When I was a student at Wigan & Leigh College or University of Salford, I used to absorb as much information as possible from other students, graduates and industry professionals. My main questions when I was younger was ‘How did you get into the design industry?’ and ‘How did you make a name for yourself?’
I’m now 30 years old and finding myself answering that question on a weekly basis to students when I provide lectures at universities, talks at events or via social media.
Here is my journey from the beginning…
It all started at Fred Longworth High School. I thought I was going to be a footballer like the majority of teenagers. I was training with Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic and my mum said to me what I would do if I didn’t get a contract. I listened, and thought - what else do I love, other than football? I was generally quite good at school, but the two subjects I really enjoyed were Art and Music. It was a hard decision at the time, but I opted for Art over P.E and that started my career in the design industry.
Looking back now, I subconsciously created my own projects based on subjects I loved. I created my own football club including badge, football kits, and stadium advertising. I was more enthusiastic because I was interested in the subject I was designing. You’ll notice that further in this article I become a university lecturer…and it’s surprising how many students don’t choose subjects they enjoy, which in turn makes the project boring for them.
After Fred Longworth High School, I joined Wigan & Leigh College. I was split from most of my friends and this was a massive learning curve in terms of lifestyle. I enjoyed the education side of college and the theory was one of my strengths. I really enjoyed creating ideas and executing (back then it was all on paper and hardly anything digital). I found a great interest in typography and quickly understood the importance across all mediums on how font choice, tracking, kerning, and composition affected a piece of work and how the end user digests that information. It has been key, throughout my career and even now in 2017, for a designer to understood type, whether that’s in graphic design, website design, web development, museum design, interior design or any aspect of the industry. When I’m looking to employ a new team member, type composition is one of the first aspects I look for in a designer or developer.
I was very happy to be accepted into University of Salford who had a great reputation for their design courses. Back then, it cost £1,200 per year for the course but that seemed like a lot of money (obviously we know it’s changed now). I made the decision to live at my parents and commute to university. I think this made an impact on my social life, but massively benefitted my education. I went into lectures, meetings and design presentations - but spent literally the rest of my time spent at home designing. I’ll be honest, my first year wasn’t great and I struggled. It was very different to College and I did question whether I was good enough. At the same time, my sister had just graduated from exactly the same course and found it hard to get a job. She got good grades (2:1) but had no industry experience. My sister decided to work for a magazine in Manchester and is still there now, she loves her job, but I think she’ll admit it wasn’t her first choice at the time.
I made a conscious decision to absolutely smash work experience in my second and third years at university. I went away for the summer, enjoyed life and came back to university where my future was waiting. A massive change happened, we had new tutors who I absolutely loved, they explained briefs in a way that I understood, and their methods of giving honest advice and constructive criticism helped me in the long run. For example, if they thought you could do something better - they would tell you - no beating around the bush. One of the best things that happened was web design being integrated into the course! This is something I had never done before. It wasn’t even a major aspect of the industry. Not every company needed a website because SEO wasn’t as it is now, social media didn’t exist, and forms of advertising were much different. I wasn’t great at illustration, so I picked web as my first choice. I instantly understood code and the way it works - back then I was working in Flash and XML. My only problem was that in a class of 30, everybody had different questions and it was impossible for the tutor to answer them all because every student was building a different website. I made the decision that I would go away, teach myself outside of university and only use the classes for tutor review.
In my second year at university, I had established around 100 freelance clients – I started designing and building websites for friends and family which led onto small projects for clients. As well as freelance, I was also working at two design agencies on work experience and I was happy to work for free to get my foot in the door at medium sized agencies.
Within my third year of university, I had racked up 200 freelance clients and I was now working at three design agencies including one of the biggest in the UK, and I absolutely loved what I was doing. Web was an aspect of the industry I understood, enjoyed, and made money from. I quickly realised that handling this amount of clientele was time consuming and I understood that I couldn’t project manage, design, build and maintain websites all by myself. I asked my lecturer, Mark, for anybody who could help with my ambitions to take over the digital world. He introduced me to Jason Mayo (now Co-Founder of our agency, MadeByShape) and the situation was simple; I’d go out and find the clients, project manage, design and then pass to him to build them. Whilst I was giving away a cut of the overall price, I quickly realised that I could turn around more projects in that space of time and started to earn more money for doing much less work (it takes longer to build websites than design them).
At the age of 21, I graduated from University with First Class Honours and my main decision now was whether to work for an agency full-time or to continue freelancing. The University of Salford were aware of my situation and offered me a part-time role to lecture in web design. This sat perfectly with my ambitions to setup my own agency. I quickly accepted because I felt I could learn on the job, and I also thought that I could offer another angle to the students because of my background at the university.
The university lecturer situation quickly changed for various reasons and I was in sole control of the web design and development module - this grew and grew, and I stayed with the university for eight years. I thoroughly enjoyed my time giving advice to students, I felt I could give a rounded approach to teaching and also a relevant opinion because I was a University of Salford alumni, a lecturer, and a company director.In 2010, Jason and I were creating so much work for clientele all over the UK that we were forced into expanding our work force. MadeByShape was born and we were now a full service design agency. My role within the university allowed me to spot the best up and coming talent. Today, in 2017, we have a team of eight and have worked with the likes of Blackberry, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Morson International, L’Occitane, Lord Sugar and various celebrities.
We created a digital agency based around the aspects we didn’t like at the big organisations we used to work for. We didn’t like travelling into Manchester City Centre in the traffic, we didn’t like a set timeframe for dinner, no music in the studio, never meeting clients face-to-face, and working under four account managers. So… that’s the reason why MadeByShape will always be a small studio which offers full transparency to our clients.