Ellie Pinney took an unexpected route into graphic design—through studying physiological sciences at the University of Oxford. After her degree and a science masters, a creative streak began to blossom, first in photography and then in design. She decided to study part-time at Shillington to hone her skills whilst working in-house for the Science Museum. Since graduating, she has made the exciting decision to go freelance—as both a graphic designer and photographer.
Read to learn about why Ellie made the change from physiology to graphic design, what she’s been up to since finishing the part-time course and why you don’t have to be an “arty kid” to follow your dreams of becoming a designer.
You made quite a transformation—from studying physiological sciences at Oxford to studying graphic design at Shillington. What made you make the change?
It was a pretty gradual change to be honest. I think I’ve always been creative deep down, but I wasn’t a particularly arty kid at school (in fact, my art teacher would probably be shocked to know that I’m a graphic designer now). I really enjoyed biology though, so I ended up studying Physiology at uni. I absolutely loved it as a degree, but I didn’t fancy any of the career paths it led to. My creative streak was starting to emerge by then too—at the time through photography—so I combined my love of science and the arts by doing a masters in Science Communication. It was a slippery slope towards the delights of graphic design from there!
I managed to carve out an opportunity to work as a junior designer while I was at the Wellcome Trust, and about a thousand online tutorials later, I was well on my way to becoming a designer. I always had a nagging doubt about not having studied design though, hence signing up for Shillington.
What have you been up to since you graduated? How has your life changed since Shillington?
Life since Shillington has been really exciting and a lot more creative.
As I was already working in design when I started the course, the real draw for me was learning to think creatively and come up with ideas, rather than picking up technical skills.
I think that part is hard to teach yourself if you’ve never studied design, as you don’t always get the chance to work on creative briefs as a young designer in a studio. Shillington was a game-changer in that sense, and it inspired me to go freelance. I’ve been working for a wide range of clients since, on brands, books and packaging. This week I’m doing a branding project for a science research group, so I’ve pretty much gone full-circle back to my biology roots! I’m also collaborating with one of my Shillington classmates on an awesome gin packaging brief (shout out to Jess!)
You spent a year working at the Science Museum Group. Could you tell us more about your role? Any projects from your time there you can share with us?
I spent a really exciting year working for the Science Museum. I arrived on the day that they launched their new brand, so I was thrown straight in at the deep end. Literally everything in the museum needed re-designing, so my projects were really varied—from way-finding and maps, to tube posters, exhibition identities and marketing campaigns. One of my favourite recent projects was to develop and roll out concepts by North Design for the Science Museum’s new training academy. Even though I’ve left the team there now, I still freelance for them.
On top of this, you’re also a freelance photographer! Tell us about your other creative venture?
I got my first proper camera for my 21st birthday, so again, I was a relatively late bloomer. As a big fan of gigs, I quickly got into shooting live music and was amazingly lucky to be given a chance to work for the Roundhouse in London (by another Shillington grad actually… what great people!). I’ve been fortunate enough to shoot some really exciting artists there, from KYGO to Clean Bandit to Maxïmo Park. I also specialise in architectural photography—an odd combination, I know, but it keeps the designer in me happy!
What do you love about being a designer?
I really love the problem-solving side of design. Coming up with an idea that ticks all the boxes of the brief is such a great feeling.
I also really enjoy collaborating with other designers, and it’s awesome when the end result is something that neither of you would have thought of on your own. I think a combination of both of those things is what has drawn me towards branding, and I’d love move into a branding agency at some point.
What was your favourite project from your Shillington portfolio? Walk us through your process!
That’s a tricky one. I loved the craft-based projects like packaging and hand-made, but I think the most rewarding was a brief to brand a phone company. Unlike most Shillington projects, this one didn’t inspire me immediately… I sketched for hours and hours, and my initial ideas were all rubbish, but eventually I hit a direction that felt exciting and I ended up with a brand I was really proud of. It was a very thinking-heavy project and I spent most of my time trying to come up with interesting rollout ideas. It also gave me a good excuse to start playing around with After Effects.
You studied part-time at our London campus. Why did you make the decision to study across nine months?
For me, the part-time course was the obvious choice financially. Plus, I’d just been offered the job at the Science Museum, which felt like too exciting an opportunity to turn down. I actually started that job on the first day of Shillington, so it was a pretty intense first few weeks! It was tough juggling full-time work and the course, but incredibly rewarding, and I think the two really complemented each other in terms of the skills I was picking up.
Who were your teachers and what were the biggest lessons they taught you?
I had George Simkin for most of my projects, and he was awesome. He has an amazing way of getting ideas out of you (often ones that you didn’t know were there) without ever actually telling you what to do.
The biggest lesson I learned from George was that design should be smart—everything you create should have a strong idea behind it, and it’s not enough just to make something pretty.
Anything else you would like to share?
My winding career path, and my complete lack of artistic prowess at school, goes to show that not everyone has a clear calling for design as a kid.
But I firmly believe that if you roll with every decision, and keep studying and working on what you love, you’ll always wind up in the right place—design or otherwise—and with a whole load of experiences that shape the way you approach the job.
In design, those other experiences can only be a good thing!
Want to learn more about studying graphic design at Shillington? Learn about our 3 month full-time and 9 month part-time course in New York, London, Manchester, Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane —> www.shillingtoneducation.com