69% CHAT

  • Julia Woollams

Practise. Design. Teach.


In Autumn 2017 I was invited to teach on a final year BA Graphic Design project at Kingston School of Art, which was a social design brief about Croydon (social design and Croydon both being ‘areas’ close to my heart).


Fast-forward four years, and I have since taught many final year briefs for the same degree course, as well as occasionally lecturing on others including Birmingham City University and the University of Derby.


Being a part-time lecturer alongside my professional practice has often got me thinking about how the two intertwine. Does sharing my experience with a new generation of designers, and in turn absorbing how they view the world make me a more refined designer?


Lots of my industry colleagues and friends also straddle education and professional practice, so as a new academic year is about to kick off across the country’s universities, I thought it was appropriate timing to hear some of their views on how the two relate.


Design education and professional practice, 69% Chat – 31% Wool journal

I asked Alistair, Catherine, Emily, Emmi, Joe, Gemma, Linda, Pali, Phil, and Zoë the following questions:


1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?



Alistair Hall

Alistair Hall


Alistair is an award-winning graphic designer based in London. He set up his design studio, We Made This, in 2004, and specialises in thoughtful, simple, beautiful design. Alistair is also co-founder of a children’s writing and mentoring centre, the Ministry of Stories, as well Art Director of the fantastical shop that it’s hidden within, Hoxton Street Monster Supplies.


Alistair is an Associate Lecturer in the Visual Communication department at the School of Art, Architecture and Design at London Metropolitan University; and has given talks about his practice across the UK and overseas. His first book, London Street Signs, was recently published by Batsford.


Students are really good at thinking sideways – they’re not restrained by particular styles or techniques.

1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


Alistair: I think teaching has reminded me that anything is possible. Students are really good at thinking sideways – they’re not restrained by particular styles or techniques – everything is new, so everything is up for grabs. Being reminded of that regularly is very healthy. I’m probably also a bit better at thinking on my feet thanks to teaching, and that can come in really handy when presenting work to clients.


Teaching also constantly reminds me how much joy I get from making things physically, whether it be screen-printing, letterpress work, or just playing around with paper and scissors. I must get better at acting on that, and giving myself the space and time to step away from my computer and create physical work.


London Street Signs by Alistair Hall
London Street Signs by Alistair Hall

2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


Alistair: As a middle-aged white cis-gendered male it’s utterly refreshing to work with students from a wealth of backgrounds, and to have them constantly question the established cannon of design. It’s also really great to be introduced to the stuff that they’re into – not just design and illustration, but music, film, art, whatever.


3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?


Alistair: A lot of graphic design is about taking complicated information, distilling it, and representing it in a clear and engaging way. A lot of those same skills are necessary in teaching.


Catherine Dixon

Catherine Dixon


Catherine is a designer working mostly with text-based projects, including covers for the Penguin Great Ideas series. She is also a researcher and writer with a particular interest in the history of lettering and contemporary typographic practice. She teaches on the Graphic Communication Design Programme at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.


1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


Catherine: I get to actually design far less these days as the balance of what I do is weighted to teaching more. Though this means that when I do have opportunities for working on design projects I really value the time spent doing the thing I still love the most, which is working creatively with words.


I have been teaching now for over 20 years and it is hard to reflect back on the influence of teaching on my practice, as they have run side-by-side for so long. That sense of fusion between teaching and practice is further reinforced by my long-term collaboration on design and writing projects with Phil Baines, who I was also teaching alongside and am lucky enough to still be learning from myself.


I think that the reflection required to share your practice with others has helped me better articulate what it is that I do when I am working. I also better recognise and am able to articulate something of the ‘craft’ involved in the visual management of text-based information, which is so important in a world where most of us are negotiating increasing amounts of digital information every day. In teaching environments in which there is a lot of emphasis on the thinking informing design, it is important to remember the thinking that takes place through the making of work and the handling of text in particular.


Students bring so many questions which keeps me open to re-examining why I think the way I do.

2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


Catherine: The righteous anger of students with the environmental state in which they find the world is so encouraging, though I have been challenged recently in terms of not overburdening students with a sense of responsibility to save the planet. While I find hope in their urgent determination to intervene, especially in climate-related issues, the problems they find are not for them alone to take care of.


As I get older I become more grateful too for the critical reflection which teaching helps to maintain in your approach to ideas and exploratory practices. Students bring so many questions which keeps me open to re-examining why I think the way I do and how I might usefully unlearn some of the unhelpful stuff and avoid the staleness of becoming too certain and set in my ways. Teaching can just bring so much joy too, in the fun, humour and sense of wonder generated through playful and curious projects.


Cover for Stella Bech’s Madeleine
Cover for Stella Bech’s Madeleine for Story Machine’s 2021 New Fictions Winner series, designed by Catherine Dixon with Phil Baines.

