The Industry and The First

Shelley McNulty and Barrie Legg

Shelley McNulty is a Senior Lecturer at Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University and the Programme Leader for MA Interior Design.

Barrie Legg is a Partner and Interior Architect at Johnson Naylor, London.

In debating the focus of this Issue, an industry perspective is much needed because, ultimately, this is what academics prepare students for; to work and succeed in design and architectural praxis across the globe. It’s important to reflect upon what the First-Class award means to industry professionals because, as often debated in the pages of IE:Studio, the various pressures of Higher Education can sometimes skew pedagogies away from the task in hand, or the identity of an Institution and dynamic of the teaching staff may overbear the ethos of the Interiors course itself. This conversational piece with Interior Architect Barrie Legg*, asks if the award of ‘First Class’ is purely an academic pre-occupation, and if it’s really relevant to the industry?


Barrie Legg is perhaps one of the unsung heroes of the Interior Architecture and Interior Design world… he has certainly breathed life into many a graduate career, my own included. Barrie gave me my first proper job as a Junior Designer at Conran Design Group in June 2000. I’d graduated the summer before with a 2:1 from Edinburgh College of Art, and had come to London in search of a job. I’d successfully freelanced at a large US branding company but really wanted a secure job. If I’m honest, I was apprehensive about that possibility.  I didn’t have a First and I hadn’t graduated from a London college. I’d studied at a traditional painting art college where humanities underpinned studio and our engagement with industry was minimal. A friend-of-a-friend suggested I get in touch with Barrie. When the time came for my interview, Barrie was running late. Later, I came to realise (and accept) that Barrie is always running late. That’s not because he’s especially tardy or disorganised, but because he’s either putting together a pitch, or briefing a design team, or managing a client, or (significantly for me) helping a junior designer who needs some expert guidance. Going into my interview, I didn’t know any of this about Barrie but I did know something was different when, 10 minutes in, he didn’t want to see my naïve technical drawings or freelance mood boards; he was more interested in my college sketch books which didn’t contain any design drawings but, instead, endless messy prints that were an homage to my pop art idol, Robert Rauschenberg, and where a huge influence on how I saw the world at that time. We spent 45 minutes discussing them until Barrie’s PA reminded him, he was running late for his next appointment. I started at Conran the following month.

For me, Barrie’s patience and intellectual view of the world helped build that bridge between education and industry.  His wisdom helped me realise it didn’t matter that I didn’t have a First-Class degree but my attitude, enquiring mind and commitment to learning were paramount.  When I can, I introduce all my students to Barrie, either in a crit or at his studio; he’s even ended up employing several of them, now patiently coaching them through the start of their careers.

This text is structured around a series of questions and is a much-edited version of a two-hour conversation. As often happens when friends meet, we meander around the edges of several issues, some of which deserve more space than we have room for. 

Question: Is a First-Class degree purely an academic measure?

Barrie Legg [BL]: In my view, a First-Class degree is only ever a guide to be read in the context of the college/course. If I see a student who has a First from Manchester or somewhere else, then I’m conditioning my view to that particular institution and what I know of the course and previous students. I know as an External Examiner, I’m asked about parity of standards across institutions but some institutions have different criteria or ethos for what they like in a First-Class student, so as an employer we become a little conditioned to which institutions generate what kind of students. For me, I’m much more interested in meeting a student and talking to them. That’s why I go to the shows every year. You get a feel for how the course is run and its ambition because, as teaching staff change, so does the profile and the identity of the course.

Question: Does a First-Class degree reflect the qualities necessary for success in industry?

[BL]: Not necessarily but it’s an early signal in the context of the institution. I think the volume of work in a final project, and its depth and ambition is an indicator of potential success in the professional studio. If you remember Emli who we employed a few years ago, oh how she’s grown! The visuals of her final project were a beautiful mass of clouds and whimsical atmospheres, and even though she wasn’t technically proficient, she spoke with poise and intelligence. I could tell she’d worked her socks off for her degree – and now she loves doing Stage 3 tender packages! And she likes to be really organised and know what she’s doing.

[SMcN]: I remember those traits as key characteristics when I taught Emli.  And I would argue that’s the “academic-ness” of being at university and a First-Class quality, juggling numerous deadlines, having the intelligence and resourcefulness to step up, ask questions and meet deadlines. 

[BL]: I think you are right. In terms of qualities necessary for success in the industry I would say, from my perspective, tutors are now so very young, and with the onset of social media and ever-developing technology, they are looking at the profession in a new way and passing that onto their students. So, when I interview graduates, I have to remind myself of that and I need to stop thinking about my own educational experience and expectations of the skills of graduates. 

Question: What role do you think industry could play in supporting students into their first job, helping them to see beyond degree classifications?

[BL]: The industry has a responsibility to share their experience and knowledge in order to allow students an understanding of practical constraints. I would encourage all practitioners to lecture, crit and make a conscious effort to see Graduate Shows up and down the country, or come to the Interior Educators Show. I would also say it’s important for professionals and companies to see the unique qualities of individual graduates and allow them to grow into the company, rather than having a mould that needs to be filled. 

For students, some experience of the industry is beneficial but not necessarily a year out; any kind of 'internship', 'professional practice', 'a holiday job' would be so useful. Just to put what we do in a context. Our profession isn't about sitting in a corner and 'having an idea' - it is responsive to exterior conditions, and therefore any knowledge of that outside world can really help contextualise how teaching at University manifests in the ‘real world’.

Question: In short, do you prefer to employ First Class students?

[BL]: No. You always send me First Class students though…. [lots of laughter] Personally, I like to know that they are thinking outside of the curriculum. Sketch books, showing the 'workings-out', are clues to their way of thinking. Process. Showing how they think beyond the 'ticking the box'. Inquisitiveness is everything.

Question: What do you look for in a graduate employee? 

[BL]: Attitude more than anything. Attitude, willingness, a commitment to long-term learning. The portfolio is just the start of the conversation. A team player. Professionalism. Listening as well as speaking. 

* Barrie Legg is a Partner and Interior Architect at Johnson Naylor.  After graduating from the RCA in the 1970’s, his career has spanned over 50 years and he has been the quiet back bone of many leading Design studio’s such as Din Associates, HMKM, DEGW, Conran Design Group, to name a few.  Aside from these roles, Barrie has taught on several UK Interiors courses and External Examined in Universities across the country. He has employed and mentored hundreds of graduates.