This post consists of a series of short written pieces that offer advice on how to improve your graphic design abilities and build your confidence. It is aimed at potential students of design. This article is interspersed with work from graduates of the Design for Visual Communication (DVC) courses at the London College of Communication (LCC). These graduates are from non-design backgrounds and have studied visual communication for one year. The course is focused on developing skills and confidence in graphic design.
The following three images are taken from Susanna Foppoli’s sketchbook and demonstrate the DVC course concept and research mantra: Document, Experiment, Contextualise and Evaluate.
This post is in response to a discussion thread on Richard Holt’s blog. The discussion centred around an advert Shillington College had placed with the copy line: Learn Graphic Design Fast. Shillington College was established by Andrew Shillington in 1989. He was experiencing difficulty in finding graduates who had the attributes he thought would make them employable. He was seeking people with ‘high-end computer skills, a practical knowledge of design theory and [who] could meet challenging deadlines’. A full-time course at Shillington College lasts three months. It should be noted that I am writing this piece from the context of my knowledge of the mature learner, converting career, who has already studied at undergraduate level.
The publications below are from Valentina Verç, Siobhan Hickey and Philippa Thomas. They are visual summaries of research and development work in a designed form that enables the student to reflect upon their design process and research interests.
Learn Graphic Design Fast
Shillington’s claim of ‘Learn Graphic Design Fast’ is certainly a great provocation and one that has designers and design educators hot under the collar. It also plays into the anxieties that twenty or thirty-somethings often have – the last chance saloon or the last roll of the dice. Maybe if you take this course or that course one’s fortunes will change. It’s the dream every aspiring creative person has. We see it on the talent shows. How do you become ‘better’ and get noticed quickly? At its heart there are some good questions. How fast can someone learn anything? What are the essential principles that need to be learnt? What are the learning and teaching methods that can facilitate this? Where best to study and how much will it cost?
A fundamental skill of graphic design is typography. Typography engages with its form but also attempts to provide text-based information. This exercise is primarily concerned with typographic hierarchy. It uses one typeface with changes of size and weight to gain emphasis for the different parts of the information. These examples are from Linne Jenkin, Peter Carr and Tom Hornby.
A Journey Not a Destination
Design can be defined as a plan or intention before something is produced. In his book ‘What is a Designer’, Norman Potter begins by stating that, ‘every human being is a designer’. Potter elaborates upon this point but it suggests that the potential lies within each of us to communicate visually through design. Potential is the key word – is this a road you want to travel down? For me, design is more a journey than a destination, a process not just an end product. Someone better than I once commented that ‘typography is a lifelong apprenticeship’ – you don’t really ever master it, you pursue it. My design hero, Geoff White, is a good example of someone who has made it a lifelong pursuit and is still grappling with it in his mid-eighties. I do think that the mechanics of typography can be learnt in the first term (approximately three months) on a full-time undergraduate course. Cultural and historical studies should enable you to root yourself in the tradition and continuum of the subject. Learning the software is also very much part of the deal. I believe you can become a functional designer quite quickly though. What is harder is learning design judgement – being critical and selective. You do need the time factor to practice, try things out and experiment. But then be critical. You need to find your attitude as a designer. I think it has to be something you feel and have an emotional connection with. It combines the cerebral with the visceral. It is a lifelong journey and not just three months.
In order to make an informed choice when selecting a typeface, students on the DVC course undertake a project exploring typeface classifications. These examples are by Sateen Panagiotopoulou and Dorota Zurek.
Am I Talented?
Many see design as a talent that is nurtured and not something that is learnt fast. You either have an eye for it or you don’t. The notion of talent is something of an intangible. Talent is described as a natural or innate ability. This might suggest that it is something that can’t be learnt or developed. Universities annually recruit cohorts of students. Despite the selection process it isn’t easy to spot the talent. The person who looks promising in the first year can decline over the next two years. Equally that hopeless case in year one suddenly begins to shine in year three. Who can predict an individual’s trajectory over time? Talent spotting seems a somewhat futile and undesirable activity. Can design be learnt? Yes. Can it be taught? Yes. Is design about the ‘Eureka moment’ or a ‘bolt of lightening’ providing inspiration? No, not always, rarely does inspiration strike out of nowhere. It’s not that random. The design process can be explained and it can be understood. It can therefore be taught and learnt. I have run courses for those converting career or wishing to add design as a complimentary skill to a repertoire of other skills they possess. The desire to learn graphic design might be because it was a first love that lost out under peer or parental pressure when choices were made regarding what subject to study at university. It might have emerged from engaging with design in a related area such as promotions, marketing or information visualisation within employment. Those individuals will have identified their ability and wish to validate and develop that ability through a formal education process.
The visual language and grammar project looks at basic form in the abstract but also how it is perceived in the visual world around us. These examples are provided by Dorota Zurek and Henrietta Ross.
