I hope this article will be useful both for people considering studying at Shillington as well as those who are feeling like their design career maybe needs a bit of a refresh, and need a bit of inspiration to do something about it. Who knows, maybe some of my experiences over the years will sound all too familiar…
If you’d like to skip me rambling about my life story and go straight to my thoughts on Shillington, feel free to click this link (I’ll forgive you).
Throughout this article I have scattered some of the work produced by me and some of my fellow coursemates during our studies.
Why I Wanted / Needed to Study
In 2012 and I wrote this design freelancing tips article. The post got a lot of positive attention at the time which I was quite happy about. But you’ll most likely be able to tell — in the later stages of the article — that I had a long way to go before I felt truly happy with what I was doing, and generally felt a bit lost and lacking guidance. That is a whole other story (covered more in the article linked above) but in a nutshell, I was a web designer who had always been striving to be more of a graphic designer. I’d spent years trying to do things by myself through self-tuition and still felt miles off where I wanted to be, even though I’d still come a long way. I used to find myself visiting university degree shows in awe at the work of people who were considerably younger than me, with me thinking “I could never imagine producing something like that”, even though they would have been lacking the commercial experience that I had.
Despite being able to both design and code, my skillset throughout most of my career (until 2014) wasn’t particularly specialising in neither design nor development… I was working, what is sometimes referred to in the web industry, as a ‘generalist’. I’ve always been more passionate about design than frontend development however.
Funnily enough I’d actually looked into studying Graphic Design (an MA for that matter) a number of years ago — shortly before going freelance full-time in 2010. I emailed the course leaders at a local university with a handful of really small websites I’d designed for a few of my direct clients at the time. I sent the email thinking “these guys are gonna be blown away by this shit”… and needless to say, they weren’t.
They thought that, while my worked showed some level of practice, it was lacking in visual design theory. I was still invited for an interview and they were even happy to let me onto the course as a result (despite thinking my work was very corporate looking), but I knew I’d have been way out of my depth after seeing the past students’ work and that course wouldn’t have taught me the more fundamental aspects of design that I was in need of.
So anyway, back to 2012 around the time of the blog post mentioned above, it was at this point where again I was thinking “right, I need to do something about this. I need to study *something*”… even though I couldn’t afford to study a degree in Graphic Design (I wasn’t entitled to a another student loan as I already had one degree).
I had already heard of Shillington around this time, mainly from their adverts in Computer Arts magazine. I considered studying there and looked into it, but dismissed it almost immediately. I thought “Learn to be a graphic designer 3 months? Ha, good one…”
After briefly considering an MA (again) at yet another university, I had a friend ask me if I wanted to check out the Shillington Manchester grad show in the winter of 2012. I was pretty keen to get down there and see what all the fuss was about. And surely enough, that’s just what I did (and have the photos to prove it). I was amazed at the standard of the work on show and, as you may see in my post, thought “surely these guys can’t have only been studying for 3 months”. So I researched the college a lot more, mainly through contacting past students and reading features of Shillington graduates on Design Juices. I also paid a visit to an open night in Manchester. I then realised Shillington was exactly what I needed to fill in all the gaps in my knowledge as well as take my design skills to the next level. I needed to get clued up on the fundamentals, be able to cover a wider range of design briefs, get better at concept generation and improve the overall quality of my designs in general.
By this point, I was kind of glad that I’d been unable to study a graphic design degree despite the frustration I’d had over the years from picking the wrong course at university… Shillington would fit in much easier with my freelance lifestyle as I could take 3 months off work (just about) to study and then jump back into freelancing after graduating. It would, however, require me to take out a small business loan as well as spend the whole of 2013 slaving away on freelance jobs in order to get hold of enough money to take time off work and pay the course fees. I took on virtually any project that I could get my hands on, regardless of whether it involved design or purely frontend dev… my portfolio took a back seat at this point.
When I mentioned my plans to people (local designy / freelancey types), a lot of them thought I was out of my mind and responded with comments along the lines of:
- “What do you wanna study a course for? You don’t need that”
- “You can teach yourself all that stuff you know?”
- “Three months???”
Of course, I didn’t take much notice. None of them really knew anything about Shillington (or had even heard of it) and they didn’t properly understand my ambitions or skillset at the time.
After all I reacted in more or less the same way when I first investigated Shillington as mentioned earlier. I think a lot of people were under the impression that I wanted to take time off work to go to a regular college and study some kind of introductory design course with a bunch of 16 year olds… in which case I don’t blame them for how they reacted. Maybe this is partly down to Shillington referring to themselves as a ‘college’… I think they would probably be better off referring to themselves as a design ‘school’.
