Computer Arts Presents ( Issue 10) / The Design Student Handbook - Choosing the Right Route

So you’re considering applying to university as the first step in applying yourself to a career working in the creative industries? Take a moment to weigh up the pros and cons and look at the highs and lows of higher education to make sure that you’re taking the right route for the right reason, on the right course and at the right institution. Working as a communication designer or illustrator takes ability, commitment and passion – is a place on a university course the best place to nurture your talent or perhaps direct entry into the working world is best for you?

Is university right for me
01. University isn’t for all. You’ll need to want to balance academic rigour in your chosen subject area alongside the learning of real-world design skills. Assume an approximate 80/20 split in favour of practical know-how to subject history and context. Understanding your subject will improve your expertise, but the lecture theatre isn’t for all.

02. Three years can be a frustratingly long time for some keen to make their mark on the world. You’ll need to understand how your chosen course stacks up – from experimental beginnings in Year 01 to more practical, but course-determined, projects in Year 02 before a final year developing more personally-motivated creative outcomes. Have you the patience?

03. University is a costly affair, so be clear about the potential combined costs of fees, living expenses and materials. Some costs can be offset against a student loan – the fees repaid when in full-time employment, but accommodation costs can stack up, as can general living expenses – a part-time job will help, but you may still leave university in debt.

04. Entry into the creative industries, at a higher level, can be much smoother for design graduates than for apprentices. A degree education will prepare you for longevity in the profession; ensure that you understand how to be adaptable and equip yourself with a wealth of transferable skills to apply across a range of disciplines.

05. You’ll make life-long friends and establish a list of contacts and connections that will pay dividends way into the future if you choose a university education. You’ll also get out and into industry placements, if you’re on a good course, so building a network of professionals will come naturally – it is who you know, as well as what you know!

06. Experimentation is the key to pushing your work into new territories and so being away from the constraints of commercial clients and hidden away in an educational environment certainly allows time for the development of truly creative thinking and ideas, and for the fine-tuning of personal design approaches and aesthetics.

How to pick the right university course
01.Take time to take a look and test the market – read up on the college website, visit the course by appointment or at an open day and ask questions of the staff and students. Seeing the course and university first hand is vital – you’ll get a much clearer and realistic picture of the offer.

02. Ask for a list of notable alumni – where are the graduates of the course you’re interested in going onto and what impact are they making on today’s design world? Is the list up-to-date or simply names from the past, suggesting the course may have lost its former glory? Be sure to ask far-reaching questions.

03. Make contact with practitioners that you admire – where did they study? Which institution and which course might they recommend? Look at the staff teaching on the course – what are their credentials – are they practicing designers themselves? Do they bring in an impressive list of impressive speakers during the course? Are they connected?

04. What’s the rationale and philosophy of the course? Every design course is different in approach, what’s their take on the subject and what can you expect to learn? Take a look at course content – are they teaching concepts and skills you know you’ll need? Do they have real-world links through live projects? Is their finger on the pulse?

05. Is the location right for you? Do you want to leave home and head to the big smoke, or prefer to keep costs low and stay local? These are real considerations – where you live can be an important factor. Consider changes in your lifestyle, if you are becoming a student for the first time.

06. Be sure that, as well as course philosophy, the facilities and accommodation are up to scratch – where will you be located and will you have 5 day per week access to studio facilities? Are the workshops and digital workrooms well resourced and can you access all areas? If in doubt – ask!

07. Look at contact teaching hours – how many tutorials per term, approximately how many studio critiques will you present at during your first year, how many seminars and lectures will you attend? Will your full-time course present a full-time timetable or can you pursue other activities – such as maintaining a part-time job?

08. Does the course fit and do you fit the course and institution? Read up, visit, question and be sure that you feel you’d be in the right place – sometimes it is simply a gut instinct, but make sure that you are well informed. Make a decision to apply to a course based on sound research.

6 Pros and Cons for going to university
Pro 01. The freedom, space and time to explore your chosen design discipline without commercial constraints of industry.

Pro 02. University study provides an intellectually engaging experience, enabling deeper understanding of the history and context of design.

Pro 03. An opportunity to make life-long friends and contacts, study alongside and be taught by stimulating and motivated practitioners.

