social media use, we were actively encouraged to have a lively digital presence and to merge our personal and professional selves into a coherent whole.  This has continued into my academic life in a big way.  My Twitter account has always been freely available for anyone–student or colleague–to follow.  While I don’t actively promote my Twitter account to students, I recognize that the way I represent myself on Twitter should be in line with the way I would represent myself any day of the week to anyone.  (Facebook, however, is reserved for the personal connections that exist in the real world–I would never use Facebook for any learning and teaching purposes.)
  5. If there’s a problem, there’s also a solution. It wasn’t the end of the week until there was at least one crisis–a grand opening moved forward, a video with an incomprehensible voice-over, a last minute project to be pushed through at all costs.  I had my fair share of heart-stopping panic, but also had some incredibly experienced account handlers around me who reminded me that if there’s a problem, there’s also a solution. I’ve certainly had my fair share of similar experiences in academia, but now realize that with the proper support from a good team (see below for more on that) a solution can always be found.
  6. A sense of community is vital to producing good work. There was loads of hard work and countless late nights, but the extraordinary sense of community in the agency kept everyone happily producing outstanding work for our clients.  One of our favourite traditions was Friday Picnic.  Every Friday afternoon we would take some time to sit around the big table in the centre of the office and munch on picnicky nibblies while regaling in the week just gone.  Friday Picnic had expanded into Friday Show-and-Tell by the time that I had left, and we also had pumpkin carving contests, baking contests, and more than a handful of karaoke nights.  Academia can often seem to be an insular profession, punctuated only by occasional conferences.  But there is a great deal to be said for fostering a sense of departmental community.
  7. The outside world cannot be ignored. Everything from Scandinavian noir to the latest album from Hot Chip was a topic of conversation in the office.  Monday mornings were often given over to discussions of the latest happenings, and everyone in the shop was eager to lend books and music, or to recommend the latest restaurants or galleries.  This was, certainly, all part of the sense of community fostered in the agency, but there was also a practical business part to all this real-world, pop-culture interest: in the world of brand and design, we had to intimately know about what was going on in the world around us.  During my PhD I found myself often entirely removed into a world of research, scholarship, and my specialist topics, but I have discovered that remaining part of the outside world is critical not only to teaching but to research as well.

4 thoughts on “7 Things This Academic Learned from the World of Brand and Design

  1. I really like this idea of a “postgraduate gap year”–especially in the context of digital humanities/cultural studies/design. And I think that you are right–there is a lot that humanities people can offer to the business world.

  2. Thanks, Tracy! Yeah, I definitely hope that knowledge transfer in the humanities isn’t just consigned to the most obvious partners–there’s a lot to learn for everyone involved.

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