AUXILIARY is an independent industrial design school in Brisbane, Australia. Founded in 2014 by Neil Davidson, Leon Fitzpatrick, Carolyn Yip, and Leo Yip, it initially started as a tutoring group but quickly took on a more structured format.

Icsid had the opportunity to Skype with Neil, Leon, and Leo to find out more about the school, as well as ask the trio if they had any advice for fellow millennials entering the workforce.

As it turns out, the three were unaware of their own status as Gen Yers. After all, the four co-founders possess nearly 40 years of experience between them and cover the gamut of industrial design skills. They’ve worked in design firms and in the corporate world, which is where they came across the issue of graduates’ employability, which in turn led to the school.

Top image: AUXILIARY’s workshop facility at The Edge, State Library of Queensland

A challenge for universities

Designers today are asked to be proficient in multiple fields, from business, science, arts and humanities to design, and it’s a real challenge to fit all this into an undergraduate degree programme.

According to Neil, cutting back on training time for some of the basic skills has had a very real impact on young designers entering the field, especially in a market where more senior designers are also looking for work: “As creative director of a consultancy, I hadn’t employed a graduate in probably five or six years. The skills and the portfolios that were being presented were just not strong enough. And the training burden was getting too big.”

The four friends had spotted a gap between the core practical skills needed in industry and what young designers were presenting in job interviews. And from what they can tell, the issue is not unique to Australia. “I’m in the States quite frequently and I have colleagues at very nice studios and corporate design jobs and they say they have trouble finding students in the States now with the right skills, so they’re looking to Europe,” says Leon. “There’s something happening that we’ve obviously tuned into.”

“The universities were perhaps strong in forming critical thinking, design strategy and complex problem-solving techniques, but there was a gap in practical and tactical design skills that we needed in consultancy life,” explains Neil.

Neil refers to the ‘arts and sparks’ that are needed to train qualified designers: “You need facilities, which are dangerous, and dirty, and you need qualified people, trade-certified operators for those labs and workshops. It’s expensive. And it’s much easier to have a clean, cold classroom with a bunch of computers.”

He’s not the only one to have made these kinds of comments. Apple’s Jonathan Ive made similar remarks on a 2014 trip to the UK.

Addressing the gap

In true designer form, they approached the issue with some critical thinking before proposing a possible solution: AUXILIARY. As the name suggests, they see the school as a complementary service meant as a finishing and preparation programme, or series of programmes, for industrial designers to get into the workforce.

“We started out with the X programme, and it was to deliver industry-ready skills with a real-life client,” says Leo.

The PLUS programme is a pre-cursor of sorts to X, and came from the fact that the first time they ran X, it took them six weeks to get the students up to the level they needed to be.

“I guess the best way to explain that is to say that the PLUS programme is preparing you for a job, and developing your portfolio, whereas in an X programme you work with real clients, with real deliverables, and the outcomes are real,” adds Leo.

Not just for university grads

There are gaps elsewhere too. Leo talks about an increasing interest and enrolment in university design programmes, which may or may not correspond to an increase in jobs.

“For us the ONE programme was really about giving high school students an opportunity to understand exactly what it is to be an industrial designer and for them to figure out if it’s a career path that they want to take before going in and doing a four-year degree,” says Leo. “It also ends up reaching a wider community and gets people talking about design, understanding what it is.”

The group also strongly believes in being upfront about students’ prospects. With a student to teacher ratio of four to one, it’s easier to have those kinds of conversations. And if industrial design is not the right fit, they can help identify alternate paths in order to redirect efforts in a constructive way.

“During the X programme, which is an open-ended research brief, we had a few students who realized they loved ethnographic research, loved design thinking and design strategy but hated design engineering and tooling,” says Neil. “That experience gave them valuable insight and a solid platform to move forward with in their career.”

It’s hard out there

When talking about what Icsid has been hearing from young designers about the challenges they face—breaking into the industry is difficult, the value of design is poorly understood, entry-level positions require more experience than they have—the three agree that was part of the motivation to start AUXILIARY.

“It’s about that confidence to know your work is good, and to know who to talk to,” says Leon. “That’s what we’re trying to help with, not just a direct career path—here’s A, B, and C—but at least now you feel like you’re confident enough. You have your portfolio, and a website, and you can go talk to someone. We’re trying to demystify that link between education and employment.”

