Young guns

Untrained, under 21 and after your job - gets down with the new generation of creatives

We are living in a revolution. Swathes of young designers and illustrators are turning the industry upside down by rejecting education and forging their own careers. These 'young guns' aren't confined to unpaid projects, they're landing whopping briefs from their bedrooms and exposing their work in the streets, in print and online. "New creatives are coming from diverse backgrounds and embracing a DIY spirit - there's been a definite rise in that," says Anna Doyle, associate director of the onedotzero digital film festival. With inspiration, tutorials and software readily accessible in mags and on the web, young guns are running amok.

Things weren't always this way. Early last century, graphic design's career path was formulaic. Designers would take an apprenticeship at a small studio, learn craft skills from an older, 'wiser' practitioner before moving to a larger company, where they might finally lead on a project. Graphic design then evolved into an academic discipline: students could study specific techniques at art schools and gain qualifications before joining the rat race. We've now reached a third age, where the epidemic spread of computers has democratised the tools and techniques of the trade. Rather than spending years in rote-learning environments, designers are emerging younger, teaching themselves and winning huge freelance briefs. What's more, young guns' idiosyncratic go-it-alone routes enable them to develop individual, expressive styles.

Jacques Alton has designed flyers for Ministry of Sound and Ibiza's Amnesia but hasn't taken a single lesson in graphic design. In fact, he's studying a full-time course in finance and law at the University of London, and is just 19. "I'm a self-made designer. It's not about age, it's about how good you want to be," he says. Alton's sweeping vectors and layered illustrations are surprisingly advanced for untrained hands, but he's not an anomaly. At 18, Nelson Balaban has already been commissioned by Brazilian chart-toppers Cansei de Ser Sexy. His T-shirt for the band features a striking polygonal cotton tree that artfully references the tension that exists between digital design and physical manufacturing. "I'm completely self-taught," says Balaban. "I read a couple of tutorials at the very beginning but haven't had any formal education."

Designers such as Balaban and Alton are united by talent. An eye for composition and colour gives them an edge over their peers that cannot be taught, or bought. Attempting a career without training demands natural flair, but there are certain fields of design that value individuality more highly than others. In corporate graphic design, excessive idiosyncrasy is a flaw that can wreck client relationships. Junior designers are generally expected to follow instructions and innovate within strict boundaries. Carte blanche briefs can be counted on thumbs.

Wacky has its place
But in freelance illustration, idiosyncrasy is a Midas asset - careers are built on distinctiveness. Jake Rolfe is one such success story. Although only 17, his Photoshop-manipulated drawings have won clients such as Island Records and the Heartcore Clothing fashion label. "I've never had any lessons," he says. "My style is quite wacky: lots of monsters and unexplainable objects."

Rolfe, Balaban and Alton have enshrined the individuality of their work by beginning their careers early. Without the homogenising bent of failed practitioners (AKA teachers) or brain-dead bosses, their styles have evolved organically. Other young guns have had to fiercely defend their own aesthetics from institutionalisation.

"My graphic design teacher said I would never be any good because my stuff wasn't traditional enough. I wanted to prove him wrong," says Chris Cummins. Freelancing from home in his spare time, Cummins proceeded to work for Max Power magazine, flyer distributors Don't Panic and Airbus. His work spans from graffiti to websites and his first two batches of T-shirts sold out in four months. Not bad for a 19-year-old.

Through defying his teacher's wayward criticism Cummins discovered a wellspring of self-belief. Confidence is essential for the creative industries, no matter what your age or how large the client. As two female designers working in a patriarchal industry, Pauline Teunissen and Anneloes van den Bergh needed more commitment than most. "We wanted our own studio since the day we could hold pencils, but when clients find out we've just started our business they try to pay us less," says Teunissen. "Because we're women, clients tend to think that we're somehow less professional and just design as a hobby to make 'pretty pictures'. We're in it for the business." The scepticism they encountered was met with a wall of commitment. "Never stop trying: email everybody, call everybody and if they say no, try again. No isn't always no," says Teunissen. This dedication has paid off with projects for Elle and Amsterdam's historic Rijksmuseum.

If the drive to secure a brief is preferable, a fearless zeal for exposure is essential. Young guns propel themselves through fledgling careers by shouting about their achievements. "It's all about taking risks and getting out there; just have fun with what you're doing," says Rolfe. "There's no need to try and fit into a scene, just let your work fit itself in. But you do have to meet people and discuss opportunities. Word of mouth is a powerful thing," he adds. Exposure is the oxygen of success: the one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration are 100 per cent useless without it. Getting your work seen is paramount, whether that's on design community websites, in magazines or spray-painted onto walls. Young guns balance individuality with sociability - talent and perseverance aren't enough.