The Shillington Bit
So finally in January 2014 I was strolling into Shillington’s Manchester campus for my first day (pretty much exactly one year after I’d visited for the open night)… which felt really surreal as it was like there’d been a *massive* build up to it, what with all my saving money and telling everyone about it and all that.
We had a casual morning of ice-breaking and introductions as well as generally getting to know each other. For those wondering the age range of Shillington students, I was probably about average with me being 27 when I started it. Those on the course tended to range from about 20 to around their mid 30’s or so. I found a lot of my coursemates, myself included, already had a degree in one thing or another. Some came from creative backgrounds such as fine art and product design, others had degrees that were completely unrelated… but we were all there for the same thing.
Next, we got talking about what we’d be covering over the next few months. It became clear that we were in for a very busy 3 months (I already knew this though from speaking to former students online). The tutors made a point that the course is very well structured and has been very finely tuned over the years, and we didn’t have to wait long for this to become noticeable. This was a completely different learning environment to when I was in college and university all those years ago, it is very fast paced but works well as it is ran so efficiently.
The briefs you work on at Shillington are very realistic and industry-relevant, mainly down to the tight deadlines and the commercial element to each project. Tackling each brief always starts off in your sketchpad and there is a real ethos of not simply going with the first decent idea you come up with. You need to come up with as many good ideas as possible before jumping onto your Mac, and even then you’ll be working up more than more than one idea as well as numerous revisions. This was a process of working that was quite new to me. I’d always started off with a sketchpad in the past, however I’d never put quite as much focus on challenging my early ideas that much and would often just go with one of the first ones that I’d come up with. So I’ve found that my work has improved partly down to this approach of forcing myself to come up with more ideas regardless of how good my first few are. Shillington do a good job of drilling this process into their students.
There are a lot of smaller details about their course which also do a good job of getting their students to work as efficiently as possible, such as getting them to stick to best-practices like using keyboard shortcuts. If there’s one thing that drives me crazy, it is seeing people using design software with *just* the mouse — or even worse, a touchpad — so it was great to see how everyone at Shillington was taught in such a way that they wouldn’t ever imagine *not* using keyboard shortcuts.
Learning to use design software is just one small part of the course, with tuition on Adobe InDesign, Illustrator and finally Photoshop. I find there seems to be a common misconception amongst none-designers (as well as even some designers) that being a good graphic designer is all about being good with the software. This is not the case at all however, it is of course important to be familiar with the software in order to work as fast and efficiently as possible but that won’t make you a good designer. The ‘good designer’ bit comes mainly from the more theoretical aspects of the course as well as the research process for every brief. This was my main reason for choosing to study, after all I already knew how to use Illustrator and Photoshop and could have taught myself how to use InDesign without too much hassle.
The earlier briefs start off small with the deadlines ranging from a couple of hours to half a day’s work or so. There were restrictions at this point in the course in terms of what we could and couldn’t include in our designs. This made perfect sense as it basically forced everyone to master the fundamentals before moving onto anything else. Further into the course is where the briefs got longer (around 1–2 days) and a whole lot cooler to work on, with more opportunities to exercise our creativity by working on projects geared around the arts and festivals etc. Shillington is probably the only place I’ve ever studied where the students are genuinely excited to crack on with the work, we would all be raring to go and I’d find myself amused by the sound of mouse buttons clicking in the background before the tutors even had chance to finish telling us what the brief was.
Shillington’s design course isn’t just all about the projects you work on. There is a huge focus on inspiration too, both on and offline. We would regularly be encouraged to share and critique what we’d found. There were a few interesting ways that we’d go about doing this, which relate back to what I said earlier about the course being well structured.
The tutors at Shillington are all very passionate and their role is similar to that of senior designers that you’d be working with in design agencies. It felt good to actually get my work critiqued; something that can be hard to find when working as a freelancer. The classes are kept fairly small so that resources aren’t stretched too much. The last couple of weeks of the course (the busiest part) were quite frantic but having extra tutors in the room during this time made things more manageable. I noticed there were a couple of nice little touches throughout the course too which kept things interesting. Nothing major, but let’s just say they were a great way to mix things up a bit.
If you research Shillington online, you may find a mixture of both positive and negative opinions. I found the negative opinions I read on it were often written with little to no understanding of what Shillington is about. E.g. this post which claims that “degrees” offered by Shillington (Shillington don’t actually claim to offer degree courses) “undermine the skill-set a designer needs to possess and will not further your career”… without offering any evidence to back up their opinion. Classic narrow-minded, anti-Shillington ignorance. I read very similar opinions on forums during my research before making the decision to study at Shillington myself.
