Short-sighted to label graduates as elitists

Back in our February issue, designer Jo Buckerfield claimed you need a degree to design kitchens. Her views sparked a major backlash among experienced retailers so we’ve allowed her to respond…

I’m honoured to have joined in the debate on the need for design qualifications in the KBB industry [kbbreview, April, pgs 53-54]. The discussion was fierce, which proves there is passion on both sides of the argument. And, as the saying goes “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”.

Well, I’ve not only broken the eggs, I’ve also had some thrown in my general direction. That’s OK with me. But the subject of education is low down on the agenda.

So let’s look at a few of the objections to my argument and deal with them one at a time.


KBB professionals complain about the costs that come with this level of education. I agree that degree courses are very expensive. That’s why I don’t believe degrees will ever be a prerequisite. But all quality education is expensive. The university of life comes with a hefty price tag if you think about it. I looked upon university costs as an investment and on the whole I’m happy with the return.

I was set regular design briefs from a variety of lecturers and design professionals. We had to interpret these projects with precise understanding. That was the only way to deliver a solution that solved the problem. We needed to use solid design principles taught through many hours of training.

But let’s not forget that time is money. A good qualification can help to fast-track the right graduate. This summer, after three years of study, thousands of students will celebrate their graduation. That doesn’t make them better than an unqualified KBB pro with 30 years’ experience. But it does allow them to promote themselves with a standard of achievement that customers understand. That’s a powerful marketing tool.

The missing links

Design graduates don’t enter the workplace fully formed. The degree courses I mentioned aren’t focused on the KBB industry. They will never cover all the aspects you need to create a wonderful kitchen or bedroom design. There’s only one course I know of that’s tailored to our specific field. That is the Foundation Degree in Kitchen Design at Bucks New University. This is a fantastic step in the right direction. But it’s a part-time course and lacks the immersion you can only get from a full-time experience.

My design degree was all-consuming. We were learning, experimenting, developing a talent and growing creatively. Of course, we didn’t have the pressure of sales targets. We hadn’t studied any product guidelines and grumpy bosses weren’t around. But that’s a key point. In the beginning, you need the freedom to play. It’s important to learn without someone breathing down your neck.

It would appear there’s a lack of understanding about what happens on a design degree course. People in our industry are quick to pass judgement, but what are their judging criteria? Why would a person state that a design degree doesn’t matter when they haven’t actually experienced the process? All I can do is assure you that it has benefited my design career.

Learning on the job

I received many comments about the importance of learning on the job and I agree. I also agree that brilliant designers have developed a successful career with nothing but on-the-job training. Natural talent and desire will always win through, regardless of educational background.

Exposure to real clients with real budgets is crucial. Listening to their needs and delivering on their brief is critical. Securing the sale in a professional environment is vital. The psychology of the sales process is a skill all its own. Then there’s the installation. Making sure the design on paper works as it should in reality. Learning through project management is what takes a designer to the next level.

This is where experienced design professionals and business owners can help so much. It’s great to pass on valuable know-how. Sharing the trials and tribulations is important, too. With the right guidance, it’s possible to build an exceptional asset to the design team.

Free design

I found it ironic that some of my loudest critics didn’t offer a professional design service themselves. There’s room for all kinds of business models in this industry and the “free design” model definitely works for some. It stands to reason that a client who puts no value in the design process won’t be impressed by a design degree.

Those who design for a living often find it difficult to justify their charges, especially when they are new to the game and the chap down the road does it for free. That’s when marketing becomes so important as you attempt to attract for your ideal client. Having a degree qualification will help break down that barrier. It certainly worked for me when I first went out on my own. My ideal clients had much more confidence when they knew I had spent time studying and achieving qualifications.

Do degrees matter?

The question I keep hearing is, “why does it matter if a person has a degree or not?” This comes from people who are midway through or coming to the end of their careers. They have lived in very different times. They have been successful and don’t see the need for change. As the cover of February’s kbbreview summed up so well. The fact is you don’t.

But we are entering a new era that is more competitive than ever. Recruitment agencies are reviewing CVs in less than a minute. The lack of a university degree usually means a fast track to the reject pile. Young people today understand this. Like it or not, students are choosing to enrol on design degree courses. A section of those students will graduate and seek employment in the KBB industry. Most will be in serious financial debt and hungry for success. I’d like to think we’ll welcome these people and help them to develop. Some readers of this magazine don’t agree. They believe graduates are halo-rubbing elitists whose education offers no merit. I think that opinion is short-sighted and I hope it’s a minority view.

A relevant design degree is an excellent springboard to a design career in the KBB industry. Encouraging high-quality graduates to join us will benefit businesses, customers and the industry as a whole. It’s a career route that I want to encourage and support, regardless of who’s with me or who’s against me.

Home > Opinion > Short-sighted to label graduates as elitists