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Who gave you your career breakthrough?

This week I spotted an Instagram post from The Design Trust. They're supporting the Arts Emergency's campaign to make the creative and cultural sector more inclusive and open to everyone.

The Arts Emergency campaign asks:

“Who gave you some key advice or encouragement early in your career?”

Inspired by this I’ve written a blog about my design career breakthroughs.

In a 30 year long career there are many!

Don’t let others' opinions limit what you do.

Don’t let your own perceived limitations limit what you do.

A career path in banking or the arts?

It’s hard to make a living in the arts. I’m from a working class background and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. My dad was out of work when I was taking my O-levels and deciding on what I wanted to do when I left school. The obvious choice would have been to get a job in banking. Maths was my best subject at school.

However, mum and dad wanted my brother and I to make the most of the opportunities they never had.

I liked making things. So at 16, off I went to design college. They bought me every bit of art equipment on the list we were given, so that I didn’t miss out on anything or feel the odd one out.

From O-levels, I studied for a 2 year National Diploma in Design, followed by a 2 year Higher National Diploma in Fashion Design.

Getting on the career ladder: My first job in fashion design

“But I don’t want to work in London.”

Stratford is a small town. I did not want to live in a big city.

However, my tutor had been contacted about a textile design job in London and recommended me for it. I needed a job, so what choice did I have but try.

After two rounds of interviews and a textile design project for the second one, I got the job. Bearing in mind, I’d been completely rubbish at the one short textile design module I’d done on my ND in Design, that was quite an achievement!

At 20 I moved to London and started as a junior textile designer for a company that supplied the Arcadia Group. One huge step!!!

Redundancy: Looking for my 2nd job

“You need a degree.” But do you?

The fashion industry used to be very sniffy about qualifications. As I’ve said, I have a HND but not a degree. The industry wanted designers to have a degree.

It took 8 months but I did find a new job as a fashion designer for a small company that supplied the Arcadia group.

Moving from fashion design to homeware design

“You can’t do that.”

I wanted to move into designing homeware.

“You can’t.”

Was the reply from recruitment agencies. Back then, that was the best way to get jobs in the design industry.

“But I have transferable skills.”

Understanding the customer, forecasting trends, working with colour, surface pattern design, drawing specification sheets for designs to be manufactured, the list goes on.

How can it be so different? I’m a quick learner too.

Anna Candy gave me the break I needed. As category manager for Disney Home Europe, she wanted to set up a creative role to work alongside her. She needed someone that had a broad skill set and could adapt to the diverse product range Disney Home and Disney Baby offered.

I applied. I passed the first round of interviews. For the second round of interviews, I was set a project to design a Disney baby stroller. Something I knew nothing about.

Amazingly, I got the job!

“I’m not a graphic designer.”

My own limitations

I’m not a trained graphic designer. There is an element of it in designing surface patterns and graphics for clothing. And of course many transferable skills.

In my role as design manager at Shared Earth, I had worked with the team to refresh their branding and role this out across all their labelling, shops and marketing materials.

When my role was made redundant, I was living in York and quite frankly worried about finding work up here. There aren’t many fashion, homeware, surface pattern jobs in the North East.

A friend tagged me in a Facebook post about Room for Design looking for maternity cover for a graphic designer.

I applied and got the job.

I then had to teach myself Adobe InDesign fully. The program is most widely used in the industry. InDesign for dummies was always close to hand!

“I’m not a printmaker

Learning something new.

In 2016 I faced yet another redundancy. My 4th.

What next? I set up a business as a graphic designer. That seemed the most obvious thing I could do that people needed.

With a bit more creative headspace, I dabbled with linocut print. I played with ideas and created my first proper lino prints.

I joined York Printmakers feeling a bit of a fraud. However they’re a very inclusive group for both beginners, people that do it as a hobby and professional printmakers. I offered to help them create their logo and branding and hid behind this.

There was an opportunity to take part in their first exhibition at Blossom Street Gallery in York. I took the risk and joined in.

Much to my surprise I sold some of my linocut prints and Kim at the gallery asked if I’d come back to exhibit more of my work. I did and things snowballed from there!

While I wasn’t successful in my first year of applying for York Open Studios, I applied the following year and was accepted.

So both of those things gave me my first breakthrough into a career in printmaking and being an artist.

And here I am now, 5 years on and a professional printmaker. I now make my living purely from printmaking and believe me, that’s no mean feat!

Who gave you your breakthrough?

Read the full story about my creature journey in ​​ My creative journey as an artist and designer

More about the Arts Emergency campaign

“Today we’re launching our first really big campaign to make the creative and cultural sector open to everyone! We’re asking organisations and individuals at every level to open the doors and give young talent their first break. As part of this push, we’re asking you to share how you broke into the arts - whether you had the advantages of family support or social connections, or you knew nobody with a creative or academic job and didn’t have the funds to do unpaid internships. When did you first start to believe you could make this 'creative work' thing work for you?”

Find out more about the campaign and other ways to help at Arts Emergency

Share your story by tagging #MyBreakthrough and #breaktheglass on social media or commenting below.


About the author

Michelle Hughes is a printmaker and graphic designer. Her linocut prints are inspired by nature; her love of gardening and the great British countryside.

Michelle loves exploring the countryside by bike or on foot, camera in hand, capturing

ideas for her next prints. Back in her garden studio, Michelle creates simple but stylised silhouettes based on her photographs, and cuts these shapes into lino. She hand prints with an etching press, using oil-based inks to create tonal blocks of colour. Michelle’s prints are limited editions.

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