3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?


Catherine: Design is social. It is about people, about observing and listening (and really hearing), facilitating communication and coordinating iterative sequences of creative interventions. Underpinning this process is a reflective cycle, which hopefully mitigates against individualism and allows space for participation and collaboration. And of course teaching is about people too, and the encouragement of students towards discovering their own agency in their learning and through their design practice. There is a huge creative overlap for me in terms of the process of planning a learning intervention and working through a design project, not least in the fact that both will often take an unexpected turn and open out a new learning curve for everyone involved, especially me.


Teaching and practising also both necessitate the creative negotiation of constraints. When you have the freedom to do so, much of the joy in negotiating those constraints is generated through the positivity of working out how to turn limitations into hitherto unexplored possibilities.


And both teaching and practising require care too. Daniel Charry describes this very well in the catalogue for The power of making show at the V&A Museum in London in 2011: ‘The care that we take in making something properly is cousin to the care that we retain for other people and their labour, and to a care and concern for our environment and its future.’


Emily Wood

Emily Wood


Emily is a graphic designer and course leader on BA Graphic Design at Camberwell College of Arts. After graduating from Central Saint Martins she co-founded REG Design with Ruth Sykes: a design practice which is interested in how graphic design can help improve people’s lives, working with clients in the education and cultural sectors.

Since founding REG Design, she and Ruth combined their teaching practice with developing their company, and Emily has taught at Central Saint Martins, Kingston School of Art, and Camberwell College of Arts.

She believes that both teaching and graphic design are fundamental to creating a more sustainable future. Graphic designers are trained to clearly communicate information and messages and can use this skill wisely and with empathy for the planet and future generations.

1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


Emily: Yes, in many, many ways. The interaction between the two keeps them both exciting; they constantly influence. Teaching design gives me the opportunity to continuously reflect on my own design working process; from how I approach a brief, to the references I use and the methods I use for making.

It stops me taking short cuts and keeps me experimenting and trying out new ways of working, as well as creating my own projects in reaction to things that I’ve been shown by students or led to read.

At the moment, due to my teaching job, I do less commercial graphic design practice, but instead I design systems to support students’ learning, which might be ways of using technology to enhance teaching, thinking about hierarchies within communication of information or adapting physical environments for learning. As a designer I approach these with a curious and reflective mind; I try out different things, and then reiterate to improve. Constantly reassessing what students need to learn, and how to support them to do this is a never-ending project.


Interactive flags as part of the exhibition design for Amnesty International’s Imagine a World Without Violence Against Women, by REG Design
Interactive flags as part of the exhibition design for Amnesty International’s Imagine a World Without Violence Against Women, by REG Design

2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


Emily: Students challenge me all the time! Trying to explain something is a great way to question one’s own understanding, or sometimes misunderstanding of a subject; holes in knowledge are discovered and often we learn together.

Students are continuingly curious, and with encouragement, can learn to question everything they see or read, and become discursive citizens who are trying to make change in the world. Students inform me of current culture and social movements; they bring to the classroom research from around the world; from places outside design or art, and are always full of surprises and discoveries.

Sometimes students ask me if I teach to steal their ideas! I would like to think that I can still have my own ideas, but what I steal from them is an enthusiasm for exploration; this could be deep research or material experimentation – that keeps both jobs exciting.


Sometimes students ask me if I teach to steal their ideas! I would like to think that I can still have my own ideas, but what I steal from them is an enthusiasm for exploration.

3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?


Emily: I think it all comes down to communication; the clarity of communication whether for a commercial client, a research project, or to a student is what I strive for each day. For example I have learnt through my design practice various ways of creating a hierarchy of information – this can be used for communicating written information, curating an exhibition but also for creating stories to communicate complex ideas.


Emmi Salonen

Emmi Salonen


Born in Finland, Emmi studied graphic design in the UK at the University of Brighton. In 2001 she moved to northern Italy to work at Fabrica, Benetton Group’s prestigious communication research studio for young designers. Emmi has worked at Karlssonwilker in New York and Futerra sustainability agency as their UK Creative Director. She set up Studio Emmi, based in London, in 2005.


Emmi is an author of the book Common Interest: Documents, and has contributed to industry magazines on topics ranging from typography to women in design. She gives talks and workshops at various universities, institutes and companies based in the UK and beyond, about her personal design journey and Creative Ecosystem – guiding creatives in their wellbeing and careers.


Finnish Institute identity
Finnish Institute identity, Studio Emmi

1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


Emmi: Absolutely. As I teach, I learn. Be it about technology, new topics, discovering inspiration, or just feeling energised in my own practise.


Design thinking is at the core of it all: problem solving, testing and developing ideas.

2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


Emmi: It’s such a diverse influence and inspiration I get from students, but perhaps at the forefront it’s about pushing my creative output to stay current and relevant.


