Visualise your future: The employment market is looking good for young and talented creatives
Thursday 21 May 2009
The saying "a picture can paint a thousand words" was coined in the days long before computers, when a simple still photograph could tell a story in its own right. Now, although the photographer's art remains as engaging as ever, it is undeniable that the capacity of computers to create, manipulate and animate pictures, and merge them with photographs and film has taken creativity to new heights.
This is the world of graphic design, and, on today's employment landscape, there are numerous businesses that need the skills of graphic designers. If you take a moment to glance away from these words you're now reading to the various other visual elements on the pages (or web pages) of this newspaper, you'll be looking at the work of graphic designers. And this broad job description covers the creative work done for numerous other businesses, including websites, advertising, books, magazines, posters, computer games, product packaging, exhibitions and displays. The corporate communications and brand identity industry also needs graphic designers, to come up with the looks and logos they hope we will all subconsciously associate with their business or product.
The largest employers of graphic designers include agencies specialising in advertising design or corporate communication, and the publishing industry, which covers newspapers, magazines, brochures and books.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Largely out of sight lies a huge section of the industry known as contract publishing, which produces publications for companies and organisations in every sphere of life.
An example of a leading firm in this field is John Brown, based in west London, which turns out more than 50 magazines and catalogues, ranging vastly in target readership and style, including Waitrose Food Illustrated and magazines for Orange, Virgin Group, Visit London and Heal's. There's also a burgeoning department of the business creating web-based material to complement the hard copy publications. None of this could be done without graphic designers, who play the key visually creative role in every team, turning editorial ideas into a finished product that's eye-catching, appealing and informative.
Among a total workforce of over 200, there are around 30 graphic designers of varying degrees of seniority, some of whom have benefited from the firm's policy of giving financial support to selected final-year design students at London colleges. For John Brown's chief executive, Andrew Hirsch, this underlines the key role that design plays in the business. "I think great design is at the heart of what we do," he says. "In a busy world of work and life, design is what makes people stop and take notice of what our magazines are saying and promoting."
But graphic design skills can also lead to jobs in numerous other areas, where a creative mind and nifty computer skills merge to produce visually arresting images. The most prominent sector with a growing appetite for these skills is the computer gaming industry, where the UK has some world leaders, employing around 21,000 people in clusters around, for example, Brighton, Dundee, Guildford, Leeds, and Manchester.
One way to increase your chances of landing a job in computer gaming, and other areas where computer-generated moving pictures are used, is to take a crash course in the specific practical skills you need.
One place you can do that is Escape Studios in west London, which is principally a training college for computer graphics artists.
"We aim to ground people and give them a thorough understanding, covering all the basics of 3D animation and giving them the chance to specialise in one of six different areas," says chief executive, Dominic Davenport.
Every year, between 200 and 300 students (known as "escapees") complete three-month full-time courses at Escape at a cost of £8,500. There's also a cheaper online option. Among the areas of specialisation offered are visual effects, animation, character design and computer gaming. Much of the fancy visual wizardry we now see on television and in cinemas has been created by graduates from Escape.
"All our kit is industry-grade and the software is set up so we can emulate what goes on [in] industry," says Davenport.
Escape's recruitment director, Paul Wilkes, runs the part of the operation that tries, with much success, to place students into jobs after they finish training. He argues firmly that money spent on a training course at Escape won't be wasted.
"The entry-level salary for someone in their first job is about £16,000 to £20,000, but a talented freelancer can earn more than that," he says. "And within two or three years depending on the route they take, freelancers could be earning £150 to £200 a day."
And Davenport paints an optimistic picture for job prospects in the UK. "The visual-effects industry in film is in boom again, because of the level of talent here, the tax breaks and the exchange rate between the pound and the dollar, which means film producers are getting work done here more cheaply than they could before."
'It's a big kick to sit in the cinema and see my name roll'
Adam Dewhirst, 27, is a freelance 3D animation artist, currently working on a project for Passion Pictures, the makers of the "Compare the Meerkat" television adverts. After finishing a three-year graphic design degree at Camberwell College of Arts in London, he did a three-month course in 3D animation at Escape Studios.
"About two years into my degree, I knew I didn't want to be a graphic designer. I wanted to do something in film. What was very appealing about Escape is that they offered intensive, all-practical skills-based training in the 3D graphics package Maya. It teaches you how to make, animate and insert visual 3D effects into D features – everything from Toy Story to Star Wars.
But after finishing at Escape, I still didn't have any experience of working in the industry. So my first job was as a runner for a film company, which gave me an insight into the business.
Then after four months, Escape offered me a job working on a project they were doing, building elements for a computer games company. This led to another games project, and then CBBC, where I worked on the remake of Jackanory. That started getting my name mentioned.
Next I got a job for Framestore [the computer animation and visual effects studio] where I worked on The Golden Compass. That was the first film I did and it won a Bafta and an Oscar for visual effects, so you could say I'm one two-hundredth of an Oscar. I also worked on the Batman film The Dark Knight.
Now I'm at Passion Pictures and I'd love to tell you what I'm working on, but I've signed a non-disclosure agreement. I really love my job. It's a big kick for me to sit in the cinema and see my name roll, or watch TV and see my character running around in all its glory. That's insanely rewarding."
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