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.

This week I’m going to be sharing a series of posts all about learning how to design, starting with a few words on how I taught myself design and how you can too.

Whilst I classify myself as self-taught, I did receive some design teaching while I was at school. I did GCSE Graphics from the age of 15 to 16 and I studied Art all the way up until I went to uni. This tuition definitely helped me gain confidence and develop a set of basic drawing skills. I learned the basics of colour theory and of composition, I was given a vocabulary for talking about art, and design and branding. I designed my first logo when I was at school. I did a lot, and I am so so grateful that I did.

I think having that base was personally invaluable, but also not completely indispensable – you could definitely start learning to design from scratch, it might be harder, but you could do it without a doubt.

Because I didn’t learn half of the skills I use now. I also gained a few bad habits, like being afraid of a sketch book because everything had to be gradable as I’ve discussed before.

Everything beyond those basics I had to teach myself. I taught myself how to use photoshop, using a series of ill-gotten free trials, initially in order to do embarrassing fan edits. I taught myself how to use affinity designer and a Wacom tablet too. I taught myself all of the tech stuff. I taught myself about vectors. I taught myself how to run a small business, how to be a freelancer. I taught myself how to work with a client. I taught myself how to make infographics, and card games, and book covers. I’ve taught myself so much, and so much more, and I’m so proud of those skills I’ve found and developed from feeling my way in the dark.

But how did I do it? And how can you do it?

JUST DO IT

I think this is the most important thing on the list. Just make stuff and you’ll learn. It’s that simple. I wrote a post last year all about getting started as a designer and it includes some of my top tips for what you’ll need in terms of tools, where to invest your time and money, and what to expect.

GET SOME PROJECTS

Quite a lot of the new things I’ve learned, I’ve learned because I had to. When you’re working on a project either for yourself or especially for a client you’re going to come across things you don’t know how to do, and you either have to give up or figure them out. I always choose figure them out. When I was working for the Oxford Student I produced a graduate guide. There were loads of stats and we agreed that the best way to present them was in an infographic, the only snag was I had never made an infographic before. So, I had a google and I had a try, and then another, then another until I made something I was proud of. I’ve had to improve my hand lettering for invitations and learn photo editing skills for posters. You never know how much you can learn and do until you find out you have to do it.

DEVELOP YOUR OWN TASTE

Knowing what works and what doesn’t and why is such an important skill, and it can really help your work improve because you have a sense of where you’re going. I like to pick apart posters I see on the tube and menus most frequently, but I try and have an opinion on everything I see. When I say I try and have an opinion I don’t just mean “this is good” or “this is bad” I mean “I think the colour palette on that poster is really engaging, but I would have chosen a more readable typeface because it’s hard to read when you’re moving past at speed in the underground”. So, get opinionated, and apply the same logic to your own work. What works? What doesn’t? How can you improve it? But don’t get too disheartened when it doesn’t always looks as magical as your favourite works in its first draft, you’ll get there in your own way in your own time (I’m still getting there).

READ

The first thing I do when I don’t know how to do something, like pretty much everyone else, is google it. 90% of the time there’s an article on it and while the first time is pretty slow you can normally follow the instructions and work out how to do it. For wider background reader and improving general design skills and knowledge, some of the best books I’ve read include: Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton, Graphic Design Rules: 365 Essential Design Dos and Don’ts by Peter Dawson, How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World by Michael Beirut, and The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

YOUTUBE AND SKILLSHARE

As well as reading, there’s a wealth of video tutorials on the web you can watch and follow. I’m only just starting using Skillshare but I wish I’d caught on to it sooner, there’s so much useful stuff on there. In terms of Youtube tutorials, I would highly recommend checking out Plearn, Tutvid, and Photoshop Tutorials if you’re new to photoshop – those videos have taught me so much.

GET OUT

The difference between art and design is that design has to work, it has a practical purpose. The best way to make sure your work is, well, going to work in the real world is to get out and experience it. I’m a better designer now than I was 3 years ago, in part because I just know more about people and about how life works so I can design with that knowledge in mind.

TALK TO PEOPLE

There are so many people out there designing go and say hi. I’m very fortunate to work in an environment where there are loads of people doing creative jobs around me (even if I’m not one of them) so I try and take the time to ask them about what they’re doing, how, and why, whenever I can. But even if you don’t work in a creative office, reach out on social media. There are so many nice people out there, who are willing to share their knowledge. Just make sure you’re respectful and what you’re asking isn’t something you’re too lazy to google.

There are plenty of pros and cons to teaching yourself design, just as there are for so many things, which I’ll be going into in an upcoming post. Some days I wish I’d gone to design school. But if you’re willing to put the work in, you can definitely teach yourself many of the skills you need to design.

In our office, as in pretty much every office in the country if not the world, you are never more than a metre away from a ballpoint pen. They are everywhere. The majority are BIC biros, but you’ve got all kinds from the fanciest ink ballpoints to the branded versions given out by clients, competitors, and everyone in-between.

While the ballpoint pen is known as a relatively modern invention, the first patent for one was issued in October of 1888 to John Loud. Loud was a leather tanner who desperately wanted to make himself a pen that could write on hides, and his design was based around the idea of a ball in a socket which allowed the ink to roll out. Unfortunately, Loud wasn’t able to make a pen that worked well enough to be commercially successful and his patent lapsed and his attempt was largely forgotten.

Enter Laszlo Biro. Biro was a journalist, so he was always writing and always frustrated by the unreliable and leaky fountain pens he had to use. That was until he happened upon a printing press in Budapest where he saw how fast the new ink they were using could dry, that’s when in his own words he started “thinking how this process could be simplified right down to the level of an ordinary pen.” But he didn’t just think he invented the pen that would solve the problem he faced on a day to day basis.

Biro’s invention had two key components. First, he used a tiny tungsten ball bearing at the tip of the pen in a socket that meant it could roll easily. That ball bearing was constantly inked by a pressurised tube of ink, much in the same way as printing rollers are constantly inked. That pressurised tube meant it was more reliable than previous pens which relied on gravity. The second key component, was the ink his brother György, a chemist, helped him developed which was inspired by the fast-drying ink used in the newspaper printing process.

After being forced to flee from Hungary when war broke out, in 1944, Biro received his first major order of his ‘Eterpen’ which was quickly rebranded to the ‘Biro’ from the RAF. The ordered 30,000 pens, which retailed at that point for the equivalent £27 because they lasted longer and were easier to transport than fountain pens. However, their main selling feature was that the Biro, unlike other pens, still worked at high altitudes meaning it could be used by pilots wherever they were.

After World War II, the pen entered into commercial production. Even though Eversharp secured the rights to Biro’s design in North America and was primed to be the company to bring the Biro to a mass market, Milton Reynolds of Reynolds International Pen Co. had other ideas. On a trip to Buenos Aires Reynolds saw the Biro and its potential and decided to make his own. So, he bought a handful of pens and brought them back to the states with him, and after taking them apart made his own version.

Lawsuits were filed. Insults were thrown. Manufacturing races were had. But Reynolds managed to get his pen, the Reynolds Rocket to the market first on October 29th 1945. I think this description from Time really captures what must have been such an exciting moment in history.

In Manhattan’s Gimbel Bros., Inc., thousands of people all but trampled one another last week to spend $12.50 each for a new fountain pen. The pen was made by Chicago’s Reynolds International Pen Co. In full-page ads, Gimbel’s modestly hailed it as the “fantastic, atomic era, miraculous pen.” It had a tiny ball bearing instead of a point, was guaranteed to need refilling only once every two years, would write under water (handy for mermaids), on paper, cloth, plastic or blotters.

Reynold’s head start paid off. Within 6 months they had made around $5.6 million in sales. But their pens gained a reputation for poor quality. Approximately 1 in every 20 sold was returned. This shoddy craftsmanship allowed the French company BIC, owned by Michel Bich, to start to take over the market. Working to Biro’s patent and separating the pen into 8 component parts, all manufactured by BIC, Bich was able not only to build a superior quality pen but also reduce costs. In 1950, the BIC Cristal pen was launched. In less than a decade, it was the most popular pen of all time. But, however hard Bich tried and however much money was spent on marketing, the ballpoint pen Bich sold would always be known as a Biro.

I love that both Loud and Biro designed their ballpoint pens as a way to overcome problems they faced in their day to day lives, taking inspiration from the materials around them. There’s probably some kind of profound message about designing the world you want rather than settling for the one you have in that, but I mainly just think It’s pretty cool. The next time you use a ballpoint spare a thought for the men who designed it, the men who fought to produce it, and the inky smudgy world we might live in without them.

Are there any more design stories you’d like to hear about? Let me know!

 

Key Sources:

  • Time, Why the Invention of the Ballpoint Pen Was Such a Big Deal
  • ABC, Design Files: The Ballpoint Pen
  • Telegraph, Who was Ladislao José Biro, how did he invent the ballpoint pen and how did it help in World War II?
  • The Gentleman’s Gazette, The Ballpoint Pen Guide

Introvert comes from Latin intro-, “inward,” and vertere, “turning.” It describes a person who tends to turn inward for their inspiration and who draw more energy from being alone than being in a big group. I’m one of those people.

There’s a lot of information out in the world about how tired introverts can get in big social situations, and how we prefer to think alone. But there’s not so much about how our inward turning nature helps us develop certain skills that extroverts might not without even knowing. This particular set of skills, I think, can mean that introverts make great designers*.

INSPIRATION

The same psychological trait that means that introverts can easily become overwhelmed in busy situations means we can also find inspiration anywhere. Hans Eysenck suggests that introverts require less stimulation to be alert and engaged than their extroverted counterparts, which means they require fewer stimuli to find inspiration. This is a super useful skill for any kind of creative pursuit, where you need to keep producing new ideas and finding more inspiration from the world.

PERCEPTION

The best designs come from a place of empathy. In order to produce designs people use and love you have to understand what they need. Introverts can be particularly great at picking up on other people’s emotions, in part because we’re so in tune with our own and in part because we’re so sensitive to shifts in the environment around us. This is a skill that introverts often have to develop, but when mastered and harnessed in the right way it can be incredibly powerful.

PLANNING

Introverts can take much longer to process information than extroverts. While this might sound like a weakness it can actually be a strength. Marti Olsen Lany says that introverts have longer neural pathways for processing information, which means that we involve our long-term memories and previous experiences in decision making. By taking our time when processing information and involving our memories we tend to make more considered decisions and in depth plans. Again, this is useful for pretty much any job, but it’s a particularly useful skill for anyone who has to structure their own work or create the direction for a project.

FOCUS

There’s no getting away from the fact that a lot of the work that designers do has to be done quietly, and alone. Introverts require less dopamine to feel happy and motivated, which means we can get a lot out of quietly pooting along rather than needing to do lots of things to get our kicks. Our energy saving nervous systems set us up perfectly for hours of aligning, and kerning, and making sure that shade of blue is just right.

GETTING TO THE POINT

Introverts are notoriously not the best at small talk. We tend not to get anything, especially enjoyment, out of it. While that’s not great for networking – and it’s certainly something I’m personally trying to work on – it’s actually really good for helping clients get to the point. Introverts enjoy meaningful one on one conversations, which are, in my opinion, one of the best ways to get to the heart of what a client wants and needs. That plus the emotional awareness we discussed above means we often have pretty good bs filters. Skipping the small talk to get to the point and the insightful discussion, speeds up the process of producing significant and impactful work.

 

There are so many great things about being an introvert, so don’t forget that you can make however you’re wired a strength rather than a weakness. I hope this has been a reminder out there to someone out there that even if you’ve developed skills without noticing it, or if they’re just innate, they’re still really useful qualities that can make you great at what you do.

So, to all of my introverted designer friends – go forth and conquer (quietly)!

Also, if you’re looking to hire a designer, don’t overlook us quiet folk – we’ve got a lot to offer even if we don’t always shout about it.

 

*Extroverts make great designers too. They’re great at brainstorming in groups, at fast prototyping, at sharing and presenting their ideas and so much more. Plus, no one is truly one or the other, we all sit somewhere on a scale, and anyone can develop any of the skills I’ve discussed above. I just wanted to write a little something for my introverted pals out there, because I feel like there’s a lot out there about the struggles of being an introvert in an extrovert’s world but not enough about the ways in which introversion can be a real asset.

