Why art schools shouldn’t become universities

At my daughter’s school, the deputy head master asked her what she wanted to study at A level. She said she wanted to take Art, and Design-Technology, and Drama.

He said, “Ah yes, all the loser subjects.” That’s the view of the educational establishment.

Apparently, people who are going to be successful go to university. The losers go to art school.

I love that. Art schools are the best-kept secret in education.

People who haven’t been to art school think all you study is painting and sculpture. People who have been, know you study creativity. In all its aspects.

True, some people do actually end up doing painting or sculpture. But many more end up designing products, or packaging, or furniture, or fashion, or technology, or transport, or buildings, or making films, or theatre, or dance, or being photographers, or musicians, or actors.

Or even advertising.

Look around you. Unless it’s growing out of the ground, or walking or flying, there’s nothing you can see that wasn’t designed and manufactured. Everything around you was designed by someone who went to art school.

Here’s an amazing fact. Apparently, one in seven designers, worldwide, went to UK art schools.

In fact my wife came from Singapore to go to a UK art school. Because they don’t have art schools like ours in other countries.

Their art schools arec much more like universities. But our art schools have always been for rebels and rejects.

People who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get on with formal education. People who were successful within the system ended up at University. Rebels and rejects went to art school.

See creativity isn’t about the academic process. You can promote creativity, you can encourage creativity, you can provoke creativity, you can excite creativity, you can channel creativity.

But you can’t learn it. You can’t read a book about it, memorise it, pass a test in it, and then be able to do it.

Creativity is exactly about surprise. And that’s about rebellion. The opposite of the academic process.

Now the bad news.

The government have turned all UK art schools into universities. This serves their purpose of being able to say that more people are going to university. But it ruins art schools. Because now you have to get a degree.

Which means you have to show you can perform academically. Which means you have to write essays and be able to conform. Which pretty much kills the creativity.

I know at least 5 people, two of them are account men, who did a foundation course at art school. Then they dropped out and went to university. Because they couldn’t handle the chaotic art school atmosphere. The fact that you’re left to your own devices.

No one marks your work, or gives you a gold star. You get hardly any feedback. You’re on your own competing against dozens of others.

These people had been successful at school, all the way up to A levels. But they couldn’t handle the lack of discipline, the lack of guidance, that passes for teaching at art school.

So they went back into the system, which was much more reassuring. For people like these universities serve a very useful purpose. They turn out great formal thinkers.

But universities are not art schools. Universities are about left-brain thinking.

Art schools are about right brain thinking.

One is about analysing and understanding why someone has done something. One is about actually doing it.

One is about reason. One is about the intuitive leap.

Both are valid. Both are needed.

We shouldn’t sacrifice one to the other. By turning art schools into universities we may have killed off one half of the equation.

We may have thrown away our advantage.

  • Presumably you’ve come across Ken Robinson and his work on creativity, in particular this talk:


    And if you have longer, this one:


  • http://

    Thanks Sam,
    I know the first one, practically off by heart.
    But I hadn’t seen the second one. I’ll watch it tonight.

  • http://

    Dave. A gold star to you. If only the professional ranks would take note and follow suit again.

  • http://

    Robinson’s bit about the child shakespeare is pretty darn funny.

    But what if you study Shakespere’s work?

    Are you developing your creativity by learning from the master’s thought processes?

    Or are you curbing your creativity by analyzing it in a formal, linear fashion; writing essays about it?

    If you’re going to do well in the contemporary art world, you have to understand it to a pretty profound level, and the does require some formal research. If I delved head first into art without having studied what’s come before, the work I’d produce would probably be trite and theoretically irrelevant. Same goes for literature.

  • http://

    Didn’t the Japanese blockade all cultural references in the 19th century so as their view on the world would not be influenced by the outside?
    Don’t the French still try and do this?
    Is this an advantage or should we be aware of what has been done by others? Could it not result sometimes in creative paralysis?