“We’re also big advocates of creating your own economy,” adds Leo. “You’ve got these hoards of students coming out and a lot of them have really good ideas, but like Neil said, they don’t have the technical capability to execute those ideas. So suddenly you have all these people who are out there who could be generating their own income, be generating their own economy, their own brands, yet they don’t have the technical skills to be able to do that. For us it’s incredibly frustrating to watch them.”

Because design doesn’t happen in a bubble

As much as the initial impetus might have been to provide young designers with the needed practical skills, they all agree that the programmes are also about developing professional practice and management skills: how to communicate professionally in a business context, project management, time management, etc., in order for students to be more entrepreneurial.

To achieve this, the last X programme was very much about working across disciplines. “We made sure that Sunbeam’s marketing, sales, innovation and product design teams were all involved in the development of that project,” says Neil. “So students were getting input from all pillars of the business.”

The hope is that students learn more about how to make an impact, whether as entrepreneurs starting their own business, or from within an organization.

“We want to instil them with the confidence and the knowledge, and if necessary the language, to communicate to their business peers and colleagues effectively,” adds Neil.

There are more than two or three viable career paths

Another way in which the group wants to help is by showing that there is indeed more than one way to reach goals and build a career. The ‘hero designer’ myth is still out there. As Neil puts it:

“The traditional concept is that you either go find a job in a consultancy, or a really kick-ass in-house design team. But in reality, you can go to an industrial park on the outskirts of Brisbane and work for an air-conditioning manufacturer and in that context you’ll learn 80% of the skills you need as a two-year working industry practitioner.

He goes on to say that a career can be built in stages, and that a bit of flexibility is often the best way forward. As for there being no opportunities out there, he disagrees.

“There are all these consultants working for businesses,” he says. “And when I talk to the CEOs of these businesses, they say ‘Oh, we’d happily employ an intern if they ever approached us, but we can never get any interest. That’s why we have to employ consultants.’ ”

AUXILIARY school grads recognized at Good Design Australia.

Sky’s the limit

So how is AUXILIARY faring so far? Graduates of the first X programme, completed in early 2015, were recognized by the Young Australian Design Awards, taking three of the top five awards. Among them, Angelina Kwan is currently working with 4 Pines Brewing on beer packaging for outer space… proving that the sky really is the limit.

What is your best advice for young designers?

Leon – Find yourself

“It’s about finding a way to listen to what you want to do. There are certain things that are very rational, like drawing and CAD. That stuff you can’t argue with. But when you’re looking at what point in the process you’re enjoying, and what you love to do, and what you lose yourself in, then you’ve got to listen to that. Don’t listen to anyone else who’s telling you there’s a perfect formula to be the perfect designer.

“Follow what your insides are telling you. If you do that, you will lose yourself in that thing. You have to find the right place then to learn it properly, and you’ll have to put the hours in. But you only put the hours in if you enjoy it.

“I’m an advocate of if you don’t like it, quit. Go do something else. Maybe just put another year in and then think about it? No, just get out there and do something else!”

Neil – Initiative and awareness

“There’s so much content available to you now in terms of resources and knowledge that if you’ve even got the slightest inkling that you’re not getting the knowledge or content you need… then YouTube it! Hop online, download a book, whatever needs to happen, and find the information.

“There’s also an industry awareness issue. You can learn so much from case studies of businesses that are actively putting their content out there. You can see the latest trends in technologies in design. It’s all there. When I have students come in for interviews I’m often surprised by their lack of knowledge of the industry. But it’s not hard to get online and find the information. Whether it be the history of our profession, or the history of our industry locally, make the effort to be informed.”

Leo – Stop asking permission and go out and take it

“We want to train designers to stop saying ‘oh please can I have a job’. That’s an underlying theme between the four of us. You should skill yourself up to the point that people want you, people want your input.

“And that applies to design as a whole. We see the value design can bring to not just business, but to society as a whole. We can make huge social changes, we can solve problems, we can do a lot of really good things with design. I think that for too long designers have been asking for permission. Can we do this? Can I please have a job? We have all the tools available now to empower us so that we can just go out and take it.”