New guest author joining us on the blog today! Before studying part-time at Shillington, Stephen Grace was a self-taught designer with a budding career in Adelaide, but heading back to school helped him hone his craft, network in the right circles and land a job at one of Sydney’s top design agencies! These days Stephen is a designer at Christopher Doyle & Co, an AGDA Junior Councillor and student awards finalist and TDK Awards Winner. He keeps impressing us at every turn.

In 2015 I moved fresh from Adelaide to Sydney with nothing but a pocket full of dreams and an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. I had been self-taught as a designer up until that point and gained some professional experience in a few junior roles. I was faced with the question of whether I should now study design or if I had progressed beyond that stage in my learning.

In the end I made the decision to study, but not without careful thought and deliberation. Here is my case for the self-taught designer to go back to school.

1. Learn the software for real.

Design programs are big, lumbering beasts with any number of functions, outputs and ways to work. Like those fancy Breville toasters, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that you’re using it wrong. I was relieved to find out I was mostly alright and hadn’t made any fundamental errors, however learning from one source sped up my process enormously and gave me more efficient ways of working.

2. Check your blind spots.

There are things that you know you know, like how to set up a document and a grid. There are also things you know that you don’t know, like how to close the perspective grid when you accidentally click it in Illustrator. Then there are things that you don’t know that you don’t know, and unfortunately I can’t give any examples of these because that’s the point. A big motivation for me was to cover any gaping blind spots that I had unwittingly created for myself. I wanted to know what tools I was neglecting because I had never seen them or known to touch them.

3. Update your portfolio.

When you’re in the cycle of doing client work, it can become a rote task of DL brochures and EDM layouts. They aren’t always fully fleshed out pieces of work that show how you can think and solve a problem visually. My portfolio before Shillington was a mix of web design work and a whole lot of in-house design. I wanted to position myself to get into branding, but without any branding in my portfolio it was a tall order to ask an employer to trust I could do that.

Going back to school allowed me to own a brief, pour myself into it, and have a result that I could own. 

4. Meet other designers.

The people you study with are the people you’ll work with and become your industry peers. It can be a great way to expand your social network and meet new, passionate designers.

5. Get cosy with your next employer.

While I was studying we had the opportunity to have someone from the industry in to speak to our class. Shillington hooked up Christopher Doyle to come in and share his thoughts about branding and what he looks for when hiring designers. A few months later I had the opportunity to apply for a job with him and become a designer in his studio. Going back to design school can put you in front of some of the finest industry folk.

6. Find a date.

Not officially recommended but hey, it’s worth a shot. You may just meet that guy or gal with the perfect bezier curves for you. Just imagine how well you would furnish a home together…

7. Be better.

Being self-taught I never felt like I was stretched as a designer in my projects.

I had ultimately called the shots and dictated the terms of my learning. While that gave me a drive and intuition, it became a narrow way to design and solve a problem. My teachers pushed and pulled and questioned my design decisions. I couldn’t rely on “because I like it” anymore, because that’s not good enough when you’re answering to a client, and that does not make you a better designer.