  • http://

    Thomas and John,
    Of course I don’t have a problem with studying the past, that’s one valid way of learning
    Mike Tyson studied all the old films of Jack Dempsey, over and over.
    I have a problem with forced learning.
    Lao Tzu (and later Rousseau) said, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.”
    This shifts the teaching emphasis from being about cramming in information, to helping people fall in love with learning.
    Democritus said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
    I’m just saying some people need universities, some need art schools.
    Now they don’t have the choice anymore.

  • http://


    I agree, there should be more than one way to skin a cat.

  • http://

    I went to university and was rubbish at it.

    The fromality crushed me and I just couldn’t get on like I should’ve.

    My Dad desperately wanted someone in our family to go, so I obliged.

    Had a great time for three years but got little to show for it in terms of pieces of paper to say I was educatable.

    Learnt a lot about myself though.

    Sadly, people advising kids about careers only see two routes – university or menial tasks.

    If you didn’t know about art schools the option was never opened up to you.

    Seems now the option won’t even exist.

    Narrowing the horizons of the youth – never really a plan, is it?

  • I can still remember my father’s worried face when I told him I didn’t want to continue with physics and maths after high school and that I’d go to art school instead: “Oh, but why?! You’ve got so many possibilities, why throw them away like that???” (He’s an engineer and I used to be very good at maths and physics, chemistry and biology.) Of course now he’s very satisfied with the choice I made, but it seems it is a universal belief that art school is for losers. 🙂

    I don’t know what art school means (or used to mean) in the UK, but in my country it is a mix of academic learning and pure rebellion. In case you never imagined artistic anatomy teachers organising exams in pubs, with students having to pull real bones out of a huge bag and describe them in detail (the same way they do it at med school. Really the same way, trust me! – I’m talking about the description part, not the bone-lottery thing), then draw them (both realistically and artistically), now you know it does happen somewhere in this world – that’s the kind of art school I attended. (Yeah, of course it’s weird to see 30-40 young people with real bones on their tables, having a drink, talking, drawing, taking pictures etc., but… oh well, that’s why it’s called art school. I’m pretty sure we looked like cannibals.)

  • http://

    Hi Dave,

    Didn’t go to Art School, got put off by disillusioned students.
    Didn’t go to Uni. Too immature.
    Went down the pub instead and had a grood time.
    Started work as a visualiser because I loved drawing.
    Got a job, paid to learn all the skills from the kids who went to art school.
    My dad called it ‘earnin and learnin’.
    Probably explains a lot, but I had a lot of fun doing it.
    Stopped going down the pub and took an OU Degree in Psychology
    ( just to see if working in advertising had left me any brain cells.)
    They had!
    It was like exchanging one hangover for another.
    They wanted me to answer questions like a parrot.
    Regurgitating the thoughts of others rather than having original ideas.
    In one tutorial I remember the guy next to me saying:-
    H: “Do you have any idea what this American Professor is talking about?”
    K: “Not a clue.”
    H: “I dont think he does either.”
    I got low grades, so did Einstein.
    Schema theory and constructs explains it all anyway.
    Who cares. It’s all talk.

    The headmaster was pushing my son to go to Cambridge.
    K: “What do you want son?”
    P: “I want to go to Manchester and do Music”
    K: “Go” I said.
    3 years later. 1st Class Hons with Distinction.
    Why? because he followed his heart, not is mathematical brain.
    He’s very happy now. He’s just qualified as a physiotherapist.
    He even helped me out with some of my studies.

    My daughter was kicked out of Biology classes
    She was so angry, she went anyway.
    By the time they found out it was too late to change the timetable.
    she’s hellbent on being a Doctor, and she will be one day
    because, like me, she has an unstoppable passion.
    She is now top in class in Biology and Chemistry.

