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Opinion: Paul West on sowing the seeds for big ideas in a growing creative economy

As many of us know, the creative economy in the UK is bigger than ever. It’s amazing. Now worth over £71bn to the UK economy, the creative industries generate a staggering £8m per hour. It has grown 15.6% since 2008, and 1 in every 12 jobs is now a creative one.

It’s certainly impressive in its scale. But is the nation more creative than it has ever been? And by this, I don’t mean quantity; I mean quality and originality.

The creative education system is growing at an almost exponential rate – offering a more diverse range of courses than ever. Exploring the course finder at UAL alone generates 1,891 different courses. Some 130 of these are undergraduate, and a further 90 courses are post-graduate. Aside from the well known ‘classics’ such as Product Design and Graphic Design, students can indulge in more specialist areas such as ‘Fine Art: Print and Time Based Media’ or ‘Fashion Design Technology in Menswear’. Students have never had so much choice as they have today. 

This diversity is generally seen as a positive aspect of the creative education system. It is understood that expertise in more specific areas of creativity can make a graduate more immediately employable. With this in mind, having such a broad range of courses does give universities a greater chance of increasing graduate employment stats, which of course is a huge selling point and a big reassurance to students – especially when there are 37,400 art and design related graduates every summer. In light of the unprecedented debts that are synonymous with being educated today, there’s no desire to take too long to be earning a salary to start paying these off.

Well-honed creative skills are certainly important to get onto the employment ladder, to ensure graduates can become hotshot juniors in no time at all. However, is this exponential growth of such specialist courses at odds with a nation that has a history and a desire for big picture thinking, and ideas that can transform the world we live in?

Throughout history, our world has been brought to life with big ideas – ideas that bring new perspectives to our daily lives. Ideas that have a compelling objective, ideas that change the way we see, experience and interact with the world. Big ideas are the most fundamental ingredient of the creative economy, and the most transformative to the world around us. Ideas are not specific to a particular creative discipline, they are so much bigger than that. Ideas are original thoughts that can act as a catalyst for creativity.

As a nation, we are good at creative and independent thinking – it’s a product of our education system and our culture. It remains as a big competitive advantage for the UK and we don’t want to neglect this.

Sure, ideas and innovation feature heavily in many creative courses, but ideas often exist as a canvas for practicing a specific type of creative execution. Having such a strong focus on a particular skillset can sometimes limit our broader perspective. It’s like owning a hammer, and every problem looking like a nail.

Let’s sow the seeds for ideas and objective thinking, creating more courses and modules with big ideas at the heart – courses thriving with innovation, courses striving to make a difference to the world around them, and courses that encourage students to generate exciting, transformative ideas that answer real problems, way before they start considering the tools for the job.  

These big ideas could be brought to life by optional creative skills modules that can be added like strings to a student’s bow, so they’re ready to fire a well-aimed arrow to the target of the bigger creative challenges that exist today.

Paul West is creative strategy director at Household