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In the beginning

Many look at the glamorised television design shows and think ‘I can do that’. Like being a footballer, anyone can kick the ball, but the level of skill needed to rise to the top is considerable and beyond the capabilities of many people.

What I describe here is a common path into a life in art or design. It is not the only path, but this is the one that inculcates the correct skill set. Do not believe siren voices that say you can do it by a shorter method. You may be able to. You may even be successful, but this method provides a surer path, and provides alternative routes if you realise you are on the wrong road.

First thing I would say is start young. Not, as one fool told me “because I’ve been doing my bedroom regularly since I was 5” but because the core skill is to have a visual curiosity. To build your own vision this needs feeding. My dad taught me to draw when I was about four – I mean draw, not just hold a pencil. He taught me to look, and if you start drawing for half an hour or so every day you will also sharpen your eye. So keep a sketch book – carry one with you and every time you sit, draw. Don’t mess with your phone, take off the ear phones and tune into the reality around you.

A sketch book, not a scrap book – keep one of those if you want – but a book you draw in will build your own visual vocabulary. No pen? Use whatever comes to hand – a lipstick, stick dipped in mud, learn to make marks, understand their symbology and build your own visual vocabulary. Do it steadily and it will build into you own visual library. Experiment, change the parameters, take risks and it will open your mind as well as your eyes.

Do some research into how your eyes work – I recommend a book called ‘The Eye and Brain’ by E. L Gregory – old but still an excellent primer. Look at galleries and exhibitions – fine and applied art, locally and national. Immerse yourself in the visual language of art and design, theatre and music of all sorts.

If you find none of this appealing do something else.

Do not imagine that advanced art at school is good enough – when you go to college be prepared to be shocked at how low your level of skill is. There are literally hundreds of disciplines that can be studied. They split broadly into four main categories. Fine Art, Graphics, Fashion and 3D Design. In Fashion for example you can study: textiles, weaving, knitwear, millinery, body contour fashion, fashion couture, footwear and so on, all of which have their own discipline and their own degree course. In 3d again there is a range,  from architecture through interior design to decoration and surface pattern, to ceramics and product design.

How do you know what to choose? It is your choice, so research and experience the different areas. How to experience? Take a good art foundation course. In the UK these courses are supposed to be a diagnostic year, building on your basic drawing and colour skills to give you experiences of all the areas so that you can make an informed choice of specialisation. If you see something labelled an interior design foundation run from it – it is not going to be truly diagnostic, nor give you a broad range of skills.

Beware the big college course that groom people for their own degrees – often if they don’t take you on their own degree they have messed your head up so much thinking of them as the succession that you aren’t suitable for anywhere else. Avoid anywhere that doesn’t place drawing as a central plank in the programme. Don’t be impatient, art is like religion – it changes your life perceptions and you are choosing a lifestyle.

Whilst on a course be questioning. Seek answers to your worries and problems, looking inward as well as outward. Art and Design is a philosophy as well as a knowledge set or way of earning a living. If you know any designers try and work with them in a vacation. What Picasso said of art – that it is “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” is also true of good design. Keep using a sketch book. More designers have won clients through their ability to sketch out an answer in front of them than have impressed clients by being dressed stylishly. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ – maybe once, now it’s worth 2,000 words says the editor of the Times.

Choosing your degree.

Don’t believe everything you read in the prospectus. We used to joke that like statistics, there are lies, damned lies and prospectuses. If you can, visit – most colleges welcome students looking around before applications are made. Research the student union – often they will give an unvarnished view. Do you like where it is? You are going to be there for 3 years. I know for me country side is important to my creativity, I need an horizon and the slow beat of the seasons so an urban college would not suit me. How about you?

Some vocational courses or apprenticeships are better than some degree courses, or used to be before politicians screwed with the system. Potential employers will be more impressed if you have taken vacation jobs to broaden your experience – nothing wrong with working on a building site or in a fabric showroom to understand processes and enhance your portfolio offer.

Ask the course staff about past students. Do they know where they have gone, where they are employed? Do they even care? Remember these are the people you are entrusting your education and maybe your future to. Make sure you are going to get value for money, be a good consumer and ask questions.


There may be an oops! moment, when you realise that perhaps you have made the wrong choice. Hopefully the diagnostic foundation year will show this (and a third of students bale out in this year). There is no shame in admitting you made the wrong choice. If that though comes later in the degree programme, well it is in a degree. Sometimes it is possible to switch disciplines within a school, but a degree is an intellectual training, and equips you for may things outside its immediate discipline. After all look at how many politicians went through Oxford studying English. Err, maybe that’s not a good example because intellectual rigour and discipline are not really their hallmark.

The point is that a degree course equips you for many jobs in other fields. I knew an RAF fighter pilot with a fine art degree from Chelsea, a PR manager who did fashion and an interior designer with a national reputation who came from a theatre school. It is a fact that, until recently, 40% of arts graduates became teachers. There is always another path if you decide you went in the wrong direction.

the First Job.

Design is a broad church and there are many avenues within it. Think hard about where you a want to go whilst you are still a student and gear your vacation jobs and final project to support that in your portfolio. If you want to work in Hotel Design for example, there should be the evidence in your portfolio to support this, or maybe you took vacation work in an hotel.

Getting the first job is in many ways the hardest step of all. So max out your skills. Write a literate CV. You would not believe the number of CV’s I have seen misspelled, with poor English (and writing is an important element of any job so literacy skills matter). Make sure it is presented well – proper paragraphs, headings etc.. Do not make it too fancy – it is the content that should shine out. If you have a language make it clear you know how to use it, work experience as a student plays a big part in making you employable, a gap year in itself does not.

Finally present yourself smartly if you want to work in design. Designers may be dealing with Clients in the manufacturing, hospitality and finance industries. Turning up with heavy tattoos or studs in your face will not impress them, nor will it impress a possible employer who will be thinking about this when interviewing you. Be clean.

Above all be lucky

Patrick Goff ©2017

PS I stumbled into interior design from a career in fine art, and now back into fine art again. My art college years had given me ‘transferrable skills’, so I survived, even thrived. So will you.