I studied Graphic Design at The University of the West of England (Mouthful) in Bristol, England.
While at university I was always kind of a generalist and a bit of a technophobe to the point I focused my work on areas, or ideas which wouldn’t involve heavily using software. Due to having ADHD, my attention is often pulled in various directions and I also often seek out immediate reward which is why I’ve spent my life struggling to deal with long term projects dedicated to a singular medium, or output.
I spent the early part of my career going between various agencies starting off in a branding agency, before being made redundant and moving into video, animation and motion design before being made redundant again! Can you believe it. I intended to go freelance but got scared and ended up taking a role within a digital agency before finally quitting due to a deterioration in my own mental health, resentment towards my choice and the culmination of these two things causing me to burn out.
Absolutely not! What kind of organised design graduate do you take me for? In all honesty, I look back and wish I had been slightly more organised. I’d completed a single internship in my time at university; at a company my mum was an ops director at and I hadn’t really made much effort to acquire industry contacts. I remember that feeling of euphoria when you hand in for the final time and feel as though you have no more stress and then it dawns on you. What do I do now?
One of my strengths has always been the ability to speak to people and form relationships, this is probably one of the only positives I’ve found about my own ADHD. So while I hadn’t prepared as well as I could I did jump at opportunities as they appeared and my first one, which was also the one that became my first graduate internship was with an agency called onedotzero.
I attended D&AD Festival in 2014 and went to a lecture they were hosting. They mentioned having a good internship program and I spent 20 minutes speaking to their senior producer and then emailed them before I’d even left the building. That eagerness, along with just putting myself out there secured me a role. It only covered travel, which isn’t something I’d condone now but it was a start.
While there I was lucky enough to be involved in projects which surpassed my job title such as 3D modeling and design work for the Nike World Basketball Festival, Jaguar & Sky. I was then taken on as a freelance junior, before leaving to find a more permanent role. It was a hard few months with very long, unpaid hours, but it opened doors for me and I’m still invited back as a freelancer 5 years later.
Paid, or unpaid? I believe they’re a great opportunity to allow graduates and students a way to experience the industry and various roles with an open mind. However, they come with a word of caution. Always get paid for the work you carry out.
Unpaid internships need to be stamped out completely. They are classist, don’t consider accessibility and by advertising one a company is putting a bank balance before talent. I was fortunate enough to be able to carry out a three-month unpaid internship, although I was given a small compensation for travel. I lived at home with my parents who provided for me and I was incredibly privileged. I wouldn’t do it again.
Thousands of graduates or people entering the industry every year do not have the same advantage. They maybe don’t have homes to go back to, or they don’t have a family with wealth. They deserve the same rights as anyone else and unpaid labour is the main reason why the industry has, for years, been filled with people with the same background. White, middle class and university educated. This is a problem. Design studios best work when they have a wealth of knowledge, experience, and stories to pull from to complete briefs and having a team of people from all manner of backgrounds who hold different views is vital to producing outstanding work.
Don’t work for free just because you can afford to. Work for free because it’s going to change lives and help people for the better. Work for grassroots charities, enterprises and NGOs. Volunteer your time. There are plenty of studio internships out there and the best ones are where the company is willing to pay you for your time.
For any companies that may be reading this who are looking for unpaid interns. Just stop.
Be unapologetically yourself. Put it into your work and show it off for the world to see. So many people feel they struggle to find their ‘style’, or a quality which makes them stand out without ever realising it’s who you are as a person. Your experiences, your life has given you a unique perspective of the world. Find a way to make work from that and it will be completely unique because nobody else can possibly have the same stories, memories and outlook as you do.
Look outside your pillar. Looking at where I am now and sticking at being a generalist when everyone was being pushed towards a specialism is the best thing I ever did. However, don’t just stay focused on your chosen subject like graphic design, illustration, etc make sure you’re also reading about other areas as well. In particular business, digital marketing and strategy.
Strategy is a big one for me because it’s the most crucial part of any creative project and where my career has moved towards. If the design is the beautifully crafted house, then strategy is, without doubt, the foundation upon which that house is built on. By learning how to utilise strategy you will create better, deeper projects which are more commercially minded, you will learn how to position yourself as a creative so you know who and what to approach after graduating, or even as professional creatives and you will create work which actually starts to recognise untouched areas, how you can fill those gaps and most importantly why people should engage with what you create.
This may sound a bit boring if you’re not interested in those things but being able to talk confidently about multiple areas that sit alongside design can make the difference between getting a paid freelance opportunity, or job. Design doesn’t just sit as an independent bubble. It works with other areas and understanding those areas is crucial.
Knowledge builds confidence, and confidence creates trust. Trust is the thing every graduate should be aiming for and is the most valuable currency you can probably own. Employers and clients ultimately just need to trust you. Trust you not to screw up and trust you to do a good job. The more knowledgeable you appear, the more trust you gain and the more opportunities you’re presented with.
Recently we’ve seen a wave of what’s been coined ‘de-branding’ such as Pentagrams work with MasterCard, or the New Burberry Logotype by Peter Saville. Both of these designs received criticism however I see it as a progressive step in the right direction.
Brands can no longer rely just on their name, or logo to attract consumers. They need to be bigger and most importantly braver. By moving the attention away from the identity they can rely much more heavily on the deeper areas of the brand which build ambassadorship. They can focus on story, experience and what the customer actually wants. An identity may create a recognisable brand; It doesn’t, however, create a brand that adds value, and value is the thing that needs to be focussed on. What value are we adding to people’s lives?
I’ve already moved my own work to focus on this. Community-Centric strategy and design is at the heart of all the work I carry out because I see it as more important than just creating things that get praise from other creatives. I love brands that allow Customer A to form a relationship with Customers B & C as well as with the brand itself. It develops and builds a much greater emotional connection and makes it far more likely for those people to become ambassadors.
Empowering a community around a product, or company is the most effective way to build a brand that is admired and trusted and I love seeing that it’s a direction a lot of companies are headed towards.
This was the year of mental health for myself. As I mentioned, I quit my job back in May to go freelance but ultimately to focus on my own wellbeing I’ve turned down a number of high paying roles and opportunities in this time because while money and jobs will always be in the world, you only have one brain, so it’s probably a good idea to look after it. I’m also looking to hopefully become a homeowner within the next 1-2 years (scary), so I’m putting a lot of focus on saving whatever money I can. It’s a far cry from the student life I was living back in 2014 but everyone gets to a point where it has to be done.
Professionally I’ve started working a couple of days a week with Glug Events overseeing their content output and strategy, which is a great change of pace and really rewarding. I’m also currently pitching on some big rebrand and branding projects, with the future aim being to end up with the majority of my work comes from my own clients, rather than being outsourced to from design agencies. I don’t have an aspiration to own a big studio but if I could work with another person and just work on projects I enjoy while having fun there’s not much more I could ask for from life.