Computer ArtsFeature

Be the best

Learning new skills can reap great rewards and open doors to new creative opportunities. But what does it take to keep pace with the latest technologies and stay one step ahead of the pack? Nick Spence finds out.

Learning new skills can be the last thing on your mind when time is tight and you've built a reputation and body of work based on the things you're good at. You may find it easier to plough on, picking up tricks based on learning-by-doing rather than taking time to master new skills and refresh old ones.

For many companies, training for staff is considered a luxury - either a chore or a jolly for the few, while others are left to try and make up the numbers. Many smaller studios can be reluctant, with a shifting freelance work force, changing technology and limited time and budgets to invest in training. For freelancers the cost of professional help may be tax deductible, but can still make a dent in a modest income.

We should be learning all the time. From basic hands-on experience to self-initiated professional training there really should be no excuses. For the creative individual, particularly the freelancer, the benefits are obvious. New skills can mean new clients, broadening your appeal and offering services and solutions that might have been previously offered to others.

Training can also be cost effective. You could end up in a position where you don't need to rely on someone to build and maintain your website, create typography or animate your work. For those working in a small studio, learning new skills is a way to advance yourself without relying on your current employees to do it for you. Few small studios will have the funds to provide additional training and some may be content simply with button-bashers. But for those in larger studios, learning new skills can be a passport to bigger things, moving up in the company and taking on greater responsibility.

Responding to change
Skills, particularly software skills, don't stay static, especially at a time when new creative options are emerging in growth areas such as online digital advertising. Some recent reports have gone so far as to suggest the industry is suffering a new skills shortage, with digital agencies in particular struggling to find suitably qualified staff.

The pace of change and new technology has helped create job opportunities that are either new, require fresh skills or a need a combination of skills that can be demanding on recent recruits. "Industry wants people who can do the job today. That usually means your skills have to be up to scratch," suggests Jon Wardle, head of projects at The Centre for Excellence in Media Practice, Bournemouth. "They want employees with something to say and who understand how the industry is changing. The dreaded word 'convergence' comes up all the time."

Vicki Jakes of training company Escape Studios has seen the pace change in the 3D animation, digital compositing, visual effects and computer gaming industry close up. "Computer animation is constantly changing because new breakthroughs in technology are presented on a daily basis," she says. "One of the main reasons Escape Studios launched was because we recognised that the talent pool of effects artists has not kept pace with the huge growth of industry demand. It has not been so much the lack of potential creativity, but more the lack of knowledge about how the industry works and an understanding of working pipelines that companies are looking for. In addition, there is something of a lack of technical training to a suitable level available in academic institutions right now. This in turn tends to contribute to a noticeable lack of skilled juniors."

Professional training is one way to learn new skills. Companies like Escape Studios and Corps Business have solid reputations due to excellent industry links, good resources and fully certified courses. Corps, for instance, offers around 150 training courses and some certified Apple and Adobe courses lead directly on to Prometic exams.

Courses are generally targeted at different user groups, so if you're a beginner you shouldn't find yourself sat in a class of advanced users. It's worth remembering that some courses are more theory-based than hands-on software training, so you need to shop around to find the most suitable for you. Professional training can, of course, be expensive. Several hundred pounds is not uncommon for two days of tuition, although this initial financial outlay will hopefully be recouped as new opportunities arise from the skills you've learned.

If you're a freelancer, look into claiming professional development costs against your taxes. If you're in-house, see if your company will foot the bill. You may feel your studio is ignoring your needs, but if you haven't asked for the training or suggested new directions, the oversight could be yours as much as your director's.

Invest in your future
Despite a long career, with The Cure, Xfm radio and Saatchi & Saatchi among his clients, designer Andy Vella still felt the need to invest in some professional training to extend his skills range. "I went to a place local to me called Silicon Beach in Brighton, which although expensive was very helpful when it came to teaching me and making me aware of the new, updated and existing programs," he explains.

Initially wanting a web presence without relying on others, Vella found the training quickly led to new job opportunities. "I needed to learn about Dreamweaver because I felt I needed my own personal website, and then a week after the course I did a pitch for a new client's website and used some of the pages and buttons," he says. "Using what I had just learned I managed to win the job, and now I'm planning to learn Flash, too."

Lynda.com and Total Training are best known for their online, CD and DVD training resources. Have a look on the Computer Arts CD for regular examples of what Lynda.com provides. Both companies are well established, giving users the chance to learn in their own time and at their own pace. Video-based tutorials walk you through apps such as Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, explaining everything from basic to advanced features. From around £12 a month, Lynda.com has access to thousands of tutorials for hundreds of courses. Both offer a selection of free tutorials so you can try before you buy.

Training manuals and books have come a long way in recent years, and many offer clear full colour screen-shot illustrations as standard. The 'Visual QuickStart Guide' books from Peachpit are a good example, offering practical step-by-step instructions. Use popular websites such as Amazon to check bestselling titles and read feedback. Older titles covering earlier software versions can often be bought inexpensively and, if you're not fussy about having the latest guide, these cover the basics.

Blogs and podcasts have added substantially to the wealth of free tutorials and training available online. Google provides links to innumerable sources offering 'how to' guides, help, advice and inspiration. The Computer Arts website alone has a substantial archive of free PDF tutorials and support files available to download covering all popular applications, and a variety of creative ways to use them. Forums, too, can play their part, providing answers to questions, instant feedback, support and encouragement.

