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.


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. 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.

Update 2022: I did a bit of research to see if this scam was still going on. And it appears in the digital age it has stopped! Hallelujah! While I was researching how they judge applicants I downloaded Gray’s School of Art portfolio advice PDF. Ouch.  And students upload their portfolio to Flickr!? Flickr still exists!? In the Google information box on Flickr, they use the past tense.

Update 2024: They have stopped using Flickr!! How is that Portfolio guidance document doing? No one in that art school (which offers a BA in Communication Design – Graphics, Illustration, Photography) has access to InDesign, or has the professional pride in their workplace to insist this public document be professionally designed? It is a PDF, an online document, where there is absolutely no reason to reduce page count to jam content together. This isn’t even basic design, or basic communication, or basic branding. This is appalling. As is all the bullshit word salad text.

“Are you a curious dreamer?”





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 short time 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 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 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, waited a few seconds in an idiotic act of politeness to be sure they had finished talking, 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. My self confidence shot to pieces.

Update: I have since been informed by a former student of that era, the head of textiles was Malcolm McCoig at the time. Despite the very traumatic experience feeling like it was just yesterday for me, I can’t be sure whether I got the name or the job title wrong. Perhaps the particular person would like to get in touch to take the credit.

The aftermath

I’m still not sure why I didn’t take my own life afterwards. I certainly thought about it, little else for over a year. Graphic design was my thing. It was all I had, and it had been taken away. Knowing more now I should have seen a doctor. It would be two decades later before I began work as a graphic designer. Self taught in my late thirties thanks to the internet, Apple and Adobe. Shocked at how easy design was for someone with my skills, my natural talent. Two decades of working as a barman, postman, dishwasher (no disrespect to anyone working in those jobs) I wasn’t even good at the jobs, the wasted decades. Go and study somewhere else? And meet another Ian Cargill? Or how about explaining what happened at Gray’s School of Art as a 20 year old? Who would believe a 20 year old? It would come over as bitter, or damaged, or difficult. Even now there will be people reading this…’what did you do?’

I wondered why Ian Cargill did it. I joined the class late, having been initially turned down by Cargill on first applying for the over subscribed class. Another tutor on learning I was to leave art college as I was unhappy in the Painting department (whoever became a successful painter on the back of being turned down by graphic design, and how on earth was my South Bank Show special going to start with Melvyn Bragg asking me about that?!) got me a place in his class. In about 10 minutes. You can see how he may have borne a grudge. While the class had many talented people, on arrival in the class, I was shocked at how poor they were as graphic designers. I had presumed I was turned down due to the talent of the preferred students. I didn’t know then, why I knew that. I know now, as well as graphic design, one of my skills is spotting graphic design talent in others. Oh the irony.

On top of that, we were four days on our main subject graphic design, one day on our second subject. It was a choice of ceramics or textiles. For graphic designers. Graphic design is a 2D discipline, textiles and ceramics 3d, and bear no relationship whatsoever to the discipline we were studying and the jobs we wished to get after studying.  In a school that had a painting department and a print making department (graphic designers often work in illustration), but they were in the fine art side of the school. We were not allowed to choose those subjects. Just a complete waste of our time.

When I began teaching myself graphic design in my late thirties I began getting flashbacks to being in the class. All sorts of stuff came back to me very vividly. It was so distressing at one point, I almost stopped trying to learn graphic design. Something in me felt it would eventually stop if I pushed through. But this is why I now remember so much detail so vividly.

Cargill had taken an instant dislike to me, and was in no way trying to hide it. During my time in his class he walked away from me while I was talking to him twice, missed me out of a teaching round once, out of a crit once, never once said a positive word to me on anything. This is not how he was behaving towards other students. The last couple of months having realised trying with him, was making it worse, I stopped talking if he was around. Trying to disappear into the background. Not sulking, trying to be invisible. I was nineteen years old.

No advice was given to me on being thrown out. Not even letting me know I had a right to appeal. To make a complaint. There was no internet back then, to find out about these things. At the time, I just remember amongst the sheer awfulness of it all, an enormous sense of relief to be out. I’d say out of an abusive relationship.

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 ingrained 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 its own cupboard, with a desk and chair. And the fabulous book collection…

The best of times, the worst of times.

Update: I am now aware I am neurodiverse. I have ADHD. That was my ‘far from perfect’. This article is a good few years old now. Originally written more than a decade ago, to try and understand what happened and how it affected me, having never really talked about it, or understood it; effectively therapy. As it is now a very long time ago, yes I should be over it, I guess I am. Also now with close to twenty years full time design experience.

I do however genuinely care about current and future students. Seeing that guidance document, (which I found a couple of years ago just to see if they still charge students to apply), the ‘interesting’ social media presence (or lack thereof – you are an art school, brimming with talent and ideas!! Maybe not the tutors, but the students are) that dreadful logo (let’s draw EVERY window on a symbol), does concern me.

If I am honest, I hate the idea of talent being messed with, and it concerns me how vulnerable students are. The nature of the student, art school relationship means students have little or no frame of reference to know what is good teaching, or acceptable behavior. A part of my experience was how singularly not fit for purpose some of those tutors were, and how incredibly poor the graphic design course was. If you offer a degree, there is a presumption to a naive young student that this will be quality, this will be the highest level. It most certainly wasn’t when I was there. The current visual identity is amateur and the guidance document is laughably unprofessional at every level. Does that sound like it has changed?

Perhaps I’m just not a ‘curious dreamer’.


Iain Cameron is a graphic designer, web designer, illustrator and motion designer based in Copenhagen. Here is my portfolio.