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Design students and graduates – finding a job

Design-students-and-graduates-finding-a-job

It is particularly tough for those finishing their design education coming out into the workforce to find the first step on the career ladder. So here is my advice.

Ignore the negativity and rejection

There is a lot of negativity and bad experiences when starting out. Whether it be tutors saying how tough the ‘real world’ is, or hearing of the unemployment situation in the branch, or being unable to get even a reply to a job application. This bad experience can lead to you losing your motivation and belief in yourself. It’s very important to not allow this to happen.

Job searching basics

There is lots of advice on the internet for job searching for designers, use it. Don’t send anyone an email that is not personal. Do everything to find a contact name, compliment them on something in their portfolio website, something that shows you haven’t just copy pasted this email, along with hundreds of others.  A very busy person is far more likely to send you a personal message rather than a ‘thanks but no thanks’ copy paste reply, or just not reply.

If you get a reply, you can delicately ask for advice. Very apologetically ask if there was anything in your CV, application email or portfolio that could be improved. You won’t always get an answer, but good people hate turning applicants away. If they can give a bit of advice that may help someone, they often will.

Remember you just need one job. It is like finding a needle in a haystack, but if you don’t look for the needle, you definitely won’t find it. As a positive thought, if you haven’t been turned down by 200 applications, then you haven’t begun looking. 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. There are creative jobs you would never have heard of until you are working for that chain of convenience stores, or bars. You are networking by accident.

I worked as a barman in London. I went on to start my own business as a blackboard artist, as a full time job. Something I would never have seen as 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 in the design industry with no success, you could find yourself sitting at a dinner 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!

 

Iain Cameron is a web designer, graphic designer and illustrator based in Copenhagen.

 

 

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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 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.

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, my art, was my thing. It was all I had, and it had been taken away. Knowing more now I should have seen a doctor. I wouldn’t have known what depression was. I’m not sure how many would have. If you are suffering please try these people. The Samaritans. It would be two decades later before I began work as a graphic designer. Self taught thanks to the internet, Apple and Adobe. Shocked at how easy design was for someone with my skills. 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.

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…) 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 talent in others. Oh the irony.

He had taken an instant dislike to me, and 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. Towards the end of the year, just before I would be thrown out, he announced there was to be a weekend trip away to Cromarty, but there was a problem, our class was ‘one too many’. I was suspicious of the ‘one too many’ as he said it (you could say paranoid, but considering what would happen, perhaps my intuition was good) and one of us would have to drop out. No one volunteered to drop out. He seemed agitated at this, and said ‘well I’ll have to draw a name out of a hat’. I immediately thought, my name will be drawn out. My name will be the only one in the hat. Again, paranoia, or good instinct. I waited, it could have been one of the other students had something on that weekend. Still nothing. Just before he goes to start putting names into a hat, I put up my hand, and say I’ll drop out.

No word of positive acknowledgement from him. Perhaps slight irritation if anything. I wonder what that might have spoiled for him. Fourteen days later I was ‘asked to leave’.

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. Just before the depression kicked in.

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.

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. To be fair there were a number of balding, bearded, angry middle aged men working at Gray’s at the time. So that’s why I may have made an error. It was definitely Ian Cargill and Eric Spiller though.

Iain Cameron is a graphic designer, web designer and illustrator based in Copenhagen.

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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?