Design for industry: creating a level playing field to accommodate multiple live briefs

Published in July 2016

Introduction

The use of an external Live Project brief within a formal academic environment can bring with it logistical and conceptual challenges.  Where students are required to seek out, secure and respond to their own client-led brief, the added variables are likely to compound these challenges.  But the potential benefits are significant: students have the opportunity to gain authentic experience of client liaison and industrial activity.  A key challenge for academic staff is the management of such a situation, accommodating a rich and diverse set of possible outcomes whilst ensuring that students’ learning opportunities are not compromised.  Exploring a long-running module that has attempted to address these challenges, this article outlines the key issues that module staff have identified, and how associated risks have been mitigated.

Design for Industry (DFI) is an established final year module for games and animation students delivered by the School of Media, Design and Technology at the University of Bradford. This 40-credit module is built around groups of students securing live briefs from ‘real-world’ clients and producing creative media products such as games, animations, videos and websites.

The module provides a clear example of ‘situated learning’, the process that emphasises “activity in and with the world; and the view that agent, activity, and the world mutually constitute each other” . The module has evolved over two decades to ensure that the initiation, monitoring and evaluation of multiple and diverse project briefs can be accommodated.  To ensure its continued fitness for purpose, the module has been refined both by experience and in the implementation of the University’s Curriculum Framework for taught programmes .

The Curriculum Framework ensures that the University’s programmes incorporate a number of key features that provide a consistency of student experience. One of these that is aimed at enhancing employability requires programmes to feature ‘real-world and experiential learning’: the live briefs of the Design for Industry module suitably fulfil this requirement by giving students the opportunity to test their skills with external project clients. The four elements identified as being encapsulated in live projects: ambition, community, creativity and real clients are particularly important to the pedagogical strategy of the programme and especially in the final year as students are accelerating along their graduation trajectory.

Working for an industrial client clearly impacts positively on the level of ambition that students attach to their project work. While many will undoubtedly push themselves to meet academic assessment criteria, sometimes these criteria can appear rather sterile, using language that can make them seem disconnected from the professional world, despite input from industry throughout their development. Academically, project work often has a large reflective component related to the process of the activity and evaluation. The product itself is often of secondary importance, which is entirely reasonable as the emphasis is on the students’ intellectual development. The educational context encourages considered risk-taking and active reflection. This is in sharp contrast to the stark commercial realities of real-world media production where success is measured entirely on the end product.

Although teamwork is an integral part of the School’s programmes during the initial years of any degree, students are exploring multiple subject and skill domains – they are learning their ‘trade’ both intellectually and materially. The programmes provide a general grounding in media production before allowing students to specialise towards the second half of their degree. This means that the specialists that allow a production team to flourish only start to emerge in the final year. The conscious specialisation and increased awareness of personal strengths, weaknesses, and career intent, enable students to adopt roles that reflect their post-graduation ambition. For the first time within their degree programmes, students on the Design for Industry module have both the desire and skill to fulfil a role within a production team at an industrial level. Also for the first time, students are working professionally within a group with a role defined by skill rather than chance. The consequence of clear areas of specialisation is a respect for each other’s contribution and the acknowledgement that the project needs complementary skillsets to be successful. This mutual need is the basis for a creative community. The sense of team is made more vivid by the introduction of an outsider in the form of the client. The client shares (or rather defines) the goal but approaches the project from an entirely different perspective.

Finally, live projects stimulate a new level of creativity. For many students, it is a new form of creativity – not the open, experimental, blue sky creativity of academic productions but a pragmatic creativity where ambitions are bound by the practicalities of time and money, where risk-taking cannot be allowed to damage the final product and where client expectations supersede the student’s own vision. As recognise in architectural education, so in animation and games courses: ‘Live Projects expose the social, cultural and political processes of both design and construction’. These are critical professional considerations. Projects give students experience of moral and ethical issues in the real world in a way that is much more tangible than that which comes from purely academic activity. Furthermore, as Morrow et al. conclude: ‘creative engagement with reality, despite its challenges, enriches rather than impoverishes design’ ( in ).

