The Graduates: Q&A

In our special graduate issue this month, we feature the work of a small but perfectly formed selection of this year’s creative graduates. Here we canvas their opinions on their education and their hopes and dreams for the coming years.

Has your education equipped you to make the transition from study to work? What do you see as being the main differ­ences in what you have been doing compared to what may be expected of you post-graduation?

Tom Lovell: Sort of. There’s a huge difference between working at university and actually working in a real life situation. At university you don’t really have to deal with clients – so actually being a student you can be really self-indulgent – you get to write your own briefs and do what you want to do. Which on one hand is brilliant – you get to focus on what you really like to do whether it’s typography or illustration. But it’s very much what you want to do. It’s quite difficult to go from that to having someone say ‘no’. Our university [Lincoln] was quite good really – they had lots of lecturers come in and explain that you’re not ready for work just yet. They didn’t really do anything to make us ready – they just said ‘you ain’t ready for it’. Maybe there’s nothing they can say to make us ready – it’s more a case of gaining experi­ence once we’re out of college.

Mark Boardman:
Absolutely, I can’t say enough good things about the course at Falmouth [BA Hons Illustration]. So much of it is focused on making us successful as business people as well as artists so I don’t anticipate there being any trouble adjusting to work. There’s been a degree of freedom on the course that I won’t have again (in the illustration world at least), being able to pick and choose projects that suit my ideal position in life.

James Callahan: On the very first day of our course [Graphic and Communication Design, University of Leeds] we had to present a product we’d created over the summer in front of the whole of the course and all the tutors – maybe 110 people. It carried on like that for a while so we got very used to presenting. That was one of the best things about our course and one of the most useful skills we took with us. When we were talking to people on our year in industry we felt much more confident as a result. I guess the big jump for us is imagining that anyone would trust us to have one of our ideas made – it seems such a big leap from just having a scamp on your layout pad.

Tomomi Sayuda:
I was quite lucky because I used to work for several companies in Japan so I can be a professional, and also I’m doing freelance web design so I know how to make money in the real world. For me it was good because I could do something experimental in college, and we’ve got really good technical tutors too. In the first year at lcc I did photography and I really hated it, I was so nervous about every­thing. When I was in Japan I could achieve more, it was more practical, but that photography course was a bit too conceptual for me. That was good in some ways though, because I need to build conceptual ways to describe my ideas – because this is some­thing I couldn’t get in Japan, it was quite a new thing for me. 

Eilin Bergum:
Having work placements during college [at Ravensbourne] is what has equipped me the best. There are still a lot of things to learn about work, but I don’t think college can prepare you for that, it comes from experience. We did have a really silly subject called ppd, which is supposed to help you prepare for the industry: work placement was a tiny part of it, but not enough. I did most of my placements in my spare time. PPD was many hours in college that could have been used for something a little more creative.

What skills do you think you lack in order to operate in your field? What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started your studies?

TL: So much! After doing place­ments you realise how much you don’t know. It’s scary. The pace of it is one of the hardest things. Deadline, deadline, deadline….

We had tutors that would give us a month to work on a project and we thought that was tough. Now I’m in studios and they want some­thing done for tomorrow! So yes, the pace is the thing – I’m not quite ready for the pace.

MB: I’m working on my technical skills at the moment, doing projects that will push my painting in different directions, but that’s a hard question to answer – not because I’m partic­ularly skilled but more because that kind of lack of knowledge tends to blindside you. Ask me again when I’ve found out the hard way.

When we were on our year out we learned some of the things that you might not know if you are fresh out of college – about being too naïve, signing things you shouldn’t be signing, getting ripped off [he and Joe had a self-promotional T-shirt design copied by a high street retailer].

Joe Keirs: The other thing is to speak to everyone you can, even people who you think may not be right for you to work for. Just keep on meeting people.

JC: And be nice to people, that’s the key.

What do you see your role in society as? Do you feel you have responsi­bilities in a social or political sense in your work?

Matt Robinson: I think you have to stick to your principles in the sense that you’ve obviously got to make money and have a job, but if you’re against certain things you need to be true to that in your work, you can’t really live your life in one way but then say ‘this is different because it’s my work’, you have to stay true to that.

TL: This is what my dissertation was on – social responsibility. I think you’ve got to first of all make sure you’re not selling yourself out. It’s important to have your own set of beliefs and work within them – whether that be relating to what kind of clients you will and won’t work for, whether you want to work 9–5 but switch off at week­ends, stuff like that. I think socially there are things that don’t really come under moral or ethical duties but have become standard – such as being green. You have to have green credentials in order to work as a business now. So who you work for is really the way you can define your approach to social responsibility.

Jonathan Barnbrook gave a talk at uni and he was telling us that Coke contacted him and offered him a ridiculous amount of money to redesign their Coca Cola Zero logo – the wraparound on the bottle. Barnbrook turned it down because they wouldn’t let him change the shape of the bottle to make it more economic in terms of the materials used. He was clear that either he redesigned all of the bottle or he didn’t do any of it. So he ended up turning the job down – because Coke didn’t share his vision. Which is awe­some. Not everyone can afford to do that though I guess.

