From Dentist to Designer—Anna Dai, Shillington Graduate and Designer at Heapssmall

Young woman, with long dark hair, wearing a white t-shirt, smiling

Shillington Melbourne graduate Anna Dai’s natural eye for detail and balance served her well in her dentistry career, but she dreamt of being able to create amazing designs and wasn’t sure where to start. One day she met a Shillumni at a TDK workshop who told her how much they had gotten out of the course at Shillington. After some research of her own, Anna was thoroughly impressed by the glowing reviews online and didn’t hesitate to visit the local Shillington graduate exhibition happening soon after. She came away from the event inspired by the incredible portfolios she has seen—many of which were created by people who also started with no design experience.

Without hesitation, Anna sent through her application for the Shillington Scholarship and became one of the talented scholarship recipients in 2018. Since graduating from the part-time course in Melbourne, Anna’s student work project, Brunswick Block Party, has received multiple accolades in the 2020 Indigo Awards and she launched the Melbourne-based creative studio, Heapssmall with two friends—one of whom is also a Shillington Graduate.

Read on to learn more about Anna’s award winning student work project, her matter of fact advice to anyone considering applying for the 2020 Shillington Scholarship and why the only way to take on any steep learning curve is head on.

Before becoming a designer, you have worked for over 5 years as a dentist, including your time with the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. Why did you decide to take the plunge and become a designer?

I always had an affinity to art and design. Even working as a dentist, I found myself looking at the golden ratios of teeth, at their balance and alignment. Design always seemed like such a cool industry and I would always look at posters or packaging like “Damn, I wish I could make that!” So I kind of just took a dive!

What advice can you offer to someone who wants to transition careers?

Dip your toes in, try it out and embrace the adventure! Nothing’s worse than staying stuck and living with regret.

In that moment of inspiration, make an irreversible decision to force yourself to jump in—sign up for a class or put some money down, whatever, just find a way to take that first step.

How did you learn about Shillington? What made our design course stand out from the rest?

I first heard about Shillington when I went to a TDK workshop by The Sunday Co a few years back and met an Shillington  Melbourne graduate who kind of sparked my interest. Did a bit of research and found glowing reviews of the course, but what really sold it for me, was going to one of the graduation exhibitions and seeing the amazing work the students (some of which also had no background in design) had been able to produce. I also liked that there was no requirement of a portfolio for entry into the course, which made it a lot less daunting.

Did you have any previous design experience? How did the course build your skillset?

Going into the course, the only background I had was a high school visual communications class in year 8.

So, in terms of how the course built on my skillset, it was like 0 to 100. Nuff said.

You were one of the recipients of Shillington’s Scholarship in 2018. Tell us about your scholarship entry! How did you make your passion for design shine through?

When I saw the brief, I mustered up what little design skills I had (aka drawing on my childhood colouring-in days) for inspiration, and decided to create a comic strip to show my experiences and interactions with art and design up until that point and the joy a little creativity could potentially bring to my life.

What made you choose the part-time over the full time course?

I wanted the flexibility of being able to work and study at the same time, but also allow myself a bit of time between classes to absorb all the information and learn at a slower pace.

What was your favourite brief you worked on during the course? Tell us your process!

I’d have to say the handmade project. I chose to do an album cover for Bury A Friend by Billie Eilish. The concept was around the idea of being trapped in your own body in this surreal nightmare. I casted a hand using plaster and alginate (impression material used by dentists to make mouthguard) and had that as a centrepiece amongst the rubble, as if it were being buried alive.

Your Shillington student work project Brunswick Block Party was recently awarded three prizes in the 2020 Indigo Awards. How do you feel after receiving this awesome recognition? Can you tell us a bit more about the brief and your process for this project?

Totally stoked! I couldn’t believe it (still can’t). The brief was to design a type-focused postcard design promoting the annual Sydney Road festival in Brunswick. In terms of process, I did a bit of brainstorming and research and came up with three keywords describing the festival that I wanted to convey in the design: loud, dynamic and street. From there, a few moodboards and sketches later, a blueprint was formed for what was to later become the final product.

What was your biggest challenge during the course? Why?

I’d say managing time and keeping up with all the material. There’s just so much information and learning that’s packed in every class. It’s taught at a fast pace which can be a little overwhelming at times, but in saying that, I’m really grateful for the challenges we were given, because it really forced me to learn!

We are really excited to hear you recently launched Heapssmall, a Melbourne-based creative design studio in partnership with fellow Shillumni, Lucia Gajdosova. Can you tell us a little about starting and running your own studio and the kind of work you legends do?

Yeah it’s been super crazy, but heaps of fun and exciting starting up the studio with Lucia and our other partner/designer Bradley. At the moment we pretty much do anything and everything design-related,  from branding projects to websites to product design.

I won’t lie, it’s been a steep learning curve.  When we first started out there was a lot of trial and error finding our groove with workflow and getting our name out there, but it’s been really awesome being able to work with mates and enjoying a beer or two while we do what we love!

Branded banner for creative studio Heapssmall

Can you tell us about any design projects you are working on right now?

We’ve got a few on the go but for our most recent project, we’re designing the logo, packaging and print products for a new organic dog treat company. We’re really excited for this one—it’s Mexican themed so lots of fun illustrations and festive vibes!

What would you say to someone who is skeptical about studying at Shillington? Any tips?

It’s as intense and as good as they claim. Hit up some of the graduations if you’re still not convinced and see the work, talk to the students and chat with some of the teachers.

Have you got any advice for anyone who is planning to apply for the Shillington scholarship in 2020?

Tell your story, get creative and just go for it—you’ve got nothing to lose!

What creatives are you currently inspired by?

Max Blackmore—local homegrown hero, he’s got some really groovy illustrations going on!

Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us!

I have an obsession with DIY projects, didn’t learn how to ride a bike until last year and oddly enjoy soggy chips.

Huge thanks to Anna for sharing her story. Check out more of her work on her website and keep up to date with any of her new projects on Instagram. You can also explore Heapssmall’s website and follow the studio on Instagram.

Want to study graphic design at Shillington? Learn more about our online graphic design course and kickstart your creative career!

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