This article is for anyone who wants to know if graphic design, illustration, animation and other artistic courses are worth pursuing at University. I’ll be talking about my own experiences after finishing Art Collage and University but I will also draw on the observations I’ve made of those around me. To start out on a good note, I’ve done well from my art career so far. I’m a professional character animator and work on Feature Films. I still have complicated feelings towards art Uni though, so let’s compare Art Collage and Uni to what I found in real life!
The British student loan for art courses
It has been a pretty long time since I was in Art Collage and University. I finished art college in 2006 (a place in Wales) and University in 2010 (Bath Spa University – England). Before I went to University to study graphic communication, I was a bit worried about whether or not I’d find jobs after it. I loved art and wanted to spend my life doing it but even a teacher I had in my art college was telling me that University was too expensive and that he felt sorry for my generation. That worried the shit out of me. If my own teacher was basically telling me that Art Universities were about to rip me off, what would the reality be?
I have mixed feelings about studying graphic design, illustration and other similar artistic fields at university. Even my sister studied English Literature and it’s kind of the same deal there. While all of these courses are very helpful for anybody trying to get into artistic jobs… they are WAY too fucking expensive. I resent the amount of money I spent on my course at University, even if I have the upmost respect for the teachers who taught me there. I started studying back in 2007 so my fees were expensive but still much lower than what students are paying today in the UK.
Even after 11 years, I’m still today paying off my British student loan. It’s especially a pain in the ass now that I live in France where most of my colleagues studied for practically nothing at all. University seems like a lifetime ago for me and to still be paying for it when almost nobody around me here in France is in the same boat is a bit nuts. That’s partially an expat life problem but all this to say… you’ll be paying off this student loan for a really long time.
When people used to come to my school to talk about University, they’d tell us that the loan was magical and that it’s the best thing since sliced bread. The loan is indeed special because it does eventually get written off (after about 25 years for my generation I think). The reality is though, it’s still a fucking loan. You still have to pay off the loan every time you get a job. Even if you’re in a different country like me, you still pay the loan. So if you want to study at Uni, be prepared to pay every month for that course for many many years afterwards. Long after you’ve forgotten the sound of your teacher’s voice, you’ll still be paying for that course.
How difficult was it getting an art job after University?
My course was quite general (it was called Graphic Communication). I specialised in Animation and Film towards the end but I had also studied graphic design, web design and illustration. When I graduated in 2010 I had no idea at all what to expect. I wanted to become a 2D animator but had very little in my portfolio because my course didn’t have animation teachers… I had made animations there but none were good enough to land me a job doing it. At the time I also had no idea what animation studios expect.
Instead of focussing entirely on animation, I applied for every job that was even remotely related to what I studied. While I’m aware of the privilege of social security, the Job Centre in the UK made it extremely difficult for me to land my first professional art job. At the Job Centre, they ask you to pick three different kinds of jobs that you’d like to find. All artistic jobs are categorised under the same kind of job. So if you want to be an illustrator, animator, graphic designer or web designer… the Job Centre considers them all as the same job. They are not the same job… but whatever, that’s how it is, so that’s what you need to work with if you’re in the UK. What I did for the second two jobs is select ‘marketing / journalism’ and then ‘office assistant’.
Of course, the Job Centre always tried to push me towards the office assistant jobs because there are more of those than art jobs. Unfortunately I couldn’t work in art straight away because of this. I ended up working at mail sorting rooms etc for about a year. I was starting to question if I’d ever get an art job… I wasn’t even making enough money to pay for my student loan at that time (minimum wage).
After about a year of struggling with the Job Centre and the crappy jobs they were pushing me onto, I started applying for internship programs. This enabled me to get my foot in the door of an e-marketing firm. I spent about a year coding HTML / CSS for email newsletters and I also made a few basic websites. It wasn’t ideal and I didn’t love it… but it helped me get my foot into the door of my first real art-related job.
As much as I appreciated that first marketing / web design job, it made my career path snowball out of control for a few years. I didn’t want to be a web designer, yet that’s all people wanted me to do after I started this first job. There is nothing wrong with web design, it’s just I didn’t find it interesting. I was pretty good at it and people kept calling me back to make more websites for them… but my heart wasn’t in it. What I really wanted was to work in animation and film.
That’s the main thing I want to get across to you in this section… what you start doing after University can in some cases seal your career path. It was difficult and expensive for me to change the career path I was on. Luckily I was in a position to change my career from web design to animation. Some people may not have the time, energy or finances to do that. So be careful about what you start doing after studying at art University because what you become known for doing is difficult to escape. Also understand that it’s going to be difficult to land that first job, you may have to wait a long time for it.
