What do I look for in applicants?

Di Downs is Head of Textile Design and Fashion Marketing.

I have a friend who, having grown up in a large energetic family, is hard wired to turn almost every everyday occurrence into a game or competition. So in the car we are challenged to guess how many empty pallets will be stacked outside the builder’s merchant when we drive past, how many empty crates at the back door of the pub. Sitting around the kitchen table you might suddenly be asked: what would you do if (some ludicrously improbable event, like a crazed bull rushing in the back door) happened right now? And eventually: if you could only use one word to describe such and such, what would it be?

And at this time of year, when we are preparing to welcome prospective students and their parents to open days, working out how to show what we do and how to answer their questions, I sometimes find myself thinking like my friend – though hopefully without the more improbable elements – and ask myself: if I could only use one word to describe what we need from applicants, what would it be?

What’s the thing that people always want to know? It’s often ‘What do you look for in a portfolio?’ I always carefully list the ideal composition of a successful portfolio: drawing, more drawing, more visual research, experimentation, development of ideas, colour, pattern…. the list goes on.

But if I could only use one word? It’s this: curiosity.

In the world of design curiosity certainly didn’t kill the cat, it’s what seeds invention, and innovation, and provides the buzz of the new we crave. Curiosity feeds our excitement, curiosity feeds curiosity.

Curiosity is being excited by the world, curiosity is seeing nothing as irrelevant.

What if…? What happens when…? How does this work…? What do those people do…? Where does this path lead…? What if we did this differently…?

Curiosity creates an agile mind. Key to success in the design world is your strength in problem solving. The key to problem solving is seeing alternatives. If you are curious you naturally have a bank of information and alternative ideas at your disposal, and even if you have forgotten some snippet or nugget the well trained subconscious is incredibly good at retrieving what’s needed. The more you feed your mind the more ideas you have; the wider the range of things you look at, the more connections you can make.

It’s true that if you followed this advice as far as you possibly could, you’d probably experience some kind of sensory overload. Curiosity doesn’t mean you have to look at everything, of course you have to be selective – it’s about not being restrictive in what you look at, read, listen to. It’s being open minded. As designers we soon learn that we have to be able to quickly move beyond our own personal tastes, our favourite colours, and designing for people just like us. Curiosity makes this possible.

And if, by the way, we can manage to team curiosity with empathy and understanding of others, then we really are on the way to something clever.



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