Talent and Success
Many ‘talented’ graduates make the assumption that to be ‘talented’ within your subject is enough. The world will love you for that very fact. Your dream clients will beat a path to your door. Commercial success and talent are not related. Business acumen is a talent in its own right. Not all designers have this as a natural skill. The perception of your talent isn’t a static thing. One educational establishment might lead you to believe that your talent is unquestionable. Another turns that on it’s head. Your first interview at a design agency doesn’t go as well as you expected and dents your confidence in your talent. Fashions change, you might be in one minute and out the next. Design as style can be fickle and your success within a particular idiom fleeting. You can’t give up because the rewards aren’t immediate or circumstances change.
Colour is a fundamental way in which we interpret the world. It has strong cultural, political and social connotations. This project introduces eight aspects of colour theory which enables the students to make sensitive choices when combining colour. The project is in the form of a storyboard for an animation targeted at first year design students. These examples are by Bethany Wood and Margot Lombaert.
Ninety-nine Percent Perspiration
Thomas Edison is attributed with saying that ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration’. This suggests that sheer hard work is as important as the chance gift of a talent. David Quay commenting on type design suggests that ‘[it’s] one percent greativity (that was a nice mistake)…creativity and ninety-nine percent production’. Edison also said ‘many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up’. Perseverance in the early stages of learning anything is key. My experience of teaching mature students has led me to believe that a highly motivated person who works persistently hard eventually succeeds. It doesn’t require genius or that undefined notion of what talent is. Success though is relative. When I taught at undergraduate level I often defined success when a failing student finally passed. My colleague David Dabner use to award a ‘distance travelled’ prize, not to the highest achiever, but for the student who had come the furthest. Design isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work. More often than not you get it ‘wrong’. It requires perseverance through hours of trial and error.
The information design project enables students to bring together image, colour, typography and structure to convey complex information in an understandable form. In the first example Lizzie Toole analyses the contents of a humble tin of beans. The second example by Siobhan Hickey celebrates 50 years of Bond movies. Each segment represents a film, the green areas are the number of villains killed per film, the red dots – Bond’s amorous conquests. The final example sees Tom Hornby using Processing software to map out data relating to every station and stop in Britain. Imagine if this was an animation showing the growth of Britain’s transport infrastructure over time.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers introduces the ‘10,000 hour rule’. This is the minimum number of hours Gladwell claims his case studies put in before becoming successful. His case studies included Bill Gates and The Beatles. Paul McCartney, commenting on Gladwell’s theory states, ‘when you look at a group who has been successful… I think you always will find that amount of work in the background. But I don’t think it’s a rule that if you do that amount of work, you’re going to be as successful as the Beatles’. Type designer David Quay with typical humour quipped: ‘The 10,000 hours for me…does not work, you have to spend your whole life doing it to be better! But there is this moment when you feel competent enough (that was yesterday!)’. Michael Johnson observes on behalf of the design profession that ‘it [success] doesn’t happen over night and short-circuiting the process rarely works’. Whatever your definition of success, it is unlikely that there are any guarantees of quick routes through to that success.
The Professional and Academic Contexts project allows students to examine an aspect of structure related to the urban environment through an A3 publication. Dorota Zurek considered the plight of the Aylesbury Estate in SE17; Jason Aquino looked at how our perception of structure is influenced by lighting conditions; musician Lillias Kinsman-Blake explored sound and the city; and Peter Carr documented the re-appropriation of space by parkour exponents.
Giving yourself the best chance
There are factors that you can put in place which give you a better chance of succeeding: hard work; long hours; personal commitment; motivation; sacrifice; access to good teaching; genuine passion for the subject; learning basic design principles; knowing basic design theory; learning design history; reading about the subject; keeping up-to-date with developments; participating in design events; and attending exhibitions and conferences. Adrian Shaughnessy suggests the following as key qualities for designers: cultural awareness; communication skills; integrity; tenacity; risking failure; and cussedness. His views on tenacity are worth further investigation: ‘this is the ability to keep working at a task until it is right rather than settling for the first idea that appears’. Don’t settle for being just OK. He believes that these attributes are best acquired through ‘living and doing’. You can read all you want and take as many taught lessons as you like but living and breathing design, not as a chore, is how you become a designer. You don’t switch it on and off. Ultimately there are no formulas or tick box menus. It’s a life commitment you make with little guarantee of return. To paraphrase the musician, Robert Fripp, you pay the bill up front before success arrives. It takes faith.
In her final major project Henrietta Ross considers the contemporary form of the book and its ability to mimic aspects of the internet such as hypertext links.