Never stop practicing your art while you wait for that first job. You always need fresh work in your portfolio. You do NOT want to be telling job interviewers that you made all the work in your portfolio 2 – 5 years ago when you were at university. They do ask those kinds of questions and they are important. An artist who didn’t do anything since Uni looks like an artist without passion and drive. Life gets in the way sometimes and of course there are reasons why you might not have been able to work on your art… but when you’re in a job interview, that’s going to be difficult to justify. So if you can find time to continue working on your art while you wait for your first job, it’s definitely a good idea.
Changing artistic career after becoming known for something is difficult
I was good at web design and could have easily made a very comfortable and rewarding living by continuing to do that. The problem was that I didn’t enjoy web design very much. I’d do it and enjoy how much my clients reacted with positivity… but it wasn’t what I had in mind when I pursued art as a career.
After about two years of trying and failing to change my career path, I decided to do something drastic and took another course in animation. I didn’t go back to University, I paid for a two year series of online courses at iAnimate.net. For most of my time at iAnimate, I worked part time and freelance because otherwise I would have run out of money. For the final 6 months of the course, I didn’t work professionally a lot because I needed to focus on my final projects.
At iAnimate I was in touch with people from all over the World and professors who were actually working at Film Studios. It was a really great experience but at the time I still questioned whether I would ever succeed to follow in their footsteps and land a proper animation job. I was very afraid that I’d end up struggling to find a job as much as I did when I finished University.
People sometimes don’t need University
Many of the students at iAnimate, many of the teachers and many other people I was in touch with from schools like Animation Mentor had never been to University. A lot of the people studying at that online course were doing it directly after school. There were even some people taking those courses at the age of 40, having not studied at school for decades.
When I finally finished the two year course at iAnimate, I got my first job in France. I was applying all over the place at the time… London, Italy, Spain, the USA, Canada… I didn’t know where I’d end up. I didn’t really care either, I just wanted an animation job. I think I even sent job applications to Australia. In the end it was France that won my attention because Illumination Mac Guff offered me a basic crowd animation job on the film Secret Life of Pets. Not the sexiest job at the studio of course but I was thrilled to be part of the team.
After working at Illumination and a few other film studios in France, I was struck at how many of the people I worked with had never been to University. Don’t get me wrong… there are still a lot of people who studied, yet it’s by no means exclusively University students who get jobs at these places.
To be honest, for a few years I really felt bad about the fact that I was still paying my student loan. My French and European counterparts didn’t pay nearly as much for their courses and some of them had no course to pay for at all. I felt like I had made a big mistake and that I was still wasting my money on a course that didn’t give me the right tools for my career. It wasn’t the course’s fault that I ended up changing paths of course… but I still felt a bit sore about it.
If I had known at an earlier age what stepping stones I would need to take, I would have been able to avoid paying for art university. IF I had known… which I didn’t.
Is Art University a waste of money?
As I said in the previous section, for many years I felt like I had wasted my money at University. I didn’t end up in a career that matched what I had studied in University (my sister didn’t either). To me, I felt like art university was a con. I thought I’d been had. Now my view is perhaps a little more balanced.
The truth is, I would never have had the life I’ve had if I had not studied at University. I wouldn’t be writing this blog post to you and I wouldn’t be as open minded as I currently am. I’d not be in France or with my French wife. It’s now impossible for me to imagine what my life would have been if I had never gone to Uni. I could have still taken courses at iAnimate, Animation Mentor or another online school and got to where I am now… but it isn’t that simple. I didn’t know what I’d end up doing so I could never have planned to take those courses.
Coming out of school in Wales, I was imagining that I’d be designing album covers and playing songs on records in my spare time (I also like playing music). I had no idea what kind of jobs were available back then and honestly, I didn’t even consider animation as a career choice… it wasn’t on my radar. The community I lived in wasn’t one where I could easily get in touch with people who worked at these kinds of jobs. Nobody I knew growing up were artists. Not even my school teachers had really worked much in big serious artistic jobs. I couldn’t even find someone to introduce me to my first design job when I finished University and returned to Wales.
University meant that I could apply for foreign internships, it meant that I had spoken to people who had worked in all kinds of artistic jobs. University taught me how to read and write at a higher level. I’d not be the same without my experience there. I would have never had the confidence to dare think I could travel to different countries and work in artistic jobs there.
