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Art college – the best time of your life, or a complete nightmare

Art college is for many a great experience, however it doesn’t always go to plan. So I’m going to look at the less positive aspects of art college, including my own time at Robert Gordon University’s Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen.

The great portfolio swindle

No disrespect to art colleges but they are almost all thieves. At portfolio submission time to cover the cost of handling your portfolio, plus for sending to your second and third choice art institution, they require a fee of, what is it now, 50, 60, 100 quid? They receive how many applicants? 2000 x £50 = £100 000.

Art college portfolio

In return for a cursory glance at your work, you will be accepted or turned down. No feedback or advice. Any passing to second or third choice institutions does not happen. The vast majority of colleges are not interested in second or third choice students. They can argue they are underfunded, but it is immoral to take money from the pockets of the people you are rejecting to pay for the tiny minority you are accepting.

Those who can’t do… often teach art very badly

Art teachers. They know their stuff. Well maybe some of them do. Communication skills? Empathy? An ability to spot different students are at different places on their artistic journey? An understanding of which students need a kick up the backside, and which need some kind words of encouragement? An interest in teaching the whole class, not just their favourites – the ones that remind them of their younger, beautiful selves. An ability to hit on 19 year old students, despite being well into their forties, fifties, sixties, hello Operation Yewtree, how can I help you… Let’s put it this way, it’s not that hard to become an art tutor at an art college, but I suspect it is very, very hard to get kicked out.

Gray's School of Art cartoon

Bitter moi?

So you may have picked up a little bitterness in this article. I was ‘asked to leave’ Gray’s School of Art in 1988. The head of graphic design Ian Cargill (the only graphic design tutor)  had taken an instant dislike to me, and seemed determined to remind me whenever he got the opportunity that he hadn’t changed his opinion throughout my seven months in his class. I was far from perfect, but I was then, as I am now, a graphic designer.

I received a letter at my home informing me to meet at the Head of School’s office at an allotted time. On arriving for the meeting I was immediately informed by Head of School, Professor Eric Spiller ‘we have no option but to ask you to leave’. That was my first communication on the subject. In the corner looking at the floor was Ian Cargill. Next to me was Malcolm Brown, head of Textile Design at Gray’s School of Art.

Ian Cargill Gray's School of Art

Malcolm Brown leaned into me, face to face, about 15 centimetres nose to nose and growled/sneered, ‘So are there any mitigating circumstances to take into account, Iain?!’. Safe to say Malcolm Brown was enjoying the ending of a twenty year old’s education. Despite the fact he had never taught me, didn’t know me at all, had never previously been in the same room as me.

I just looked at him, speechless. Looked over at Ian Cargill, still looking at the floor, looked up at Professor Eric Spiller, stood up and left. I didn’t utter a single word the entire meeting. And that was me done with Gray’s School of Art, and full time education. 

Not all bad…

But it would be wrong to end it there. George Craigie had taught for a few months in Graphic Design and was a great teacher.  The artist Joyce Cairns taught me during a brief spell in the Fine Art department. She was excellent at her job, is a great artist and a kind and decent human being. Gordon Hamilton’s art history lectures engrained in me a love of the history of art I will never lose. And the library, oh the library, like a sweet shop for the creative brain. The lovely helpful librarian. The shiny new Creative Review magazine that arrived every third Thursday in the month, about 10.30am. The collection of back issues of assorted design magazines, which had it’s own cupboard, with a desk and chair. And the fabulous book collection…

The best of times, the worst of times.

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Advice for new students at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen

Grays School of Art Aberdeen

This image is copyright Grays School of Art , Aberdeen

If you are about to attend Gray’s School of Art for the first time, you probably ought to know, Gray’s School of Art is the best art college in the world – if you want it to be.  Look at the building, look at the surroundings, look at the library, really what else do you need? On top of that, the most important reason it is the best art college in the world, is YOU are there.

Having been a student at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen in the late eighties, here is my advice for new students. I am well aware there will have been significant changes, but some elements will be similar to my time.

Enjoy the city of Aberdeen

The city of Aberdeen is a magnificent place. The granite buildings are beautiful, the people are nice, there’s mock chop suppers, and a wonderful football team. At Gray’s School of Art the building is a fantastic piece of architecture. The area of Garthdee is close to the centre of the city, and you are a couple of minutes from the beautiful Deeside countryside.

What to watch out for

Avoid at all costs any students with a whiny Central Belt accent constantly whinging about how much better everything in Glasgow is – in particular Glasgow School of Art. They are almost certainly just homesick, missing their Mum, and using a front of superiority to cover this up. Ideally there should be a toll at the Tay Bridge that stops these people getting that far North.