History and context of the Design for Industry module

The programmes that incorporate the Design for Industry module have a long history, dating back to an innovative degree course launched in 1991 in what would now be termed ‘digital media’. The emphasis of this original programme was the interface of art and technology, allowing students to experiment and develop a wide range of media products from CDROMs to TV productions and even fledgling websites. Professional production and development facilities were utilised and the curriculum was designed in collaboration with the media industry.

Since those early days, the programmes in this area have diversified and specialised, resulting in courses that focus on different areas of the media industry. One aspect that has remained unchanged however is the emphasis on industry-centred group work in the final year. Naturally, this has evolved and developed to be almost unrecognisable when compared to that original module.

The programmes that incorporate the Design for Industry module are the games, animation and visual effects undergraduate programmes at Bradford . The nature of these programmes and the careers that the graduates will go on to mean that there is an emphasis on team-based work. Whilst it is possible in isolated cases to forge a solo career, the vast majority of the work in these fields is in multi-skilled teams, often on multi-platform products. This work requires excellent collaborative problem solving and communication skills both within the project team and with external agents. The programmes must foster these skills and allow students to find and explore their own ways of working in such environments if they are to be successful contributors to their chosen industry.

There are opportunities to work in teams throughout the programmes, varying from teams of two or three students on small assignments to larger teams of four or five working on more substantial projects. These are within a ‘safe’ environment that might often incorporate input or feedback from professionals, but will centre on projects that are always assessed by tutors in a traditional way. The Design for Industry module adds the client relationship to the mix, whilst operating within a standard academic module, i.e. students must deliver the final product to an external client in addition to submitting the work directly to tutors.

The value and challenge of diversity

The nature of both the student body and the range of project briefs mean that dealing with and taking advantage of diversity is at the heart of this module. This diversity takes a number of different forms, each of which requires its own strategy.

Students and teams

Teams are assembled specifically for this module from the games, animation and visual effects BA and BSc programmes.  Whilst these students will have already shared the learning experience on some core modules, both their academic and personal backgrounds will range from creative artists to skilled technicians.

As the programmes recruit internationally, the students often have very different cultural backgrounds, with UK students working alongside overseas students. Some of the students will have entered the final year directly from similar programmes at other institutions. This means that there is a combination of students who are well known to each other and staff, and newcomers who are less well known, as might be the case when assembling a team of freelancers and core staff to develop a media project in industry.

Of course there are other differences, such as personality, preferences and personal commitments that must also be taken into account when assembling teams and selecting roles. Therefore the strategies for selecting team members and their roles, and supporting the team’s development and growth need to be carefully considered to incorporate these factors. The challenge is compounded by the relatively short gestation period that teams have before they have to start working on their projects.

Project briefs

The creative industries offer a diverse range of project formats, including animations, games, videos and websites or hybrid combinations, all involving specific challenges. These project formats differ in terms of scale and skillset required to deliver them, as well as how closely they relate to the students’ experience to date. Some students may well have completed numerous character animation projects and find themselves working on a brief incorporating a large element of this. Others may have had limited experience in developing web-based games and may be on a team developing just such a project. Hence the selection of project briefs in the first instance and ensuring these differences do not make the assessment process unfair are essential parts of the module’s design.

Even when a suitable brief has been identified, the project specification can vary significantly. Some may contain little more than an outline aim such as “we need to raise awareness of our charity”, or conversely provide very detailed information, e.g. “we need a promotional web-based game using our corporate style guidelines and targeting specific market demographics”. These two extremes will result in different requirements at the early stages of the project and in terms of the skillset required to deliver these successfully, even though both are realistic in terms of real briefs given to digital agencies. Again, there is a need to accommodate this diversity whilst providing an equitable framework for the students’ work.

Clients

Along with the diversity of the briefs and level of specification comes the variety of the clients themselves. Some may be media professionals with expectations of ways of working and regimes of contact. Others may never have commissioned a media product before (e.g. charities or small traditional businesses) and so come with few or misplaced preconceptions of the size and scope of the deliverable, or their input into the production process.

Both these situations offer opportunities and challenges: the expert may try to impose their particular preferences on the team, which may or may not be appropriate. The expert-client will certainly be able to offer some insight into the way the industry might work; novices will often give more freedom to the team. There will also be differences in communication between the team and the client. Some commissioners will expect regular contact, closely monitoring progress and requiring input into every decision. Others may be more detached, allowing greater freedom but reducing opportunities for guidance. Some may be local, allowing face-to-face meetings at short notice. Others may be overseas in a different time zone, meaning that even online discussions must be carefully planned.

