Eleanor Robertson parted from a career in marketing and publicity to pursue her passion for design. Since enrolling on the full-time course at Shillington, she’s never looked back and within a few months of graduating secured a junior designer role at branding agency Paul Belford Ltd.
We caught up with Eleanor to hear a bit more about making the career jump, her highlights and key takeaways from her time at Shillington and the advice she would give to current students on the same path.
Tell us a bit about what you were doing before Shillington and what made you want to change your career?
I originally studied English Literature at Oxford University. Directly before Shillington I was juggling two jobs—doing the marketing for a pub group in Kent and working as an account manager at a London PR agency. I also took on freelance projects as a copywriter and brand strategist. My day-to-day work was varied; marketing, publicity, social media, event planning and menu development. Some of it was exciting and glamourous: I saw Robbie Williams in his underpants, shielded Jamie Oliver from the paparazzi and got paid to taste gin! But the truth is that I spent years feeling confused about what I wanted to do. There’s a lot on my CV because I avoided making decisions about the future. One advantage, though, was that I had the chance to try my hand at lots of different things, including graphic design, art direction and photography. I eventually realised that my passion lay in bringing together images, words and ideas.
I taught myself how to use the Adobe suite and began applying my new skills, taking on freelance commissions for local businesses. Though I’m still apologising to the printers who had to work with me, I became more confident and gained focus. Finally, in 2017, I decided to take the leap and pursue graphic design full-time. I handed in my notice, borrowed a hefty loan from the bank and enrolled at Shillington.
This felt like a gamble—at nearly 30, I was signing up for more debt and uncertainty while my friends were all advancing in their careers, buying their first homes and getting dogs.
I worried, a lot—that I wouldn’t be any good at graphic design, that I wouldn’t enjoy it after all, that I wouldn’t find a job. I enjoyed the work I was doing, I was valued by my employers and I had opportunities for further promotion. It was hard to leave, but I wanted more creative fulfilment from my career and I knew that I needed to challenge myself. I am so glad I did.
You studied on the full-time course in London, what was it like to be involved in such an immersive course and would you say London is an exciting city to study design in?
I think London’s such an exciting place to be and there’s always something to get involved with. The course gave me an excuse to explore the city with fresh eyes, discovering new museums, exhibitions and events like the Design Museum, St Bride Foundation and Nicer Tuesdays.I also love the way that London draws young people from all around the world.
One of the things that I enjoyed most about the course was the diversity of the students and the variety of their backgrounds, from fine art and furniture-making to law and nutrition.
These different experiences meant that people’s responses to the same brief were wildly different, which was very inspiring. I learnt nearly as much from the other students as I did from the teachers, and it was great fun. There was a strong feeling of community and a real spirit of kindness, generosity and support—it was a team effort towards the finish line and we kept each other going. I approached the course with a great deal of focus as I felt I’d put a lot on the line. Making friends was a bonus that I’m very grateful for. It was definitely a bonding experience and I met some fantastic people.
How would you describe your experience studying at Shillington? Any stand-out moments you’d like to share?
Shillington was exactly what I was looking for, allowing me to retrain without going back to university. I already had basic software skills, but the course filled in the gaps while developing my eye and creative problem-solving abilities. The teachers were fantastic and I am still amazed by how they teach so much in such a short time. Each brief was designed to test us to our absolute limits, and the pace was judged to perfection. From day one, when we were given a box of pipe cleaners to facilitate a bonding exercise, I felt excited and happy to be at Shillington.
The atmosphere encouraged creativity while also being structured and supportive.
I won’t pretend it was all a dream. Though I knew the term would be intense, I didn’t anticipate what an emotional rollercoaster it would be. There were moments of self-doubt and frustration. I cried twice in the toilet, a lot more at home and threw my laptop at the wall one weekend. But I’d do it all over again in a shot.
What were your favourite aspects of the course and which do you think was your most successful project in your final portfolio?
For me, the best part was the final fortnight when we pulled our portfolios together, developing projects we’d worked on over the previous months. Looking at everyone’s work, it was obvious how far we’d all come and I felt a deep sense of pride. I’ve always produced my best work under pressure and I enjoyed the sense of manic creativity and experimentation combined with moments of breakthrough. When I submitted my portfolio I knew I’d worked harder than I’d ever worked in my life. My favourite project was probably the least ‘technically’ successful—my campaign for a Stanley Kubrick retrospective at the BFI. The aim was to convey Kubrick’s refusal to sacrifice art for entertainment, so I had fun finding ways to prioritise form over function, the opposite of what we’d been taught to do. I deliberately made the content less accessible with devices like pointless elements of repetition, justified body copy and broken text. Then I researched colour combinations that are invisible to people who are colour blind. I enjoyed breaking the rules (though it certainly helps when you’ve learnt them first).