The Ideal Candidate
The graphic design recruitment agency, Represent, asked a number of leading design studios what they looked for in a prospective employee – who was their ideal candidate? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that agencies employ people and not just the portfolio. What is it that makes you unique? Have you studied more than one subject previously. Do you have unusual skills or talents? Can you speak more than one language? How could you target more selectively? If you have studied architecture before visual communication maybe graphic design agencies that have a focus on environmental graphics would be worth consideration. Once you have targeted the agencies you are interested in, research the specifics of the agency you are applying to. Imagine how you would feel if someone had taken the time to find out more about you.
Jason Aquino explores the relationship between nutrition, food types and their relationship to the body’s vital systems. This piece proposes an exhibition with dynamic interaction.
Right Place, Right Time
You can do everything within your control but success still eludes you. There is the element of luck and chance to contend with – the being in the right place at the right time. You can still do something about this. It does mean being outgoing and making an effort. Attend workshops, exhibitions, lectures, etc. Those chance happenings are out there and waiting to happen. Those students of mine that have done this and chanced their luck and spoken to the people who they wanted to work for managed to make a connection. Where there is a genuine connection and you have the evidence to back your interest then your luck might be in. The message is stop hiding behind your computer and get out there and get involved.
Lillias Kinsman-Blake examines how graphic imagery can renew the case for feminism in the 21st century. This iconic image makes the point that America has still yet to see its first female president.
Promote Yourself Online
Are you making the most of free online resources? It takes time for the search engines to find you. Think and plan ahead. Get involved in online discussions. Keep a blog – on the Design for Visual Communication course we often describe a blog as a digital sketchbook. Finished work can be displayed on resources such as Flickr and template websites such as Indexhibit or Cargo Collective. If you are experimenting with moving image why not set up a Vimeo account? All these resources become places that you can point people towards or be discovered on. If you Google yourself, how many times do you come up on the front page?
Festival Director Utkarsh Marwah proposed the use of image projection and interaction as a method of engaging audiences with the content of performances.
Short and intense courses can help in providing a community of like-minded people which is motivating. It can provide you with technical and subject skills. Then you are left with you the individual. I’m fascinated by those that seem to ‘get it’ quite quickly and those that struggle. People just take different amounts of time to absorb information and use it. I do think most people have the capacity to learn and understand design. A ‘good’ teacher should be able to explain in a way that helps the student to understand. You should also be able to look at ‘good’ examples and learn from those by analysing why others think they are good. Colleges help to contextualise this for students by explaining the theory that underpins the practice. This makes you a more informed and rounded designer. It provides you with reference points and a language to articulate your ideas on design.
Oxford graduate, Venetia Thorneycroft reclaimed Freud’s Book Of Dreams for the creative community in a production that Scott House, who produced it, described as the most complicated book ever.
Communities of Practice
The advantage of traditional colleges and universities, such as LCC, is that they have good analogue and digital facilities as well as extensive libraries. You get a very hands-on experience of historical and contemporary processes. They are highly motivating communities of practice. It’s the reason why I teach there. The two courses I run are PgCert and PgDip Design for Visual Communication. We teach the fundamental design principles (visual language and grammar; typography; colour; and information design). We teach design theory alongside, and not separate from, design practice. We take an integrated approach. We teach the necessary research and development methods to engage with the design process. We provide opportunities to apply the learnt skills to conceptual projects. We do this over a year both in part-time and full-time mode. Graduates have gone on to work at places such as Frost, Spin, Browns, Unit Editions, Fallon, Intro, Design Council, Sea Design, BBC and CERN. They have been published, set up their own companies and even opened a shop. You can read about the courses and see student work at the LCC course website. Here’s our 2012 publication. Here’s our 2013 publication.
Dorota Zurek’s project Walking London revisits the notion of psycho-geography and urban exploration within South London.
As to the secret of being good at graphic design. There are no secrets. There are no mysteries. You take the talent you have and work hard. You learn from the lessons of the past and apply these to your present and future. There are no guarantees of success, but I wish you luck, and above all – enjoy the journey fellow travellers.
I studied graphic design at Middlesex Polytechnic (now University). I went to work with my tutor in his studio. I worked freelance and in small to medium size companies. I eventually combined professional practice with teaching. I’ve been lucky to have secured a full-time teaching post at the London College of Communication (LCC). I also assess at the annual ISTD Student Assessments which makes me aware of current design standards amongst students on UK design courses. I run courses for mature students who are converting career. They have a degree in subjects other than graphic design such as molecular genetics, geography, music as well as design related areas such as fashion and architecture. In the spirit of practising what I preach, you can see some of my work on Flickr. You can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thought for the Week, Michael Johnson
The Ideal Candidate
Learn Graphic Design Fast, Richard Holt
What Makes a Great Designer, Adrian Shaughnessy
Postgraduate Diploma Q&A, Lucinda Borrell
How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, Adrian Shaughnessy
What is a Designer, Norman Potter