I was recently contacted by my brother-law who works as a teacher – one of his students is interested in a career in illustration and was wondering if I might be able to give some sage career advice. Always happy to help inspire and educate I said "bring it on", and was forwarded the questions below which I did my best to answer.
I also recently had a quick chat with a local lad who's been a carer for a relative since he was nine and is looking to get back to work, preferably in a design field, so I'm sure I reiterated some of the advice below.
Writing this up now's given me the chance to revisit my initial thoughts and expand on them where I can – hopefully, this will be a useful resource going forward, or at least an interesting 5-minute read.
1. What qualifications did you need to get the job you currently have?
Unfortunately, as much as I would love to be illustrating full-time all day every day, my day job is as a graphic designer, and I try to carry out freelance illustration around that. It's quite common for people working as illustrators to also have full or part-time work to keep a regular source of income coming in between commissions – in a recent illustration survey carried out last year, 43% of the respondents carry out their illustration practice around another job. It's difficult to balance a full-time job, parenting and freelancing, so I don't always manage to do as much illustration as I'd like in any given period.
I remember clearly circling "Graphic Designer" as a career I was interested in while I was at school, but after that, I didn't really think about it too much. After secondary school I took A-levels in Art & Design, Psychology and Computing at a local sixth-form college, and then a BTEC Diploma in Art & Design. Then I went to university and did a fairly general Art & Design degree – throughout college and university, I was much more interested in painting – rather than illustration or design, but due to some events that happened in my first-year I wasn't able to take painting for the final two-years. Subsequently, I didn't take as much interest in the course as I should have, and by the time I graduated I really wasn't interested in anything art-related for a couple of years afterwards.
It was completely by chance that I (re)discovered design and then through that illustration – taking a train one day I needed something to read, and I grabbed a copy of Computer Arts magazine because the cover looked interesting. I saved up, bought my first Mac and Adobe Creative Suite 1 and taught myself from there. Having a degree hasn't hurt, but I've worked in two or three different companies in design roles now, and the things I've taught myself outside school/education have been much more beneficial to getting those jobs than my academic qualifications.
2. What options did you pick for GCSE?
If I remember correctly I picked Art & Design, Business Studies, Geography and IT. I really wish I'd paid a bit more attention in Business Studies now, as the business side of illustration isn't something that really gets taught at college/university, it's something you have to pick up as you go along.
3. If you were employing somebody for your company what skills/experience would you be looking for?
Academic qualifications are always good, because it shows you've applied yourself and, especially when it's subjects you've chosen, that you have a genuine interest in them. But I'd also be looking for someone who shows a genuine interest in illustration/design, who asks questions and wants to learn, and who doesn't wait to be told what to do or what to study, but just goes out and starts learning it on their own because they're motivated and interested in the subject.
4. Are there any tips/courses you would recommend?
I don't know any courses personally, but I asked the question on Twitter and was pointed to an already existing thread…
Bit of research regarding this year's Illustrators Survey (launching Dec.)...
What are the best UK colleges and universities to study illustration or visual communication right now? Feel free to tag courses/tutors etc.
— Ben The Illustrator ✏️✌️ (@BenIllustrator) November 13, 2019
Some of the responses are summarised below:
- BA Illustration at Cambridge School of Art (@AngliaRuskin) is a brilliant course!
- The University of Cumbria - it may be small but it means a lot more of one to one with tutors unlike other uni's I know of. @dwayne_illo is a brill tutor (and now course leader) who made me so enthusiastic about illustration.
- @IllustrationUWE (University of the West of England, Bristol)! Fab course and great tutors learnt a lot :)
- Shout out for @gdiherts (University of Hertfordshire) – couldn't get better tutors if you tried
5. How 'tech savvy' do you have to be successful?
Digital skills are always good to have, but how savvy you'd need to be I think would depend on how you like to work. I'd say the majority of practising illustrators now are probably more on the digital-side, using something like Photoshop or Illustrator to create work, but there are still a lot of people that work traditionally (painting and pen & ink, etc.).
Even if you work traditionally you'd still need some digital skills so you can photograph/scan artwork, post to social-media, maintain a website/portfolio, etc. But that doesn't mean you need to be able to code a website, for example – there are free/cheap/easy solutions for lots of things, or if needs be you can always pay someone else to sort those things out for you.