University vs Apprenticeships in Design | Reflect Digital
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  • 05/08/2019
  • by Steve

University vs Apprenticeships in Design

Our Head of Design, Wayne and Graphic Designer, Steve, share their different journeys into Design and explore the pros and cons of University and Apprenticeships.

Our Head of Design at Reflect Digital, Wayne, shares his experience of taking the University route into Graphic Design.

The degree route was the only viable passage to me at the time I left A-Level education having only explored Fine Art but knew that job opportunities would be few in that area. I left not knowing exactly what I wanted to do but I was sure I wanted to steer my creativity in a direction that enabled me to explore new avenues so undertook a Foundation Degree to experience other creative disciplines. I expected to emerge with my mind set on Illustration but I uncovered a desire to study Graphic Design further and found that to be a more fruitful direction when looking into possible careers.

I specialised in Graphic Design for the second half of my foundation degree and secured the grades that saw me onto the Graphic Design degree course. As this was a relatively new direction for me, I felt I needed to study the subject as opposed to going straight into an apprenticeship as the theory and application side were lacking for me. Over the three years, I went from knowing very little about Graphic Design to achieving a first and getting a junior role within weeks of finishing my degree. Although I lacked any agency experience, I had a solid foundation to build my design career on and entered the industry having developed my own style and passion for the subject.

Pro’s:

  • Dedicated tuition sessions teaching key principles of design, covering theory and practical.
  • Tailored tutorial sessions which helped us grasp graphic programs and processes that we may have had no previous experience with.
  • University culture - sharing the experience with hundreds of other like-minded students of a similar age. This exposes you to a rich pool of influences and styles which is really valuable at that early stage.

Con’s

  • Lack of hands on experience in a design studio environment.
  • Arguably a harder route into getting a work placement after studying.
  • It’s very expensive.

Advice

  • Keep designing. In can take a while to get your first design role so don’t sit and wait for a job opportunity to drop into your inbox. peopleperhour.com is a great resource where you can earn money for generating design work for those who have posted a brief. It won’t make you a millionaire but it’s a great way to earn some money whilst adding ‘real’ work to your portfolio. You’ll also gain a good understanding on how to produce work from a brief and deliver a finished design to a client. In addition to this, it looks great to a potential employer that you’ve remained active.
  • Educate yourself. There are a wealth of resources out there that weren’t available to me when I studied. YouTube has a huge number of video tutorials for all Adobe programs, as well as other resources from established designers and agencies in the industry. There are free stock imagery websites, icon galleries, web elements etc to start playing around with. Enjoy experimenting with new styles and processes.
  • Make sure you have a varied portfolio. It’s great to have a niche but in an agency environment, client demands vary wildly so being able to demonstrate that your ready to take on anything thrown in your direction will make you stand out from the crowd.
  • If you’re struggling to get your foot in the door, why not ask some agencies for work experience? It’s a great way to gain that experience you’re likely to be lacking after a degree. It may be unpaid but real work experience is invaluable and who knows, if you impress there could be a junior role on offer at the end of it.

Alternatively, our Graphic Designer, Steve, took the Apprenticeship route. He shares his journey and experience of undergoing an Apprenticeship in Design.

I became a Graphic Designer by going down the Apprenticeship route. After I left school I had no idea what I wanted to do for the next 50 years of my professional life. I always had an interest in all things design, but specifically Graphic Design. Going to University never really appealed to me, sitting and listening to someone, albeit an expert, talk about a subject just wasn’t my preferred method of learning, I much prefer to ‘learn by doing’.

Following my school years, while working various jobs and a little bit of travelling, I spent most of my spare time following YouTube tutorials on design. I would replicate how a logo was constructed or how a website homepage was designed, it was frustrating at first as they made it look so quick and easy. Initially, I remember I couldn’t quite work out why my designs weren’t working as well (usually because I hadn’t selected a particular layer) but like anything, once you get the hang of it and more familiar with the tools you’re working with, it becomes easier.

