Johanna Basford: Drawing From Experience

First term sees new students illuminating studios with bright ideas – but how switched on are they about industry that awaits them? Illustrator Johanna Basford helps us read between the lines of her 50 Things I Wish I’d Known In Art School

Feature by Andrew Davies-Cole | 17 Nov 2011

The art industry is a tough one. It exists in a different dimension from the whimsical world wherein most of its successful artists had their higher education – and thinks nothing of crushing creative types under its wheels as it churns along from year to year. 

It’s little wonder those artists who’ve held their own under such duress find their online inboxes inundated with questions from students and graduates alike, all asking a cacophony of questions out of which one can pick out single, quizzical note: How did you do it?

One such inbox belongs to 28-year-old Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford. The question resonated so clearly and constantly she decided to type a blog post with the simple title: ‘50 Things I wish I’d known in Art School'.

“About this time of year I get a lot of emails from students who’ve just graduated and are finding the same things,” Basford says. “I feel I can’t respond to everyone, so I thought I’d write a blog and direct people towards it.”

Basford graduated in Printed Textiles from Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in 2005. Over the subsequent six years her talent for creating magical designs (mostly in monochrome) helped her build a client list boasting the likes of Sony, Absolut Vodka, Channel 4, The Observer and others.

Her first point of order might startle any fourth year student preparing to go full tilt at the term ahead: 

1. Employers and clients don't care about grades or distinctions. They care about your portfolio, your attitude and your previous experience.

“The industry can pick and choose from graduates, and that's why you have to do internships for either nothing or next to nothing,” she explains. “But the more internships you do, the more people see that you're wiling to stick it out and make sacrifices. It’s a really competitive industry,” she says, adding: “So maybe it’s a baptism of fire – if you make it through those first couple of years then you’re going to have a tough skin.”

With all the joys of jostling for a job while on internship, one might forgive any would-be graduate the odd moment of worried distraction on days when they should be settling down to write their ‘all important’ thesis.

Such moments can only multiply on consideration of Basford’s most succinct musing: 

6. No one will ever ask to read your dissertation.

“I think it’s an academic requirement and more about ticking boxes than learning practical skills that will help you as a designer,” she says. “I know people that messed up their dissertation, and it can be the difference between a pass or a fail. You can have the best portfolio in the world, but if you stink at writing or have very bad dyslexia, you’re scuppered.” 

Given that research suggests the proportion of dyslexic students at art colleges often exceeds numbers to be found elsewhere in higher education, one wonders whether a thesis should hold such sway in their practical disciplines.

“None of us were in art school because we were good at writing essays and reading and taking notes,” she says. “We were there because we were good at drawing pictures, so I feel the way they teach it and introduce it needs to be tweaked.”

Despite these concerns, Basford maintains there’s a place for the culture of the pen, alongside that of the paintbrush, at creative colleges. “You do need to be able to communicate and express yourself well, because you’re going to have to do proposals and apply for funding, but time could be better spent learning skills that are applicable to the creative industries.”

The latter is a point that brings us to the real meat of the matter, number 28 on Basford’s list: 

Some tutors work in industry as well as teaching. Some are more successful than others at this. Some will have never worked in industry. Some are Academics. Just keep this in mind when it comes to crits and grades.

It’s clear Basford would welcome the introduction of more artists well-versed in the do’s and don’ts of the practice of art – rather than theory – into education.

“If a tutor has been in the bubble of art school and education, how can they possibly teach us to work in the industry? They don’t have the experience. It’s one thing to read a textbook and attend a seminar and be told what we need, but it’s another thing completely to have lived it and learned it and to know how the industry works and all the unwritten things that are actually going to go on.”

A chief task for colleges, Basford feels, should be to address this imbalance. “The people who have all those industry skills don’t have the time to come into art school,” she reveals. “So they need to find a way of getting people out of industry into art schools. There is a gap, I think.”

How might such a gap be bridged?

“I think the onus is on the art schools to make that an attractive and positive option to people in the industry,” she stresses, adding: “They have to justify people taking time out to go into an art school and sacrificing time for the good of the students.”

Permeating through Basford’s list is the assumption that art school students are set to ask themselves the ‘What now?’ question the morning after the graduation celebrations. Often, the sense of panic can emerge even earlier.

“Half-way through fourth year I had my 'Oh crap' moment and thought: 'What am I gong to do now?’ More education was the easiest option, so I applied to do a Masters at the Royal College of Art in London. I found out I hadn't got in just after Christmas, so I knew approaching graduation that I didn't have that option.”

The knockback served to spur Basford on. “After that I was really proactive,” she reflects. “I wrote to loads of studios, set up a really basic website and sent out handwritten letters. I invited people to come and see my show at New Designers, a big trade show for graduates.

“People came along and I had loads of interviews, dragged my portfolio round London and set up some internships. And while on internship I started to sell quite a lot of my graduate show collection. More offers were coming in, people were placing orders, and I got some good press coverage. It made sense to do the things that made me happier: live up here, make the work that I like, and then sell it.”

Since then, her intricate style has left its mark on everything from Smart Cars to Starbucks cups; complemented building designs and Hallmark card rhymes.

But Basford’s transition from student to self-employed artisan has hardly been seamless and stress free. Experiences to date have combined to convince her that if there’s one point from her list of fifty that’s more important than the rest it’s this: 

46. The people that succeed aren't more talented, well connected or even more lucky than you… They just pick themselves up faster.

“The first two years I was working two part-time jobs whilst running my business. I gave up all the part-time jobs in year two, and struggled a lot. Then in the last two and half to three years, things have settled down and it's gone well. I've found my feet and worked out what really works, how to make money, and how to speak about money to people without feeling embarrassed.”

But the really big payoff, Basford admits, comes in seeing her work in public.

“It's great,” she says. “I remember the first time my work was ever published in a magazine. Being in WH Smith and seeing it there... it definitely made it all worth it.”

Perhaps it was there and then she felt she’d graduated for real.