I think that if you stick by what you believe, eventually it will be worthwhile, even if it is sometimes hard on the money side of things.

EB: Should I be making the world a better place? I just want to make the world prettier and nicer to look at. But if the world has a project for me I’m happy to have a look at it. I do like a challenge, so bring it on and we’ll see what I can do.

Are disciplinary boundaries obsolete? Are you all just ‘visual communi­cators’ or do you define yourself more narrowly?

JC: It’s all communication to us. We often get told we need to do more ‘advertising’ because our work includes products, illus­tration, photographs … what interests us is how you can communicate ideas through things that aren’t just what people think of as traditional advertising. We read and hear that’s what agencies want but sometimes when we go and see people they say, ‘come back with some ideas for ad campaigns….’

‘Visual communicator’ sounds worryingly like a buzz­word but, sure, I think disciplinary boundaries are obsolete. Maybe they always have been and we’re just now realising it. But while I agree with the sentiment I think I’ll continue to label myself as an ‘artist stroke illustrator’.

TS: It depends on the person – nowadays crossover things are everywhere, it’s too much. Every­one says the same thing, it’s boring. That’s why I want to say that I am an interactive designer, that’s it. It could be stronger to say that. I can do photography, I can do product design, I can do performance art stuff as well, but I don’t want to say that, it’s too much.

There are loads of people that do loads of different things … I would rather, personally, be good at one thing. I say I’m a graphic designer but really I work with type and print. That’s what I do.

I mean, I do websites and things like that but what I love is type and print. I think that people who are good in certain areas should work together on projects that require their individual skills.

For example, I mentioned I’m into type. But there are loads of great illustrators producing hand- drawn type. That’s something that I can’t do. It’s a lot more difficult than you might think. I’ve tried my arse off with illustration but it’s just one of those things that isn’t inherently inside me!

In order to get a job most people do place­ments. What do you feel about the place­ment system? Is it fair? Does it discrimi­nate against those who cannot afford to work for free or find a place to stay? Were you treated well on place­ment? How would you like to see the system improved?

TL: Placements are weird. I’ve been to a few now and the places I’ve been treated me entirely differently. The first place I went to in between my second and third year, The District in Cambridge, paid me, put me on live projects and were really inviting and cool – really nice people – which is why I’ve just been back there to do another placement. I’ve been to a couple where they just chuck you in a corner and don’t speak to you for the rest of the day and they don’t pay you. When you’ve just left university and have no money everyone is saying to you ‘get placements wherever you can’ – which is ok because you need to figure out where you want to be but realistically you might have to travel two hours to get there, work for nothing and then drive two hours back each day. For three weeks. It’s a pretty big ask! But they help you to work out where you want to be (geographi­cally as well as job wise) and what kind of company you would feel at home in and what you actually want to do. 

JC: I can’t think of a better way of getting a first job. A lot of companies do offer to reimburse you for travel or living expenses, so we were lucky in that we didn’t find it too difficult. Some places would just put you in a corner and give you some brief that wasn’t real and leave you there, but a lot of companies were very good and we made a lot of friends among the people looking after us. We’ve been able to phone them and chat about projects, to get their opinion, which has been brilliant.

Tom Wrigglesworth:
At the moment the internship things are popping up. We’ve got a little bit of exposure from d&ad I suppose [Wrigglesworth and Robinson got a Second in the D&AD Student Awards for their Hewlett-Packard film, which was also honoured at the New Blood show, see p28], and it’s now about trying to grab hold of all the opportunities with­out dropping any of them.

I remember we did some advertising workshops last year and one of the teams said that they went round doing place­ment after placement for about a year or a year-and-a-half and weren’t paid anything. So as soon as they finished their day job they were working evening jobs and full weekend jobs, and that’s been a huge worry. But we’ve already agreed to a certain amount of placements and booked in certain things, which are all paid. It’s enough to cover rent and travel.

EB: Ideally I’d like to be a freelancer and produce work for lots of different clients, making enough money to be able to live. The placements I’ve been on have been great, but I can’t see myself doing this outside of college as there is no way I can afford it! I have been paying to go to college for three years, and now I’m expected to pay for living and do work for free, that’s not right. The companies I’ve been to have been really nice to me and I’ve gained really good experience. But again, this is something you only can afford whilst you are still a student.

The creative industries have been addicted to awards in the past – what do you think of them? Are they a valid form of recognising achievement?

Joe Keirs: They keep the industry happy, but I’m not sure that they translate outside the industry. The course pushes people toward the D&AD Student Awards but we haven’t really entered many as we’d rather talk to people to get ourselves known, and we found it more appealing working on live briefs.