At the age of 23, I figured I should really get myself a ‘proper’ career, but with no experience other than hundreds of hours on YouTube, I (wrongly) thought that no one would hire me, so I decided to apply to some Universities, which as previously mentioned was not my first choice. While searching out all of the best design Universities and places that I wouldn’t mind moving to, I happened to stumble across a Graphic Design Apprenticeship. I’d never really considered an Apprenticeship in Graphic Design before, not because I didn’t fancy it but mainly because I assumed Apprenticeships were for trades.

I had been accepted into UCA (University of Creative Arts) Maidstone when I received a phone call asking if I’d like to attend the Apprenticeship interview, which obviously I accepted. I had no idea of what to expect, as job interviews I had attended previously were for Halfords or bar work, looking back I was really nervous and massively underprepared. 

At the interview, I made the mistake of dressing like I was attending a wedding, when really, I wanted to get into Design because one of the perks is that you can wear shorts and no one questions you (unless you’re applying to be a designer at a law firm, then you can get away with smart casual at the interview). My second mistake was not preparing a portfolio...or anything for that matter. I’d spent hours replicating designs I’d seen on YouTube, so not many of my designs were particularly unique and or showcased my creativity, but presenting those would’ve been better than turning up empty handed...like I did.

The interview was really laid back, like they pretty much always are, and although I didn’t sell myself by showing off my limited skills, I won them round with my passion. A couple of weeks later I received the call to say I’d got the job. I instantly quit my call centre job, declined the University offer, and started learning Adobe InDesign, I’d never heard of it before the interview and my mentor in design suggested I get cracking on it before I start.

Fast forward seven years and I am now working for one of Kent’s top agencies. I  completed my Apprenticeship working in-house for a couple of businesses, which is a great way of really understanding what it’s like to work with brand guidelines. I’d built up a portfolio and put myself out there. I worked for two years designing festival artwork, then entered the world of design agencies, which for me, is the best. Working in a busy agency is my dream job, each day is different - one day you’re working on a logo for a cricket academy then the next day working on a website for a distillery. 

There’s not a wrong way of getting into a career in Design, other than blackmailing a Creative Director, but I would thoroughly recommend going down the Apprenticeship route. At first, the money is low in comparison to your peers and you’ll probably have to live at home rent free if you have any plans on eating food again, but you’re on a journey to working your way up. On the bright side you’ll be getting paid to learn which is the opposite to a University degree. That experience is invaluable, you’ll likely be working alongside a professional Designer and my top-tip would be to become a sponge and absorb as much knowledge as you can from him/her.

Pros

  • You get paid to learn.
  • You gain vital experience working in-house or (even better) a creative agency.
  • It’s a fantastic pathway into reaching the next step of your career as a Junior Designer.

Cons

  • The pay is often low to start.
  • You don’t end up with a degree qualification at the end.
  • You miss out on the life experience and friendships that University offers.

Advice:

  • Learn from my mistakes; don’t go into an initial design interview with nothing to show. Even if it’s just a sketch, show some of your creativity and potential.
  • Get yourself on LinkedIn. It’s probably not seen as the coolest social media platform to be on if you’re a teenager, but you can connect with the right people in the industry. By connecting with Heads of Design, Art Directors, Graphic Designers and Recruiters, you can regularly update your profile and post work on your feed and ask them to give you feedback - who knows where it could lead? Feel free to connect with me as your first connection.
  • In the interview, when they ask ‘do you have any questions for us?’ DO NOT say ‘nah, you’re alright’. It shows you’re not that interested and there are so many questions you could ask.
  • Get practising. The Adobe Creative Suite isn’t cheap (£49 a month) if you’ve just left school, but there is good news, Adobe XD is FREE! Adobe XD is fairly new compared to other programmes in the suite and is a wireframing and prototype tool used for websites and applications. I’d highly recommend downloading it for free and following the many tutorials for free on YouTube.

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