8 celebrities you never knew were designers

Design students – next time you drag yourself out of bed for an early-morning lecture, dive into yet another Photoshop tutorial or dedicate an afternoon to learning how to draw, remember this: you're in good company.

Before they were famous, some of the world's biggest celebrities began their careers as graphic designers. And we're not talking about design celebs like Stefan Sagmeister or Neville Brody either. We mean proper famous people (no offence). Household names who have starred in major Hollywood movies or sold millions of records. People who have thrown television sets out of hotel room windows. That kind of thing.

We've uncovered eight famous people who studied design in their formative years. In many cases their early passion for the subject influenced their careers in unexpected ways.

01. Alan Rickman

The Harry Potter actor set up his own design agency

The Harry Potter actor set up his own design agency

Though several in our list studied graphic design, few made a living from it. One of those few is the late, great Alan Rickman. The Harry Potter generation will know him as the much-misunderstood Severus Snape. For others he will forever be Hans Gruber, Bruce Willis's nemesis in the original and best Die Hard.

A graduate of Chelsea College of Art and Design, Rickman went on to complete a postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art. There, he worked on the renowned student journal Ark in 1969 and 1970. During his RCA years, he set up up his own design agency, Graphiti. Though successful at design, the young Rickman's heart was set on acting and he folded Graphiti after being accepted into the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts in 1972.

02. David Bowie

Bowie in Labyrinth

Bowie specialised in layout and typesetting

It shouldn't come as a surprise to hear that David Bowie enjoyed a stint as a graphic designer – there were few things Bowie didn't try his hand at in the 60s and early 70s. The chameleonic rock god studied at Bromley College of Art in the early 60s, specialising in layout and typesetting. Though he didn't go on to a career as a designer, the influence continues to be visible through his entire canon.

Bowie's image was changed more tangibly during his studies. It was at art college that Bowie was punched by fellow student George Underwood in a fight over a girl. The blow damaged his left eye, giving him the permanently dilated pupil that made Bowie seem so alien.

03. Andy Serkis

Hobbit and Planet of the Apes star Serkis studied visual arts at Lancaster. Photo courtesy of Imaginarium Studios

Hobbit and Planet of the Apes star Serkis studied visual arts at Lancaster. Photo courtesy of Imaginarium Studios

Andy Serkis shot to worldwide fame for his turn as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, but he had the potential to be the go-to-guy for designing movie posters instead. Acting was an afterthought for the star – he studied visual arts at Lancaster University. Struggling to choose a minor, he plumped for theatre studies, figuring that he could design posters for university productions.

"I wanted to be a painter or a graphic designer," Serkis told IndieLondon in 2011, "But then I started acting in productions until I played this one role which was a huge epiphany moment in my life, where it was 'this is what I've got to do'." We may have lost a graphic designer, but we gained cinema's king of mo-cap.

04. Chuck D

The godfather of protest rap studied graphic design at Adelphi University

The godfather of protest rap studied graphic design at Adelphi University

Public Enemy, one of the most influential groups in the history of rap, always had a strong visual identity. Its founding member's design credentials could be something to do with that. Before recording classic albums like 'Fear of a Black Planet', Chuck D (known then as Carlton Douglas Ridenhour) studied graphic design at New York's Adelphi University.

"My first year at college I was part of the school newspaper... I was good, I was gifted I was talented..." he told a press conference in 2008, "But I got kicked out of college – and kinda left. I partied too much as a freshman."

The youngster was motivated by the release of the first rap records in 1979 to return to university and repeat his lost year. He was a Dean's list graduate in 1984, specialising in record cover design.

05. Jemima Kirke

Jemima Kirke began her creative career as an artist before starring in hit TV show Girls

Jemima Kirke began her creative career as an artist before starring in hit TV show Girls

Better known as Jessa Johansson on the television series Girls, actress Jemima Kirke began her creative career as an artist, graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2008 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. The British-born New Yorker primarily produces portraits and in 2011 held an exhibition titled A Brief History through Skylight Projects.

06. Ricky Wilson

Ricky Wilson portrait

The Kaiser Chiefs singer lectured on graphic design at Leeds College of Art

Before Kaiser Chiefs frontman Ricky Wilson predicted riots, he studied at Leeds Metropolitan University for his BA in Graphic Design. After he graduated in 2000, Wilson went on to work as part-time lecturer in the subject at Leeds College of Art.

07. Pete Townshend

The Who guitarist was influenced by the intellectual atmosphere of art school [photo: Flipkeat]

The Who guitarist was influenced by the intellectual atmosphere of art school [photo: Flipkeat]

The Who was the third biggest band of the 1960s and early 70s, churning out hits like My Generation and I Can't Explain. Guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend was known for lyrically exploring his youth and childhood, an approach that begat the most popular rock opera of the period – Tommy – which was released in 1969.

Townshend studied graphic design at Ealing College of Art and has openly admitted that this background helped him to carefully control the branding of The Who. The environment even helped Townshend develop his trademark playing style, particularly his early use of noise and feedback.

"I was at art school, surrounded by real intellectuals, people that were experimenting all the time," Townshend told Guitarist magazine in 2012, "I was greatly impressed by all this and wanted to please these people."

08. Freddie Mercury

Freddie in concert

The Queen frontman had a diploma in graphic design [photo: Carl Lender]

Throughout Queen's phenomenal career, Freddie Mercury proved he had as much visual flair as theatricality. Without Mercury's prodigious vocal, composition and design talent, Queen would probably have been just another pompous and forgettable heavy rock band. 

The star was another alumni of Ealing College of Art, alongside Pete Townshend and Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, graduating with a diploma in graphic design. He also studied at Isleworth Polytechnic (now West Thames College).

One of the first uses of his training was the design of Queen's iconic crest, used on the covers of several albums (including A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races) and on Queen merchandise to this day.

Related articles: