Why I Didn’t Study Design at Uni

I thought this was an important post to make as a part of this little series on learning design, but it’s also been something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as I try to work out what it is I want to spend my days doing.

I’ve loved drawing and making things pretty much my entire life. I used to set myself a “big project” every Christmas, whether that was making gifts or a motorised spinning snowman decoration where I repurposed some k-nex, and it was my favourite part of the holiday. I loved incorporating something creative into everything I did. I once made an A2 size 3D model of the Amazon river for a geography project, and one of my final English projects was animating a Lorca play.

It’s safe to say nothing makes me as happy as making things.

Yet, I did an English degree. And one of the most traditional English degrees around by all accounts. I spent 3 years at Oxford University reading hundreds of books, mainly by dead white men, and writing two essays a week. Without a creative project on the syllabus in sight.

So how did I end up there?

Well, the first thing to note is that my entire identity growing up was based around being clever. I was a relatively smart fish in a pretty small pond, and that’s how everyone saw me and that’s how I saw me. I was quiet. I was smart. I was destined to go to a good uni and do something academic.

When it came to deciding which university course I was going to apply to I was torn. I loved art. I spent almost all of my time working on my sketchbook or just being in the art room. But I also loved English, and I was told I was good at it too. I wasn’t a natural writer but I was a natural reader, and I loved taking a book apart and finding something hidden away inside of the words.

I think for everyone else who had some sway around me, my parents and my teachers, there wasn’t really much of a decision to be made. Even my art teacher told me it would be a waste not to follow the academic path I had worked so hard for because I would “always have art”. And while no one said it, there was an air of my not going to Oxford being a waste.

Now, I’m not saying I was pushed into it. Of course, I wasn’t. I had worked my butt off to get the grades I did, and I really did love books. I wanted to go just as bad as anyone when it came down to it. Something I didn’t realise until I almost didn’t get to go. But I do think I would have been fighting against a whole tide of factors if I’d chosen to follow a creative path.

I knew I would need a job in the future, and I thought I knew that the best way to get there was with a non-creative degree. I knew that going to Oxford was prestigious, and I knew I wanted that shiny gold star of recognition. I knew it was what I was expected to do, and I knew I didn’t like conflict. I distinctly remember suggesting that perhaps Oxford wasn’t the creative environment that would nurture the talents I held dearest and being told flat out that I was wrong and that how could all of these fantastic creative people have come out of the Oxbridge system if that were true?

So when the IB Art examiner interviewed me about my exhibition and asked me where I was going to art school, I said I wasn’t.

And do you know what, a huge part of me is glad I didn’t.

I loved my time at Oxford, and I can’t imagine having gone to uni anywhere else now. I met the most incredible people. I laughed. I loved. I learned so much, about English, about people, about myself. I pushed myself harder than I thought I could.

I also found out how much I really do love making. Even when I was up against deadlines after deadlines after deadlines, I still wanted to take on more work.

I learnt so much about my love of design through doing, through working with musicals and newspapers and entrepreneurs and anything and everything I could get my hands on.

That was so invaluable.

I left university a much better version of myself, and I wouldn’t be the same person I am now if I didn’t go.

As much as a little bit of me will always wish I pursued a creative degree, a much greater part knows that I learned so many other skills in not doing one. I also found so much inspiration and learned so much that feeds into my work that I might not have had access to otherwise.

Not doing a creative degree hasn’t held me back from being a creative person either, as I hope you would agree. I still create every single day. I’ve even managed to make it a little bit of a job.

If anything it has made me better, hungrier, more eager to prove myself.

So, I didn’t go to art school for some of the wrong reasons and some of the right reasons. But I did make it into the right decision.

If there’s anything I want to convey here it’s that you don’t have to follow any set path to getting where you want in life, and even if you feel you’ve taken a wrong turn you wouldn’t be where you are now without it so make the most of every decision you make.

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4 Comments

  1. June 5, 2017 / 9:56 pm

    This was such a great read, and I’m glad you decided to post about this because I think there are so many kids out there at a crossroads that would benefit from reading something like this! I think there’s so much pressure to fit into one of 2 boxes – ‘logical’ and ‘creative’ when really one can’t exist without the other; each feeds the other. Then there’s the idea that creativity and academia are rarely held in equal lights; I tend to see traditional subjects being held in higher esteem.

    But whilst I myself consider myself a creative – like you it’s always been an instrumental part of my life whether through performance or fashion – I chose to study Business Management and I wouldn’t have it any other way either. Following your passion is one thing but choosing to study a ‘different’ course sets you apart and makes you a more rounded individual.

    Sinéad xo Fabuleuse Du Jour

    • Natalie
      June 16, 2017 / 2:45 pm

      Thanks Sinead! You’re right learning outside of your passions, or outside of your comfort zone helps you be more rounded and logical and creative need each other. That’s why it can sometimes seem so strange to me that you can be seen to be one or the other based on your degree or your job title. They’re ways of thinking rather than states of being or identities.

  2. Chloe
    June 5, 2017 / 11:34 pm

    Love this. I grew up always assuming I’d study English as it was always my strongest subject academically, but like you I was also always making art and doing elaborate projects just for the love of creating. I ended up deciding to study industrial design midway through high school and got accepted into a competitive pre-design program at a large state school (I live in the U.S.) because I was still hesitant to box myself into an art school.

    I loved my design courses but soon found it was the wrong choice for me to study. There’s a reason design was a Bachelor of Science course at my university, it was extremely technical and detailed work and I was used to the organic, hands-on practice of self-taught art experimentation. So I ended up changing to Media Communications (but still tacked on a minor in Graphic Design) and I feel the courses are much better for studying and give me the confidence to continue to heavily pursue arts on the side at my own pace.

    • Natalie
      June 16, 2017 / 2:47 pm

      It sounds like you really found the right fit for you which is so good! Working out what you want to study is such a personal thing, and there’s definitely some trial and error involved. But even with the courses you don’t like, or don’t suit you, you learn so much even if it’s just about how you work and what makes you tick.

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