Con 01. A three-year course may seem like forever when you’re keen to get cracking on real-world projects for real-world fees.
Con 02. Taking a loan to pay your fees may feel like a financial commitment too far – university isn’t a cheap option.

Con 03. No guarantee of success upon graduation – you’ll still live or die by the quality of your portfolio and not your degree award…

8 brilliant graphic design / communication illustration course

01. BA (Hons) Graphic Media Design / London College of Communication / University of the Arts London / UK.
A flagship course at London College of Communication that offers real-world project briefs, industry mentors and an opportunity for additional one-year in industry course.

02. BA (Hons) Illustration / University of Brighton / UK.
Still one of the most avant-garde and forward-thinking courses in illustration in the UK - riding high with inspirational course structure, staff and students.

03. BA (Hons) Graphic Design / Manchester School of Art / Manchester Metropolitan University / UK.
Ideas-driven studio-based activities focus on contemporary and relevant design practice that nurtures creative and ambitious approaches.

04. MFA Graphic Design / School of Art / Yale University / USA.
Postgraduate study centres around the creation and completion of the student thesis – visually driven and individual in approach.

05. Bachelor Course / Design Academy Eindhoven /Netherlands.
A four-year course that focuses on the four compass points of the Eindhoven structure – Atelier, Forum, Lab and Market.

06. BFA Graphic Design / CalArts / USA
Preparing students for a wide range of professional options – from publication design to web design, from film title and broadcast design to exhibition design.

07. BFA Illustration / New School Parsons / USA
A mainstay in illustration education in NYC – signature classes include the Picture Story Workshop, Visual Politics and Toy Concept and Design.

08. BA (Hons) Communication Design / Glasgow School of Art / UK.
Study across Graphic Design, Illustration and Photography driven by ideas, concepts and ways of working rather than being typecast at entry.


College / Alternative Qualifications:
University life isn’t for all and there are certainly other options for preparing for entry into the creative industries - increasingly young designer-wannabes, as well as more mature career-changers, are looking at other routes. Given that most employers will be making a decision to hire based on portfolio content rather than a degree certificate – other ways into a career in design are increasingly becoming more valid. Can you pick and mix and mix and match a portfolio of short and online courses to suit your portfolio aspirations? What are the benefits of making your own way in the world of design education?

What are my other options
01. What are the alternatives to full-time university education? Short courses, running one evening per week for 10-12 weeks, as well as full-time summer schools at local colleges can all provide vocational training across a vast range of subject specialisms. Choose the courses most tailored to your requirements and your budget.

02. Will a short course provide the right grounding? Covering the basics is what you can expect from a short course. Be prepared to immerse yourself into the subject, but only knee-deep rather then full immersion – a short course can be a taster, rather than the main course menu.

03. A short course; evening, weekend or summer school, can provide a rich diet of opportunities designed to help you explore a range of creative possibilities – you can build upon a single course over time of course. Expect professional skills acquisition; you should leave with industry relevant know-how equipping you for the road ahead.

04. Many employers are fickle fellows – they want the here and now and will invest in staff that fit the mold at the time rather than necessarily invest for the future and short courses can provide up-to-the-minute software training that will secure you a short-term job, rather than a long-term career.

05. Private colleges offer shorter course options than universities and amongst their teaching staff can be design professionals employed to bring real-world context. All good, but the downside of these courses can be an unrecognised qualification that won’t assist in any alternative career entry if you later decide design isn’t for you.

06. Weigh up the pros and cons – short courses at colleges, private institutions and industry organisations can add the icing on the cake but will they provide you with the main ingredients if you’re starting from scratch? Are you self-motivated enough to apply yourself throughout the course and then self-critical enough to know how to improve without the input of a tutor once the course is over?

6 Alternative routes to getting qualified
01. Short courses that fit around your lifestyle and commitments can be the right choice for many aspiring designers. Pay as you go, pick up what you need when you need it and take a more vocational educational route. Training for industry, rather than deep intellectual enquiry, but they will do what they say on the tin.

