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Shillington College teachers talk us through their design education approach

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In our first feature on Shillington College we looked at why its founder was compelled to create a new kind of graphic design education to better prepare graduates for the working world. But how does the college pursue this aim in practical everyday terms, achieving what can take several years into other institutions in a matter of mere months? To find out we asked the people who make it happen– the teachers themselves. So we quizzed US director Holly Karlsson, Melbourne lecturer Carlos Chavez, Manchester lecturer Jeffrey Bowman and senior London lecturer Corrie Anderson. Here’s what they had to say…

Can you sum up in a couple of sentences the Shillington approach to teaching graphic design? 

Carlos Chavez: Our approach is centred around pragmatism and a practical approach to creative problems. Right from the word go we focus on solving problems creatively in a hands-on way.

Jeffrey Bowman: We approach teaching in a real time kind of way. It’s got the dynamics of being in a studio while formalising design theory and building on a students practical skills through briefs. It’s open, honest and always really fun. 

Corrie Anderson: We work in the classroom similar to how a Creative Director would work with juniors in a studio. Teaching practical skills of course, but encouraging the students to present their ideas and working with them to push their ideas further. 

  • Carlos

    Carlos Chavez

  • Holly

    Holly Karlsson

Apart from time, what are the main differences between studying at Shillington and studying graphic design at art school or university?

Holly Karlsson: Shillington is run like a studio; you are given industry recognised deadlines and work to a brief with specific sets of specifications and target demographics.

Carlos: While university courses do a fabulous job at immersing a student in the history of design, and allowing them to conceptually gestate for three years or more, our focus is on producing industry-ready graduates with matching portfolios.

I’ve worked with many interns and juniors that might have been conceptually brilliant, yet technically under-prepared. It’s a huge problem that universities have been avoiding since I’ve been in this industry. Most graduates aren’t awarded positions where they are able to work on large conceptual projects on their own, hence the need for a high degree of technical proficiency. A graduate that hasn’t been suitably prepared for this will find it difficult to compete.

Since running my own studio, I’ve received a lot of folios from university students where an idea has not been executed as well as it could have, or lacks a certain professionalism. This is why, with my students, I stress the need for both concept and execution in equal amounts.

Corrie: I have experienced both angles of education, being an ex-student from Shillington and also studying at design school in Sydney. I found the Shillington approach was more practical and holistic. We do teach design theory, but we don’t separate for example learning the wonders of typography and the practical application of it. I found that was one of my struggles when at design school; I was learning all these wonderful things about colour and typography but not totally understanding how to apply those skills practically into my layouts with all of the confusion of what Quark (shudder) was.

“Most design businesses don’t have the luxury of having several weeks to develop a single concept. In my opinion, this is something most tertiary institutions are yet to catch up to.”

Carlos Chavez

How do you prepare students for the real demands of working as a designer?

Holly: We ensure that every minute of a working day is jam packed with briefings, technical demonstrations, critiques, lectures and of course designing. With the tight deadlines, and focused designing we prepare junior designers to what is expected in the industry.

Carlos: A lot of people only think of design as the realm of creating aesthetically-pleasing work. Design – and visual communications as a whole – is about the art of conveying meaning or ideas.

Every single brief we deliver to our students is looked at in this fashion to ensure that our student creates work that answers to the needs of the project. Creativity is about enabling, or increasing the effectiveness of communication, not supplanting it. 

Jeffrey: We cultivate a studio environment throughout a student’s time here. We try to replicate the timescale of a brief, working to deadlines from two hours to two and a half days. We start at 8am and finish at 5pm, so the rhythm of a working day is pretty similar to that of a studio which I think sets them up really well; it’s no big shock when they land their first job.

Corrie: From the second day of the course we’re briefing our students in the same way they would be briefed by an account manager or a client. We encourage our students to draw all of the information out from us and ask as many questions as possible. Nothing in the design process is missed — our students are critiqued on their research, brainstorming and thumbnails (or scamps) before they start getting things roaring on the mac.

  • Corrie

    Corrie Anderson

  • Jeffrey-bowman-%e2%80%93-by-anki-grothe-

    Jeffrey Bowman (Photo by Anki Grothe)

How is the teaching tailored to the current design marketplace and how do you keep up with what those demands are?

Holly: We are consistently consulting with the industry to ensure that what we are teaching is current and expected. The digital components of the course have increased exponentially in accordance with what employers and the industry and clients are expecting from designers.

Carlos: Now more than ever do studios need to turn over work quickly to meet market needs and to order to run viable businesses. Designers who can think on their feet, manage their time effectively and are technically-proficient are highly sought-after.

Most design businesses don’t have the luxury of having several weeks to develop a single concept. In my opinion, this is something most tertiary institutions are yet to catch up to.

Jeffrey: We are always in communication with the industry across all the colleges; we regularly invite them in to speak to the students, run briefs and give us critical feedback on the course and experience of the students they may have employed. Because the course is three months long we can tweak and implement small changes per course to keep up with the pace the design industry moves, but always with an overview of the bigger picture – to ensure quality design education.

Corrie: We’re constantly in touch with the industry, asking what they need in junior designers. As a private college we are constantly updating the course and tailoring it to industry needs. I have taught ten courses now and not one has been the same! It keeps me on my toes and the students’ work fresh.

The focus is on practical relevant design skills but how much design thinking, design history, concept creation etc is taught?  Do you agree that well-rounded designers need both these skill sets?

Holly: We totally agree that a designer needs to be able to have these fundamental attributes within their arsenal of skills to be able to create unique work that is commercially viable. At Shillington we do not accept “I chose this colour/typeface because I liked it” – either it is answering a brief and targeted at a demographic or the client won’t accept it.

Carlos: Absolutely. This could not be more important to me as a working creative and as a teacher. The fast-paced nature of the course necessitates a lot of hands-on work, but we make sure to provide a solid knowledge and skills base to our students.

Jeffrey: It runs parallel. We introduce the practical part of the course at the same time as the history, idea generation and concept development. We can do this because the briefs are where they run. I completely agree that a well-rounded designer should have both practical and conceptual skills, because the students leave here functioning at quite a high level practically, this gives them the freedom and time to develop even further their creative side when they are in a studio environment. 

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