Natalie Taylor discovered Shillington when she was working in a marketing role at a publisher in Oxford. After her role expanded into requiring more design-related tasks, she knew she will need more design training, and she decided that she will work as a designer in her next role. After seeing a Shillington ad in a magazine, she was inspired to look up the school and 8 months later made the bold move to study abroad in New York!
Since graduating, Natalie freelanced to gain more industry experience and expand her portfolio. One of her biggest projects was working for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for 3 months in 2019, designing marketing collateral and the storefront shop. She’s now working as a designer at the international luxury mobile ad agency Mobkoi—a workplace that encourages not only learning but innovation. Most notably, she had the opportunity to design and build ads for brands like Dior and Kate Spade.
We chatted with Natalie about her experience studying at Shillington as an international student and learn more about the design work she’s been doing after graduating, from freelancing to working within the innovation group at the mobile agency. She also surprises us with a cool music project she got to work on!
You have a background in marketing, publishing and photography. At what moment did you decide to take the leap and study design?
My first job after graduating was a marketing internship at a book publisher. My favorite part of that role was when I was asked to design social media graphics, posters, leaflets and any other marketing materials. However, I was always very aware that I didn’t really know what I was doing and was just going with my instincts which can only take you so far! I knew I wanted my next job to involve more design work and felt like that meant I needed some design training to help me take that step.
How did you learn about Shillington? What influenced your decision to study In New York compared to other Shillington campus cities?
I actually discovered Shillington during a meeting in my book marketing job. The company was in the process of redesigning its flagship magazine and we were looking at other magazines for design inspiration. When I was passed a copy of Huck magazine with the page open to an ad saying ‘Study Graphic Design in New York’, the idea really inspired me and I wrote down ‘Shillington New York’ in the corner of my notebook to look up later after the meeting.
The idea of studying design in New York was then in the back of my mind and 6 months on when I was looking for the next step in my career I reached out to the New York office to begin my application. About 8 weeks later I had my visa, accommodation and was boarding my flight to JFK! I actually never considered studying at the other campuses as a chance to live in New York for 5 months (as the M-1 visa allows you to stay a month either side of the course) felt like an opportunity I couldn’t miss!
You’re originally from Oxford, what was your experience living and studying in New York? Do you have any recommendations for students coming to New York for the first time?
Arriving in New York is an unusual experience as you’ve seen the city in so many films, TV shows and books that it already feels familiar and yet you don’t know your way around at all! It was kind of thrilling to see everyday things like big yellow school buses, the yellow taxis and the traffic lights hanging above the roads in real life. I took a nerdy pleasure in learning the order of the avenues and I could walk between avenues in 3 minutes and between streets in 1 minute as I honed my commute to school. I definitely felt like a proper New Yorker when I could walk out into the traffic to cross the street.
My recommendation is to walk everywhere as much as possible because you really get to soak up the city and discover cool places—it’s also a great way to spend some time away from a screen as the course gets more full-on. I’d also recommend bringing really comfortable practical shoes—I went through two pairs of trainers in 5 months—and creating a ‘New York’ playlist so whenever you listen to it you’ll remember where you were when you finally came up with the idea for your design!
Any tips for other students considering studying abroad? What was the M-1 visa process like?
As long as you know where you’re staying and you have data in your phone to use Google maps, not much can go wrong! Being in a new city is initially overwhelming in ways you don’t expect (I remember bursting into tears after struggling to give the right change in a shop) but as long as you are mentally prepared to feel out of your depth for a bit it makes it easier.
I arrived 3 weeks before the course started so I felt familiar and settled in Manhattan. I was able to do some touristy things (highly recommend picking a Broadway Show and queueing for on-the-day cheap tickets, wandering around near Times Square and Bryant Park at night, and of course going up The Rock to see the skyline), which worked really well for me.
I found the M-1 application fairly straightforward, it just made a big list of all the steps I needed to do and ticked them off as I went. You do need to budget about £150 for the application process. Going to the American embassy in London was a little intimidating but it made the whole process feel quite official and ultimately made me feel more excited about going.
What was your favorite student brief? Tell us about your process and the final outcome.