    Education and work should be treated separately.
    My cousin (Oxford Don) told me once:-
    “Education is there to exercise your mind, not get a job.”
    I’ve always remembered that.
    He doesn’t look down on anyone.
    I like that.

    There are no loser subjects in school.
    Art School is not for losers, it’s for people who think differently.
    It’s Pride & Prejudice, and it’s abhorrent.
    Tell your daughter from me “the head’s a twat”.
    and when she’s successful, he’ll still be a twat!

  • http://

    “I got low grades, so did Einstein.”
    Try not to sound too self-important Kevin.

    But i do agree with your cousin that the purpose of education is to exercise the mind, not got you a job. I know that my degree in English Lit & Philosophy has helped me better understand my place in the world, and opened up realms of thought i would never have discovered otherwise. It’s enriching.

    There’s plenty of time for working after.

    Though I am unemployed – and have been since I graduated three months ago. Maybe all this ‘exercising the mind’ explains unemployment rates.

  • http://

    Hi Thomas,

    Apologies if I sounded too self-important in my last post.
    Your advice is good.
    I can see how it may have put a few backs up unintentionally.
    I have no intention of comparing myself with Einstein (or his wife).
    I was writing in a fit of anger, but I’ve cooled down now.

    It’s just that teachers were the bane of my life.
    They judged you before you had a chance to judge yourself.
    My Art Teacher even interfered in my Art A level
    and I’m sure I got a low mark because of it.
    It’s the old Pink Floyd Brick in the wall thing.

    One maths teacher “Burgy” was a real nasty piece of work.
    Impatient, aggrerssive, he used to shout at you if you asked him to explain maths!!!
    And if you asked him to repeat himself, you got a board rubber thrown at you.
    Thankfully, education, and the local school glazier have moved on a bit since then.
    I met him at a petrol station a few years ago and said hello. This was a mistake.
    I left thinking: “He was an A-hole at school and is still an A-hole today.”

    Why don’t authorities don’t let kids have a year out before A-level studies.
    Let them taste the world behind the till at Asda, or delivering Parcels, or working in care homes to get “a reality check” before they recommence their studies.
    Surely it would give some children a greater sense of purpose and interest.
    It would also prevent teachers from talking-down to students.

    Children, teenagers, are extremely impressionable people. They damage easily.
    I watched the second Ken Robinson RSA talk posted by Sam Roberts yesterday. There’s a bit in it about how we lose our creativity as we grow up. It’s just incredible.
    Thanks Sam.

  • http://

    Hi Kevin,
    I definitely agree about a year’s work before A levels.
    I left school after O levels and worked in a factory for a year.
    I couldn’t wait to get back to do A levels.
    That year out taught me what the point of further education was.
    And that it was a privilege, not a right.
    It was healthy dose of the real world.

  • I ‘expanded my mind’ for 2 years of art school but then needed 3 years of proper university to organise it, which proved to be an expensive way to go about things! 5 years is far too long to spend studying something that you can only truly learn through hands on experience.

    To get the best of both worlds, my advice to anyone who is leaving college or advising students wishing to ‘do design’ or its associated fields, would be to opt for an art school foundation that allows access to the second half of a relevant BA course somewhere else. 3 years after college is plenty enough.

  • http://

    Hi Dave,

    Snap. I spent 6 weeks in a Factory over the School holidays in Bexleyheath making naff products called “Bonzer” cocktail dispensers for the pub trade and industrial can openers for the catering industry. If they had made that song:
    “The best day of my life was the day I died” I’d have bought it that summer.
    Every day I hammered the same rivet into the same space. I woke up one night
    in bed physically operating the foot pedal and decided enough was enough.