All these areas of diversity must be taken into account in the module’s design and delivery. This creates significant challenge for its academic aims, but the inevitable loss of uniformity is offset by the authentic replication of work-based situations.

Strategies for a level playing field

Throughout the evolution of this module, tutors have developed strategies to ensure that the diverse possibilities are treated equitably.

Building teams

There are two aspects to this: the selecting of group members and the building of a team-working environment.

Constituting the teams has used a number of strategies over the years, ranging from random selection to allowing self-forming groups. Although all approaches run the risk of creating dysfunctional groups, the most successful approach has combined personality profiling of the students, and in particular the Belbin test , with skillset and media preferences.

Once students are allocated into groups, effort must be invested in making each collection of students function as a team. A ‘warm-up’ live brief is given to all teams as an introductory formative exercise. This allows them to create their own working framework and to explore the practicalities of their team roles. It enables students and tutors to define expectations and to identify teammates’ skills and working styles. The fact that all the teams are working to the same initial brief allows a shared learning experience as students see how other groups approach the project and working together.

Selecting project briefs

During the main project definition period, possible briefs are discussed with tutors in terms of subject matter, media type(s) and size/scope. The experience built up over many years allows the identification of most potential risks, such as bad communication with clients, poorly defined briefs or clients who have a personal connection to one of the students. Resolving these issues may require the students or tutors to renegotiate the brief with the client or in extreme cases reject it entirely and seek an alternative.

Supporting and guiding the teams

Although the connection to the client offers an essential professional aspect to this module, this can in itself present problems.

As has already been identified, the novice-client generally has either unrealistically high expectations (“I just need a Pixar short to promote my company”) or inappropriately low ones (“a small animated graphic on the homepage would be sufficient”). The teams may be so grateful to have a real client and/or inexperienced in dealing with customers that they may agree to either of these extremes, both equally damaging to the outcome of the project.

The expert-client may offer different but equally problematic issues, especially as they may try and shape both the working practices and approach to realisation of the brief. Whilst of course this industry input is extremely valuable and in many ways the raison d’etre of the module, the vested interest in the deliverable may affect the objective view of the client.  Experience has shown that it often causes the students to present a somewhat unrealistic picture of progress to the client, meaning that useful feedback can be difficult to provide.

To address all of these issues, teams are supported by industry mentors from the University’s Digital Media Working Academy (DMWA). The DMWA is a unique hybrid agency run by media professionals with the aim of giving students commercial work during their studies and after graduation . The commercial projects are produced by students, but under the guidance of a professional mentor from the appropriate industry, ensuring that work is undertaken and delivered in a professional way.

This model has been adapted and applied to the Design for Industry projects, meaning that students get regular contact with an industry mentor who is not their client but can offer objective impartial advice and guidance about the approach, working methods and even client management without having a vested interest in the final product.

The essential element to this is that the mentor has no input into the assessment process (which is made clear to both the teams and the mentor at the outset), which provides a sound platform for the students to be honest about their progress and problems: there is no advantage in them claiming ‘all is well’ in the hope that this will get them better grades. Just as Swanson’s experiment with live projects in the classroom demonstrated the role of tutor as broker between client and student , so mentors act as essential ‘critical friends’, liaising as required, with the added advantage that students feel more comfortable with these over tutors as they are divorced from the academic process.

Assessment strategy

Design for Industry utilises a multipart assessment strategy with a number of formative and summative components.  The strategy has been developed to ensure that diverse individual learners are accommodated, having ample opportunities to make significant contributions to their team’s activity, and that each team is encouraged to bond, and compare and contrast their progress with that of fellow teams undertaking other projects.  The four presentations in particular allow each team to benchmark their own collective efforts against their peers.

