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New and afraid! (Big post, sorry)

Hello! I'm a 23 year old currently working in a cafe. And I hate it!
I was always an artsy kid. I taught myself basic HTML and CSS at the age of 8. I could design and code a basic website from scratch by the time I was finishing primary school. My artistic ability was always the epitome of my universe as a child. I always had tablet pen in hand. I had self-taught Adobe software, animation software and 3D software by the time I had finished high school.
I know I'm very capable, but never felt comfortable in classroom environments, so college and university have both been a bit of a flop for me. I suck at classroom stuff. But I excel in workplace environments. I love earning money and being independent, so since dropping out of uni when I was 18, I've just worked. And so I stopped drawing and designing.
Now that my joints are getting arthritic from working my bum off in catering, I've decided I need to make a stand before I completely wear myself away! So I want to get back into design, as a career. But I've no clue where to start! I'm so rusty! I need a lot of advice!
It's tricky, because I'm financially independent. I have a lot of bills to pay, such as credit cards, phone, pets... I also live in my own place, so have to pay rent and utility bills. I currently work full time. Moving back home with parents is a virtually non-existent option.
Can anyone suggest a promising starting point for someone in my position? Can you get some kind of government benefit when you're working as an apprentice, to help with living costs? Or would some kind of online degree be my best option? But then I wouldn't know how to gain work experience!
I'd also like to know if anyone has had luck going free-lance, and could offer some tips. I'm good at things like portraits, stationery design (weddings particularly, but also business stationery, logos etc), and in the past I've done silly things like commissions for fan art or original characters. And, like mentioned, website design, although I'm completely out of the loop and haven't designed or coded anything bigger than a simple font tag in a long time. Is any of this worth anything? What is popular with the public?
Sorry for the huge introductory post, and thank you so much if you managed to read this far! I hope I didn't come across as conceited or ahead of myself. Looking forward to (hopefully) hearing from some of you
Hi Harriet,
Difficult situation! Do you have a portfolio of work online? This would be a must whichever way you go as all the options will require you showing off your talent. If you haven't, try Behance.net as a starting point. Use as many tags on your work as possible so you are easy to find.

As far as apprenticeships go, I am not sure what you would be entitled too on top of the wage but if this is a consideration don't hang about. There is a drop in the way the qualification is funding from the employers perspective for over 24s. You may not be considered if you pass that birthday as they may have to pay a lot to get you on the course. However, I know apprentices that have been paid the £6.50 an hour so it depends on the employer. If you have a portfolio of work and skills already, you might be able to negotiate.

When I moved from retail to photography I did one day a week unpaid with the photographers at my local paper. This was great experience and after three months they offered me a job. It is hard doing 6 days a week but at least you are not committing to a lengthy part time course straight off.

I hope this helps. I am all for education and have studied part time for years but I am lucky to enjoy academic study. I am not a graphic designer but the jobs do seem to be mainly for graduates. Hopefully a graphic designer can give you more specific advice.

Paul Murray

Staff member
You're in a tricky situation for a number of reasons;

1. You have financial responsibilities and therefore aren't in a position to simply start working part-time.

2. You lack up-to date, real-world experience of the industry and current design/code standards.

3. (I assume) you don't have any contacts in the industry that can help

I would follow Lisa's advise and set up an online portfolio, more as an incentive to produce work and improve at this stage.Then I'd perhaps look at brushing up on your design skills and thinking about approaching clients or offering your services for hire. Ask studios and agencies for placements and be persistent, you'll learn a lot, and you'll make contacts. The design industry is very much a people industry, so get to know people, always be polite, enthusiastic and grateful and don't be afraid to ask for something – work experience, portfolio feedback, the name of a contact in another studio. The worst they can say is no.

A degree may be beneficial as it will give you a little 'breathing room' thanks to student loans and living allowances, but you may just be amassing a debt for the sake of it. If you were considering a degree, I'd select the course carefully, and aim for somewhere with a good reputation, and ideally smaller classes (my course had less than 30 people in my class to enable plenty of tutor-time). Smaller groups mean more opportunities too. We were able to get into some pretty impressive agencies for unique tours and meetings with designers simply because our group was small enough. You can't take a class of 300 students to an agency, no matter how large they are.