02. Online courses are becoming increasingly popular for those that are time-poor and not so cash-rich. Study when you want and where you want – increasingly institutions are beginning to offer Open University style online options of their courses. Expect many more colleges to follow suit in the near future…

03. Internships and placements and can provide foot-in-the-door, real-world, real-live experience and with opportunities for training and gaining qualifications offered by some employers as a way for up-skilling their workforce this can be a productive way of gaining industry and education in one package.

04. Apprenticeships aren’t easy to secure – competition is rife, but for the best candidate this can be a road into the industry, often at base camp level of course, but learning the ropes, being trained on the job and working alongside industry professionals can be the best design education for many young designers.

05. Portfolio-building courses provide skills and training in particular aspects of portfolio presentation. Understand what to put in your portfolio and what to take out, how to present your work in the most professional manner and how to fine-tune your skillset to ensure you make the most of what you can offer.

06. Competitions can be an effective way of getting your work seen and a useful foot up the ladder. They are often design industry led, giving a professional context to your work and to a deadline proving you can deliver the goods as well as being useful training in answering a creative brief.

6 Pros and Cons of online learning
Pro 01. Study when you want, where you want and in your dressing gown and slippers if you fancy.

Pro 02. Study at your own pace, revisit aspects of the course in your own time and make progress accordingly.

Pro 03. Choose a course developed anywhere on the planet and travel only as far as the power supply to your laptop demands.

Con 01. It can be a lonely business studying by oneself – no face-to-face conversations with staff or fellow students.

Con 02. Little recognition of online qualifications means you’ll study to acquire skills rather than for a transferable certificate.

Con 03. Too much time in front of the screen can make Jack a dull boy. You’ll need to balance online activity with real-world engagement.

5 brilliant non-traditional courses

01. Artscom – University of Arts London / UK.
The UAL programme of excellent year-round industry-focussed short courses provision at CSM - Central St Martins, CCW - Camberwell / Chelsea / Wimbledon, LCC – London College of Communication and LCF – London College of Fashion.

02. Summer Intensive Studies: New York / New School Parsons / USA.
This is an intensive four-week programme of study for students looking to deepen their knowledge of art and design ahead of application for degree level study or entry into the creative industries.

03. D&AD Workshops / UK.
The D&AD Workshops celebrate 45 years but are taking a break for 2012 to be revised, refreshed and redesign, but D&AD still offering portfolio advice and a range of projects in the meantime.

04. Academy Class / Adobe Training / London / UK.
This authorised training centre is one of the UK’s leading media training companies specialising in Adobe’s Creative Suite for design, production and the web.

05. Graphic Design short course / RMIT University / Melbourne / Australia.
This introductory course teaches the basics of sound typography and layout with contemporary graphic approaches applied to creative design briefs and projects.


Entering the creative industries untrained takes some nerve but greatness can be achieved and even without a background in formal design education. There are prime examples across every aspect of design demonstrating that a DIY attitude can win friends and influence people. Gaining experience in the field can be so much more productive than learning in the lecture hall but it certainly isn’t all plain sailing, there are choppy unchartered waters out there as well as sharks circling. Taking life into your own hands and opting for life-experiences over educational experiences can work if you play the game well.

Can I make it alone?
01. So, given that most jobs or commissions arrive based on performance and portfolio rather than degree qualification or certificate, how best to make the move into the design world without teaching or training behind you? You’ll need determination, drive and ambition to succeed, and a little black book of contacts, and some luck.

02. Are you a self-motivated, self-starter and not self-centred or selfish in any way? You’ll need to be resourceful and practical as well as motivated and ambitious. You’ll need a plan of action, nerves of steel and thick skin – rejection will arrive in spades, and then some. Still interested?

03. As well as being super keen you’ll need that extra ingredient - bags of talent. And that is simply to get your foot in the door. The days of working in the post room of an agency before being asked to help out in the art department en route to a job as Creative Director are over.

04. Be prepared to start low but aim high – working with designers, researching images or creating mood boards can give you a vital insight into the creative process professionally. Look out for opportunities to learn from others and be humble, someone asks for a cup of tea – ‘with or without sugar?’.

05. Want to self-teach, then read, read and then read some more. Read design magazines, design books, design blogs. Keep a camera with you all of the time, use a notebook all of the time, use a sketchbook all of the time and design all of the time.

