A word of advice on graphic design

For any new graduate, taking that first step into the world of work can be a daunting task. We paired four recent grads with professionals in graphic design, advertising, illustration and photography, so they could experience a portfolio crit and get the chance to ask the pros for some seasoned advice. First up, A Practice For Everyday Life met graphic design graduate Arthur Carey and his egg-based music machine

THE GRAD: Arthur Carey
THE JOB: Graphic designer

A Practice For Everyday Life was formed in 2003 by Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas. The studio is now six-strong, and includes another two designers, Stephen Osman and Jason Wolfe. APFEL’s Carter and Osman met with Leeds College of Art graphic design graduate Arthur Carey to crit his portfolio and offer advice on taking the next steps after college. Since completing his degree, Carey has worked with several artists and galleries, and cites his main areas of interest as typography and layout across print and web. He also has a giant rabbit called Albus.

CR: Kirsty and Stephen, having looked through Arthur’s portfolio, what are your first thoughts about his work and the way that it’s presented?

Kirsty Carter: Arthur, we thought you were really interesting because you were keen on working with small budgets; you weren’t looking to work with huge enterprises, you were working with your contemporaries.

Stephen Osman: With art schools putting a bit more of a commercial edge into students’ work, it’s nice to see that you were more interested in doing things with other students.

KC: Your egg project is what I found interesting [Carey’s ‘Yalvin’, shown on left, is a large electronic instrument controlled via 100 porcelain birds’ eggs]. The students that we speak to now, more and more are pushed to feel that they should polish their work to such a degree that it’s really difficult to sift out the good from the bad. And the commercial pressures they are under, to get a job immediately, are changing the way students behave at college. So I find these sort of projects far more interesting, as they show your personality. It’s not perhaps something that makes sense to an employee as an output of a commercial project, but it shows who you are. It’s quite brave to do something like that.

CR: Is seeing physical objects important, having been through lots of graduate PDF and website portfolios?

KC: For sure. But the trouble is the initial presentation in a PDF is a graduate’s first ‘in’ so it still has be great, visually, for us to take interest in it. But if in the interview we’re only presented with the same thing again, that’s where it’s really not interesting.

SO: Yes, if you reveal too much from the initial hit, you’ve got nothing left to present. We might see a detail of some type, or a close-up of a certain process used, and then in the interview we’ll see the actual object – it’s nice to see the details once you’ve presented it. A lot of our work is process led and about the tactility of things. For me, it’s good to see a similar level of passion for those sorts of things.

KC: With Arthur’s work there’s also a willingness to take on different briefs, and show different techniques and types of projects. That shows he’s very adaptable. As an intern in a small studio, one minute you’ll ne asked to work on a map for an invite and suddenly you’re putting together elastic bands for the V&Ks Post-Modernism show, where you need a bit of craft. As a studio we need someone who is quite multifaceted.In a way, we wouldn’t shy away from getting an architecture student in. That’s what’s interesting at the moment: that graphic design interns are competing against interns from other disciplines.

Arthur Carey: Being resourceful is something I’ve always enjoyed; the challenge of using things in a different way. I would hate to move to a job where there’s a tried and tested way of working. APFEL seem to apply what’s relevant to the brief, even if it’s different to the work you’ve done before.

CR: So thinking about the particular projects you present in your portfolio is important as well?

KC: More and more students just present very fiat artwork. The classic in graphic design is the show identity and I don’t think I can look at another one! Arthur presented the identity for another degree show at his college, and obviously it’s a great thing for a student to do as it’s an applied piece of design, but I wouldn’t present that as the first project any more, as I think every studio sees that piece initially.

SO: It’s about balance. You can have individual projects that have a personality to them, but looking through Arthur’s work the conceptual thought is carried on into what typefaces and materials he’s used, and that’s quite telling – he’s got a reason for everything he’s done.

