How to be a Brilliant Designer without the BA
When I decided I wanted to become someone who worked in the design industry, it was later in life than most. Due to a long series of complex events I ended up leaving secondary school with no qualifications what so ever. I wish I could say it was because I was a gorgeous female James Dean style rebel, but alas it was more an issue of health and I didn't even sit an exam! So I ended up doing part-time courses when I was 19 in the local college and that's all the art training I've ever had. You see when it came to doing a degree, though only 21, I was considered a mature student and so the same financial help a sixth former would get wasn't on offer. Not only that but I'd made enquiries to other people who'd completed creative degrees and reviews weren't exactly glowing. Degrees are no longer a sure fire way to a good job and this is even more certain in the design industry. While I know most people do thrive there, this article is to give a boost to those who for one reason or another is not progressing on to further education. For this list, I am going to presume you have some basic knowledge of art. Even if it's a basic college course (my GCSE in fine art required me for the grand total of 1 morning every week) there are some things that do really help to be taught in a school environment. Colour theory, art history and how to plan your work are invaluable lessons that can't be fast-tracked so do try and start with the basics. Also, I by no means consider myself an artist who's made it and knows it all. I'm just a few years down the line and might be able to help you get where I am faster.
1. A teacher
I know! You're thinking that's something I have to go to university for! But stop there sir/madam! For a teacher comes in many shapes and sizes. Figure out what you need to learn and then figure out who can teach it to you. Break it down into small chunks, if you want to work digitally get your brother in law to show you how Adobe software works, if you want to sell your work to retail find that friend on Facebook who's done this and would love to have a chat, if you need to learn how to draw noses better for your portraits follow that YouTube tutorial once every day until your more confident. If you reach out, people will surprise you at how helpful they can be. Prioritise what is most important and get to swotting up. If you're at a loss for the right person, teach yourself. I used to buy theory books and go through them with a cheap sketchbook and draw out examples.You can do it!
2. Business Moxy
I don't wish to generalise but I tend to find that creative people tend to get a little shy when it come's to the dreaded 'M' word...MONEY! Yes even though we need to actually live, mention money to a designer and 9 times out of 10 they'll want to run a mile. You need to think about this as soon as you start your career because 'I'm building my portfolio so I don't need to charge for this work that I've spent weeks on, you have it for free' is not going to fly forever kid! Think about where your money is going to come from and how. If your selling to the public how are you going to get your work in front of those who'll buy it, if your working with businesses, who will have the money to pay for your service. Figure it out and then know your worth! Yes this is a hobby for some people but you're good, better then there cousin Janet who's great in Publisher and there younger brother Paul who won champion watercolour master in 2001! If you're bloody serious about this then the sweat and tears you pour into your work means it's more then worth good money. Don't drag the industry down by trying to be humble and undercharge, you'll have to go back to another job and other designers will hate you for it. Stand up proud and run your business well. If you need help there are loads of free resources that are about. Look for the Enterprise Hub or if your under 30 the Prince's Trust. Get your books in order and be a boss.
3. A network
One of the advantages that your University companions may have that you don't are contacts. Though a degree is no guarantee, industry businesses will often explore universities for the next big find and so you need to be prepared to compete. An early word of warning here, if you think you can email a business and have them look at your work and give you a job or feedback you are going to be sadly disappointed. Unless you get creative and dazzle them, which takes time and energy (though is on occasion worth it), most businesses will delete your email as soon as they know who you are. It sucks but it means you can plan your way around it. The first thing to do is tell everyone you know you want to be a designer. And I mean EVERYONE! Your family, your friends and your acquaintances. It means they'll have an ear to the ground on any competitions or opportunities that come up. Encourage them to alert you, let them know your actively looking and you'd love someone in your corner. You never know where an opportunity will come from and you need to have as wide a reach as possible because they will happen. Find out what arts networks operate in your area, do they have a newsletter? Can you find out where 'call out for designers' are? You'll also need good people to keep you sane. You'll be working long hours by yourself and you'll end up not being able to tell if your works good anymore or if you've lost the plot. You need other people to offer the odd bit of feedback to keep you on the straight and narrow. People with art and design backgrounds are good but as long as they can be fairly impartial, don't mind telling you the truth and don't mind being paid for there time in cream cakes then they'll be worth there weight in gold. I'll have an eclair please and don't even show me one without chocolate!
4. A Plan
One of the biggest things you'll struggle with is the temptation to become a busy fool. Learn to spend your time wisely and think of the value of each piece of work you take on. If it doesn't pay well it should be a great opportunity to get to a better job, if it's boring and just means you need to mute your creativity for a few days make sure your getting paid fairly. When you don't have commission work think about how to build your platform to get more. Get a diary, think about your goals in terms of yearly quarters. Tell people them so your more accountable to stay on target. You don't have to say no to people when you're just starting out but learn to think about how best to use your limited opportunities to get more bountiful ones.
Nothing on this list is more important. Being a designer is simultaneous agony and brilliance. It's hard. It's working overnight and panic when you can't think of the right idea. It's handing off work that you think is your best yet and feeling like your bossing life. If you can do anything else than this, do it. But if you're still here after all that heartbreak and there is something like a fire in your tummy that just can't think about not doing this (and can't be solved with Gaviscon), then you'll be okay. Feed it, that feeling can be outrageously stupid but it'll keep you on target.
So that's it. If you have any questions that I didn't answer here feel free to email me and I shall do my best to help, details are above on the contact section. Good luck, I'm rooting for you!