I remember having a discussion with another pupil in primary school when I said I wanted to be a graphic designer and she said that was obvious because my dad was an architect. I remember being confused about why she thought that was obvious. I ended up on a scientific education pathway in the end. I remember being very bothered by Microsoft Word and how it made text look when I was doing my genetics dissertation at university though, particularly the hyphenation and line breaks, so I guess my path into, or natural understanding of, typography was beginning to reveal itself to me then.
I knew I wanted to start out on my own as there weren’t any studios doing the sort of work I wanted to do, design for the cultural sector in an interesting and less commercial manner, in Bristol. At first I thought that meant I needed to move to London where a lot of that sort of work was happening. Then a chance encounter with James Langdon, who had been doing his own thing for similar clients successfully out of London for a while, encouraged me to fill that space in Bristol myself.
I opened a business account and was advised by the bank manager to set out a business plan of what I wanted to achieve in one year, two years and five years. At the end of five years I wanted to be working with either one or both of the best contemporary arts institutions in Bristol; Spike Island and Arnolfini. Long story short, I was designing a whole season’s gallery guides and promotional material for the latter within three months and was commissioned to do a book for the former within one year. So I took that as a good sign and went from there.
My take on interns is fairly unusual I think. I’m a very small outfit, it’s just me in a former toilet overlooking a river most of the time. So it’s difficult for me to take on an intern when most of the time there’s just enough work for me, and sometimes there isn’t enough so I go out on my bike for a morning instead of working. However, when I do have a project that I think requires a little help I tend to organise things so that an intern can come in on the days I’ll be working on that project. That way the intern can get a real sense of how a project begins, progresses and finishes. They also get a sense of ownership of that one project instead of coming in at the end of some projects and starting others that they don’t get to see come to fruition.
I also insist on paying interns if I’m getting paid for the job (the only time I don’t pay them is if I’m doing a minor free-bee job for a charity or similar). So as you can imagine, the amount of jobs that I get that are scheduled in advance and well budgeted are relatively few and far between, so consequently I don’t take many interns on. I get a lot of intern applications from European students who want to come for 4-6 months unpaid. I just can’t make that work under any circumstances unfortunately.
I’ve been teaching typography at the university I studied at, UWE, here in Bristol since 2012. It’s a great privilege to play a part in young designers’ education. I get a lot back too; they’re so hungry for inspiration they’ll often put me on to designers, style, events etc. that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. I particularly like seeing a designer progress from someone who is great at making things look good on screen but who is frustrated by their printed outcomes to someone who can put together a great feeling and reading book or piece of print. I love learning through doing and a first-time book-making module is an amazing place to do that, so teaching on those modules has been a pleasure.
I also regularly run workshops on typography, risograph printing and book-making for varying groups of people. All play an important role in my practice as it’s helps you see things through new eyes and makes you aware of assumptions that you’re subconsciously or consciously making all the time but aren’t necessarily helpful.
I’ve been collaborating with a friend, Stephen Smith a.k.a. Neasden Control Centre, for a couple of years now. We’ve been having so much fun that we’ve formalised the partnership into a permanent collaboration called Practice & Process. We both have completely different styles, influences and tastes but our way of working, our process, is so complimentary that it made perfect sense to join forces. We’re still maintaining our own practices, him in Plymouth and me in Bristol, but any job that either of us gets that fits our joint practice we work on together, and usually have a lot of fun doing it, too.
I would suggest that they ask themselves if they really need to be a student first of all. Get any job you can tolerate and save £9k (one year’s fees). If that feels impossible or takes you years to do, sit back and think about how long it’s going to take to pay back £45k and if it’ll be worth it. You can be a great designer without a degree, the only requirements are an inquisitive mind and a love of learning. It won’t be easy, but neither will paying back £45k. You’ll need a voracious appetite and respect for learning and will have to be very honest with your work before you’ll get a break. A few key portfolio pieces should be enough to get an internship. If you can get an internship you should be able to get a job. Once you get a job, move things up a gear and think about what you’re going to need to get a better job and more opportunities. I was lucky, education was a third of the price it is now when I returned to university to study graphic design. I needed to do it as I couldn’t think like the designers I wanted to work alongside, but I did ask myself those questions before I committed to going back. I can’t honestly say the answer would be the same if I needed to ask myself the same questions now, in all likelihood it would be prohibitively expensive.
Oh yeah, and don’t be a tory, under any circumstances. Tories are bad people.