One Year After Art School…

The Macintosh and Reid Building of the Glasgow School of Art, photo credit to Cheng Zhai Wei

I’m always telling people that going to art school was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was somewhere that inspired me, challenged me and, at points, basically broke me. After graduating, I moved to London to start working at an agency as an experience designer. Just a few weeks ago I realised I have been here for a year, it’s been a complete whirlwind. Having had some time to reflect on what I’ve learned and the differences between the two places, I have a few points on what makes art school a unique primer for the world of work, and what ad agencies might learn from art schools.

How many presentations would end in tears back at art school, followed by sitting in the union drowning our sorrows? (Let’s save the conversation of healthy lifestyles and anxiety issues for another post). But the key ingredient to great work, that I never realised at the time, was that few people suffered shit work. The people you surrounded yourself with had an amazing fearlessness to give critique and feedback. Yeah, the tears were real but it was only because everyone was so emotionally charged and invested in creating the best work possible.

The ingredient to truly great work was trusting those around you to call you out when it wasn’t. We’ve all been so deeply immersed in what we are doing that we can’t see the wood for the trees, sometimes you need somebody to pull you out. There was no sense being offended there was just an overarching ambition to collectively produce the best possible results. In art school, the work was held above everything else.

This collective ambition of creating great things, and investing your time and effort into what you were doing purely for the love of the work and nothing else, made for possibly the best working environment. An environment complemented by some of the most inspiring people you would meet.

In agencies over the last year I have sometimes found an attitude for mediocrity: overhearing and experiencing comments like “it’s just what we have to do” or “it’s just what the client does”. This has to be challenged.

Often, that challenge can be daunting with so many layers of project ownership. Somebody said something great to me recently, “20 years of experience can easily be 1 years worth, repeated 20 times”. I think this can often be the case and, bluntly, says why graduates can easily become the life and soul of an agency. I believe it becomes your responsibility to clients that you challenge any underwhelming project briefs, with an ambition to do the best possible work. It also calls out others, like myself, who are a year or more into working to keep learning, aspiring, and stay ambitious.

Not long ago, I had a conversation at work where the quality of the work produced at art school was attributed to the extra time students were able to invest in their projects. Once I stopped beating this person with my sketchbook, I thought more about it. While projects at school ranged between 4–9 weeks, it wasn’t slower, if anything it intensified. There was a fantastic tendency to bite off way more than you could chew. Agencies need to capture that same attitude because, mixed with the ability to provide better facilities and production, the ideas realised could be life changing.

At work we’ve pushed and, in turn, internal projects we’ve wanted to run have been funded. We’ve been given freedom and space to explore what research methods we would like try out, and the outcomes have been paid for. This has been key to us learning and developing ourselves as experience designers.

There has been times where some processes we’ve used before, and the qualitative nature of some of the work done at art school, has been questioned by others and myself. But what I’ve found is that getting scientific isn’t the answer. The approach, while often based on some assumption, benefits from you being so deeply ingrained in the research and findings that you find themes and patterns that would normally go unseen. This approach, in our case ethnographic research, benefits from you as a graduate having an understanding of society, human behaviour, and a bigger idea of the project. This style of approach is invaluable to any project. Understanding this value we brought some recent graduates in to help us on a recent pitch.

What agencies can learn from art graduates:

Staff within agencies could benefit from being honest with each other. It’s not personal to say that the work being produced is terrible, it’s the opposite. Collectively you are doing everyone a favour.

Agencies need to hold on to the integrity of the work, above all else. Cut through the crap and just love creating great things. Foster an environment within your agency that allows for freedom, trust and encourages people to take responsibility for what they produce.

What graduates should hold on to:

Ambition is the most important thing you graduate with, not the skills or process learn along the way. The ambition to do great things forces you to stay true to the work, to keep learning. It will lead to people trusting you, even when you always bite off more than you can chew. Ambition is infectious, it will ensure you’re surrounded by similar people. Ultimately, being ambitious keeps you inspired and ready to keep producing fucking great stuff.

Thanks to Lucy Eldridge for making my rants make sense.