Those who can, do – those who can’t, teach. Or so the saying goes. But when it comes to teaching creative subjects (from design to animation, illustration or print-making), those who do are often the best of teachers.
Imparting the wisdom of everyday praxis and experience can be the ideal way to instil useful knowledge into those looking to learn the requirements and challenges of creative professions, and it can benefit student as well as teacher.
Some start teaching on the side to earn some regular income, but a quick straw poll reveals that this is by no means the predominant driving factor for creatives to take to the classroom.
Jeffrey Bowman, who taught on three-month intensive design courses at Shillington College in Manchester for two years and was still freelancing throughout, believes that doing it “just for the money is not fair on the students or yourself”.
Multi-discipline designer Donald Roos, who teaches a variety of subjects in everything from informal workshops to formal lectures, goes so far to say that teaching actually costs him money in a certain way. “For me, it’s financially better to work for clients,” he points out. “Earning money is necessary, but it’s not my main motivation to be a designer. The best teachers I had were the ones who taught because they are passionate about their jobs and the craft of design and art.”
Of course, taking on teaching responsibilities can offer a certain level of security. Illustrator Marion Deuchars took on her first teaching job to supplement her income, having left the RCA during the midst of a recession, and ended up teaching for about 10 years at UCS and the Royal College (Communications Arts). “There was very little work. That [first teaching] job led to another, normally on a very ad hoc basis,” she says.
However, Marion also points out that the worst kind of teacher is the practitioner who is only teaching for the extra income. “When a good balance is achieved, it really is great for both teacher and student. It can be a very stimulating environment, the energy and enthusiasm and talent of students can be very inspiring and help one’s own practice,” she explains.
Getting that balance right is key – and tricky for many who teach alongside their work. Marion used to teach one or two days a week maximum. “I was reluctant to take more time in teaching. I was scared I’d be sucked into education and unable to continue my practice,” she adds.
Animator Jim Le Fevre (nexusproductions.com), who has taught at higher education institutions as well as schools, to children of ages from four to six, to GCSE-level or higher, loves teaching, but keeps arrangements quite ad hoc. They mostly arise out of chance meetings with enthusiastic teachers or friends, and he is reluctant to pursue a more long-term approach, “out of terror to committing to stuff when you’re freelancing”.
This sense of not getting sucked in is echoed by others – maintaining an identity as a practicing creative professional is crucial, they say. “The biggest challenge without doubt has been the careful balance of the demands of the students and those of my clients,” says Duncan Parkes, creative director at Cellar Door Creative, who started guest lecturing about a year ago and has taught one-day workshops, as well as working alongside full-time staff on longer projects. “I found every hour I was at a university was an hour I was not servicing the needs of my clients, which can have severe consequences. In the end, I had to reduce my lecturing commitments in order to re-establish the balance.”
Setting yourself parameters can help. Illustrator Adam Graff got into teaching as a visiting lecturer in the late 1990s and now heads the illustration pathway at the Graphic Design and Illustration course in University of Hertfordshire. His commitment is the equivalent of half a post, which is the “absolute maximum”, he explains. “Otherwise you get sucked in. You start one day a week and slowly you can easily become full time, because you’re attracted to the security; but then you loose your practice, and you become a teacher. And I always say, that’s not my trade – but I do love it.”
That passion is clearly what compels most creatives to teach. “It can be hard work, but is really fun,” enthuses artist and fine-art print maker Erica Donovan, who has been teaching workshops in schools and also recently set up a series of workshops that she runs from her own studio. “Sharing and passing on skills and knowledge is something I am very passionate about. It’s inspiring to see participants getting so involved and creating something, normally from nothing. I enjoy meeting new people, which comes with fresh conversations and dialogues often meaning I am learning too.
For Jeffrey, it also focused his own practice. “I learnt a lot about myself and how I work, what I knew well, and what I didn’t know I soon learnt. But I also think it’s really about sharing what we know and love. It challenges you as a creative to produce the best students in the same way you always want to produce your best work for every project.”
Donald, meanwhile, doesn’t even distinguish between himself as a designer and a teacher. “The combination of designing/learning/experimenting/thinking all the week and sharing this once a week with your student keeps your mind fresh and open all the time,” he says. “I think teaching is just part of my work week.”
But while the benefits of teaching are evident, getting into it and becoming good at it, is not without its challenges. Whether in a formal setting or through informal workshops, teaching is not for the faint-hearted. Adam recalls significant bouts of nerves when he first started.
“I was very much sweating, but you can’t let students see that – you have to be confident,” he says. Even the most keen of creatives might not be suited to teaching, Adam adds. “Great illustrators could be really bad at communicating verbally, for example. You have to be able to deliver information in a really interesting and inspiring way and have lots of different ways of presenting information,” he explains. “Slowly dip your toe in and see if it does work for you – and see whether you actually enjoy it.”
Many also underestimate the amount of preparation and organisation that’s needed. “The challenge was to keep oneself informed with all things interesting and relevant on a daily basis,” says Marion. “Students are like sponges, they need stuff, news, points of reference, the zeitgeist.”
Getting the workshop structure and timings right was one of the main challenges for Erica, especially when it came to teaching school kids. “Being creative comes so naturally to most children which means that they can fearlessly produce works extremely quickly so having a plan B up your sleeve can prove to be very useful,” she explains.
Such particularities of practicalities such as class sizes, the demographic of the student audience, time and other constraints can also be tricky to navigate.
Jeffrey says he was lucky to teach predominantly more mature students, 27 years old on average, which made teaching them particularly rewarding.
