For the first time today I’m trying something a little different, something that I hope will become a regular fixture in this space. I get quite a few questions in my inbox about how I ended up where I am, as well as questions about blogging and techniques I’ve acquired. I thought it would make sense to give some snapshots of life behind the scenes at The Lovely Drawer or as I’ve coined it, ‘Behind The Screen’. I know how much I love catching a glimpse of the day to day from other bloggers and designers and learning from their experience. Warning; I am no expert in any of the things I will chat about, which is probably what’s stopped me from doing things like this in the past, but I guess a certain amount of wisdom comes from experience, especially as so many of us creatives are learning as we go.
People often ask about my design background and training and how that’s put me where I am now. It’s quite unusual but I always knew I wanted to do something in art and design from the moment I could hold a pencil. I’m not joking when I say God really did give me an overwhelming desire to create and I just went with it. My creative fires started blazing with an old fashioned pencil and paper and a particular love affair with drawing mermaids. These were two of my childhood passions combined (side note: I desperately wanted to be a mermaid, one of my less realistic goals) and believe me I drew a lot of mermaids from the time we reached the letter ‘M’ in pre-school. I literally drew every day for hours until I was about 15 and expanded my repertoire beyond mermaids you’ll be glad to hear. I was in my own little imaginary world when I was younger. ‘Head in the clouds’ and ‘away with the fairies’ were comments I was very familiar with. Maybe other creatives can relate.
The fact that I loved art so much meant that it was easy to get better at it because I was practising ALL the time and it made choosing subjects to study at GCSE, A level and University a whole lot easier than for most. I realise I’m a rare case as most people are still clueless by the time they leave Uni as to what they should do. I’m the abnormal one! The toughest questions I had to ask were, ‘textiles or graphic design?’ ‘To screen print or digitally print?’. My certainty in following a career path in design prompted questions like ‘how will you earn any money from art?’ That was totally irrelevant for me as pursuing Art and Design was a no brainer. If you have a desire to do it more than any other subject then I’d say keep going down that path. You can make money from art and design and there are jobs out there, just don’t be presuming you’ll be raking in the big bucks. Having said that I don’t think any of us go into design for the money, but rather because we love it. I do just want to squash the idea of the ‘starving artist’. You may need to adapt to become more commercial in time but you don’t need to rule the design route out because some people think it’s a silly dream.
I took two art subjects as part of my GCSEs and then went on to do a BTEC in Art and Design at college. If you’re set on art and design then I would totally recommend a BTEC. I was won over with the appeal of bypassing a foundation year after A levels, which would otherwise have meant hanging around while most of my friends went to uni. Obviously that sounded like a total bummer. If you’re not sure then perhaps an Art foundation after your A levels will be a better way to go as you take a BTEC National Diploma in the place of A levels i.e big commitment.
The BTEC clearly showed up my strengths and weaknesses. After wearing down pencils year after year, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that my strength by far was drawing. Weirdly enough I was genuinely surprised. My biggest weakness was over thinking everything I did, which left me in a state of creative paralysis. This made me an incredibly slow worker! I get impatient just thinking back to how long projects used to take me!
With the heavy emphasise on drawing I decided to take Printed Textiles and Surface Pattern Design at Leeds College of Ar and Design (longest degree title know to man). The hilarious irony of this was that I didn’t like patterned. If you’d looked at my wardrobe you wouldn’t have found a single pattern item! You can imagine me sat there in the first week, in my decidedly unpatterned outfit, learning how to create a repeat screen print when the penny started to drop. You’ll be glad to hear that pattern slowly won me over until my wardrobe was a floral explosion by the time my third year came.
I wish I’d made the most of Uni but instead I really did embody the typical lazy student! I think back to all the facilities I had freely available and the time at my disposable for self governed projects and yet I was longing for tight briefs and seeing my designs worked out on commercial products. My advise is use the time you have at uni to…
- Network and build contacts that could become partnerships in the future.
- Break yourself into business by setting up a way to sell some of your own stuff, like an Etsy or Folksy shop.
- Practise the skills you’re taught like Adobe programs, photography, print techniques etc. It’s the best and fastest way to improve.
- Where there are longer projects give yourself some structure by setting yourself shorter briefs.
- Take electives that might help you gain helpful skills for the future, like photography.
- Use the time you have to experiment with your style. You have a license to go crazy! It’s unlikely you’ll ever have as much time for that again.
