Design is for the dedicated

Pitiful pay, menial tasks and 18-hour days await the graphics graduate. Are you tough enough, asks Clare Dwyer Hogg
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The Independent Online

Graphic design is, by its very nature, something of a catch-all description. The remit is wide: designing packaging for a particular brand, revamping a website, laying out a newspaper. It can be all these things and more. Yes, the basic premise is the same - artistic skills meet technology - but where you go with it, is entirely up to you. The world is your oyster, or minefield, depending on how you see it. Training is, of course, the first pit stop on the way to wherever you want to be. The university courses vary enormously in their style of teaching and ethos, but all students can apply through UCAS straight from A-levels or foundation course. Central St Martins, for instance, prefers practical evidence of skills as opposed to graded exams.

Graphic design is, by its very nature, something of a catch-all description. The remit is wide: designing packaging for a particular brand, revamping a website, laying out a newspaper. It can be all these things and more. Yes, the basic premise is the same - artistic skills meet technology - but where you go with it, is entirely up to you. The world is your oyster, or minefield, depending on how you see it. Training is, of course, the first pit stop on the way to wherever you want to be. The university courses vary enormously in their style of teaching and ethos, but all students can apply through UCAS straight from A-levels or foundation course. Central St Martins, for instance, prefers practical evidence of skills as opposed to graded exams.

"The bottom line is that we recruit on the basis of potential," says Andrew Whittle, the college's course director in graphic design. "And because the course is diagnostic, students find out what they want to do while they're here." This approach means graduates emerge into the working world through a variety of exits, depending on where they find their passion. Once fledgling designers find themselves out of college, however, it can be hard graft to put their skills to use. Supply seems to outweigh demand, so it's typical to find graduates doing unpaid placement work for at least a year to build their contacts. Quite a number of graduates find themselves turning to other jobs, and if they do find a position quickly, it's tough to secure rank.

Paul Emery, a senior designer at biggroup.co.uk, remembers that the early days weren't exactly an easy ride. "At the beginning I had a very junior position - scanning and other menial things."

He laughs. "And I had an MA." If you are lucky enough to get paid work quickly, the salary is usually low - £15,000 is a common offer. "But it's all about work experience," Emery says. "Once you've got that under your belt you start to earn." Senior designers can expect to earn something in the region of £20,000 -to £35,000: it all depends on the company, and - sometimes - the perceived prestige of the client.

This doesn't, of course, mean that the hours will become any easier. Many of Emery's clients at the next stage of his career were involved in television. "I was sometimes juggling 12 clients who all wanted their work at the same time," he recalls. "Whole weekends, all-nighters: if a client expects it at a certain time, you are expected to stay and do it. You get used to it." The challenge, as well as meeting the deadline, is to be creative while thinking in business terms: graphic designers constantly have to present their own original ideas in the best light, while simultaneously appealing to the client's brief. This is not an easy line to walk, but fulfiling when it works.

Richard Palmer, 29, graduated from the Norwich School of Art and Design (NSAD) in 1997 and was keen to find a way into packaging design. For the past three years he has been design director at US company Sterling. Based in New York, Palmer has worked with a string of well known companies including Pepsi, Levi Strauss and Campbell's. "The most recent work of mine that has gone to shelf is the global redesign of the Hellman's brand," he says.

"Others include Dove, Gillette Venus and Right Guard. I've been extremely lucky to have had such diverse client experience." Palmer's experience at NSDA is similar to how most degrees in graphic design work. In the first year, the syllabus was fairly broad, covering animation, illustration, photography and typography as well as design. In the second and third years, they specialised. "That was when I really started believing in myself as a designer," Palmer says.

He is aware that the career path of a graphic designer can initially be difficult to navigate, but is anxious to encourage those new to the trade: "If you are thinking of pursuing graphic design, choose your university or college wisely: research it thoroughly, visit it, and see if it has the course that's right for you. Second, never lose sight that great ideas come from thinking and researching - sketching and working ideas through on paper is a far superior creativity than jumping straight on a computer.

"A computer is just a tool: forget that, and you're a goner."

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