JC: The tutors like the D&AD awards because they can put them­selves in a league table with other unis, and they like to have their name next to a piece
of work. One of our group said that getting a D&AD award was the best memory she had of the course so it must be great to win one.

MB: If they’re given for the right reasons (and I presume that the vast majority are), then sure. At the end of the day it’s the same as if a client likes your work and commissions a project, it says to other potential clients ‘hey, some­one out there must like this work’.

TW: The actual awards are a bit like your degree mark – it’s for your parents, if you know what I mean. But the networking and meeting people is so good.

TS: I think they are important to me – I haven’t received any awards, but it’s important to show my work, and be recognised. The award is not really the important thing but it’s a good opportunity to promote myself.

They give you something to strive for. Winning an award is probably better, more beneficial than getting a good grade. We’ve had the opportunity to work on live briefs and competitions and they’re the things that I’ve worked hardest on because there’s a prize to work for.

TL: I got a 2:1 at University but then won D&AD New Blood and I came first in the Stuart Hocknell awards in the North. I feel happier about those awards than I do about my degree – and I’ve got a lot more out of those awards – met more people just from going to the awards bashes. And I’ve got to do a lot more things. I got my place­ments on the strength of my awards too.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom around at the moment regarding the recession and the sheer volume of new graduates coming onto the market – do you feel welcomed by the industry? Do you feel optimistic about the year ahead?

TS: No! Everybody says they are cutting people. But I think for free­lancers it could be easier. In Japan ten years ago, we had a depression that was the same as it is here now, and a friend of mine worked as a freelancer then and said it was good, because free­lancers can get smaller jobs. So I’ve decided it could be good to keep as small as possible, by myself.

I do feel optimistic, yes. Maybe it would have been even more welcoming in the past, I don’t know, but as a new addition to the illustration workforce it’s certainly treating me well.

MR: People are always very driven in the third year but people have been really aware that they have to be the best that they can possibly be if they want to get a job. I think that has been a huge motivation – I think the fear of not being able to get a job has really driven a lot of people.

TW: We’ve been expecting the worst.… We’re just going to push on and see what happens. If it comes to a complete dead end then we’ll have to sit back and think how do we approach this. There’s been some freelance stuff, people have just approached us with little jobs. One of those was from a guy who couldn’t get a design agency to do a project, so they’re coming to us.

MR: That’s another thing that’s quite interesting… a lot of clients are finding it difficult to finance things in the way they used to so we’ve had a lot of input directly from companies because they’re maybe scared of how much they’re going to be charged if they go to an official agency. So we’ve had a few possible jobs that we’d be completely in control of which would be quite nice.

TL: It’s been great so far! I haven’t had more than half a week off since May – I’ve been doing place­ments and work-shops and stuff in New York and it’s been cool. Got more placements lined up and this CR project at Mother, so it’s been brilliant so far. I feel welcomed!

EB: I feel very optimistic and welcomed! After the degree show I’ve only had positive feedback on my work. I’m sitting here talking to you about being featured in Creative Review – it’s all really exciting. I finally get to do more of my illustration work as well as graphic design for money, which is all I can ask for. I’m looking forward to being able to do this full time.

What would consti­tute success for you in your future careers? Awards? Money? Making the world a better place?

JC: I’d like to have enough money to put my mum and dad in a nice nursing home – once they’re old enough, obviously….

JK: It’d be great to be able to entertain other people with great ideas, as long as we’re still enjoying ourselves, that would be the main thing.

JC: That we still love what we do, come up with ideas we’re proud of, that we still get to do things like taking photos, having an exhibition or a book published, making a cartoon – just to be able to do all of that. We don’t want to make loads of money, some guys at an agency said the best thing about having a job was that they could walk around the super­market and buy the food they wanted not what they could afford – that’s our main goal.

Making the world a better place. No, I’m kidding, it’s the money. But seriously – as long as I’m enjoying myself I think I’m being successful.

TW: Doing more interesting work.

MR: It’s more about producing work that makes you smile, work that you’re proud of rather than necessarily earning a lot of money. I think that comes maybe second­ary. Later on in life my responsi­bilities will change completely
but at the moment it’s just about producing work that you’re proud of. Even awards, it’s a nice sign of recognition, but I don’t think you should be just producing work to win awards.

TS: It’s not money, it’s more that I want to do something new. I have to earn money to live of course, but what I want to do is meet interesting people, do some interesting work and make a lot
of people happy.

Being somewhere that you like going to. Somewhere where you feel comfortable and that you’re not just working for some­one – but that you’re part of it – that you’ve got some authorship.

I want to be somewhere where I have fun, I enjoy who I work with and where I live as well.

I just want to be happy doing what I love and to be able to afford to live in London. And make the world a prettier place. And print won’t die as long as I’m alive, I’m making sure of that.

The graduates will be exhibiting work at Downstairs At Mother, Mother advertising agency’s exhibition space, from September 3–12. Their cover design ideas for this issue can seen over on the blog

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