I’m such a perfectionist in terms of design that it often felt uncomfortable to experiment back then. Creating things that might look rubbish or not work, did not sound appealing to me. I was still caught up in my cycle of overthinking everything, that my outcomes were often lacking in authenticity and flair. By the end of my degree my highest marks had been for both my life drawing electives and ironically my dissertation which I’d totally freaked out about, having been out of writing practise for 4 years by that stage. So what I excelled at was not actually the design course itself. I had to laugh about that even then!
My course was incredibly broad and so there were a number of directions you could have gone from there but for some reason I was resolute in my pursuit of greetings card design. It wasn’t really the time to be that specific, when graduating at the exact moment the credit crunch hit! I was undeterred but added baby and children’s wear into the mix to broaden my horizons slightly.
My interest in greetings cards had been growing through my time at uni and then in my second year I won a competition with Hallmark cards which I was super excited about. The prize was a paid placement for 2 weeks in my summer holidays. You may be thinking that doesn’t sound much like a prize and perhaps even more so when I tell you I had to wake up at 5.15am each day in order to get there in time but I was over the moon! That placement pretty much cemented my interest in the industry and seeing as I had NO interest in flying solo as a freelancer, I fired off little promo packs to a huge list of card and stationery companies when I graduated. That’s what your’e told to do and I think that’s the best method. Sending something physical, that’s eye catching immediately gets you under employer’s noses. Trust me as someone who’s sat in front of the submissions box within a company, there are soooooo many horrendous designs sent in that I would say it isn’t too tricky to stand out. Think of it like the X Factor auditions. So many car crashes that someone even average stands out! You just need to be prepared to be patient. Some places didn’t get back to me until 5 months down the line.
New Designers graduate exhibition that’s held each year brought me quite a few exciting leads with companies like Mamas and Papas and H&M kidswear, in fact I got as far as considering a move to Sweden (say what??) but as I said it was the credit crunch and employment departments started to freeze. Those of you who are graduating now, I honestly think you are in a much better position and the amount of design job adverts have increased vastly since those days. So my advice for those graduating would be…
- Research the kinds of companies you’d like to work for but don’t be too picky.
- Make up promo packs with your CV and images of your work to send to those companies. Try to think of something a little out of the ordinary but don’t make it so complex that it puts you off starting
- Add to your portfolio by setting yourself briefs. Pick brands or products you want to design for and create work for them to give your designs focus. This also shows self discipline.
- Create a website or online portfolio or pay someone to do it for you. When I’m at graduate shows now I’m baffled when people don’t have a website. It’s less likely a potential employer or the press would contact you again if there’s nowhere to see your work after the show.
- Find the places where regular jobs in your field are posted. For me that was primarily the Print and Pattern job board.
Intern your way to a job
Of course going into a creative industry usually means having to intern for little or nothing. I guess you just have to think of it as the experience is priceless even though I don’t agree with companies taking advantage. You still have tons to learn when you’ve just graduated so don’t think you’re above placements as we all need to start somewhere. I had a run of placements with various card companies over the 6 months from graduating. They were definitely worth doing even though the money only just covered my expenses. Thankfully they provided free accommodation and I simply had to put up with living out of a suitcase for a while. Just to note, this may have changed but back then you couldn’t claim Jobseekers Allowance when you were on placements. Even if the placement was unpaid, during that time you are no longer considered to be seeking work. I tried explaining that it was the nature of my industry but that reason didn’t fly.
When you do placements you get a window into how the industry works as well as the working environment in that company. You learn new skills and sharpen existing skills as you absorb from the people working around you. I learnt a lot more about Photoshop and Illustrator in particular or at least much faster ways of doing things I’d taught myself. It forces you to adjust quickly to new environments and I suppose may open your eyes as to whether that sort of job is what you want to pursue. Not to mention, you’re more likely to get a job with them if the opportunity arises.
I won’t pretend I wasn’t an emotional and lonely wreck during that time. I thought I was pretty good with change but I found myself longing for a company to settle in, to get familiar with the way they worked and to see the same colleagues for more than two weeks at a time. God taught me a lot about relying on him, learning to live with nil pennies and living out of a bag, on the move like a nomad! Even though it was only 6 months of unemployment, I think unemployed weeks universally seem a lot slower than employed weeks and by the time I got my full time job I was so grateful to God! I could have been working with scalloped scissors and toe curling soppy sentiments and I would have been happy. So I got my full time card designing job from one of the promo packs I’d sent out months and months before. I’d totally forgotten about it but there began full time design employment for me. I was fresh faced, eager and wondering how on earth I was actually getting paid a salary to design.
Obviously the story doesn’t stop there but that’s for another day. Next time I’ll chat about making the jump to full time freelance.