I think people such as this struggle to take Shillington seriously due to just how short the course is (much like myself originally, as well as some of the people I told about it) but if they took the time to research it a little more, looked at the standard of the work produced as well as what knowledge the students leave with, then maybe they would see how studying at Shillington can be a worthy investment for anyone wanting to work as a graphic designer. One thing a lot of people probably don’t realise is just how much content is actually covered during those 3 months. That’s not to say Shillington can magically turn you into a graphic designer, you have to be genuinely passionate about design and willing to work your ass off.
I’ve heard some people say that they think Shillington students’ work often all looks the same. But I can safely say this isn’t something I’ve noticed myself. Sure you can generally tell fairly easily if someone has studied at Shillington because of the nature of the briefs in their portfolio, such as designing a campaign for a festival or branding for a city council or airline company, but not because they copy each others’ work. One of the interesting things I found about studying there is that you’ll all be set the same briefs but everyone will come up with their own unique, very different, responses to them.
If there’s anything I could improve about the course, I would have liked to have seen more of our work go to print. We were taught how to set up a variety of print documents ranging from simple flyers to folded documents and brochures (as well as packaging, but I unfortunately had to miss that bit as mentioned later on), but it would have been good to maybe send more of them to print just to better familiarise ourselves with things like binding methods and different finishes (we were informed of them through lectures and handouts however). But I suppose that’s the kind of thing you can do yourself fairly easily after the course. Not only that, but I’ve heard students of other design institutions say that their course didn’t focus much on that either, so maybe it’s just a common thing. You do end up with a printed portfolio at the end of it nonetheless.
Another experience I had with Shillington is that, due to the sheer intensity of the course, if you do miss any of it then it can be a big chunk that you need to either catch up on or miss out altogether. I suppose I can’t really class the shortness / intensity as a ‘downside’ of the course though, because I wouldn’t have been able to afford to take any longer than 3 months off freelancing anyway.
For this reason I was concerned enough just at the thought of contracting something even as mild as a cold during my super-busy studies, and of course (knowing my luck) I would have to end up getting diagnosed halfway through with something considerably more serious called Anterior Uveitis — or Iritis for short — in my left eye. It can be hard to concentrate on your design portfolio when you get diagnosed with apparently one of the leading causes of blindness in developed countries (which had gotten quite bad due to me being misdiagnosed beforehand) and when you know your iris looks similar to this… pretty much any graphic designer’s worst nightmare.
This interfered with numerous projects and I had to miss the packaging brief out altogether, I do actually intend to still do it at some point when I have a little more time on my hands (so stay tuned for that!). Due to all my hospital visits and trouble focusing, I must have missed over a week of the course in total which, in Shillo time, is a lot!
Thankfully my iris popped back into shape after 5 very anxious days and, despite having several ‘scares’, my vision then slowly started returning to normal with several weeks’ worth of steroids and iris dilators. I eventually got discharged on the Monday of the final week of the course (which conveniently was my birthday). This felt like a bit of a miracle with it being just a matter of days before the grad show.
So if you do plan to study at Shillington, fingers crossed you don’t have any health or general life problems during your time there! Because it would affect your studies a lot more than it would if you were studying, say, a 3 or 4 year degree course. But I suppose it’s pretty unlikely that much would go wrong within the space of just 3 months.
Then we had the grad show right towards the end of the course, it was amazing to finally see everyone’s finished portfolios. Plenty of us had our family and friends there who we’d barely had time to see in months, and there were industry-folk there to view the work too. All this, combined with a stereo and lots of free drinks, made for a great way to end the course with a bang. We still had one day left after the grad show, which was mainly about us preparing ourselves for life after Shillo as well as some pretty entertaining graduation antics. We were all sad that everything was coming to an end but, at the same time, excited to move onto the next thing.
All in all, Shillington certainly lived up to my expectations. Despite juggling a fairly large portion of the course with fretting over my eyesight, my portfolio still turned out significantly better than I expected originally. I now feel a much more confident designer with a more versatile skillset. I’d even say that my web design skills have improved too despite all the previous experience I had, I think designing for print can actually help you even if you are primarily a web designer — much in the same way athletes ‘cross train’ to improve their performance instead of just sticking to one thing.
I don’t want to come across as some kind of die-hard Shillington fanatic who hates degree courses, I can see advantages to both approaches. I have plenty of friends who graduated from graphic design degrees and would even be quite interested to study one myself… just it wouldn’t benefit my career enough to validate spending more time and money on design education. I know Shillington was definitely the best bet for someone in my position however.
I hope you’ve found my post useful and / or interesting. Please leave a comment with your thoughts. If you’re considering studying at Shillington and are wondering anything that isn’t covered in my post, feel free to comment or contact me directly. If you too are a Shillington graduate, it would be great if you would share your experiences in the comments section!