Given your past talents with HTML/CSS I'd look at also brushing up on your skills as a front-end developer. Not much has changed really, the principals are the same, but sites should now be responsive. Read up on responsive website design, learn how to optimise sites to keep them fast and follow best-practice. You'll probably make a hell of a lot more as a developer than you would as a designer, and you'll likely find demand is higher (as a freelancer with your own clients), especially if you also invest time to learn PHP/Wordpress development. Having one or two development jobs a week could easily give you the financial support you need to be able to go part-time at work, and then eventually full-time. I know a developer who gets paid £60 an hour to write code. That's £1 a minute, though he knows a fair few languages inside and out.

I offer website design and development to clients, and I'm now finding that most of my work is code-related, either adding in a CMS to an existing site, or converting an existing site to be responsive. These jobs are often pretty quick, meaning I can do a couple a day and pay my bills within the week.

What is popular with the public?
Forget about the public, design is a business service so approach businesses. Many people try to offer design services to consumers, and it often just bites them in the arse. Joe Blow might want a website for his local Bridge club, but they're gonna have a budget of £50, have no idea what they actually want, and stretch your patience and your budget to the limit.


Staff member
I think Paul's offered some pretty sound advice there!

If you learned HTML and CSS when you were 8, that'd make it circa 1999-2000?.. CSS1 was only just a thing back then with almost no browser support and html was also pretty primative (html 3-4?). So you really need to start from scratch with the whole thing! Skipping over the basics means there's going to be some huge gaps in your knowledge that'll cause you issues very quickly.

Try HTML Tutorial as a starting point
Yes! I started off with HTML and I was definitely using CSS at the end of primary school. I carried on playing with it up until about the age of 14 or 15 so my knowledge of it stops about there, but I'd have to start from scratch again anyway because I've forgotten near enough everything.

If I was to get a degree, it'd have to be an online course because I'm not entitled to any funding because of the years at uni I did (albeit dropped out). But I'm unsure of how credible they are. Either way, I'm probably going to take the apprenticeship route and could do a degree later on if needed.

What is the likelihood of a graphics company taking me on as a volunteer for one day a week? Would that be possible or would I just end up being an under qualified pest?

I'm scared, I didn't realise there was conditions for canditates older than 24. I hope a vacancy comes available soon.

I'll also get to setting up an online portfolio. Annoyingly, my flat caught fire in May so I lost my PC and all of my art work and design work, none of which was uploaded to the web. So I'm literally starting over from scratch, and only got a PC, tablet, etc a few weeks ago. It's all a bit chaotic

Thank you!

Paul Murray

Staff member
If I was to get a degree, it'd have to be an online course because I'm not entitled to any funding because of the years at uni I did (albeit dropped out). But I'm unsure of how credible they are. Either way, I'm probably going to take the apprenticeship route and could do a degree later on if needed.
In my opinion this may not be worthwhile (though it really depends on the course you do). A degree gives you much more than just a qualification, it presents you with opportunities and experiences which I don't imagine you can get when you're sat in your flat studying on your own. Plus, most studios aren't bothered what degree you got (if any) they just want to see your work and your ability. There are some employers who prefer to see qualifications, but the vast majority of the creative industry is not too fussed.

You could fail a design degree and still land a job in a top agency if you're motivated enough to work for it. It's a tough industry to break into, especially if you're going in cold, so you need to be prepared to work your arse off to make it happen as there's a lot of people who've had a head start on you.

You could look at something like Shillington College (Manchester/London campuses) and doing an intensive course like theirs to get you up to speed, but for now I'd focus on building your portfolio and getting to know people in the industry. And I don't mean just following them on Twitter or connecting on LinkedIn – you have to get out there and meet people face to face to make things happen.
What would you suggest? I've no idea how to meet people face to face. Would I just introduce myself online and ask to meet up? Who exactly would I be contacting? Just professional designers?

Paul Murray

Staff member
Look for design and industry events that you can attend – talks, lectures, casual meet-ups, etc. Get talking to people there and ask if they'd be willing to look over your portfolio some time. Your aim is to get your work in front of people in your industry and take their advice on board to improve.

You should ask about the possibility of work experience once you've gauged their reaction to you and your work.They might fob you off with an excuse or you might not quite be at the level/speed of working they need, but you'll be surprised how many studios (especially smaller studios) will be willing and eager to give you a chance and help you improve.

You can also just email studios directly cold and ask for a portfolio review, but aim to contact a designer directly (not to the generic hello@studioname.co.uk email) or have had previous contact with someone at the studio. It's a lot easier to get in if they are expecting you, so to speak.