It isn’t the long lingering smell of fish that first hits you entering the 2004 D&AD New Blood Exhibition at Old Billingsgate London, but the site of so many Apple Macs. The 19th century former fish market is playing host to the 21st century bright young things. Uniformed rows of pristine iMacs are ready in reception to take the details of students, wannabes, lecturers, and those headhunting potential new talent. Eighty-five stands showcase the best graduate work from more than 70 courses in graphic design, advertising, digital media, packaging and product design, illustration, photography and communication arts. Leading creative courses from across the UK show the work of their best graduates to the D&AD membership and other leading design, advertising and creative agencies. Many of the stands also showcase Macs – from an elderly G3 iMac to the latest 17-inch eMac and 20-inch widescreen iMac. A PowerBook displays the work of several Web designers, supervised by a student complete with ironic mullet and telltale iPod headphones. If Apple were to pay a visit, it’d be proud of their imposing presence among the nation’s young guns.

The D&AD New Blood Exhibition offers a one stop snapshot of the dozens of degree shows held across the UK at this time of year as hopeful students anticipate careers in an already over-populated industry. A non-scientific straw poll of students at five London degree shows, including the New Blood Exhibition, reveals Apple Macs are still the preferred choice of aspiring creatives. Many point to relative ease of use, cheaper high-specced eMac and iBook models – and perhaps most importantly, they are still the industry standard. One student who has already found work experience at a Clerkenwell studio tells of arriving at work to find an identical set up to that at home, an iMac running Mac OS X 10.3 and the Adobe CS Suite. Others mention robust operating systems, increased productivity, freedom from time consuming and continual viruses, and the ability to hide an iBook amongst the dirty washing when visiting the folks.

Claire Tuthill, lecturer BA (hons) Graphic Design at The Surrey Institute of Art & Design, University College (and freelance packaging designer) believes Macs are central to the creative process at student level. “The use of the Mac can and does enable students at little cost to produce printed output that appears professional and competent – as competent and professional as the printwork produced by the design consultancies that they wish to be employed by. Design students should be aware that they are not Mac visualizers and that however technically advanced they think they are, there is always someone out there who can do it better, cheaper, more slickly and faster – so Mac skills should be accompanied by, as always, general conceptual ability and being able to identify and solve problems. Marry these fundamental skills with sound knowledge of Illustrator, Photoshop, QuarkXPress and so on, and you become an extremely attractive commodity to potential employers.”

Claire, whose own students recently showcased their course work at a trendy Brick Lane gallery has some reservations though: “The computer can't make a silk purse from a sows ear and there can be a danger that the seductive qualities of a finished beautifully printed job can mask underlying problems with layout, communication and typography – less easy to identify if you’re less experienced. If an idea works on a sheet of layout paper then it will look great when realized on the Mac – the same does not apply the other way round; there’s a lot of crap stuff out there that relies heavily on superficial style and technique – visual wallpaper! The Mac is in many respects a very advanced photocopier and it needs an operative with an engaged brain and judgment to operate it. This is not a criticism directed solely at students as there’s plenty of old dross out there!”

Jonathan Hitchen, Senior Lecturer BA (hons) Graphic Arts at Liverpool School of Art & Design, believes that the Mac best present his students’ work. “Here tonight we have several eMac computers highlighting our students’ multimedia work,” he says of The Candid Gallery, Islington show, “they look attractive and professional to any potential employer and best showcase our students’ work.” “With iBooks – their portability is paramount – the student can bring their on-going project work into college very easily and with more students spending more time working outside of the studio this is very useful,” adds Jonathan.

Linda Hughes animation lecturer at Barnet College and award winning animator adds a word of caution. “Students want a quick, slick fix without getting their hands dirty – and computers, particularly Apple Macs, offer that. Results can look samey if student over rely on the same software packages and Macs,” says Linda. “Software packages imitate hands-on animation skills for instance, but without experience of the real thing the fundamentals can be lost.”

Checking out the potential competition, Tim Ellis, former Central Saint Martins Post Graduate Masters student and renowned illustrator and author has a more positive view. “Using a Mac opened up new freedoms in my creative approach, whereas using traditional media there was always the issue of tightening up and being afraid of messing up an image. Photoshop allowed me to play with multiple versions and manipulate my images in a fresh, unrestricted way,” says Tim. “As Macs are also used by professionals, producing work on them helped put my work in a professional context, and they serve as great bridges between working as a student and working in industry,” he adds.

The enthusiasm, anticipation and talent on display at the 2004 D&AD New Blood Exhibition are indeed inspiring. Many of those wandering around the busy London degree shows would concur that the gap between student work and real life work is increasingly narrow. The Mac’s role in education has helped significantly to narrow that gap. Surrey Institute’s Claire Tuthill has the last word: “I think that greatest benefit to designers/students is the means to experiment. The creative freedom that the Mac offers is truly astounding – having worked in pre-Mac days with traditional paste-up, photosetting and wet photography, it was extremely difficult, expensive and time consuming – even within large well run design consultancies – to experiment with layouts, photographic techniques, illustration and type.

“Students today can quickly move, resize, add to and discard elements and fonts within their design – they aren't required to spend hours laboriously hand rendering body copy or to chop up and reposition type line by line (sometimes letter by letter). Most importantly, great ideas are no longer rejected purely on the grounds that the designer didn't have the ability to adequately 'visualise' the concept or convey the mood of the desired photographic/illustrative style. This is liberating!”

Related links: (New Blood) (Tim Ellis)