Credentials pitch presentation (5% weighting)

This first, low-stakes presentation usually takes place one week after teams have initially been announced.  It simply involves a one-minute section from each individual team member, foregrounding what they feel to be their main practical skills and aspirations, and then a further minute’s worth of provisional thoughts about the type of project that the team might seek out as a live brief.  Presenters are not allowed to use PowerPoint or similar presentation technology, partly because of the high-energy nature of the timeslots, but also because this constraint tends to frame the presentation as something of a creative challenge.  With all of the teams presenting together, those who approach this somewhat innocuous task with flair prompt the other teams to think more carefully about what they will need to do in future, to be recognised as similarly original thinkers.  For example, one group might interpret the format loosely and more ambitiously by deciding that each team-member will introduce one of their new colleagues in the space of a minute’s presentation, as opposed to presenting themselves.  This has the positively multiplying effect of showing staff that they are prepared to take a risk, have already made the effort to ‘bond’, and that they are keen to stand out as being creative thinkers.

Proposal presentation (10% weighting)

Once teams have discussed their prospective live brief at the first formal tutorial with module staff, they present that brief, and their intended response to it.  Depending on the nature of the project, client details, required resources and other logistical considerations will be outlined at this stage, along with early visual design ideas, technical tests and/or proof of concept work.  Some project planning is invited though it is recognised that budget and schedule information will inevitably be prone to change.

Progress presentation (10% weighting)

The third presentation primarily acts as a demonstration of work in progress, and usually includes some reflection on how the working relationship with the client has been functioning, and how any potential end users have been involved with the project’s development along the way.  As with the previous two presentations, all groups are expected to attend, so this presentation allows everyone to benchmark each other’s progress. By now teams are working with their mentors, who will have advised them on presenting in this context.  But as stated, the mentors do not attend as they are kept separate from the assessment process.

Final project and presentation (35% weighting)

The largest single assessment component includes submission and presentation of the final project.  In a sense, the presentation acts as a product launch: it might adopt a tone to a level of corporate, polished professionalism or a more theatrical and creative approach.  In parallel, it should include a sober and reflective analysis of how difficult working relationships were maintained (whether intra-team or with client or end-user).  The latter will obviously need to be handled very diplomatically in cases where the project client takes time to attend the team’s final presentation, which they are invited to do.

Peer marks (10% weighting)

There are two separate points (one at the end of each semester) where teams are required to submit a set of peer marks.  Marking criteria is provided, and guidance is given as to how to apply it, and how to approach the very sensitive nature of peer marking. The first peer marking exercise can be challenging, given that teams still have to work together for another semester on their main project.  Marks and the marking process are discussed in a dedicated tutorial with module staff, and where teams have clearly felt that a particular division of roles has not been working effectively, they are encouraged to consider experimenting with a fresh approach. For example, if it is clear that someone originally chosen as team leader has not performed well in the role, it might be suggested that duties are switched around in the second half of the project.

The second peer marking process has different challenges. Since the need to continue working together is removed, students may feel more comfortable offering a full and honest appraisal of other team members’ performance. However, if not carefully managed this can result in grudges being exposed and students venting their frustrations. Although the mentors have no input into this, their role can help, as the students are more open with them during the project lifetime. Ideally, any mismatch between the perceived and real performance of team members will already have been exposed in the safe environment of mentor meetings.

Individual report (20% weighting)

A final reflective report is required from each individual team member.  This should include analysis of the team role methodology, and any relevant, contextualised observations about lessons learnt about teamwork and on the completion of a live brief for a commercial client.  Students are also expected to reflect on the marks awarded to them by their peers.

Tutor awarded mark (10% weighting)

This mark essentially rewards good engagement with on-going tutorials throughout the module, and initial warm-up design challenges set by staff before projects are commenced.  It also provides an opportunity to acknowledge extra work that has been undertaken by any individuals (e.g. where the significant illness of one team member required others to compensate, to be able to deliver the completed project to the client on time).

This overall marking scheme, whilst somewhat complex and fine grained, allows recognition of effort and achievements across the range of activities involved in all areas of the project. It also allows suitable differentiation of performance, both between and within groups, whilst allowing for the substantial diversity in projects discussed above.

Student experience and outcomes

Engagement with the module is high, with the most recent results showing a 100% pass rate, similar to many previous years with only occasional non-completion due to external factors.

Student comments are generally positive, especially around the opportunity to work with industrial clients and mentors:

It gave a good understanding and the experience of what it was like to work with real clients and overcome problems in a team.

