How to do creative work in a studio without being a graphic designer

Sean Thomas, executive creative director at JKR, talks about the other roles and desirable options available in studios when design positions are hard to come by or don’t appeal.

Image courtesy of G Stock Studio

“There are all these roles out there in design that people might not be aware of”, says Sean Thomas, executive creative director at Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR). “Studios often struggle to recruit for them, because there’s a lack of understanding about what an artworker or a 3D visualiser, for example, does.”

Thomas, who has worked at JKR for eight years and built his way up from design director to executive creative director, wants to make school students, graduates and anyone else considering a career in design aware of some of the other opportunities available.

He was inspired to do this after JKR ran a student portfolio workshop last year, where budding designers came in to the office to get feedback on their work. After seeing many university students’ portfolios, he felt that many young designers had not been prepared for a job in the industry by their courses and tutors and were not well-equipped to work on real-life design briefs in a studio environment.

Courses “setting young designers up for failure”

Sean Thomas, executive creative director, JKR

“It felt like so many young designers had been set up for failure,” he says. “A few courses aside, it felt like a lot of them were going to have a very uphill struggle at getting a job. When talking to them, there seemed to be many who struggled with aspects of the designer role, such as conceptualising, and wondered where they might fit into the industry.”

He also felt, after speaking to client managers and strategists working in his team at JKR, that their backgrounds often lied in places other than graphic design; many had studied art history and design history and had gone for design studio roles because they still “craved a connection to creativity”.

“It made me realise that we rarely tell students about these roles,” Thomas says. “It’s always about looking to the ‘design greats and leaders’, rather than helping young people play to their individual strengths.”

Due to the competitiveness of the industry, the odds are stacked against the huge number of design graduates leaving university now, he adds. Almost 250,000 students in the UK applied to study art and design at university last year, making the subject area one of the most popular university choices.

“There are limited design roles available”

“Everyone wants to work [as a designer] at the hot consultancies, but there are limited roles available,” he says. “Only a handful of people are going to get that gig.”

But studios have many other creative jobs available; film and motion, 3D visualisation, realisation, artwork and production are all alternatives to graphic designer roles, while more strategic positions such as account management and brand strategy are also viable options.

“There are less people doing these roles than there are designers,” says Thomas. “There is an absolute surplus of design graduates. But a good artworker or visualiser is quite hard to find. You’ve got more chance of getting in at a better design studio if you apply for those jobs. A shortage of people means much higher demand.”

But it should not only be about going for positions that appear less competitive, but more playing to individual strengths – which role people choose depends on what individuals get most enjoyment from and what they are best at, Thomas says.

Do you like order and detail, or creative chaos?

“It depends on which part of the design process you get most excitement from,” he says. “Core design roles are all about concept and strategy, getting an idea out there.

“Realisation, artwork and production are more technical, so people doing those roles tend to be precise, and like order, rules and attention-to-detail – they like kerning! A lot of the best designers are messy and disordered, so they wouldn’t be good at roles like that.

“If you like working with clients, then account management or brand strategy might be for you.”

Some roles come with preconceptions, he says, and may be trickier for younger designers to break into than others, such as brand strategy – but he adds that these stereotypes are changing.

“People are quite dismissive of non-design roles”

“Traditionally, strategy was something someone might end up doing after a different job, such as design or account management,” he says. “But it makes a lot of sense to have a strategist in their twenties, who can offer a different perspective. You probably still wouldn’t get a 25-year-old leading strategy at a huge global brand, but it is changing.”

Graduates should not dismiss roles in studios just because they are not straight design, he says, as they all come with their differences and benefits; they can all be creative in their individual ways, and some may even be more lucrative.

“Some of these roles will pay much better than design jobs at senior and freelance levels,” he says. “Of course, you should never base your career choice on salary, but people are quite dismissive of non-designer roles – if they were aware of the benefits and of how they do creative work alongside designers, it might make them see them differently.”

Based on this piece, Design Week is going to be running a series over the coming weeks speaking to people in different roles at design studios about their jobs. If you do a non-designer role at a studio and want to tell us about it, email [email protected].

Hide Comments (6)Show Comments (6)
  • Jessica February 5, 2019 at 4:38 pm

    I found this article really interesting as I am currently in my second junior designer role. I never really gave much thought to non-designer roles within studios, what is it that you would look for when searching for one of these roles?

    • Sean Thomas February 6, 2019 at 10:19 am

      Hi Jessica.

      It’ll depend on the role and agency, but if I speak about the wider industry (in my personal experience) as opposed to just JKR:

      Visualising – A role that creates digital imagery. Needs the ability to make things look wonderful. Image creation and manipulation skills in Photoshop and 3D software are key. A good artistic eye. Ability to art direct or illustrate is helpful too.

      Retouching – This role is for someone who loves adding the finishing details to gorgeous imagery. The ability to retouch, colour correct, compile imagery and select the right shots.

      Realisation / Repro designers – A lot of larger agencies will have Realisation teams within them, where a smaller group of designers will take the approved route on a project and then help create the rest of the product range; for example, if you have 4 master designs signed off for a soup range, this team would then create the other dozen or so. There are even agencies now set up to purely do this part of the process. These designers tend to not enjoy the pressure of ideation on a daily basis but are still highly creative. Often they are great at systemising design, going on photoshoots, creating brand architectures and figuring out range navigation. They get the files a bit more organised too, ready for…

      Artwork – This role takes the design files and gets them ready for production. Technical skills in Adobe programmes are key. Good awesome of printing processes and techniques is also important, but comes with time. Artworkers tend to be great at kerning, leading, attention to detail, filing and layer order, etc.

      Strategy – A key role that seems really hard to naturally find a way into. Strategists love analysing research, data, doing market audits, interviewing consumers and figuring out where a brand is going right and wrong. They’ll often steer the creative team into the right ballpark and work closely with the client to align on the key focus for the brand. It’s a harder role to get into as a graduate but if your folio is more written than visual, you love research and then formulating an opinion about a brand then you may be a budding strategist.

      Accounts / Client Managers / Producers – Different agencies call this team differing things, but they play a key role in making agencies work. They partner with creatives to make things work in the studio like resourcing, building presentations, ensuring the response is on brief etc and spend a lot of time working with the client to understand their issues and help deliver the project on time. Financial knowledge is helpful but many agencies teach that over time. You’ll often get to travel a lot doing this role too.

      There are other roles within design studios like art buying, copywriters, animators, UX teams, production etc but these tend to be more obvious and the routes into them a bit clearer.

      Hope that helps!

  • about design Career February 20, 2019 at 5:15 pm

    In China, on the contrary, many designers transform into strategies or managers. Some designers do not really do well in performing design (hands-on design), but they are good at big creative and logical work.

  • lu junyi February 20, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    In China, on the contrary, many designers transform into strategies or managers. Some designers do not really do well in performing design (hands-on design), but they are good at big creative and logical work.

  • JPap February 22, 2019 at 5:48 pm

    It would be interesting to see some advice that’s not directed at the younger generation and specifically design graduates.
    I’m an experienced designer / artworker / strategist whatever but have not had a traditional career ladder experience and am now struggling to gain employment despite years of work in an in-house studio.

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