KC: And if you present the highly conceptual, crazy project first it captures attention. Then, if you present something much more applied second, you begin to see the thought process through from the slightly weird project and into the other one.

CR: Arthur, how much do you prepare what you’re going to say about each project that you’ll present?

AC: If I’m showing a print-based project that shows evidence of typography, I’ll use that to relay that I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about print and type when I’ve been studying. Because I know that even if I have a weird idea, one that the studio might like, that isn’t going to be the most useful thing if l was to be an intern.

CR: What about the CV – is that an important part to get right? And is it something studios still look through?

KC: I looked at Arthur’s grades; he’s done well academically and I think that’s a massive asset to show off. People joke about ‘when do you ever get asked whether you got a first or not?’ but I think that’s rubbish. If you’ve got a first then say so. To us, it shows that Arthur has been very hard working, and that’s a big tick in the box in terms of the CV. So don’t shy away from it.

AC: I wasn’t sure whether to include that, so that’s nice to hear.

KC: Yes, I think it belittles the people who have worked really hard. We do look. And the CV is the piece of paper that you look at the most for great typesetting. Widows? Orphans? Then forget it!

SO: We’ve even had people who have typeset their emails. You get the odd one that comes in that’s really beautiful. It’s not the deciding thing, but it does display a level of rigour that we want to see in the work that goes out from the studio.

CR: So how should graduates best approach a design studio like APFEL?

KC: These days we don’t have a biography saying who we are, but all it takes is to call and we’ll say you need to address the email to Stephen. And keep trying. It is luck to a degree, in terms of timing. And Stephen is a great example of an intern turning into an employee. When we saw Stephen’s work there was a lot more ‘authorship’ in student projects, you got more personality in there. And ultimately, that’s another thing that students also need to remember: we’re not just judging them on their work, we’re judging them, too. Because they’ve got to come into our studio, all of six people, for three months, and we have to get on with them, understand what they’re like, if they’re going to add to the studio as a person just as much as they are creatively.

CR: Arthur, in the exhibition identity project you worked on for the art and design interdisciplinary course at your college, you called upon the skills of several fellow students. Is that something you’d make a point of revealing in an interview?

AC: In our first year we were told about collaboration, how you’d get results that you wouldn’t believe were possible, but no-one really thought that was true early on. But in the third year all I did was collaborate, which has made the step to trying to be helpful in a studio, to working with people, much easier and more enjoyable. I know what I can bring to a collaboration and am more sure of my skillset.

KC: As a graphic designer you’re often project manager. That never goes. So this is an interesting project for you to have done, to go through that process. That can be quite shocking for students when they come into the studio, because they think that professionals act in such a different way. It’s about people skills as much as creative skills.

SO: You can get lost when you’re a student and get a bit self-indulgent. You have lots of time to explore different things, but you can go down the other route when the work stops being graphic design in a general sense.

KC: Which leads on to another of Arthur’s projects, the fashion label where you became copywriter as well.

AC: A third year fashion student wanted a name and brand, that wasn’t her name – we used ‘Hioni’. It was a weird scenario of wanting a high end fashion feel with no budget.

KC: And I think you’ve achieved that, there are lots of things here like edging the business cards, which is a really expensive process. And you’ve thought about every detail.

CR: From APFEL’s points of view, what are some of the most common mistakes that you see recent graduates make?

SO: Definitely be on time. There is nothing worse.

KC: Yes, we’re a difficult studio to find, so you have to allow time. We see students coming in flustered because they’re late, and they don’t start off well. If we’re unsure of where a client is, we will go to the place before we’re meant to be there. Even a few days before. These things apply to professionals in an interview situation, and really if we’re still applying them then a student should definitely be doing that as well. Another big mistake is with emails; forgetting that HTML is very sensitive and that you can see where your name has been copied and pasted in, you get different sized letters, for example. We know that graduates are applying to other studios, but when they’re writing an email they put ‘you’re the only studio I’ve looked at for the last however long’ it seems a bit fake.