I think my favorite student brief was the Handmade project as it was the part of the course where a lot of what we had been taught about design had really sunk in and I could really put my new design skills into action. I also really enjoyed being able to pick the ‘client’ we were designing for. I chose to design a vinyl cover for Norwegian singer Sigrid (who coincidentally was on the screens at Times Square the same week we were doing handmade!) because she has a really distinctive branding style. Her EP ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ had been my soundtrack since I arrived in New York and it’s about standing up for yourself and using your voice to make an impact on the world.
After a lot of research and brainstorming, I decided that liquid was the right medium to show how sound waves can make an impact. After talking this idea through with a Shillington teacher, I went down a YouTube wormhole and came out with the tools to make the visual. I then spent a weekend walking all over Manhattan trying to track down a fish tank, food dye, effervescing tablets and about 10 liters of canola oil to try and practice the design. It took the photographer a few goes to work out how to best capture the reaction, but I was really happy with the shots and I think it made a really unique visual. The biggest takeaway I had was that I loved working with my hands and away from the screens.
How did the design course build your skillset and give you the confidence to freelance after graduating?
The best thing that Shillington gave me was the knowledge that feeling so stuck that you think you’ll never find a solution to your problem is actually the turning point to when you start doing your best work. Since graduating Shillington whenever I’ve felt challenged I remember how much I achieved during portfolio week and think that if I can do that, I can do anything.
Trusting the process was a big mantra for the whole of my cohort and when I had my first few freelance clients I had to really repeat those words to keep myself calm!
However, I felt really confident in presenting my ideation process and initial design ideas to the client and felt comfortable taking on-board the client’s feedback as nothing personal as I was used to hearing feedback from Shillington teachers. It was nerve-racking but I couldn’t be prouder of my first few freelance projects where I had managed client expectations and produced work I was proud of and they were happy with. I missed working with other designers around me and so I’m happy to work in a studio team now. My months as a freelancer pushed me to think of myself as a designer rather than a design student and gave me the confidence to go into interviews with the knowledge that I can deliver to client briefs and demands in the real world.
You’ve freelanced for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe! Tell us more about the project you worked on.
I’ve wanted to work for The Edinburgh Fringe Festival and live in Scotland for a few years and when I checked their website and saw they had a 3-month design based contract I couldn’t believe my luck! The job was to help the in-house designer in the months leading up to the Fringe which takes over the whole city for 3 weeks in August.
The Fringe had been working with an Edinburgh based design company to redesign the brand and the campaign for the 2019 festival so it was a really exciting time to work for them as they had a new brand identity to work with. I used these assets to design tickets, merchandise and events guides for festival performers.
The biggest job for the design team was creating the festival program, which contains over 4,000 shows and is over 450 pages long. It’s collated over 6 months and typeset over a weekend with 3 designers pushing our iMacs and InDesign to the limits of their processing power! I went to see the program on the press in Yorkshire which was a really cool bonus trip!
One of my favorite jobs was designing the window display for the Fringe shop, which is the hub of the festival and stays in place throughout all of August. I loved working for the Fringe brand and with the amazing Fringe team. I hope I get to work for them again in the future.
What’s a typical day like at the mobile ad agency Mobkoi? Tell us about some interesting projects you’ve worked on.
One of the best things about working at Mobkoi is that you work on a different brief each day—in that aspect it very much reminds me of studying at Shillington.
We work with a lot of well-known brands which is really exciting as a junior but means we work to strict brand guidelines and with very particular clients! We are primarily designing in Photoshop and an industry software called Celtra. By using video editing and animation skills daily, I feel like I’ve really grown my creative skill set within a few months of working there. Often I’m given a brief in the morning from a brand that wants 2 ad units, a standard unit and a bespoke unit. I’ll look at the assets they’ve provided, their website and then will come up with an idea for the bespoke option, often putting together a mood board and some initial sketches.
For bespoke units, we call a brainstorming meeting with the whole creative team. I’ll present my ideas and we’ll build on that idea or a colleague who has worked with the brand before will offer suggestions that fit the brief and their knowledge of the brand. I’ll then design and build the ad unit. All the units we build are responsive so we test that everything works correctly across different mobile devices before sending the links back to the sales team who will send them onto the client.
I’ve designed and built ads for Dior, Kate Spade and Formula 1 and we had a big campaign for the video game Fortnite. I have room to be creative and suggest new ideas that can inspire the sales team to win new business. It’s really amazing to feel like your creativity is contributing to the success of the whole company—I also coincidentally sit next to a fellow Shillumni who studied at the London campus!