Use your experience
Many skills will only accumulate over time, as you start to refine ways of working and problem solving and correct the mistakes you make early on in your professional life. "Some of the skills I've learned have come about in direct response to problems I have encountered," explains illustrator Tim Ellis. Mentoring and learning through collaboration and working as a team also play an important part in learning new skills.

"Observe and listen carefully to others and apply your new tricks the next time around," suggests Tomi Vollauschek, one half of creative partnership FL@33. "This might sound obvious, but to become a more skilful graphic designer you only require common sense and the will to absorb and apply the knowledge gained by your own experience and by learning from others."

Finding time to experiment on non-commercial projects will also add valuable skills. "Self-initiated projects, especially collaborative projects involving people with different skill sets, are ideal playgrounds to get your fingers dirty," says Vollauschek. "Every now and then a client comes along with a project that actively offers the opportunity to develop skills or perhaps learn new ones. These encouraging encounters have to be embraced every single time. If you want it keep it cosy and to hide behind your standard set of skills then you might end up being left behind in the not-so-distant future. In the end it comes down to the individual's wish to learn new things and embrace new experiences."

Learning new things should eventually lead to fresh, creatively stimulating opportunities. "From an illustrator's perspective, obtaining new skills enhances what they can offer a client," says Luke Wilson of artists' agency Synergy. "In many instances, illustrators will confidently tackle additional elements of a project that are not necessarily outlined for them in the initial brief - taking on the animated aspect of an advertising campaign or the typography within a design brief, for example. This will lead to increased responsibility and, in turn, the possibility of further financial reward."

Business skills also play an important part in any success, although these can often be overlooked and undervalued by creative minds. Good book-keeping, work sheets, setting budgets and ensuring suppliers are paid and invoices filed are all essential. Practical help is on hand from organisations such as Business Link, Directgov and CIDA, a specialist support organisation for the creative and cultural sector.

Wider issues
For those still in education, the D&AD invests heavily each year in providing support for universities and colleges as well as working on behalf of the international creative community to bridge the gap between education and the workplace.

James Sommerville, creative director and co-founder of the multi-award winning ATTIK, believes colleges need to address the wider business issues early on. "Introduce them to developing big ideas and strategic planning instead of just Mac work," he says. "Teach them how to present in public to potential employers or client groups. Teach them some business entrepreneurial skills as well as design skills. Teach them about budgets and deadlines. These are basically all the missing skills they will need to learn anyway. If it was part of a course they would be better equipped to land the perfect job, because employers would be encouraged by these skills and, of course, a fantastic creative mind."

Specialist MA courses, such the MA in Creative Media Practice at Bournemouth, are slowly emerging that allow working professionals to advance their skills while maintaining a career. "We run Masters courses for people in work to help working professionals improve their professional practice, so the projects you are involved in at work form part of the evidence for a postgraduate qualification," explains Jon Wardle. Like many educational and industry professionals, he believes learning shouldn't stop the minute you start work. "Skills are important because they get you that foot in the door," he says. "Once you're in the company, though, it is vital you start to develop your capabilities, unless you want to be a button pusher, implementing someone else's ideas your whole life."

Ultimately you have to make your own decisions on what to learn. Investing in skills will serve you well, although the benefits can often only be seen long term. Thinking where you'll be in ten years should be motivation enough to start a plan of action. A reliance on others or expecting companies to compensate for your lack of vision will inhibit your career prospects.

"It's lazy for the designer to 'expect' their employer to teach them new skills," says Sommerville. "Small companies normally just teach what they feel will be important to their business, but individuals need to push themselves into areas their employer may not be considering. This could be beneficial for both parties and if nothing else, it sets this person up for options in the future. Continuing to gain skills is an ongoing process and should never stop."


LEARN SOMETHING NEW
Five designers on how they keep their work fresh

"It's always good to revisit those uncomfortable areas where you know you've got weaknesses and to try and resolve them. I've recently produced a poster for the Design School at Middlesex University by returning to a thematic approach, which has failed me on previous occasions. I finally made a breakthrough by persisting with it and working through the issues. The skill here: discipline."
Andrew Baker

"One of my favourite recent discoveries is the ability to create a 'printer-friendly' version of a page by defining a different CSS style sheet for the page. To do this you just create two style sheets, one formatted for print, with no backgrounds and a suitable typeface, and one formatted for everything else."
Alec East

"I recently bought Dreamweaver MX, because I wanted the immediacy of updating my own website and designing it myself. I used to outsource my website design and updates, but that got too expensive and cumbersome to manage, so I taught myself. I also bought a book and just searched for questions in the index that I needed specific answers for."
Jeremyville

"As designers we need to keep learning new skills. One of my latest is dabbling in InDesign. Naturally it's always good to learn, adapt and add a few new tricks. Have a go - maybe it'll work, maybe it won't - but at least you've tried. Embrace, challenge and explore ways of thinking, and be inspired by the skills of graphic legends such as Wim Crouwel."
Grant Dixon

"As in the majority of vocations, learning new skills is essential to career progression. Having a defined goal or outcome before starting with a new application is the key for me. By trial and error, I learn how it can assist rather than take over my work. I've also found the advice of books and friends helpful."
Luke Wilson

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