“They are super focused because they have spent the money to do the course, plus often it’s been a dream or ambition to become a designer,” he explains. But teaching experience can vary. Donald’s ranges from teaching classes of 25 students, three times a day, to groups of only three – which is too small, he reckons. “There is a lot of personal attention, but the students are really missing the reflection and inspiration by fellow students,” he says. “My favourite class size is between seven and 10 people. Then there’s enough time for personal attention, but you can also discuss things with the whole group. Everybody can admire each others works.”
Thinking about structure, while being adaptable seems to be a good approach. “You can have a basic structure, but it’s good to be flexible in case things change,” says Erica. “Keeping things simple with some limitations in place has worked well. You have to be organised and be able to cater for different people – in my case, making sure everything works, that you have enough paper and ink and so on.”
Planning well is an approach that Duncan also follows. “I am an absolute believer that if you give a framework and structure you will deliver better results,” he says, but adds: “But in reality you will always have to think on your feet in order to connect with the students and ensure you are effectively illustrating what you are saying. This makes it a far more organic experience for both parties.”
On the other hand, animator Jim tends to take a more loose approach to his teaching, having met with all sorts of levels of enthusiasm as well as apathy during his various school-based workshops. “I don’t really have a structure. I like talking and mucking around, and I’m so lucky because I do animation – that’s a good starting point because people are curious to see what I do.”
One of the trickiest challenges teachers have to face is giving feedback. As Donald points out, informal workshops include people who are there to learn something for themselves.“I give them tips. At the end of the workshop, I don’t give them grades. But I discuss the end result, but also the progress and give them advice how to continue after the workshop.”
When it comes to more formal teaching at the academy, it becomes more tricky, he admits. “When people are making great work it’s easy. When students are just lazy and don’t work hard, it is also easy. They get low marks.”
The difficult part are the students who work hard, put a lot of effort in it, but don’t have the talent to be achieve great results. “When I started teaching, I felt a lot of pity,” says Donald. “Sometimes it’s tough, but you have to be honest to students. I tell them that I could have a dream that I would become a great soccer player. So I can train a lot, but I don’t have an athletic body or any talent. So I better play soccer for fun, but without any ambition and pursue other dreams. For some students that’s really hard.”
Adam also initially struggled with potentially hurting people’s feelings. “I used to be overly polite to everybody, but I’m completely different now. I’ve got a reputation for being more straight-forward, because I know the harsh reality of industry as well, so I prepare them for that. If they haven’t been working, I let them know that’s not good enough.”
“Firm but fair,” adds Marion. “I have high expectations of myself as a professional and my expectations of students were also very high. Often I would see students once a week. In that time I had produced much commercial work and if I saw a student still struggling on the previous week’s work I was quite critical. You can’t go around giving lightweight or inconsistent advice to students, they suss that a mile off.”
After all, those you teach will be the creative professionals – and teachers – of the future, a fact that today’s teacher-creatives are all too aware of. “I can use the old cliché of it feeling like you ‘are giving something back’, but it’s true,” says Marion. “I think people that enjoy teaching and are doing it for the right reasons, are very fulfilled by it.
Working out a workshop
Artist and print-maker Erica Donovan recently set up her own series of workshops, which seemed like a natural progression after setting up her print studio. “It is the perfect place to share what I do as an artist with others, in my own way and in my own time,” she says.
“I have everything that I need in the studio and enough room to teach four people at one time. I enjoy working with a small group, so that everyone gets enough attention to be able to learn and create.”
Having done some initial research, she also got in touch with the Artists Information Company (AIR), a membership scheme for artists, which provides members with an automatic insurance. She also ran a couple of pilot workshops with some friends to gauge the structure and timing of her workshops, “so that I could foresee any potential problems”.
“The main challenge was that you are fairly on your own,” says Erica. “There is no-one to tell you how to do it, and no right or wrong answers, so you have to trust your instinct a little.”
Eventbrite is great online admin tool for organising events, she adds. “They do charge a fee, but you can upload details and photos of your event, they take payment and email details of the event to your participants.” When it comes to her top tip, Erica says: “Be to be yourself and teach what you are passionate about, be confident and enjoy it.”
From designing to teaching
Having trained as a typographic designer, Amsterdam-based Donald Roos creates everything from motion graphics and music videos, as well as interactive projects. He started teaching alongside his professional practice 10 years ago, having been invited by a former teacher.
His workshops and classes now cover various topics, ranging from visual interface design to experimental typography, at organisations including the Royal Academy of The Hague and Design Werkstatt in Barcelona, the school of design workshops set up by design studio TwoPoints founders Martin Lorenz and Lupi Asensio.
Teaching always seemed a natural progression to Donald. “During my time at the academy I was really inspired by some teachers,” he recalls.
“I’ve always liked the way they run their studios; being an artist or designer and at the same time coming back to the art academy to share their knowledge and experience.
“You can call that teaching, but you can also call that sharing your love for the craft of design. I’ve always been an independent designer and I’ve always felt that teaching is part of my work as a designer.”
But teaching is not for everyone, Donald is quick to concede. “Not every designer is a good teacher, neither is every great teacher a great designer. Some great designers obtain their brain power from other sources.”
Trying to answer students’ questions means you have to think hard about explaining your everyday practice, he adds. “Thinking how to explain these things is also like a mirror for yourself. It tells you things and it gives you new insights. Sometimes that mirror can be really confronting. Students are asking your things that make you feel very uncertain about your answers.
“You understand that you have to learn more yourself or at least be honest to yourself decide not to teach this topic. So that’s how being a teacher is makes you a student for life. That’s great,” he explains.