15 Ways To Boost Your Design Skills In London
Top schools and places I’ve explored in my first year of living in London (map included)
I moved to London in March 2019 to work as a Design Manager / Product Designer at Eleks UK. Fast forward a year and I can confirm it’s an absolute mecca for designers and creatives of all kinds. Any big city has lots of things to offer, but London’s uniqueness is about the range of inspiration you can get there. It’s the largest European hub of tech innovation, and at the same time, it has an art history spanning nearly 2,000 years.
In this post I’d like to share the top 15 things I recommend experiencing in London if you’re a designer of any profile. The list includes my choices for networking and product design training, as well as places to boost graphic design skills, understand art history, and get service design inspiration.
(Quick disclaimer: I’ve intentionally left out Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, and National Gallery, as they deserve dedicated articles).
Design Training and Events
If you’re a designer interested in product management, this one is for you — Product School runs events several times per week (currently you can watch all of them online) with speakers from nearly every leader of the tech market including Adobe, Babylon, Transferwise, Amazon, etc. The events are very practical and often include detailed case studies — so definitely recommend signing up for their page. They also have their book and certification for product managers.
London campus of General Assembly is a friendly space with a variety of workshops and part-time or full-time courses. Their main strength is the broad range of topics. If you’re a product designer, this school helps to become more T-shaped by attending workshops on service design, data analytics, front-end, product management, and visual design. Other topics also include ethics, writing and public speaking, storytelling, and negotiation strategies. GA has a large pool of trainers — mostly independent digital consultants and senior designers from mid-size London agencies.
This school’s motto is “learning by doing”. They’re more specialised than GA, with a few carefully elaborated and highly practical courses on UX, Product Management, and Service Design. Experience Haus is ideal if you want to get very in-depth knowledge, talk to their instructors about your real cases, and ask them tons of detailed questions. Their approach is very student-centered, following the “people over profit” principle. For example, they maintain small class sizes despite pressure to scale, and the amount of individual mentoring you get is truly impressive.
Digital Catapult is a tech innovation agency specialising in AI, future networks, and immersive technologies. They have their own Immersive Labs and regularly run showcases of VR/AR/MR products and haptic technologies, which you can try at their office.
Besides, instructors from Digital Catapult will be giving training sessions as part of Future Startup Now Founders, a virtual mentoring programme for young creatives (applications close on 17 June 2020).
Networking and Coworking
This place is perfect if you want to learn about the culture of British members’ clubs in its modern interpretation. Such social clubs were established in the 18th century. Until recently they used to be the privilege of upper-class British men (it’s hard to believe, but in 2015 Covent Garden’s Garrick Club still voted to continue the ban on female members). In the 20th-century members’ clubs opened to a completely different demographic — creatives, media crowd, tech professionals, and entrepreneurs. But the House of St Barnabas in Soho is not only a co-working place — it hosts art exhibitions, DJ sets, jazz events, and the atmosphere is pretty unique.
Even though the entrance is not free, the membership fee is quite fair and can be paid monthly, so if you’re planning to stay in London for more than a couple of weeks, this is a perfect place
Besides the art aspect, it’s a historical place — its rooms and gardens were the blueprint for the rooms in the novel A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
This is one of the most famous members’ clubs in London and my personal number one of all the rooftop places I’ve visited. It’s located in the top three floors of a warehouse building in central Shoreditch and is focused on networking for creatives (including creatives like Keith Richards and Stella McCartney). Shoreditch House hosts screenings, workshops (some of which you can currently watch online), and every hip event you can imagine.
This co-working space opened in 2019 inside a former church and of all the WeWork spaces I’ve visited in London, this one is the best so far, with fantastic interior design and great location right in front of the Holborn Tube station. However, when considering renting it, beware that the cheapest rooms have no windows, which is possibly not a problem as the shared spaces there are very attractive.
This co-working space is one of the best in terms of price-quality ratio. Its rooms are furnished with vintage furniture and hand-picked works of local artists, which makes the place cozy and inspiring. If you’re looking for a place to host an event, this can be a perfect choice. Last year we ran a Product Design event there, and, as a speaker, I can confirm a very high quality of event organisation combined with a convenient location not far from Liverpool Street Station.
This futuristic place in East London is a perfect way to start your journey into VR and try a new type of social entertainment which may become the norm at some point. Otherworld has 16 different VR experiences, including Tilt Brush, Beat Saber, Google Earth VR, etc. Sometimes it hosts even VR art experiences like Björk Vulnicura VR Album. The staff outfits look futuristic, too, so the experience is immersive from the very minute you enter the place.
You can visit Otherworld with a group of friends, and each of you will step into a private immersion room — a pod with dynamic heat, wind and rumble effects for maximum immersion. Inside VR you can play with each other as avatars, and sometimes you can also hear other guests’ voices in the distance — all of that really creates an illusion of travelling to a different planet. Tech support is monitoring the experience, so you can ask for a human assistant to help at any point of being in the pod (which feels quite strange). However, the overall experience is smooth enough to feel full immersion.