Ignore your tutors

Or listen to them, it’s up to you. Being a tutor at an art college is really not that hard a job. You take talent, you point them in the right direction, off they fly. The idea that at Edinburgh, St Martins, or anywhere else there are better art tutors with better qualifications, or better people skills is just academic elitism. Your perfect tutor maybe doesn’t exist. Your art comes from within. Listen, evaluate, go with your instincts.

And finally

Try not get chucked out at the end of second year. Like I did. It’s a long hard struggle without a degree to make it in design, but it’s not impossible. And if ever you come across former Gray’s School of Art head of Graphic Design Ian Cargill, say hi from me. You can read more about the supremely talented and gifted trio of Ian Cargill, Malcolm Brown and Professor Eric Spiller here.

P.S

You are welcome. I suppose an honorary degree is out of the question?

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Patronising advice for design students and graduates – finding a job

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The difficult to reach first step of the career ladder

Times are tough, and have been for a number of years. It is particularly tough for those finishing their education coming out into the workforce to find the first step on the career ladder. So here is my advice.

Ignore the recession

Easy to say, not so easy to do. I have come into conversation with a number of people either recently graduated or close to graduation. Their negativity and fear regarding job prospects is understandable and very sad. So my advice is, don’t let the recession get in the way of your dreams. Pre recession there was maybe 30 jobs out there for you. Now there is only four. How many jobs do you need? One. It will just be a little harder to find.

If you allow the recession to stop you being motivated to find work you will wake up one day in about 10 years and hear an announcement that a new recession has begun. And you hadn’t noticed the previous one end. You will also hear of someone who went on to do well because they thought of a clever way to get active during the recession. You will be kicking yourself.

Job searching basics

There is lots of advice out there, use it. Don’t send anyone an email that is a copy paste email. Ensure something relates to the company or person you are writing to. I like ‘such and such’ on your website. My favourite campaign is your one for xyz. It is not so much about ‘sucking up’ to some one. It is about personalising an email. Therefor a very busy person is far more likely to send you a personal message rather than a ‘thanks but no thanks’ copy paste job.

Unless you have written 200 applications, you have not even begun applying. Use that number as a positive target. Something to aim for. Five a day, every day, it will soon mount, and you will become better at it.

Worst case scenario

So what do you do if you still can’t get in. There comes a point where you have to work. Perhaps it is in a coffee shop, perhaps as an entry level trainee in a different area completely. You may well have the best time of your life and make friends for life. An odd thing is, you will be surprised how random opportunities can come your way in life. You may find there is a creative position within this company you never knew existed. I worked as a barman in London. I went on to start my own business as a blackboard artist, as a full time job. Who knew that was a possibility? But I had the contacts and knowledge just from working in the branch to know how to do it. And what I didn’t know I learned on the hoof.

Be prepared

Another issue regarding the random nature of things, is after sending hundreds of CVs out, and working yourself into the ground trying to find a job with no success, you could find yourself sitting at a dinner party or in some other social situation, when during small talk someone says ‘oh we are looking for a designer, can you Photoshop?’. And before you know it, you have a job, without applying or being interviewed.

Now here is the important aspect of that scenario. Make sure the last design work you did, wasn’t what you did in college. Make sure you are still active. Have a website portfolio, or a blog that is active. Make sure you can show your enthusiasm for your area of expertise. Because you will be kicking yourself if an opportunity like that comes up unexpectedly and you blow it because you were not prepared.

Working for free

It’s a tough one. You need experience to get a job, how do you get experience. How do you build a portfolio that shows what you can do, without working for free? From my experience, the sort of people who would accept free work, are the worst people to work for. They are like sharks. They will never pay you at a later date when you are experienced. Their shark brain will go, ‘find another idiot to work for free’. They will not respect you, will not respect your work, and will almost certainly insist on doing something to the design which is so bad it means you can’t use it in your portfolio. There is also the argument that working for free for people demeans the industry you wish to work in.

Stay positive and keep learning

If you still can’t get a job in the design industry there are further options. Start up freelance is one of them. Another is to look at the different aspects of your work and work at it in your free time. Illustration or animation for example, or typography design, or motion graphics. Something that would have been hard to get to, and possibly too exhausting to work on in your free time as a designer as it is too similar to the day job. Working in a different field you are completely fresh to work on this in your free time. This can be incredibly rewarding and go on to you being able to work in your niche area later. Helps if you think of yourself as being like an out of work actor. Ignore anyone who uses the word ‘hobby’ to describe what you do.

Keep taking online courses to extend your skills. If you work in the web, get javascript, get php skills. In design, add typography design or motion graphics, take figure drawing classes, there’s always more to learn. Keep adding to your portfolio and good luck!