Even if I don’t directly use the artistic skills I learned at University, it set me on my current career path and I’m almost sure I wouldn’t be here without it. On a more simple level I do still use my graphic communication skills from University, just not 100% professionally. I can still make a website like this one for instance, draw in my spare time and write about art. I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of these things if I hadn’t taken my art course.
But Art courses in the UK are too expensive
If unlike me before I went to University, you have a lot of artistic role models around you then I’d say just try to work directly in the industry. University art courses are disgracefully expensive and honestly if you can avoid having to pay that loan… avoid it.
When I was younger and struggling more, I hated the government for making it necessary for me to pay so much at University. I still think that they could do more. My view is more balanced now though because I do understand that many people who go to art university won’t end up getting a job easily afterwards. The job market isn’t as big for creative jobs and unfortunately we live in a society where the economy is important. It’s difficult for me to argue that the government needs to pay in full for everybody who wants to study art.
Paying someone to do an art degree is risky when you think of it from an economical standpoint. There are a lot of people who will need to retrain or go into different fields because the job market is so small and competitive for creative industries. I still think that the government and universities can do more to lower the fees at British universities though. It’s a fucking disgrace how expensive it is. Not even just for art either… for almost all courses.
Art Uni vs Real Life: Conclusion
So I hope my story has been interesting for you, particularly if you’re from the UK. I think my observations will probably ring true for people in other countries as well though. Even those who don’t have to pay a lot like we do will still spend a huge amount of time studying if they go into art.
Art universities promise too much. They do all usually say that they can’t promise that students will get a job afterwards… but there is still a lot of hype. We won’t all be designing album covers for famous bands or starting World changing movements with our fancy posters. Not all of us can even work at film studios. There just aren’t enough jobs around to support everyone who wants to do it. There is a very real chance your job will be more like designing newsletters for a company you don’t care about or making business cards for the local shop down the road. You need to be prepared for unglamorous jobs too.
To get good artistic jobs you have to be really fucking good. You have to have dedicated years to honing your craft and building yourself up to the point where you stand out from the crowd. Standing out from the crowd in any artistic job is difficult because there are so many people in the World who want to do it. The labour market in art is fluid between countries. You aren’t only competing with British people, you’re competing with Europeans, Australians, South Americans, Canadians etc. If you aren’t prepared to sacrifice things in your life for art, you might not make the cut. You can’t expect to comfortably land an awesome job by being average… there is too much competition for you to be passive.
You’re going to be competing with people who’s parents were artists and those motherfuckers are REALLY good at art. Imagine being surrounded by art your whole life and being brought up by actual working professionals who teach you through osmosis from a young age how to draw etc. There are also people who for some inexplicable reason always knew that they wanted to be artists, so taught themselves from the age of 8 how to make art properly. These are the people you are up against in art. These are the people who turn up to art university already knowing how to blow people’s minds with their work. There is no point in being jealous of them because that serves you nothing. These are your peers and you need to accept that.
We aren’t all in the position to have grown up doing art from a very young age. Most of us discovered it later in life and had to work really hard at it. You also have to compete with us. Personally I spent 10 – 12 hour days practicing animation for two entire years. I had spent similar hours doing art while at University and art collage. All in all, there were around six years of my life dedicated to working really long hours practicing art. I’m not saying you’ll have to do the same but many people in my industry worked as tirelessly as me. I don’t know anybody in animation who got there by doing a bit of art on the weekend. Almost everyone had to sacrifice significant amounts of time to their craft. You need to be prepared to compete with people who work this obsessively.
So time for me to wrap this article up. Art careers are very competitive. I know it isn’t pleasant to talk about competition in art and many people say that competition is the wrong mindset. Of course you shouldn’t continually compare yourself to others, it’s bad for your mental state. Don’t just totally ignore what you’re up against though because you need to make yourself stand out somehow. There are a lot of people who will tell you that everything is sunshine, unicorns and rainbows “JUST BELIEVE IN YOURSELF – THE WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER”. That is rarely the way things work in real life. You don’t get a job from just believing in yourself… you have to be better than the competition, make friends with the right people or just get lucky. It’s admirable to love what you do but you need to be really fucking good at it too.
If you can face the competition, the hours of work and rejection (because you will be rejected a lot).. then go for it. Take the course. Just know that taking the course isn’t going to guarantee you anything. If you don’t back up your degree with some serious personal effort, it will be difficult to find a job. Be specific, work hard, get feedback from your peers and don’t give up… then you will get a job.