First Hand — “I would churn out personal briefs to show more than university work” – designer James Shaw’s graduate journey

Posted 14 December 2017

From practising designs for non-existent events while applying for jobs, to hunting out the best schemes for support – James Shaw’s graduate journey has been one of boundless productivity. Graduating with a degree in graphic design at Bath Spa University in 2015, he’s worked locally ever since, drawing knowledge from a growing network through co-working space The Guild, where he now works as as a one-man studio, Volley Design.

Since graduating I’ve been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride, from internships to freelancing to employment. I think everyone assumes that jobs will fly at you when you have a degree and leave university, but this isn’t the case.

Fake it ’til you make it
I thought that something would come along straight away, but when it didn’t, I found that continuing to work on self-initiated projects and keeping myself motivated was so important. I would churn out personal design briefs and create designs for events – things that didn’t even exist – but this allowed me to show off more than just my university work when applying for jobs. It’s good to experiment and have fun on projects while looking for that next step. You can try new materials, learn new things and create work that helps you connect with the type of company you’d like to work for.

Right placement, right time
After studying I was taken on as an intern at engineering and architecture company BuroHappold for two months. I helped out on the design and marketing team, working on email invites, posters and an icon system for a new internal education programme. My time helped me learn how to explain ideas to senior designers, solve problems and answer live briefs.

I then began to seek out opportunities, and applied for a paid internship through the Santander Scheme with Bath Spa university. The one I landed was at Cowork Inc, based in The Guild (a co-working hub for tech and creative businesses) in central Bath. My six-month internship then developed into a permanent role for over a year.

“While at University I don’t think I fully appreciated how important digital design was.”

Making the freelance leap
Being at The Guild allowed me to see how freelancers work, develop and become successful, which inspired me to take my own step into the freelance world – and I now work as my own studio, Volley Design. When I was setting up I came across the Network for Creative Enterprise – a creative and cultural scheme to help new businesses – which provides bursaries, mentoring and workshops. Without this scheme and my mentor Charlotte Godfrey (NCFE hub producer for The Guild), Volley Design would not have been able to get off the ground and get to where it is today.

Playing digital catch-up
Along the way I’ve learnt some basic code, design for web, video-editing skills, stop-motion graphics and how to operate tools like Mailchimp. I’m still improving, and you can find some amazing tutorials online and books to teach you almost anything if you give it the time. While at University I don’t think I fully appreciated how important digital design was. Integrating elements such as animation or even a GIF is so popular. Clients might want that extra bit in the design project to make it stand out. If I was to do anything differently while studying, I would have persisted with these things. 

Have confidence!
Another thing I would have improved is speaking more confidently about my work. Leaving university I didn’t have much confidence in what I had made, and this shows when you have interviews because you won’t be passionate. I think this was due to looking at other designers and wondering why I wasn’t as good as them. But you should just focus on your own work, make sure it’s the best it can be, and meets the client’s needs.

Be yourself and design in your own way – not the way someone else might design something. I think you need to know what you can offer, what makes you stand out, what will make someone want to work with you. Take all opportunities and run with them; you never know where they will lead.

See James’ work at

Posted 14 December 2017 Collection: First Hand
Disciplines: Graphic Design
Mentions: James Shaw, Volley Design

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