Over the last few months, the creative team at Mobkoi has been focused on developing new ad formats and technology to bring to market. As part of the innovation team, I have helped develop ideas and create demos to showcase new features for different brands including new ways of using user-initiated animation and a format where viewers can personalize a product.
Amongst the design team, we hold quarterly inter-team competitions, which pushes the team to learn new skills and find new brand assets to work with. I was really chuffed to win this quarter with my ad for DripPop. The trick is coming up with that new twist!
Apart from photography and design, you also write music. Tell us more!
I bought my keyboard with my first paycheck with the idea that it would be cool to learn to play the piano. A month later I started a part-time songwriting course where I was mentored by professional songwriters and producers working in the music industry. I even got to meet and connect with the New York-based mentors whilst studying at Shillington!
Music is such a universal medium and the people I met through writing songs were unbelievably kind and talented. I feel braver for putting emotions into words and melodies and I ended up performing songs I’d co-written at open mics in London and New York and Spain!
Although I’ve chosen to focus on design in my career, I saw a song I had written through to the end of the production process (a 2-year journey!) and I co-wrote on a friend’s EP which came out in February this year. I still have some songs slowly moving forward that I hope will be released one day, but for now, I’m not sure how music will fit into my life.
I know if you truly love something it will find a way to be there!
Tell us about your design journey since graduating from the course two years ago.
A lot has happened in 2 years! Initially, after graduation, I did some freelance design so I would have the flexibility to travel and live anywhere in the UK, but I didn’t particularly enjoy working alone and I wasn’t interested in running the business side required for freelancing. So I regrouped and found my ideal starting-out design job; a short term contract with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
I moved to Scotland and worked closely with the in-house designer, solely designing for print which was really great as it honed my knowledge and skills for print design and typesetting. A trip to the printers to see the Fringe program on the press was a real highlight! I learned so much from my time with the Fringe and loved living in Edinburgh, but when my contract ended I wanted to try working in a studio environment as part of a bigger design team.
I moved to London and got a job as a Junior Designer at Mobkoi, a digital advertising agency that specializes in mobile ads. I didn’t really know what to expect when I started but discovered ad design is really creative and I really enjoyed working with lots of different brands. Mobkoi is an industry leader in the luxury mobile ad field with offices in New York, across Europe and Asia, so the design team is pushed to be really creative and innovative. I’ve found I enjoy the research and brainstorming required to develop new ad formats.
I’ve realized working in an environment that encourages learning and innovation is something I really value and enjoy about this job.
During quarantine, you’ve been doing some pro-bono design work remotely for a local charity who help people start their own business. Can you tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on?
I was really keen to do something to help during the crisis and a family friend told me about a furlough volunteer scheme. After reaching out to the scheme, they put me in touch with a charity that helps people get back into employment or start their own business. I’ve worked with 3 small business owners so far, developing logos and business cards and acted as a design consultant and support.
Two of the business owners already had clear ideas of what they wanted and it was really rewarding to be able to make their ideas a reality. I found out today that one of the guys has used his new business cards to generate a lead on a first client, which is really exciting.
Volunteering has really helped me to feel connected to the wider community when we are all so disconnected from our normal lives at the moment.
I’m really grateful for the chance to not worry about what might happen next and to focus on helping someone else in a small way.
Aside from the pro-bono work, how are you staying creatively inspired during quarantine? Do you have any tips to share on staying motivated and inspired?
I think the best motivation is permission to not create. Also TikTok videos, the funny ones that make you cry-laugh—they are great to counteract feeling overwhelmed! I found myself feeling more creative and wanting to learn new skills once I had started doing the pro bono work and the pressure to do something useful with my time had lifted! I signed up for a few free courses from an ‘Intro to Ukulele’ to an online course on Climate Change. Seeing the face of the Ukulele teacher every day, even if it is a YouTube video from 2015, and responding to someone else’s comment on the Climate Change discussion really helped me feel connected and part of a community.
I’m also part of the 2020 intake of Book, Music and Lyrics course, a musical theatre writing course in London and continuing to study and collaborate on new songs with my course mates, as well as our weekly Zoom class, is a real focus in my week. Joining in and sticking with your communities is really important. Whether they have formed because of the crisis or were there before, we all need each other right now!
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