Many people (myself included) placed a great deal of pressure on the first year out of art school. Amidst pangs of anxiety around how to generate dat P, the recent graduate experience can be a very trying time. It’s hard to know what path to go down, especially as the options are mind-bogglingly varied. Should I move to the city? Should I go freelance? Will I even get some bloody work?
It’s valid to feel burnt out from final year angst (not to mention the dissertation hell that rinsed every synonym imaginable for “therefore”), and wish for some time away from creativity. The first year out of art school is sure to present some moments of “What the hell am I doing with my life?” and even a bit of: “I knew I should of listened to my parents and become a (insert any vocational career here) instead of pissing around an airy studio, pondering my insecurities by day and snogging boys with bowl haircuts by night.”
However some of you may feel the opposite, and rightfully expect your creative dreams to be fulfilled. One of the main reasons for this – especially in countries like the UK where you have to pay for undergraduate degree – is because of our skewed views of education. As Gem Barton pinpoints in Don’t Get a Job… Make a Job: How to make it as a creative graduate: “In countries where students must pay for university, education has been incorrectly compared to a commodity.”
Naturally, recent graduates who are now indebted for thousands of pounds have their hopes raised, but expectation can lead to both success and disappointment. Either way, the first year out of art school – and trust us when we say this – is really only the beginning.
Below, four creatives from a variety of fields share their stories and while they’re all successful now, it didn’t exactly start out that way. Retelling a few wobbly tales from their first steps outside the art school bubble; here are the graduation stories of Charlotte Mei, Made Thought, Fisk, Duncan Cowles and Jung Lee.
Duncan Cowles, filmmaker
It’s hard to pick just one depressing moment from that year after graduating from Edinburgh College of Art, which I often refer to as the “post-graduation dip.”
Plenty of things come to mind that weren’t ideal; moving home again, having no work, all my uni friends moving away from Edinburgh, becoming single again, feeling completely alone and lost, desperately volunteering for free at a production company in the hope it might turn into paid work… However one moment does stick out as particularly bleak. Since I wasn’t making much money I opted to try and get some part time bar work. I’d never worked in a bar, but figured it couldn’t be that different to the six years I’d worked part time in Boots the Chemist – the lunchtime rush for meal deals could be pretty full-on at times.
So I managed to get this interview at a pub where they were looking for two part-time bar members. I turned up to the interview and was delighted when the guy said that he was conducting three interviews for two positions and the first guy hadn’t even bothered to turn up. “Absolutely brilliant” I said, (in my head, not out loud). Basically there’s a 100% chance of getting this job. Then, once the normal enough interview was over, the third candidate hadn’t shown up either… which sort of made it a 200% chance of getting the job I thought?
The dip will be over soon… probably.Duncan Cowles
You can probably see where this is going though… I never heard back from them. You have to be really terrible not to get the job when you’re the only candidate who turns up to the interview and there’s two positions available and the interviewer literally said these words to me: “Pulling a pint isn’t rocket science, you should be fine.”
That pub went out of business a year or so later, so they definitely made the wrong decision. Reflecting on it now, it was probably my slight struggle to come across enthusiastic about anything that held me back, and I possibly appeared slightly miserable. Oddly, six years later, this lack of enthusiasm seems to be more or less the exact thing that now gets me paid work.
Anyway, a few weeks after this incident, my volunteering paid off and I was offered a full time position at this production company, and then I landed my first real film commission, so don’t be too disheartened if things don’t happen immediately after graduation – just keep at it. The dip will be over soon… probably.
Sam Hall, senior designer at Made Thought
In my first year out, I landed my first design job in Manchester. In my first few weeks I was helping my creative director lay out a big presentation. I had to stick up and take down this document a couple of times a day. Of course, he was quite particular about how it was put up. Firstly it had to be perfectly straight which is much harder than it sounds. And secondly, in order to fit approximately 200 pages on the wall, each sheet would need to have a slight equidistant overlap; which did look great.
Unfortunately for me however, this meant that one tiny spelling mistake occurring on page 36 resulted in me tearing down the remaining 164 pages to rectify the edit. The whole thing was pretty mind-numbing and after three weeks I’ve never been so excited to sit at my desk and fire up Adobe Creative Suite.
Later on in the year, about six months in, I found myself helping out on a shoot in East Anglia. After lunch, a producer asked me to move her car. I said yes. I was thrown by the electric ignition, stalled the car and rolled her brand new Audi backwards into the hair/makeup motorhome.
