The Value of an Offline Education

I decided to write about my experience of offline education because ever since I stopped going into a live classroom environment, I have actually appreciated what I got out of it more.  I’ve been lucky to have had some great tutors along the way who inspired me. Perhaps this is the biggest advantage of offline education - the people aspect. I’m not for one or the other (online vs offline); I think a combination of both is best, especially if you work in an arts related field.

As an adult returning to education, the thought of committing to a course and schedule for 3 long years (the average length of a university degree) was too daunting for me.  I dropped out of the first year of a two year foundation degree course. I’m glad I did and the reasons for leaving are etc. but I knew even then that it wouldn’t just end there.

For a start, London the city I live in is full of wonderful educational institutions offering a huge variety of courses.  Education in the UK is big business after all!

Anyway, I was familiar with one college in particular located in central London (Covent Garden) where many years previous whilst holding a full time office job, I took an interesting textiles related course.  Little did I know then that so many years later I’d be going back to do similar courses there and have a ton of artwork to draw from in my current practice.

The institution in question is City Lit College.   I was most impressed with the quality of teaching there and their facilities.  I found the expertise and friendly approach so great. Everyone was showing up to have fun and learn from each other - support was great.   Unlike my previous university/college experience were there was a real issue with motivation with the students I was around (kids!).

The practical textiles courses I’ve taken at City Lit involved creative stitching, learning various fabric dyeing methods and of course fabric screen printing.

I chose to also diversify my learning by taking a printmaking course which involved visiting the British Museum to draw inspiration for our project.  I loved the physicality of the process the most and to my satisfaction, never left class without dirty pair of hands! :)

Lastly, I couldn’t recommend enough taking the various courses on Photoshop for pattern design there.  The first one I took was called “From Art to Digital” and was so much fun as we got to do lots of playful mark making in week one followed by scanning and putting our work in repeat the following week.  The latter was a revelation for me and got me hooked straight away into learning this craft.

Since then, I’ve taken courses exclusively online with Make it in Design and The Textiles Lab which have a lot to offer from beginner to advanced level designers but I am also missing the classroom and considering giving City Lit another go.

As I want to develop my floral drawing skills and there’s a course there just for this, I’m ready to sign up! Watch this space...can’t wait to share the results and work in progress!

Is Surface Pattern Design for you?

Lately whilst figuring out how my career as a designer is going so far I’ve come to consider what the pros and cons of choosing the freelance path in design. By the way, is it just me? But it really annoys me when I listen to podcasts for example and people label anyone remotely involved in design a designer and you have to listen 10 minutes before you realise what type of designer they are..web/graphic/interior/computer games etc…

One of the interesting things in my case is that I’ve come to this practice from a non-specialised field...I wasn’t a fine artist, a graphic designer or a fashion designer before I got started...I think that makes a huge difference as to what people find challenging about surface pattern design.  Leaving your paints and brushes aside for a while to transition to learning a computer program trips a lot of people and many don’t persevere the initial hurdles and give up...I can relate to this giving up guitar lessons! :)

As I wasn’t too rooted into any of these, I think I found it easier to take on surface pattern design as a career...all the rules were new to me so it wasn’t a question of re-learning things.  The key here is differentiating the practice of art with that of design and I’ve observed how some artists making the switch to design struggle with “restrictions” that come with working not just for yourself but as part of an industry which as the name suggests is a means of production for an end product.  Art can meet and serve commerce well but ultimately it is not a slave to on the other hand, is intrinsically linked to production so disregarding this can be a costly mistake. In other words, you have to have a different state of mind to make it as a designer if you’re coming from purely an art for art’s sake background.

It’s also important to develop an understanding of the industry as a whole as this helps you identify your niche which will ultimately be what makes you stand out.  You just can’t be a designer of all things to be really successful. This takes time and effort! However, one of the first things you can determine quite early on is whether your style suits a more illustrative or painterly handwriting….meaning, will you spend endless hours mastering Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop?  Ideally, you’ll get good at both but trust me, specialising in one over the other complementing your natural style is beneficial.