Allowed students the opportunity to work as a group on a project that fits an industry brief and provides a useful experience of what it might be like working as part of a team and the problems that you might encounter with that and how to overcome them later on. Industry mentors were invaluable. It was good that we got to speak to people already working in the field and to get their opinions and advice on our projects and about the industry in general.

This module being designed to simulate working in the industry has successfully accomplished that purpose, working in a team to accomplish a piece of work for a client our team was able to work together, despite some professional differences. Lectures and seminars were suited to the course context and adequate in providing information. Perhaps best is the professional tutors from industry, they were very helpful towards accomplishing the goals of our project.

The value of this module has also been recognised by the external examiner who has most recently commented on finding evidence of excellent group work, strength in communication/presentation skills and project planning, and students’ understanding of project production processes.  Peer assessment was considered to be a helpful feature, engaging students in reflecting on their own work as well as that of others.  These comments validate the development and direction that the module has taken, hopefully proving that multiple student-initiated live briefs can be accommodated within a major group project module.  Design for Industry will undoubtedly continue to evolve whilst maintaining the key success factors described here.

Conclusions and future work

For media production students, such as those studying games and animation at Bradford, the chance to produce a real-world project not only places a capstone on their formal learning, it significantly improves the quality and credibility of their portfolio, a key variable in their employability.

As notes, graduate employability requires more than well-developed skills, it involves the establishment of critical, reflective abilities that empower and enhance the learner.  However, within the creative industries, giving students the opportunity to reflect on their own employment experiences motivates them to consider the competencies that are effective in work . This combination of theory and practice makes graduates eminently more valuable as employees and practitioners.

Unsurprisingly, graduate employability is a significant extrinsic motivator for undergraduate students . The employability of students is not merely of value to those approaching graduation. The professional success of graduates is a significant influence on recruitment: education is arguably too expensive to end up jobless at the end of it.

The version of the module described in the paper was spread over the entire final year and included the mini team-building project in semester 1. However, the pressure of this team project and an individual project running simultaneously proved to be detrimental to both, with students prioritising one or the other depending on impending deadlines rather than spreading the load across the time available.

Recognising the weakness in the scheduling, and after consultation with students, the new iteration of Design for Industry is concentrated in the second half of the year, with the individual project moving entirely to Semester 1. This enables students to hone their creative skills on a product of their choice during the first half of the year before collaborating on the live project as they approach graduation, and also provides them with a showreel piece to take into the team process as evidence of the skillset that they can offer. Having the 40 credit module in a single semester not only provides sufficient focused time, it also signals the amount of effort expected on this piece of work, and more closely reflects the working environment that they will soon be moving into.

The Design for Industry project is, in many ways, the pinnacle of the various degree programmes within the School of Media, Design and Technology that include it. With clear industrial and professional expectations, the rigour of a non-academic ‘client’ and the opportunity to practice specialist skills as part of a team, the module draws together all of the effort and activity of the preceding years.

The real-world constraints of a live project forcibly encourage a new focus on practical creativity. For students it provides a very powerful example of the difference between excessive risk (potentially failing to deliver a product), overly safe delivery (unlikely to stand out amongst the commercial competition or attract the target audience) and a truly novel and engaging product that is produced within time and budget limitations.

References

Author profiles

Mark Goodliff

Mark Goodliff is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Technology at the University of Bradford, currently seconded to the university’s Centre for Educational Development as a Curriculum Development Fellow. Having balanced extensive teaching commitments in the area of digital media production, and served as Head of the Department of Creative Technology for six years, Mark supports programme teams across the university as they implement the university’s Curriculum Framework.

Ian Palmer

Dr Ian Palmer is a National Teaching Fellow, Deputy Vice Principal of Pearson College London, Head of Escape Studios and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Bradford. Ian's research has centred on producing engaging virtual environments through multi-modal interaction and behavioural simulation. He is currently developing new studio-based learning approaches for the creative industries.

Carlton Reeve

Dr Carlton Reeve is a senior academic at the University of Bradford, UK and the founder of Play with Learning, a creative media service that helps people communicate more effectively. He splits his time between media production, research, consultancy and teaching and training in the areas of learning, games, social media and multiplatform production. Carlton's career encompasses academia, public service broadcasting and independent media production.