  • http://

    My personal view about the difference is as follows.
    University is about the end of the academic process.
    Whereas art school was about the beginning of the rest of your life.
    Consequently, people at university got their degree and then thought about what they’d like to do with their life.
    Art school gradually narrowed your field of study down to a chosen career.
    First year, study everything.
    Second year, choose eitrher fine arts or design.
    Third year, choose specific field of study.
    Final year, build up portfolio in your specific major.
    So you hit the bricks with an advantage over the competition.
    Most university grads have degrees in anything but their eventual career.
    Most creatives (not just advertising) have degrees in what they’re going to be doing.
    The university theory is that simply having any degree shows you have the necessary intellect and aptitude.
    I don’t think that works anymore.
    Not now every college, every polytechnic, every art school (of whatever quality) has been turned into a university.
    The currency’s been devalued.

  • http://

    The university of life is where it’s at?

  • http://

    University and Art colleges for that matter are just the start of the next stage of the academic process.

    Once you stop learning, you stagnate.

  • Im wondering if the generally uppity nature of established art schools is compensating for everyone else thinking that they’re for ‘losers’? Luckily here at Lincoln the tutors have found ways to teach as an art school and mark as a University.

    As student rep I’ve had comments that this, our final year, does not have enough teaching time (we are with tutors for about 1-2 hours a week I would guess) but I agree that to be creative we have to be left to our own devices for the most part. I doubt in an agency there will be someone hanging around to answer questions like ‘do you think it’s a good idea?’ – eventually we will have to decide for ourselves!

  • I remember vividly the day I went to see my careers tutor at the A level stage.

    I was 18 and said that I wanted to get into advertising.

    I asked which adveritsing course I should do.

    He said “courses with advertising in the title are for the johnny-come-likleys.”

    Instead he recommended a more academic degree, assuring me that employers would rather me have that than a more vocational qualification.

    I can’t help sense that’s an attitude which lingers in the corridors of certain institutions, but one which is becoming increasingly outdated.

    Having got my degree a few months back, I’m now lookin at doing another course next year. One with the word advertising in the title.

    I hope getting a degree first has made me a little more world-aware, thus helping me to write better ads. But ultimatley, the course which I hope to get on next year will be one of the more creative variety.

    Who says you can’t have the best of both worlds (student finance permitting)?

    If you have a degree in something like History, English Lit, Philosophy, Sociology, Psychology etc. I think iIt’s pretty much written, now, that you have to get another qualification to equip you with some real skills after you’ve done ‘playing the academic’ for a few years. At least that’s how I feel.

    In fact, I can hardly get a job with mine. I’m told I’m over qualified for entry level jobs – but don’t have any tangible skills needed for higher level roles.

    This catch-22 may well explain why so many young people are finding it hard to get on the employment ladder. A dated mode of thinking – out of sync with the real world situation – is creating a back log of bright people, who are unable to do very much at all.

  • http://

    Hi Thomas,
    If you want to get onto the creative side of advertising, check out Watford.
    It’s a one-year course, mainly post-grads.
    If you email me I’ll send you details.

  • http://

    Yesterday we lived in an age of questions.
    Now we live in an age of answers.

    The problem is, few people are asking questions any more.
    How many times have you heard “Don’t even go there.”
    Inquiry is the foundation of all ideas.

    If you want to study for a degree,
    you don’t even have to go near a library.
    You can, Google, Wiki, or Bing-it.
    Then you get the nice answers,
    and nice answers get nice marks,
    and that looks all “Luvvy Duvvy.”

    Like I read on a T-Shirt once:-
    “The World owes you nothing.”

    What does this mean?
    It means we have people walking around waving bits of paper saying:
    “I know a bit about everything and a lot about nothing.”
    “I can ice a cake to make it look great even when it’s crawling with worms.”

    What does this mean to people who have studied thoroughly?
    1. It demeans their expertise in favour of exam-passers.
    2. It places the idiot in control.
    3. It devalues commonsense and replaces it with intellectual pride.

    The grand theory of unstable thinking:-
    Let’s take a look at grand theories:
    Dumb has a grand theory; All cows have four legs.
    Dumber has a theory; All tables have four legs.
    Dumb and Dumber has a new theory; All cows are tables.
    They are hailed as masters of the new online universe.