Making a commitment to the making it work for the right reasons is important too.  It’s no use being a struggling artist and thinking that going down this path purely to make money from your art will lead to success.  What I mean is that surface pattern design is an art of itself and your artistic talent alone won’t take you far. You can’t disregard all the other parts of becoming a designer in the post millennium era such as learning the tools of the trade, developing your design handwriting (how your natural style translates to design in your particular niche e.g. women’s swimwear).  Plus keeping an eye on what is likely to sell, knowing the studios you can work with if you want to freelance, knowing the jargon, being super adaptable, adopting new technology trends e.g. apps, trending colours, themes/motifs etc. Ultimately, who doesn’t want to make a buck from their artistic talents? Becoming a successful surface pattern designer however is not for everyone.  If you hesitate for a moment for more than a moment, you should really question whether you’re in it for the long run or are just wasting your time. Like the owner of a successful studio recently told me: “yes it’s a very competitive field but we can’t find really good designers”.

To Wacom or not to Wacom?

My Wacom drawing tablet and pen are part of my design arsenal and I can’t believe I waited so long to have them!!   I hadn’t really played with one before and knew that they can be a learning curve...I guess I wasn’t so keen on putting a break on everything I was tirelessly trying to accomplish to get to grips with a new gadget which didn’t feel too natural in my hands to begin with.  Well, perseverance with a pinch of patience and a few Youtube tutorials later, I was hooked and didn’t look back.

There are so many advantages to using a drawing tablet - even if you don’t do much digital drawing or painting.  For a start, with the Pro version I have (small size model), I find myself using the 6 “hot keys” all the time which have increased the speed in which I get work done.  You can virtually set them to do anything you want so I decided to experiment a bit and after some trial and error I’ve configured them like this

1. Deselect (CTRL/CMD + D)

2. Duplicate Layer (CTRL/CMD + J)

3. Fill layer (ALT + DEL)

4. Image Size (SHIFT + CTRL/CMD + I)

5. Save for Web (SHIFT + CTRL/CMD + ALT + S)

6. Show Desktop

Basically, any frequently used Photoshop shortcut that requires 2 or more simultaneous key clicks using your left + right hand (I’m right handed) I can now do with the press of one hot key in my Wacom tablet.  This means I hardly ever need to put the pen down to make full use of my right hand.


There is also a wheel in between the hotkeys which can be customised for other different functions but I haven’t bothered to investigate yet...maybe it’ll open me to a new world of possibilities but I must say, I’m pretty content with my current settings.

The pen the tablet comes with in the Pro version is fantastic and super sensitive (you can change its sensitivity of course) and the 10 additional spare pen tips it comes with a real great bonus too.  Within the pen itself you also have two buttons which again can be set to do whatever you want. I have mine set to “Undo” and to “Right Click” as these are probably the two most used functions for me.  I can also use the opposite end of the pen as an eraser though I don’t tend to use this as it’s faster pressing hotkey “E” on my keyboard.

Which brings me to my last keyboards shortcuts in combination with a well customised Wacom tablet go along way to improving your productivity as a designer.  There’s not many commands within Photoshop where I’m still opening drop down menus...if there’s a keyboard shortcut, I’m using it.

So overall, I’m super happy with my Wacom and would highly recommend the quality of the Pro version which doesn’t come with any special program software such as Corel Paint etc like the cheaper “amateurish” versions do.  After reading less than complimentary comments on the feel of the pen after prolonged use on these cheaper Wacom models I decided on the Pro and I must say it has elevated my game to a new level.

The only less positive points I’d add to this commentary are that I’ve managed to scratch a small section of the glass surface of the tablet by what I can only think was applying too much pressure to the pen’s tip.  I realised that the rounded tip appeared damaged and its roundness lost which meant a sharp pointed tip which inevitably caused scratches. After changing to a different type of tip I see the same happening and I wonder whether it’s just me as I don’t remember reading any negatives in this regard?