The t-shirt is an undeniable design classic and wardrobe staple. It is an unquestionable design classic, that comes in every size, colour, and pattern imaginable whilst remaining identifiable. It’s an everyday essential that’s such a common sight now, that it seems crazy that it only really became a garment in its own right around 70 years ago.

Today’s story beings with, the butt of many a joke, the union suit. If you don’t know what a union suit is, it was a kind of onesie that buttoned from the neck to the crotch and had a very attractive bottom flap. It usually came in red. The union suit was worn under clothes and was really good at keeping people warm, which was great in the winter months but when summer rolled around it was a different story. So, people cut their union suits in half creating long johns and a collarless undershirt.

At the same time as people started customising and DIYing their own undergarments (I am sorry for how much I use that word in this post), manufacturers also started experimenting with fabrics. Eventually, they succeeded in creating a fabric that could stretch and still maintain their shape. Not only would this make clothing more comfortable it also meant that they could make a shirt that was pulled over the head without breaking the collar.

No one is sure quite who developed this fabric or turned it into a t-shirt first, but the Cooper Underwear Company were the most successful in marketing them. They marketed their t-shirts to bachelors with the idea that they required less maintenance than a button-down undershirt “No safety pins — no buttons — no needle — no thread“.

A year later, in 1905, the US Navy made a bulk order of these shirts and made them an official part of their regulation uniform. It was intended that these shirts would mainly be worn under uniforms, but they could also be worn on their own for training, in engine rooms, or in warm weather at a commanding officer’s discretion on their own. These t-shirts were so popular amongst the men that they brought them home with them and spread the word about their comfort and hardwearing nature.

Now might be a good time to go into the origins of the name of the t-shirt, or rather the question of the origins of the name of the t-shirt. I think the most common story behind the name that I’ve heard suggests that it comes from the T shape of the garment. However, there are also people who claim that the t in t-shirt might stand for training as t-shirts were sometimes worn alone for training sessions in the army. There are even those who think the t might be short for amputee, as the sleeves on the shirt are a cut down version of their predecessors. Whatever the reason behind the name, it stuck and was first recorded in popular literature in 1920 in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.

At this stage in its development, however, the t-shirt was still mainly an undergarment. But the t-shirt grew slowly in popularity over the next 30 years. This growth mainly happened in American high schools where, by 1940, “newspaper columnist named Nancy Pepper wrote that teenagers owned closets full of T-shirts and customised them with sew-on patches and fringe”. These customised tees were even used to advertise for make out sessions. But it wasn’t until 1951, that the t-shirt would be labelled a “sexy, stand-alone, outer-wear garment” after being worn by Marlon Brando* in A Street Car Named Desire. His appearance throughout the movie in a tight fitting white t-shirt on its own lead to a surge in sales of the garment. James Dean later solidified the t-shirt’s status, sporting on in A Rebel Without a Cause.

After this cinematic turning point, the t-shirt became worn more widely as a standalone piece rather than an undergarment. Not only were they cool they were also cheap and easy to clean. A fact that made them popular for mothers with young children to dress.

While it was the plain white t-shirt that had soared to fame in the 1950s, in the 60s there was a new kid on the block, the printed t-shirt.  Warren Dayton pioneered art t-shirts featuring images of Cesár Chavez, the Statue of Liberty, polluted lungs, and other political and comic images. T-shirts were no longer just symbols of being cool but political statements used to advertise whatever the wearer believed in. This advertising potential was quickly pounced on by the likes of Disney, who began making t-shirts adorned with Mickey Mouse to sell as souvenirs. By 1977, perhaps the most famous of all printed t-shirts, the I heart NY shirt, was created by Milton Glaser.

That pretty much takes up to the t-shirt we know now which is printed with anything and everything, and is as much a beloved wardrobe staple as it was in the 1950s. This design story really speaks to the power of cultural change to make a classic as much as the design itself. Without the Marlon Brandos and James Deans of the world, we might still only be wearing t-shirts under our button downs.

Key Sources

*Marlon Brando is also credited with being the man who popularised jeans