GRADUATE SEASON: Charlotte Knibbs – On Freelancing and Studying Graphic Design

by Kate Andrews | July 27, 2010

Born in the rural town of Frome in the West Country of England, Charlotte Knibbs is a freelance graphic designer. Upon graduating with a First Class Honours degree from Portsmouth University, Charlotte started to work with Aardman Animations designing the product and packaging range to accompany the release of Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death. Charlotte is now undertaking a Masters in Graphic Design at London College of Communication. Notes on Design spoke to Charlotte this week to find out about her academic journey.

Notes on Design: Can you tell us a little about your academic and professional journey to date?

Charlotte: I studied a BTEC in Graphic Design but found the west country far too sleepy and craved something different… but at the time, I wasn’t sure what. I moved south to Portsmouth Uni to do my BA in Communication Design. Bachelors degrees are certainly different for everyone, but for me I found the new found freedom quite addictive, and quite honestly I slacked off playing World of Warcraft until the sun came up. Eventually, by the end of first year something clicked and the real possibility of being kicked out of uni scared me into pulling my socks up, and subsequently I graduated with a First Class in 2007.

I was lucky enough to start freelancing during my second year at University, and got my first major job with the brilliant Aardman Animations upon graduating. I’ve been freelancing for Aardman for 2 and a half years this month and it’s a perfect job for me, as a freelancer. On top of my freelance work I’m also studying my Masters at London College of Communication (LCC), which I’m due to finish towards to the end of the year.

Notes on Design: What is it about design that motivates you?

Charlotte: As the majority of my time is spent designing products and packaging I always find myself at trade shows. Seeing my designs in situ, stacked on the shelves, was a huge reality check. Prior to that, I’d found it difficult to comprehend how the artwork created on screen would eventually become a tangible object. Production time lines are obviously so much longer than print, and you end up forgetting what you’ve worked on until you see it in the shops or in someone’s home.

Seeing the products together as an entirety was quite indescribable, it immediately made me want to go off and create more! I love overviews, sets and collections… doesn’t really matter what it is. I like seeing how designers tie these things together visually. It could be a range of pasta sauces, a collection of magazine spreads or even swing tags for a clothing range. Their similarities and also their differences are what inspire me most of all. 

At London College of Communication it’s these little details that make the difference. The immediate attention to detail was one of the first things that solidified my faith in my MA. The tutors encourage you to submit “a body” of work, and really this is an exercise in branding, something you should always be aware of.

Notes on Design: Why did you decide to do an MA, and is it something you would recommend?

Charlotte: Deciding to start an MA was, for me, a bit of an emotional versus practical battle. I had wanted to do an MA ever since I graduated, but the security of my job with Aardman, knowing there were probably a thousand other creatives aching to take my place, and simply because it was the perfect job, were all reasons that postponed me from pursuing an MA.

Despite this very logical reason not to apply, I decided to go against logic, and chose to follow what I really wanted to do. I applied, and kept it a secret from all my freelance clients until I knew I could cope. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t managed to handle the workload, it was a risky decision but it was something I knew I had to do it for myself. In the end the course proved to be brilliant and it was definitely the right choice for me.

 I had thought I’d have to cut back on freelance work, and in a way I have, but really I just changed the way I work. Truthfully, I’ve become more ‘switched on’, more productive and efficient. You could say like a well oiled design machine!

Notes on Design: How does it differ to an undergraduate degree?

Charlotte: In short, the workload is huge. I had expected this, so thankfully it wasn’t a huge surprise. In fact it was one of the first things our tutors told us. I haven’t missed any deadlines, even with my freelance work. Quite frankly I’ve worked my ass off achieving distinctions in the last two units, which on top of working 30hours a week has been a mammoth task. I wouldn’t advise anyone to start a full time MA unless they plan on becoming an owl and working well into the night.

A lot of people I’ve spoken to chose to do a full time instead of part time MA because they say you ‘get it over with quicker’ but at the risk of upsetting a few people, I believe it’s the wrong attitude to have. Why rush? Dashing through it won’t automatically make you a good designer. You are there to learn and explore, therefore the only factor I would take into account when choosing full or part time should be, can you learn quickly? A full time MA is intense at times and if you prefer to take your time (and still get 8 hours sleep every night) then part time is for you.

Notes on Design: If you can remember, what was the hardest thing you had to overcome as a graduate?

Charlotte: Being a graduate (especially in design) is super competitive, a bit heart breaking and frustrating, but also completely fulfilling. To begin with you are expected to sell your soul a bit, and take on absolutely any work in order to get “out there”. If you turn down jobs or clients, you are almost looked upon as ungrateful, as if they are doing you a favour because you are ‘simply’ a graduate. Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t be too fussy, but not every client is a good client and it is especially important that you know your price. You’re more valuable than you might think.

Notes on Design: What has been your key to success?

Charlotte: Going with my heart. Most of the decisions I’ve made during my career so far have been nearly entirely based on gut feelings rather than practical solutions. You have to do what makes you happy. I wanted to do an MA, despite my better judgment and the possible risks, deep down I knew I would still want to do it in the future, be it 2 years or 10 years time. Most of all I knew I would feel regret, so really, I had to give in.

Notes on Design: What’s next for you?

Charlotte: I have been surprised by the amount of work I have been able to manage while at the LCC. That’s another thing about undertaking an MA, it challenges the way you originally work, so you can’t help but learn more about yourself. I don’t know if I ever see myself working full time in-house, I like how freelancing and contractual work allows me to work with a range of studios and a variety of clients, it’s always challenging and diverse, which means it’s never dull. Eventually I imagine I will start my own studio with like-minded designers, allowing me to widen the scope and size of projects that I’d be able to work on.

Notes on Design: Based on your experiences do you have any advice for this years graduates and those considering taking an MA?

Charlotte: The job market sucks for graduates at the moment and as simple as it sounds, to get noticed you have to make yourself stand out. You know if you are supposed to be a designer. If you are disheartened by a couple of bad interviews then it’s not for you. Keep up-to-date with the industry, it’s always changing so it’s important to be aware of what’s going on. Blog, do self initiated projects and be a little bit pushy if you have to! Some employers appreciate tenacity.

The most frustrating thing to hear when applying for jobs is “you don’t have enough experience” It’s a huge catch-22, because you find yourself asking “how will I ever get experience if I don’t get a job?” If you find yourself in that position then don’t let your lack of experience get the better of you. When you send out your CV, 90% of the time potential employers will skip the cover letter and go straight to your website or portfolio, they’re concerned more about your ideas and the potential you could offer, employers will Google you, so make sure what they see matters and will make the impression a good one, and remember they might come across your Facebook profile too!

If you are considering an MA in design, I do recommend it, though in some circumstances it wont directly boost career opportunities, but it will create a focus in your work and you will learn more about your own creative process, only making you a stronger designer. By understanding how you work you can figure out how to improve yourself… and really that’s what design is all about: striving for creative perfection!

See more of Charlotte’s work on her website and blog, and follow her regular tweets @lygd.


Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.


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