Anyhow, Wacom isn’t the cheapest out there and I’m sure there’s equally good tablets that can do the job just as well but if you want to go with an industry standard, Wacom won’t disappoint and if you intend to elevate your design practice to the next level, the Wacom Pro tablet is your friend!

Being a self-taught designer...

I have always believed in education thanks to parenting no doubt and being fortunate enough to always have the opportunity to take on a course of my choosing.  Though I didn’t start off quite on the “right path” to where I’m at today, I’ve always stirred towards a creative course of some sort and after many years of trial and error, it’s been good to narrow down the area of specialization I want to work in.

So how does someone become self-taught? For me it’s been a consequence of prohibiting course fees and lack of time to devote to studying at an institution as an adult coming back to study to retrain.  Thanks to the internet however, these days there are very few routes where studying online isn’t a viable option. Furthermore, online courses don’t discriminate against anyone because of their race/age/location/religion etc. It’s never made more sense than now to be a self-taught-anything!

Looking back, leaving my fashion & textile full time course because I couldn't afford paying thousands of pounds in tuition fees to continue was the best thing that could have happened to me.  I already had an arts bachelor degree under my belt and would recommend to anyone having some University education where possible.

So with no longer a fixed schedule, I was able to start taking independent short courses and pick exactly what areas of textiles/design I wanted to study.  Soon enough, I realised that there was a world out there of online courses you can take that can really help you become a designer of your choice. From experience, finding the right online course can be time consuming so I’m going to briefly offer an overview of my experience from the beginning to now and hopefully this will help out a few aspiring self-taught designers out there starting out

1. The first online course I took was from a e-learning platform I can’t even remember the name of where you could only access the classes online and I was learning the basics of Illustrator with not much prior experience in the program.   It was a generic course geared towards someone mostly interested in graphic design so I found myself wondering how I could be using any of the hundred features I was being shown for surface pattern design (except the obvious ones). For that reason, this course was not so memorable and I soon realised that I didn’t have to learn a program inside out to get started in surface pattern design.  Furthermore, I couldn’t download any videos so could only learn when I had a good internet connection and the interface itself left a lot to be desired. 4/10

2) Next came Creative Live and Bonnie Christine and for the first time I was able to feel like I was clearly going in the right direction.  All the classes offered on this platform are filmed from a classroom set where students can ask questions and everything is demonstrated live.  I was able to download all the videos. I also took a marketing/self-promotion course from Creative Live which I intend to revisit in the near future.  Overall, I’d score this experience 7/10

3)  MIID - Make it in Design is run by UK team of surface pattern designers who want to learn both the creative and business skills needed to become successful in this field.  I started off with The Ultimate Portfolio Gude but I’d recommend anyone relatively new to this field to start from Module One and work your way to Module 3 before taking this course.  There is a lot I can say about this experience but I’ll summarise is as follows: if you’re an illustrator aspiring to produce artwork for the quilting, stationery, homeware departments this is probably the best specialist course in the online market for you.  If you’re more of a fashion/apparel designer, read on. Overall experience for me 7.5/10 due to last factor outlined and the fact that the courses are not cheap though the quality is good.

4)  Textile Design Lab offered by Pattern Observer.  My current favourite with a 9.5/10 score. I could write a ton of posts just on all the courses I’ve taken at the Lab which have all been very insightful.  The forum is an excellent platform to ask questions, learn from others and have an ongoing dialogue with everyone at the Lab which isn’t possible with any other course outlined above.  I find the weekly Art Critique webinars great for getting live feedback on any artwork I’m developing or burning questions I’d like answered in this way. With some courses you also have the opportunity to have WGSN access and there is always a monthly design challenge which is another way for getting more feedback on your work.

Other online resources I plan to investigate in the future include:




Lastly, I’d like to add Future Learn which is a fantastic platform for free high quality courses covering every kind of subject and designed by renowned universities around the world.  Alternatives to this include: Coursera and Moocs.

Good luck in your life-long learning!