Tool #9: Students or workers?

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On many occasions as a student within a neoliberal university, you find yourself producing design work for real clients (whether your designs go into production or not), participating in profit-oriented design competitions or “simply” contributing work to projects of your tutors. These conditions significantly blur the line between being a student and being a worker.

Moreover, these ambiguous work-relations are often highly exploitative and laden with unhealthy power relations. Unfortunately, these situations can’t be wished away, especially in times of austerity politics when universities seem to constantly lack money. Furthermore, often these collaborations are longed for by design students because they are framed as allowing them to profile themselves, to gain credits and experience in the rat race of the creative industries.

However, whether you despise or long for these conditions, they can be transformed into collective learning situations about the political economy of design when you try to map the following elements:

• What flows of money, and of symbolic and social capital (honour, prestige, recognition and connections to individuals or organisations) are running through these situations? Who is working, who is profiting and in what ways? Who is losing out? What power relations are being established? How could this arrangement be made more fair?

• In order to avoid simply speculating upon these flows, ask the people in charge to disclose the finances and agreements behind a collaboration or a contest so that you can actually understand and learn from it in ways that go beyond the formal aspect of design.

Last update: 05.06.2014