Collaboration pays off
By participating in creative forums like depthCORE, Computerlove and Computer Arts, young guns showcase their own work, discover new sources of inspiration and forge relationships with like-minded designers. Balaban joined depthCORE in 2005, using it as a springboard for collaborations with other designers and a catalyst for his own creativity. "I'm always in touch with graphic design, browsing ezines, reading magazines and books. It inspires me to create every day," he says. Exposing your work to others is also a valuable opportunity for feedback that shouldn't be overlooked. Alex Bec combined self-exposure with networking by curating two books while still at university. Bec snared contributions from designers he admired by asking what they would like to do tomorrow, hence the title: If You Could. Both volumes were riotously successful, garnering the attention of industry magazines and securing Bec a stall at the V&A Village Fete. Creative conversation inspired Bec's books and continues to drive his career. "I'm inspired by seeing my work out there and having people respond to it, whether positive or not. I think it's essential for people to have an opinion on what I'm producing rather than just 'Yeah, that's all right,' " he says.

Beating the odds
Indifference. That response can shatter a designer's heart. Yet indifference is just one of the numerous obstacles to be overcome by young guns. Wary clients are easily spooked by low ages and evolving portfolios. "As a young graphic designer I found it difficult to gain trust from larger companies," says Mark Angelini, an 18- year-old American designer. "When I began freelancing, my age and lack of commercial experience seemed to put off potential clients. It was rare I would land jobs; I had a much better chance of getting an internship," he continues. "After being ignored a number of times I decided to co-found the Organik collective: a group of teenagers trying to gain greater exposure and respect for what we do."

Angelini completed a number of personal projects under the Organik moniker, including a CD sleeve for British producer-du-jour, Diplo. "I'd describe my style as an off-kilter mix of type, geometry and meaning," he says. Poetic, perhaps, but invisible without the boost from a collective.

Forums, blogs and Myspace have made it easier than ever for designers like Angelini to make virtual colleagues. There's no substitute for real-life relationships though, as trailblazers THIS IS Studio attest. The three members met on an undergraduate graphics degree at London's Camberwell College of Art. "Camberwell was good for concept-based graphics, but lacked any real training in a practical sense. We learnt most skills from our contemporaries," says THIS IS cofounder Barney Beech.

Be brave
"The most amazing thing about university is the mix of people - people who inevitably become friends, friends you can establish a company with. Starting our own business was a daunting learning curve, but if you consider yourselves problem solvers there's not much you can't fix. And if you can't fix it there's usually a mate that can," he concludes.

THIS IS has built up an enviable portfolio since graduation, including a BMW storyboard, George Michael tour visuals and a Harrods window display. Given the variety and importance of these briefs, Beech's disdain for education is understandable. College projects rarely generate a comparable aura of commercial credibility or practical experience. But academia remains a polarising issue for young guns. For every headstrong advocate of DIY design there's a corresponding twentysomething who's convinced university is irreplaceable. Chris Robinson dropped out of a two-year design course to freelance for companies like Sony Ericsson. He feels that higher education is little more than a drain on financial resources.

"Degrees are too expensive, you could use the fees to teach yourself and get experience," Robinson argues. "What I've lost through lack of academia I've definitely gained in commercial experience. I have learned so much from freelancing alongside various art directors, and I wouldn't have got that from university."

However, Nelson Balaban disagrees. "Formal education is a must nowadays," he says. "You can't learn everything by yourself, and agencies don't hire designers without qualifications."

Balaban's is a contentious position, and one that's disputed by industry expert Mike Radcliffe, who runs graphic design recruitment agency Represent. "We have some really good designers on our books who dumped the education system as they weren't getting what they wanted. They're incredibly focussed, passionate and talented - almost the enfants terribles of graphic design," he says. "Unfortunately, there are too many bad vocational courses out there for BA, churning out a load of designers who are disillusioned and almost unemployable. An MA makes more sense these days for the really talented," he adds. Represent work with premier-league London studios, including Made Thought and Hyperkit, so Radcliffe's words should be heeded. Encouragingly, Radcliffe is open to designers irrespective of age and experience. Talent and enthusiasm are the core attributes his clients demand. "We're happy to represent designers of any age as long as they come up with the goods - our youngest designer is 21," he points out.

Radcliffe understands that design education is a subjective affair. There are inevitably hits and misses among the 472 graphic design higher-education courses in the UK. Moreover, young guns are square-peg mavericks that rarely blend in, so education can be an awkward fit. In a competitive job market flooded with eager graduates perhaps their fast-track freelancing is a rather safe bet. According to Prospects - the government organisation responsible for graduate employment - the outlook is bright for all graduates, whether joining the gravy train or maintaining their independence. Of the 1,850 graphic design graduates last year, two-thirds went straight into professional design jobs. And the proportion of graphic design graduates succeeding in self-employment was also ten times higher than the overall average.

The best of both worlds
Aspiring young guns should remember that it's possible to study and freelance simultaneously - you can enjoy the benefits of tuition while embarking on your career. Maximising independent work builds contacts, impresses clients and increases confidence. Secure qualifications coupled with flowering self-sufficiency are a flexible and powerful combination, maximising opportunities and minimising risk. A rebellious rejection of schools and agencies is tempting, but the best young guns are those who keep their feet on the ground and their work up with the stars.