How Will Gen Z Shape the Future of the Design Community?


With Gen Z creatives now entering the workforce, how will their influence be felt across the creative industries? D&AD President and Dean of Academic Programs at Central Saint Martins Rebecca Wright investigates.

Young and emerging creatives have always played a vital role in the creative ecosystem. But the current cohort is notable for their widespread active engagement with world issues and the conviction that through their engagement, they can help bring about change.

This is not just anecdotal; the 2020 US election saw a record turnout of young voters with almost 50% voting, according to stats from Tufts University. Meanwhile, research from Pew Research Center last year revealed that Millennials and Gen Z stand out for their high levels of engagement with the issue of climate change, in comparison with older generations. And engagement for this generation means more than talking about it on social media— it involves actively doing things to create positive change.

For those entering the creative industries now, career choices are already being shaped by their values and informed by their proactive approach to engagement. We’ve seen this at D&AD’s annual New Blood awards, which give emerging creatives the chance to work on industry-set briefs to launch their careers in the creative industries as they emerge from study. Holly Killen and Sam Pilkington-Miksa created a great example in the form of Clout, a fast-fashion solution that won them two honors at D&AD’s 2022 New Blood Awards: the coveted Black Pencil, and a White Pencil, which is reserved for designers using creativity for good.

“I think our own belief systems will definitely factor into where we want to work, and the types of work we want to create,” Killen said. “If you have a strong aversion to something, it’s unlikely that you’ll be hell-bent to create work for it, so the same goes for things you don’t believe in or support.” She also sees challenges associated with being at the beginning of her creative career; “as we’re just starting out, I’m not sure we are quite afforded that luxury yet, but when we are more established and can be a bit pickier with what we do, we will weed options out based on how they align, or don’t align, with our values.”

At a time that is fraught with social, cultural, and environmental turmoil, we need the values-led approach of Gen Z more than ever to help create a more just and sustainable world. At the same time, we need the creative industries to embrace and support these young creatives, and the change they will bring.

From my positions as both Dean at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, and as President of D&AD, a non-profit education organization and awards program for advertising and design that bridges the gap between education and industry, I see this as an opportunity the creative industries cannot afford to miss.

As Gen Z creatives in their early 20s enter the workplace, their attitudes can have a transformative, bottom-up impact on not just the type of work creative industries do, but the kind of organizations that assist them, from grass-roots and start-ups to the most experienced creatives and agencies. But in order to create this environment for change, creative industries have to actively engage in it.

There’s evidence to suggest this culture shift is already starting to take place. For example, global branding consultancy Interbrand has introduced specific programs that ensure Gen Z viewpoints are integrated into the fabric of the agency, influencing its overall culture, and the kind of briefs it works on.

“It’s long been a danger for agencies and brands that you create a culture that emerging creatives don’t want to join— or you don’t support a future that they want to see come to fruition,” said Andy Payne, Interbrand’s Global Chief Creative Officer.

In order to address this, Interbrand has introduced a “Horizon Board”: a multi-disciplinary group including rising talent from each of the offices around the world, and mirrors the executive leadership team. “We know that Gen Z wants responsibility for writing their own futures, so we’ve given them the chance to integrate these behaviors into the global business from the start.”

“The last task we gave them was to set the ambition and purpose of the business, and they collectively agreed on boldly creating the next generation of icons,” the Interbrand team continued. “This is about disseminating our creative and intellectual power to level the playing fields around the world in terms of how people can benefit and grow their own lifestyles, and ways of living to enrich themselves the way they want to.”

It’s promising to see agencies giving Gen Z creatives a platform to voice their perspectives and create direct impact, but there is still more to be done. McCann New York Art Director Alysa Browne said that while creative agencies are ready to listen to what Gen Z creatives have to say, more work is needed to communicate this to them.

“As a creative, success doesn’t just depend on having the right skills,” Browne said. “What really sets you apart is knowing what you want to say. Gen Z creatives are at a huge
advantage in that respect. However, in my experience, they don’t always know that. So the creative industries have more work to do when it comes to opening that door of communication, and reminding new entrants to the industry that we want to hear those unique perspectives.”

At D&AD, we understand this more than most. For 60 years, we have been committed to nurturing the next generation by bridging the gap between education and employment, improving routes of access to the industry, and most importantly, providing opportunities through which young creatives can make their mark on the world. 

The New Blood Awards is a key example that encourages entrants to apply their perspectives and values to industry briefs. This year, D&AD awarded 186 prestigious Pencil Awards to exceptional graduates, whose winning works addressed a mix of important issues that included fast fashion, women’s safety, cultural equity, and social inclusion in the metaverse.

Creativity thrives on diverse minds and wide-ranging perspectives, qualities that typify Gen Z. But it can be all too easy to try and mold young creatives in our own images through the lens of what we know, while forgetting what they can teach us, and giving them space to lead. As an industry and creative community, we have a responsibility to not only mentor, but to listen and learn from— and with— them. All our futures depend on it.

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