Your portfolio was full of some really strong branding projects so it’s no surprise that you’ve snapped up a design job at branding studio Paul Belford Ltd—how did you find the interview process and what’s the role been like so far?
It took me three months to find a job after Shillington, and to be completely honest I found that period tough. I went straight from job roles where I had people relying on me into an intense three months of study, and when that ended I wasn’t prepared for unemployment. I picked up small pieces of freelance work quite easily, but I struggled to motivate myself without a routine. I even missed the 8am starts! The interview process itself was exhausting and at times it seemed like there was no end in sight. I was proud of my portfolio and it was hard to hear criticism, not all of it constructive. My confidence wavered with each rejection and every day I wondered if I’d made a big mistake. Looking back, however, the opportunity to peek inside a range of studios and chat to both junior and senior designers was extremely valuable as it helped me to learn about the industry and work out what kind of environment I wanted to be in. Equally, though I sometimes worried that I was trying to crack a closed network, people were actually incredibly kind and welcoming. I found that even if there weren’t current vacancies, creative directors were happy to meet me and offer their thoughts on my portfolio. Graphic designers are generally nice people. Most of them said positive things about Shillington and my work.
The course has a good reputation and Shillumni out in the real world tend not to embarrass the rest of us—their achievements stand for themselves.
Perhaps the most helpful advice I received came from a recruiter. He said that it’s important to be realistic; most studio teams have around a dozen designers and they rarely hire juniors. But at the same time, don’t undervalue yourself or lose faith in your work. It takes time, but keep meeting people and you’ll get there.
What’s the new role been like so far?
I’m only six weeks into my new role at Paul Belford Ltd, but I’m so happy to be there. I’ve admired the studio’s work for some time as it covers such an interesting mix of branding and communications. The focus is on strong ideas, beautifully executed, and that’s exactly the sort of environment I want to be in. I’m also grateful to be part of a small team as I’ve already had the chance to see more aspects of the business and take on greater responsibility than I would somewhere larger.
We are working on some fantastic projects at the moment and I’ve been able to apply skills from previous roles as well as everything I learnt at Shillington, bringing a lot of my experience together.
There is also an office dog, so I can tick that personal goal off the list for now. Sometimes I do feel slightly out of my depth and I’ve made some stupid mistakes. I have shocking number blindness so I’ve struggled with Pantone references, document dimensions and even page numbers. But I’m learning every day and I’d be bored if I was too comfortable. I’m enjoying it all.
I spent too long doing too many things I didn’t love and I feel lucky to have a second chance to shape a career. Graduating from Shillington was the start of my creative development, not the end—I’m looking forward to the challenges of the next few months and years.
Now that you’re part of our global Shillumni network what are your top 3 pieces of advice for students currently studying?
1. The more you put into the course, the more you’ll get out of it.
Practise things you’ve done in class after school, return to briefs you weren’t satisfied with and read as much as you can. Immerse yourself in the world of design by listening to podcasts, watching documentaries and visiting exhibitions. You can do anything you set your mind to and, while it feels all-consuming, three months is a really short time. So put your life on hold and make the most of it. Embrace sleep deprivation, and start worshipping caffeine.
2. Don’t be afraid to take risks.
I was so determined to get as much as I could out of Shillington that there were times when I forgot to relax and enjoy the experience. I didn’t draw anything by hand until week nine (brief 26/30) because I was scared I wouldn’t be good enough. I chose not to use the camera when it was handed to me, twice. When under pressure to meet a deadline, I went back to the same typeface. I regret it now.
Don’t let fear hold you back. The truth is that you’ll never be good at anything if you don’t take risks and if you’re still not good at it, it doesn’t matter.
Shillington is a place where you can make mistakes, so have fun experimenting and take the opportunity to explore new techniques. Perhaps even try out Comic Sans. On this note, there’s no point comparing your work to other people’s—focus on being the best you can, celebrate other people’s triumphs and learn from each other. Aspire to be the best version of yourself, not someone else. Your work will be stronger.
3. Have faith.
The first part is to trust the design process. Don’t worry if you can’t visualise the final product at the beginning. The teachers at Shillington know what they are doing so listen to them, respond to their feedback and don’t be too precious. Stay open-minded and be agile. The second and harder step is to trust yourself. We all make the best decisions we can in the moment, so keep moving forward and don’t look back. Have faith in your instincts and your work. Be kind to yourself.
Do you want to hear more from our graduates? We regularly post interviews with full-time and part-time graduates from all of our campuses. Keep up to date with them by exploring our Interviews archive. Find out more about studying at Shillington in New York, London, Manchester, Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane —> shillingtoneducation.com.