Charlotte Mei, illustrator
Leaving art school is a fun, scary, and totally new frontier. When I left Camberwell, I rented a big studio in Peckham with ten mates from my course. We were all working day jobs to pay the rent, and thus came the theme for our first collaborative project – a zine called Day Job where we illustrated our various jobs which included a biscuit icer, rice cooker and chocolate fountain assistant!
Working together motivated us and we supported and critiqued each other. I put much of our individual and combined success down to our first studio and the sense of community it gave us. I worked part time glazing and loading the kiln at a ceramics cafe for kids. It was great because the proximity to resources allowed me to enrich my ceramics practice while I spent my spare time drawing, painting, and making.
"Freelance illustration is not always a walk in the park"Charlotte Mei
A couple of years of the grind and I started to feel weary of splitting my mind in two. I wanted to fully commit to art, and to freelance life. I did what was probably the riskiest thing I have done to this date, and took out a £10,000 loan. I had to make it now! The money sustained me while I focused on improving my illustration. I practiced day and night and began to pick up some client work. I used the money to buy a kiln and ceramics equipment, and I made and sold ceramics, that’s largely how I sustained myself at that time.
Thinking back I can’t believe I took that risk, but at the time, all I knew was I had to make art, and I would do anything to buy myself some time. Freelance illustration is not always a walk in the park, but I’m grateful to be able to do what I love for a living.
Bijan Berahimi, founding designer of Fisk and curator, artist and educator
In my first year at CalArts, I started Fisk for many reasons. Partly, to take advantage of the unethical cost of tuition fees and to get my monies worth. The second and main reason was to use the platform as a way to hang out with friends and become better designers together. Fisk, as a school project, seemed limitlessly void of capitalism but I still hosted a funeral for Fisk as my senior thesis, unsure of how it could continue outside the safety of the university walls.
I realised after graduating in 2013, that even though I considered myself a graphic designer, I was interested in so much more. Interested in hosting events, sharing, publishing, curating collaborating, and creating community, too. So after graduation, I packed up and moved to Portland, Oregon without a job or a clear path for how I would use my newly earned degree. It was hard for me to see how my work would translate into the real world but it wasn’t hard for me to see myself living in Portland.
"If you persist, the world will be on your side"Bijan Berahimi
After a few months of nothing, I got the chance to work in-house at a big company and with some more confidence I started to apply for curator jobs at coffee and retail shops in town as a way of finding a community again. Although I got no responses, it didn’t discourage me. Rather than staying put in a cozy office job, I made the hard decision to start freelancing. Since no one provided me the opportunity, I opened my own gallery under the same name as my student project, Fisk.
I created my own path and learned that if you persist, the world will be on your side. Take small risks, then slowly take bigger risks. Be in it for the long term, not the short term. Keep putting in effort and others will notice. You will be tested and if you can endure all of the nos, there will be yeses that follow. As my professor Ed Fella once told me: “You have a long career ahead of you.”
Jungmyung Lee, founding designer of Jung-Lee Type Foundry
I graduated from Werkplaats Typografie, Arnhem in 2015. When I was first accepted into the programme and then when I completed the two years of studies, I felt like I’d finally lived out my dreams as my journey up to attending the school was filled with many detours and failures. I applied for the Master’s programme at the Werkplaat Typografie four times. The first three times it was a no, and finally a yes on my fourth try.
In my teens I dreamt of becoming a glamorous fashion designer, a fantasy that arose from being one of those Korean students who spent thousands of hours studying (16 hours a day). Then, during my undergraduate degree studying car design, I felt like I was rambling for six years having wrongly pursued the degree because it sounded like a good degree.
"Life is not about speed, but direction"Jung Lee
So at the end of my second year at Werkplaats Typografie, I decided to open a type foundry. It was a difficult first year as it didn’t bring me any sense of stability and I started to compare myself with my peers. All the expectations I had fell flat. But in April 2016, I was nominated by one of my tutors, Armand Mevis, to receive a one-year-long grant.
I had to write a year-long plan based on my practice and I strongly recommend recent graduates to do the same. Write down what you’re interested in after all the years of studying, and ask yourself what you’d like to do with these skills in the next year. In my case, it was a publication doubling up as a vehicle for typographic experimentation. And to end this story, I would like to share a mantra that still helps me significantly today: Life is not about speed, but direction.
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About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.