Otherworld also has a bar, so after the offboarding you can order drinks via touchscreens embedded into the tables and discuss the game with your friends — this time you all can see each other in human form.
This hidden gem inside London British Film Institute building at Southbank is a library of more than 50,000 film and TV titles from the BFI National Archive — a sort of a video jukebox. All of them you can watch for free at individual viewing stations with cozy sofas and touchscreen monitors. The mediatheque is a perfect place for inspiration and research. Tourists don’t know about this place, so it’s usually very quiet, and you can enjoy documentaries about art and design which are hard to discover elsewhere — say, come over to watch a film about Barbara Hepworth, a famous British sculptor or “Portrait of David Hockney” while enjoying the atmosphere of the British Film Institute.
11. Le Labo
Le Labo scents are gorgeous, but even if you’re not a fan of niche unisex perfumes, you should visit the shop to get inspired by the brand’s retail strategy. The fragrance is always made on the spot, as each store features a small laboratory — this ensures the maximum freshness of ingredients and a sustainable approach (later you can re-fill the bottle and get a discount). Once the customer has chosen their scent, the mixing process takes less than 10 minutes. The customer experience is very personalised: 1) you can choose to print your (or someone else’s) name on the label; 2) the staff will help you choose the scent by explaining all the chemistry nuances (and what were the other customers’ experiences with the scent you’re interested in).
The Red line of the Tube isn’t the most comfortable one, but I definitely recommend visiting Tottenham Court Road station. First, it’s one of the stations where full-motion digital ribbons were installed—for brands like Spotify and Nike to increase their brand awareness (research shows that full-motion video advertisements are 4x more engaging than the static ones).
Secondly, the station is famous for the giant mosaics by Eduardo Paolozzi, a Scottish sculptor and Surrealist artist. Paolozzi’s work of the 1960s partially shaped the Psychedelic graphic design style, which, in its turn, has a great impact on the visual style of landing pages and illustrations in 2020. Tottenham Court Road mosaics feature multiple symbols of Central London’s districts:
“This includes saxophones and musical notes to represent Denmark Street’s jazz community and musicians such as Pink Floyd, cameras and electrical circuits to show the technical stores of Fitzrovia, and Egyptian and Assyrian symbols to depict the British Museum”.
This department store celebrates its 145th birthday this year and is probably one of the earliest examples of retailtainment — since 1884 it has been one of the most fashionable shopping destinations in London and outside the UK.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when Europe was obsessed with orientalist styles and homeware, Liberty started importing fabrics and objet d’art from the Far East, as well as designing in-house apparel and patterns. Its collaboration with Art Nouveau artists was so influential that the Art Nouveau period in Italy is called “Liberty Style”.
The store was constructed with the timbers of two ancient “three-decker“ battleships — as the store founder‘s concept was to “metaphorically dock a ship in the city streets”.
Customer experience in Liberty is all about storytelling. As you climb upstairs, you discover carved memorials, Shields of Shakespeare, portraits of Henry VIII’s six wives, and the biggest chandelier in Europe. Besides eight departments of luxurious goods, Liberty has beauty salons, a restaurant, a florist, and even a museum-like Oriental Rugs department, which makes the store experience truly immersive (you can literally get lost there for hours).
If you’re seeking inspiration for luxurious service experiences, sometimes you need to look across industries and outside the tech world. Visit this glamorous Design Centre in Chelsea to see what it means to be really passionate about design details.
There you can explore 140 showrooms of designer furniture, ceramics, and textiles, feel the fabrics designed for Bentley cars, and attend regular events with experts talking about interior design trends and topics like the impact of digital on living spaces.
Bonus tip: take a walk from Chelsea Harbour to Saatchi Gallery — this is a district of antique furniture boutiques and beautiful multi-coloured houses.
Barbican Estate is one of the most famous examples of Brutalist architecture. Many people hate Brutalism, but in London, I’ve never heard anyone being skeptical about this complex. Quite the opposite, Barbican is full of charm — mainly because of the wild greenery surrounding its concrete towers and terraces. It’s a very creative area: in 1982 Barbican became home to 4,000 residents, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the iconic Barbican Arts Centre.
The ground level of Barbican Arts Centre — with its sofas, carpets, and dim lights — is a perfect space for focused creative work. There is also a retro-futuristic inner garden with a cafe (beware of pigeons stealing your food!) to visit for lunch and a hidden conservatory open for public on Sundays.
Five minutes away from the Barbican Arts Centre there is a tunnel which is one of my favourite places in London for two reasons: 1) this is where my office is located 2) it has two iconic graffitis made by Banksy to announce the start of a major exhibition of Basquiat’s art held at the Barbican Center in 2017. The first piece displays a Ferris wheel with crowns — a frequent pattern in Basquiat works — instead of passenger cars. The second one is a reference to Basquiat’s Boy and dog in a Johnnypump of 1982.
This list is a starting point in a designer’s journey through London — a place where possibilities for education and inspiration are endless.
Follow me on Twitter and feel free to share any more London-based experiences I forgot to mention. Also, I’ve made a map of the places mentioned in the article — feel free to use it once the lockdown is over.