Talking of Design
Well. That is the question. Or at least a question …
I get a few emails now and again asking my advice on how to get into illustration and design as a career etc., not sure why I get asked. I’m sat around in my pants hitting my ‘stumble!’ button most hours of the day, but there was one that I got t’other day asking me the following:
“… I have A‑levels in Design and Art and I have been teaching myself Photoshop and illustrator. Do you think that I should do a design degree? I hear it is quite tough to get a design job — degree or no degree — so should I bother, especially considering the debt I will get in? Can I get into design as a career with just my a‑levels and also self-teaching myself design software from books and the internet? …”
Well the answer is: yes you can. I have many colleagues who are doing rather spiffingly on just industry experience and hard work, after getting a foot in the door or a lucky break.
But … I would definitely advise doing a design degree. In fact, doing an art foundation course first as well. Here are the reasons why:
1. An art foundation course will be one of the only times you can really experiment creatively in different media in your whole ‘design life’.
When you are working in the industry such creative freedom is a rarity due to time / budget / guideline restrictions etc.
Being able to experiment is important for forming unique design ideas and for developing confidence in producing work ‘outside of the box’ — the stuff that can separate good design from great design.
2. An art foundation also hammers-home the fundamentals of the visual understanding of form, space and composition.
The purist practice of this kind is life drawing, which, if your foundation is / was / will be anything like mine, you will do a lot of.
Designers often don’t see the worth or relevance of life drawing in terms of ‘graphic design’ or other design disciplines, but I feel that being able to explain on paper, visually, what is in front of you, in terms of space, colour, form, structure, texture etc. is literally the foundation of being able to solve design problems you will be faced with in the future.
Having the understanding and ability to be able to explain what is around you, on paper, stands you in good stead for your future in design.
3. A design degree is a continuation of the above
… just a little more specialised in one discipline, and it also brings in the training side of things in terms of industry software and understanding briefs etc.
You will also be subjected to tighter deadlines — but with usually enough breathing space to continue to experiment and be creative.
4. A design degree will also allow you to really focus on ideas. ‘Design is ideas’.
You can learn all the software applications you like, and get really shit-hot at ‘techniques’ and ‘process’, but if your initial idea is crap, it can be of little value.
We all like stuff that ‘looks good’, but if the concept behind the design lacks depth and consideration, again, it is of little worth.
Remember: ‘Just because you can hold a spanner, doesn’t make you a plumber’ …
Ideas and concepts make or break a good design, and then, of course, if you have the ability to ‘realise’ the idea as a finished design (this is where ‘process’ and ‘technique’ come in) then you’ve cracked it. Not only have you come up with a great idea, you have also allowed that idea to be communicated to its full potential. Bingo!
5. ‘But how can you come up with good ideas?’ I hear you wail.
Well this is where the foundation and degree experiences come into to play again. Because, during your time at college / Uni, you will be spending 3 or 4 years surrounded by / bouncing ideas off / communicating with tons of other like minded up-and-coming creative designers … and lets not forget that, although these fellow students are themselves at the same stage you are at, many of them will go on to do great things in the industry.
I, myself, studied with people who have now gone on to work for some of the biggest design companies in the country; a few got full page features of there work in Creative Review within a year of graduating; one chap won multiple awards worldwide for his animated concepts and short films; a friend of mine is now doing artwork and illustration for the up and coming Arctic Monkeys album cover and marketing material — I could go on as there are many more from my year alone who are absolutely flying and becoming recognised industry ‘players’, so to speak.
The beauty is that you will be rubbing shoulders, socialising, chatting, sharing thoughts and ideas, working on group projects, and, in some cases, living with these people for 3 years, and also at the stage when they are ‘allowed’ to be at there most creative and dynamic.
Looking back, knowing now what many of them are achieving, I feel honoured to have been able to work alongside them.
I think being in such a ‘dynamic’ is the best environment for understanding design ‘ideas’ and ‘concepts’.
Experiences like that can’t be had from self teaching.
6. Working closely with like minded creatives
… many of which usually from different backgrounds and places, also teaches you to understand that: often a design you may not ‘like’, can be a ‘good design’.
To explain: Because you are working alongside many other designers who have different styles and methods etc., and who are also given freedom to experiment, solutions and designs will be varied and sometimes unexpected.
You may see a design that you don’t like or would do differently, but when you hear that person’s work discussed and critiqued, and when you understand the brief and background, you learn that, although you may not like the design, it may actually be an appropriate solution to the brief and, therefore, ‘good design’.
This is an important lesson that a good design course will put across to you — it’s one of those things that usually just comes to you in a ‘lightbulb’ moment. A good design course has the right environment for this moment to occur.
It also helps build an appreciation for different styles and approaches that, without meaningful critique and discussion with your fellow design students and tutors, you may well have labelled: ‘bad design’.
It’s worth noting that if you continue to work on ideas and produce work based on your own personal subjective likes and dislikes, you are limiting yourself and increasing the chances for your work to become stale, unchallenging and unoriginal.
7. More often that not you will have lectures from actual practicing industry leading design professionals.
It’s great to hear how your ‘heroes’ go about there practice, and, in some cases, be able to get there advice on your own work.
Many design agencies in the city you are studying have close ties to universities and, more importantly, the university design courses themselves.
This also offers opportunities in getting your ‘foot in the door’ and perhaps getting some valuable work experience at an agency before you graduate, or even post degree, to get things moving in the right direction.
8. Oh, and at the end of your degree, you get a bit of paper saying you have a degree in graphic design.
‘But isn’t it about having a shit-hot portfolio, and not about a bit of paper?’
Well, yeah. But if you go for a job at a top agency, the chances are that there will be many shit-hot portfolios, and if the creative directors can’t choose between one or the other, but one applicant has a degree, whilst the other doesn’t, it’s safe to say it could be the difference.
Also, lets face it, many of the top bods at top agencies are from a professional design training background themselves, and put value on that experience and what they learnt during that time.
A degree also communicates a slightly higher level of commitment, in terms of time and energy, into the design industry in general.
Like I said, the other applicant could have a strong portfolio also, and perhaps an equal numbers of years experience etc., but the bit of paper could make the difference because they are deemed ‘more qualified’.
Most agencies go on portfolio alone, but you may as well tick all the boxes if you are serious about design as a full-on career.
9. And last but certainly not least …
… pound a pint in the student union?! Bloody marvellous!