    Nonsense I hear you cry?

    Company A buys a business with a hole in it.
    He sells it to company B.
    Company B discovers after purchase, there’s a hole in it.
    So company B sells it to company C for more money
    to make it “Look Good”
    Company C panics after it discover’s it’s bought a doughnut
    with a dirty great black festering hole in the middle of it.
    Word gets around.
    Company C is now saddled with the collective nonsense
    started by Company A, exacerbated by company B.

    Sound familiar?

    Doh !

  • http://
  • http://

    Thanks Dave. That’s the course I had in mind, but I hear it’s devlishly hard to get on to.

    I’m getting my application together at the moment, while I have all this time on my hands. And I’m reading as much as I can. Following every blog too. Tony Cullingham recommended yours!

  • http://

    Go onto the agency website http://www.cstadvertising.com and download the booklet HOW TO GET YOUR FIRST JOB IN ADVERTISING.
    I think Tony expects everyone to have read that before they start.

  • http://

    Hi Thomas,

    Dave is THE MAN.

    You are doing the right things and you will succeed. I wasted 15 years swanning around crappy agencies wondering what I had done wrong to deserve all this misery. I thought nobody understood me, began to doubt myself and then I read Dave’s book and everything fell into place. Their loss is your gain. Good luck.

  • http://


    Maybe you could look for other art colleges out there, other than Watford, that are more like Avis?

  • http://

    Learnt more in the first three months on the job, than in the previous four years of studying. But, brother, those four years were the best ever.

  • To form opinions you must challenge them. Violate probability. Some agencies will give more than one team the same brief and pick ‘the best work’. Sometimes that’s a good practice. Other times not. What can be the real test is if, once the work is done, switch the work round. The teams swop concepts and present/sell each other’s work. Boy does that break the rhythm, test their understanding and reveals their capacity for objectivity. I went to art school. It’s good to argue against your own train of thought. Rebel against your own manifesto. Otherwise, you can become a little smug and play at being a ‘creative’ surrounded by other ‘creative’ people. I get a buzz out of being totally wrong about something. Hopefully not all the time, but you get my gist.

  • http://


    …on the flipside there is always a reason that another college isn’t no.1.

  • http://

    Wanted to be a creative since I was 6. Kept my old man happy and went to Uni to do Biochemistry. Did that and went round the corner to Saatchis and asked them to hire me. Bill Muirhead told me to f**k off and learn my trade. Turned out that I was a good copywriter. Then went to the Art School of Life. Went back at Saatchis as a CD many years later. Wish I had gone to art school though. Well done Mr Trott. This blog is recommended reading for any sixth former wanting to do Media studies at some Bullshit Uni

  • http://

    Hi Dave, I’m a graduate of The School of Communication Arts that used to exist under John Gillard’s tutelage, god rest his soul. What was so inspirational about that establishment was that it allowed people like me, who’d missed the creative boat in formal education, to discover and nurture their creative instincts way past degree level. I was 29 before i realised I had the capacity and the drive to want a career in creativity. I never imagined, not being able to draw, that such opportunities existed. John opened my eyes.
    The demise of the SCA has left a huge hole that is yet to be filled. I believe it’s very hard for young people at the age of 18/19 to have identified their strengths and weaknesses and to ally those to a career choice. And reative development has always struck me as a much slower burn than other fields.
    I appreciate all you’ve said about art school and fully concur. I’d add that, without being able to draw, that avenue is closed to many people who are genuinely creative. I’d like to see a whole new tier of educational establishment formed of creative schools – places that legitimise and encourage the development of creativity in all its forms. John taught us to have bloody good ideas of any kind. He worried much less about where and how those ideas would be applied. if they were good, they found a natural home.
    Apparently, this nation leads the world in creativity. This is in spite of the educational establishment, certainly not because of it. Regards, James