Top creatives reveal what they wish they knew at college. Follow their advice, and use it to get a headstart in your creative career!
Design school is great. It gives you the opportunity to develop as a designer, illustrator or artist – giving you preparation for your career in the real world. But it can’t teach you everything. With that in mind, we’ve talked to some successful creative professionals and gleaned what they wished they knew when they were at college – giving you a headstart on your course mates.
1. Your diploma won’t get you a job
“Despite what your teachers or parents tell you, your diploma won’t necessarily get you a job,” says Toronto-based web designer Janna Hagan. “Proving what kind of work you are capable of producing through your portfolio or demonstrating passion and potential to an employer will more likely catch their eye; compared to a student who has more formal education. Having a killer portfolio and personality will land you a job anywhere.”
02. How to use Photoshop
Jeffrey Bowman wishes he’d been taught Photoshop at art school
Jeffrey Bowman is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer based in the mountains of Hemsedal, Norway. Formerly of Studio Output and a lecturer at Shillington College, Bowman has worked for numerous clients around the globe with his edgy, youth-culture-driven style. And what does he know now that he wished he knew at art school?
“Software skills,” he says. “This is probably the most important thing to really focus on when your at college or university,” he continues. “It’s something you have to learn for yourself because at uni there was no real help and in some cases you don’t have access to a computer all the time, so getting your own is also vital.
“Being software-savvy is only going to help when you get out into industry, because the way the industry is, these kind of skills will set you apart from the next person applying for an internship or junior job.”
03. Real-world processes
Computer Arts magazine’s art editor Jo Gulliver has now been responsible for the look and feel of the title for around six years – working with the world’s top illustration talent, photographers and designers along the way. When she was at college she knew she wanted to be involved in magazines, but before joining Future Publishing didn’t know the exact process of putting together a magazine to be printed and exported across the globe.
“I guess it would be good to research the industry you want to go into in-depth – go do work experience but also consider visiting printers, agencies, photo shoots and so on,” is her top advice. “Make the most of your work experience placement and ask to see all processes of the business. It will make you much more employable when you come to get a job.”
04. Commercial knowledge
“The main thing I know now, that I never realised at college, is that there is a market for good quality drawing,” says Abigail Daker - a freelance illustrator known for her stunning perspective cityscape pencil drawings.
“There was a lot of theorising about drawing on my course and plenty of discussion about the merits of drawing and its place within the contemporary fine art world, but nothing about it as a commercial product and no advice about how to tailor your artwork to be better suited to commercial projects.” Daker’s advice is to scope out the latter – no matter what your intended profession.
05. How to stay creative
Ian Wharton, creative director at Zolmo and the mastermind behind the design of some of Jamie Oliver’s best-selling recipe apps is an advocate of young talent – and is regularly involved in judging, seminars and publications promoting young creativity. So what does he know know that he wishes he knew at art school?
“How difficult, yet entirely necessary it is to hang onto the innate useful creative spirit of youth,” he says. “[It's] something I took for granted.” And his advice? “Explore endlessly. Every facet of creativity that excites you – dive in and don’t worry about right answers. You have the time, agility and resources to do so.
“When you leave, never stop learning and waste zero time making things you don’t want to be known for.”
06. How to find your niche
A finalist in BBC Wildlife’s Artist of the Year 2011/2012, Jonathan Woodward’s beautiful, textured animal illustrations have led him to commissions from the likes of Penguin, Transworld Publishing and Random House. What did he wish he knew?
“I’m probably the same as most other illustrators in that the biggest gap in my art college education was the business and marketing side of things. I’ve had to learn all of this as I’ve gone along.
“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to find a niche rather than trying to be all things to all people. It was only when I really focussed on combining my two main passions for nature and illustration, specialising in being a wildlife illustrator, that things started to move forwards and the right type of commissions started come in.”
07. How not to be precious
James Wignall is an animator and motion graphics artist working in London. One of the UK’s best emerging talents, this was recognised by him receiving an ADC Young Guns award in 2012. What does he wish he knew? “Not too be too precious with your designs,” he smiles.
“Inevitably the client will want changes, and inevitably you’ll think they are for the worst. Your job is to do the best you can for your client, not for your portfolio. There are occasions that you and the client will be on the same wavelength and you’ll end up with a project that will take pride of place on your website and you can pay the rent that month, but these jobs are few and far between.
“Behind every amazing project you’ve seen on a designer’s website, there’s probably ten more that you don’t see that pay the bills. Once you’ve given it all and appeased your client, boss or bill payer, you can always rework it to a state that you’re happy and call it a ‘directors cut’!”
08. How to take a step back
Freelance art director, illustrator and graphic designer Radim Malinic has been responsible for some stunning campaigns in recent times.
“I guess the education purposefully does not give you the real insight of the day-to-day working practise,” he says. “It encourages you to be good at one thing only. When you get out into the sharp-toothed world of client work, it’s easy to get consumed by focusing on small detail in your designs and not worrying about any other essential parts of the commission.
“Whether you are a freelancer or part of a bigger team with extra beady eyes of account managers or creative directors, it is about projecting your voice through the project. By taking a little bit of extra time and stepping back for short moment to oversee what has been done, you can not only scrutinise all aspects and find any errors, you can also discover potential ways of making the project go further.
“Clients can have a limited vision and creative teams can play it safe to keep them happy. Great work just does not happen by accident, it is the ‘ever present’ hunger to create fresh work which makes it succeed.”
09. The need for humility
“My background isn’t your traditional route to the art and design world as I’m a Bachelor of Science rather than of the Arts,” saysJames Wignall. He continues: “But the following can be applied to either. The first thing you should learn when going into the work place is a little humility – seriously it goes a long way!
“A number of people from my course assumed that because they achieved a 1st class honours they were God’s gift to the industry. Wrong! There is always somebody who’s better than you and employers have no time for that kind of arrogant attitude. A work place needs people who are easy to work with, collaborate and bounce ideas back and forth with.”
10. That it’s not all self-indulgent
“At college most of the projects are pretty self-indulgent,” says Jo Gulliver. “You don’t really experience what it’s like working for a client. It would have been good to get some live client work while I was at college – just small projects but working for someone would give you an insight into how the industry works.
“It would also have been useful as a learning experience on how to manage a project – pricing it, time management and so on. These are real-world things that you often discover when you’re in the real-world – not before!”
11. How to choose your career carefully
“My main advice for art college students today would be to really think about the type of work they want to be doing,” says Jonathan Woodward. “To think about the type of commissions they really want – rather than what they think they should be doing – and then create a career and portfolio that reflects this.
“If you show the type of work in your folio that you don’t want, you can be sure that is the type of work you’ll get,” he adds. It’s an interesting point – make sure only your best and most relevant work (if you’re going for an interview) is in your portfolio.
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