06. Keep enriched. Visit art exhibitions and galleries. See movies, visit the theatre, read newspapers, listen to music. Do what you can everyday to feed your mind, your soul and your design sensibilities. Surround yourself with anything and everything that interests you. Keep scrap books of reference and look for design in everything.

8 Ways to self-taught success

01. Your biggest challenge will be getting noticed – start by creating some promo material and send via snail mail. People take notice of old-school methods, they bin emails before reading but do keep hold of well designed self-promo materials. Invest in a promo piece, business card and CV and update regularly.

02. You’ll need a portfolio that shines to even get a meeting, let alone a solid placement offer, and best forget about a real job at this stage. No studio of worth hires a newcomer without some kind of trial – internship, placement, work experience, this is your starting point and you’ll need body of work to kick it off.

03. Take on each and every design opportunity and experience that you can – design wedding invites for your sister, create an identity for your local motorcycle club, brand the new outdoor food franchise your cousin has started. And do a great job of each of them – this is the making of your portfolio.

04. Get to grips with software so that it becomes 2nd nature. If you don’t know how to do something, learn and learn fast. You’ll be in demand if you can find your way around current versions of complex software – but be warned you may find sitting at a Mac creating other people’s designs all that is open to you.

05. Ask advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for opinions on your work. You’ll need constant and frighteningly honest appraisals of where you are at by people that know. Your boyfriend / girlfriend / parent is unlikely to tell you what you need to hear, only what they think you’ll want to hear. Ask a professional designer to give it to you straight.

06. Learn new software tips and tricks, but not at the expense of learning what constitutes great design. Design matters and matters to those that use it – explore design solutions that enrich lives rather than simply add a glossy sheen. Look towards designers that have created design with humanity, rather than fashion, in mind.

07. Be demanding, of yourself. Use your time wisely to ensure that you don’t get side-tracked. When approaching the industry, divide your working day into sections – post and emails first thing, marketing calls and emails late morning, research and information-gathering after lunch and emails and calls again late afternoon. Be focussed on the outcome; stay committed to your schedule.

08. Be adaptable. You’ll need to demonstrate a whole host of skills to impress a design director and strong typo skills, coupled with ace layout ability will get you so far – add excellent photographic or illustrative practice and you may start to look like a well-rounded designer. Prove that you are good to be around, and productive at any given task.

6 Pros and Cons of taking the self-taught route

Pro 01. You are your own boss, at least whilst your training yourself, so you set the agenda, the pace and the potential.

Pro 02. You can learn exactly what you want and when you want to, taking the route you think best.

Pro 03. There is no sitting in lectures that bore you, no learning aspects of a craft that don’t interest you.

Cons 01. There are few tried and tested pathways into design anymore – there is no map for the untrained designer.

Cons 02. Staying motivated isn’t easy when facing down rejections on a constant basis – keep your chin up!

Cons 03. Self-taught means lots of time flying solo and without fellow trainees it can mean lonely times…

Essential Equipment

01. Pencil – have an idea, use this to write it down and / or sketch it out.

02. Sketchbook – unlined paper in a pad with hardback cover for writing down ideas in and sketching them out.

03. Camera or Smartphone with good res camera – use this for recording ideas you don’t write down or sketch out in your sketchbook.

04. Laptop – mobile-computing-must-have. An up-to-date MacBook is crucial for college, placements and freelance projects.

05. Software - off the shelf versions of the most recent cut of professional applications.

06. Smartphone – you’ll need to keep on top of emails on the go and you’ll need to keep app-aware too.

07. Other digital kit – work out what you need it as you need it and purchase carefully… don’t buy shiny new kit for the sake of it…

08. Diary – digital or paper-based, it’s your choice, but do keep one so you know where you need to be and when.

09. Good strong bag – you’ve bought lots of kit, now look after it.

10. A comb and toothbrush – Look good and smell good. You want to enter the creative industries? Turn up on day 01 smelling of roses.

11. Alarm clock – don’t rely on your smartphone to wake you in the morning; it will fail. Invest in an alarm clock and don’t be late for any class or job interview.