2 Years Since Shillington Sydney: Natasha Michels—Designer at Nine Publishing and Creative Director at Sweaty City magazine

Natasha Michels Shillington Graduate portrait

When #ShilloSYD grad Natasha Michels sat in the break room at her retail job, she never expected the Shillington ad in a copy of Frankie magazine she had casually picked up would offer the perfect and unexpected answer to the gnawing thought: “How do I get out of here?” With no desire to go back to uni and feeling ready for a change, she committed to the siren call of a career in design and leapt into the part-time course at Shillington—whilst still working full-time. Only two years after graduating, Natasha now works as a Graphic Designer at Nine Publishing, alongside her role as Creative Director of the brand new Sydney-based independent magazine Sweaty City—which she co-founded with friends.

We caught up with Natasha to talk about where her career has taken her since graduating from Shillington, what goes into crowdfunding and launching an independent publication and why DIY projects with your mates are a must for keeping the creative juices flowing.

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

I first saw an ad for Shillington in Frankie magazine while working a pretty dreary retail assistant job. I was sitting in this dingy work lunchroom thinking, ‘How do I get out of here?’ and the ad’s design and tone stood out. It made me think maybe design was something I could do.

After seeing the ad I had a look at what else was on offer and Shillo seemed fresh, new and exciting. The course was so short and the yet grad work was so amazing. It just felt like it was for me.

Why did you decide to take the plunge and become a designer and how did the Shillington course differ from a more traditional university setting?

I was drawn to design because it felt natural in a way that law never did. Drawing and art were always an important part of my life and I eventually realised that I could build a career through developing those skills.

I managed to talk my way into becoming creative director of the campus student publication, Grapeshot, at Macquarie University and totally revamped the magazine. I had to teach myself Indesign but I really took to the work.

In contrast to uni, I loved the style of teaching at Shillington—it was kind of like working in a studio and we worked on unique briefs every night. The whole thing was a lot like the real world. To me, university was much less vocational and in studying law I felt like I was missing out on practical stuff that I’d have to learn out in the workplace.

Shillington actually gave me career skills and design thinking rather than just a piece of paper.

Also, Shillington had amazing tutors who were working in the industry with really diverse and practical experience behind them. I felt like I could always talk to them and could still message them with a design question now.

How was your Shillington experience? Did you form any close bonds with your classmates in the nine months you studied with us?

I would finish my 9-5 job and look forward to going to Shillington straight after. I got to spend time with such a diverse group in the class and see their unique perspective and design style.

It was a lot of fun being in a room full of budding designers and seeing how quickly we all improved.

I definitely left the course with some super talented friends.

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

My favourite was the final brief which tasked us with changing people’s perspectives on things which sometimes have negative connotations. My response was ‘Refuge Eats’ festival, which was a gathering I dreamed up happening at Martin Place in which people from refugee backgrounds would come and participate. The event would have food trucks and stalls to encourage dialogue and understanding.

I studied international human rights law at uni, so this one I held close to my heart. In terms of process, I used my tools in design thinking which I’d picked up throughout the course to create a design that aimed to promote cultural harmony. I made everything soft and the colouring friendly and bright to try set the tone of the event. The illustrative style is like a party, with an interconnected line symbolically joining people through the celebration of food. It was a really fun and engaging brief.

Congratulations on your first year in your role as a Graphic Designer at Nine Publishing (formerly Fairfax). What does a typical day look like for you on the job? How did Shillington prepare you for working in the industry?

It’s been really exciting working for a big company in the big smoke. I work in the subscriptions and growth department in a team with two other very talented designers.

Our typical day varies a lot because our department has a lot going on, so in a week I could be designing EDMs, designing signage for events, animating website ads, doing press ads and everything in between.

Because our team have super high turnarounds, I’m grateful that Shillington taught me how to design rapidly, to take on feedback, and actively change a design for the client’s needs.

You recently launched Sweaty City, a Sydney-based independent magazine about climate change and urban ecologies which is published annually. Can you walk us through your experience, as the Creative Director, in starting up your own publication? How have the first few months been since Issue 1 launched in February this year?

I luckily knew a group of really talented writers who were passionate about climate change so the content was really strong which makes it an easy foundation to start from. I was working alongside the amazing illustrator Brittany Klein and we pulled more than a few late nights to put it together. We crowdfunded the issue through Pozible and super successful campaign, raising double our initial target. I couldn’t be happier with the way the mag turned out and our incredible launch party.

It was a lot of work but it was totally worth it. We were able to bring a voice to a new generation of climate change journalists. Grab a copy on the Sweaty City website and keep your eyes peeled for issue 2.

Straight after Shillington, you worked as a Graphic Designer at Universal Magazines, a company which has over 40 magazines in their portfolio. How did this role prepare you for starting your own publication and what were the key design lessons you took away from your time in this role?

Those guys took a chance on me while I was still studying at Shillington. They taught me how to work really fast because there were a lot of magazines and it made me very resilient.

While tight print deadlines taught me to really think on my feet, I also learned plenty of design lessons that were specific to magazines but could be applied elsewhere. Lots of spacial and colour problem solving was required because each magazine had its own set of visual rules which content had to be accommodated into. So figuring out your visual language and tone before you start your design became extremely important to me.

In your website bio, you describe yourself as a dreamer and an explorer, both in life and in your designs. How does this express itself in your approach to design and the outcomes of your process?

I always love traveling researching. My travels have shown me so many different ways people can create buildings, make art, throw colours together and why they have done it that way. These journeys always make their way back into my art and design thinking. Being a dreamer, to me, means I bring a unique perspective to things. It’s really fun but I’ve had to learn to tame it in a corporate environment. I also like to think that my designs always tie into my values and principles, I try to make sure I’m never producing anything that can impact the world negatively.

What was your favourite recent project you worked on?

I have a little project with some friends called PAF which stands for Productive as Fuck. We get together semi-regularly to create in the true spirit of DIY. We get up really early to do photoshoots or stay up late to paint or bead or knit. Its really freeing to just create for the sake of creating, and for a thing with no rules we come up with a lot of stuff that we’re actually really happy with. Some of my best design ideas came from PAF expeditions.

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

I know the course might seem short but you will 100% walk away with a portfolio that you love.

The course might seem a little pricey but I can assure you it is well worth the investment.

Anything else you wish to share? Surprise us!

I love painting and am busy planning a solo exhibition next year, watch this space.

Big thanks to Natasha for sharing her story with us! Check out her website and keep up with her design work via her instagram. You can also stay up to date with what’s coming up at Sweaty City magazine on instagram and on Facebook

Want to study graphic design at Shillington? Learn more about our 3 month full-time and 9 month part-time course in New York, London, Manchester, Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.

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