SO: Also, grads worry about the work they have in their portfolio, that there might be projects that they aren’t so happy with aesthetically. But these can be really telling in terms of how good you are at other aspects of a particular project.

KC: But saying that, it’s a mistake to sit there and say, ‘I don’t really like this but thought I’d show you’. You have to sit there and sell yourself. So if you do bring a project like that along, you really need to talk about the positive outcomes.

AC: One of my priorities heading out of my degree was to acknowledge that this is the work I’ve now ended up with, for whatever reason, that I now have to back it even ifl don’t really like some of it. I’ve got to believe in what I’m showing people, otherwise they’re not going to believe in it.

CR: Stephen and Kirsty, can you sum up what you liked about Arthur’s work, what’s strong in his portfolio?

SO: There’s a sense of eagerness and a passion about what he’s doing, exploring different avenues. There’s lots of variation in the work: print, exhibitions, branding, personal projects – it didn’t feel too forced.

KC: I love that Arthur’s a collector. Ultimately, graphic designers are obsessive nerds, and you can see it in an instance; collections of ducks, fish and eggs. You can see a lot from his work; where he’s come from, where he’s grown up, there’s a lot of personality in there and that’s what I was drawn to. There’s a sense that you have to find something in common with the people you’re working with, parallels with your own passions.

AC: I’m really interested in how you set up APFEL, and wondered if you were graduating now, would you still want to go and do your own thing, or would you want to go and work forother people?

KC: I think it would have been much more beneficial for us to have worked at different studios doing internships before we tried to set up on our own, straight from the Royal College of Art. There was a lot to learn. The first three years we were so distracted with the business side of setting things up.

CR: How did you and Emma balance the design work with the business side of things at the start of APFEL?

KC: We just grafted it for years. To the extent that we had no money, we were here all hours. For five years we didn’t have a life apart from APFEL. And that’s tough, not even some of the best designers around would commit themselves to that. We split the admin so-so; and we did all our own bookkeeping, we did all our own VAT returns. Now we have an accountant. We also applied for all these schemes; we got our studio for free for two years from the Clerkenwell Green Association, which is now Craft Central; and we were in a Prince’s Trust building. It’s common sense to try and get help where you can.

CR: How important was self-promotion when you started out, and how important is it now?

KC: Well, when Stephen applied to us it was me and Emma who were looking at interns, and while it goes against what I was saying earlier, he came round with the Central Saint Martins graduate show cards and catalogue, which I thought was his strongest project; it was beautiful. He just came round inviting us to his show. Every year we get a lot of post, we go to as many shows as we can, but we’d met Stephen and we kind of felt obliged to go. It wouldn’t have worked if he’d put the invites in the post.

AC: When I finished my degree, thought I should focus on doing something a bit different with my business cards, so the money I got from a placement I did in Leeds I put it straight into the funds for them. In terms of self-promotion, I knew that no-one should be obliged to remember who I am, so I wanted to try and think of every possible way to do that.

KC: It’s also good to go along to lots of things. We went to the Institute of Contemporary Arts to a private view and a friend introduced us to the director of exhibitions …. It was the first show he’d put on and he asked us about the type and graphics on the walls. Emma and I didn’t realise he had done it, and gave him this big critique as it was all in capital letters. We said “you can’t really read it, it’s all so long … you need to change your graphic designer”. He’d moved from Germany and didn’t know many graphic designers here. But he called us in the following week, and on the back of that, we did all the ICA graphics for two years, then we started getting work at the Tate, and it just blossomed from there. So it’s difficult to say what you define as ‘self-promotion’, as we’ve never done a piece of print saying ‘Hi, we’re APFEL’ or a Christmas card. That’s mainly because we’ve got work from word of mouth, really, but we want to change that.

Arthur Carey’s portfolio is at arthurcarey.co.uk; A Practice For Everyday Life’s website is apracticeforeverydaylife.com

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