3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?


Emmi: I find design thinking is at the core of it all: problem solving, testing and developing ideas, and seeing what works and communicates clearly.


Gemma Ince

Gemma Ince


Gemma is a freelance graphic designer and design tutor at Birmingham Institute of Creative Arts, Birmingham City University. She takes a mutli-disciplinary approach, and aims to take a project through different design processes and media, often both digital and hand rendered; minimal or maximal design, loves to play with typography and words; with a core of research and understanding, intuition and ideas.


1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


Gemma: Being a lecturer and tutor has forced me to become decisive and efficient – you have to stand up in front of many people and say what you think. You also have to respond thoughtfully but instantaneously. Meanwhile, being in a university environment makes you always consider the wider context of anything and everything. These are really useful skills for life, as well as design. We regularly have many current experts in the field talking to our students, and I feel lucky to absorb these talks and learn too.


To discuss ideas and get under the skin of individuals who are grappling with them is very stimulating for my own creative practice.


Tutoring has also given me freedom. I’ve been able to raise 3 children while having a career in design. Design studios I encountered in New York and London expected you to be in the workplace with the team until late. I almost certainly wouldn’t have had a third child if I’d been a full-time designer based in a studio. There are more opportunities at university for part time roles as this tends to bring in diversity. Being a part time tutor allows me flexibility and independence to run my 3 job roles of tutor, designer and mother. The pay is crap for the last one, however there are some perks.

Initial concepts for Libraries Live identity
Initial concepts for Libraries Live identity, Gemma Ince with Rich Franks

2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


Gemma: The late teen/early 20s are a fantastic time where people reassess who they are and experience things with fresh eyes. I feel very lucky to be able to guide students at this stage of their lives or at base level just be amongst it. It is palpable and energising.

I get to interact with lots of different concepts and processes; to research. As the industry evolves, you watch it, read it, discuss it, and then, when you feel like it, you literally can practise a bit of it.


Every creative is influenced by other creatives. I actively encourage this kind of cross-fertilisation and collaboration between my students. I aim to empower the students I teach to know that, although I’ve got the experience, they are the next wave and be confident in each move they make, and we can discuss work as equals.


The students would rather learn from someone with relevant experience so I refer to these experiences in my talks or tutorials, and always bring a fresh project or current project to my lectures. This means that subconsciously, and even consciously sometimes, I create or gather work that can be useful as a teaching tool. Last year for instance I worked on a renaming and vis identity of a recruitment agency which I dissected stage by stage for the students and then set them a similar brief.


Audience is key. As a tutor and as a designer I always consider how the teaching or design will be received and who will receive it.

3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?


Gemma: Before I start anything I will research thoroughly and widely, and on many levels. This applies to writing a module, a lecture, or creating a design. Audience is key. As a tutor and as a designer I always consider how the teaching or design will be received and who will receive it. I will test my ideas out on the audience and collaborate where possible. For instance when I ran a workshop on collaboration and swapping work, I first sounded out some of my ideas for how it might run with some friendly students. I’ll talk to colleagues too and see where they might take it or what they could add. Likewise I will take my clients through a sounding out stage – gathering their opinions on my initial sketches or approaches. At some point though there is a different mindset for both teaching and practising of supercharging it and delivery of something. Of course I aim for my design lectures and slides to feel current, relevant and look good. Same with my designs.


Joe Hales

Joe Hales


Joe is a London-based graphic designer whose work is underscored by an ongoing interest in the relationship between the form, function, and content of print-based media. Joe’s output spans a diverse range of clients, with specific attention being paid to producing aesthetically relevant, clear, and engaging typographic work. He has been teaching at Kingston University since September 2013.


1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


Joe: When I have to be really clear about critiquing students’ work it makes me assess my own design again with a sharpened critical awareness. Teaching also informs my work in a more tangible sense: some of the students I have taught have come to assist me at my studio, and have renewed my energy in undertaking certain projects.


Joe Hales Studio, Physical Information Bloomberg Space
Joe Hales Studio, Physical Information Bloomberg Space

2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


Joe: It is always instructive for me to work alongside young designers, there is often a no-fear attitude when people start out that can produce some radical design ideas.


Teaching has made me much more politicised, much more aware of the needs of the next generation.

3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?


Joe: Teaching has made me much more politicised, much more aware of the needs of the next generation, and much more dedicated to mentoring/guiding young people in how they can forge a career in graphic design. My colleagues and superiors have been generous mentors to me, so I appreciate teaching as an intergenerational practice. Communication is a vital skill across both disciplines, alongside an open mind and a willingness to see the others (students/clients) point of view.


Linda Byrne

Linda Byrne


Linda is a senior lecturer, final year co-lead on the BA Graphic Design at Kingston School of Art, and a practicing editorial designer for the built environment and arts. A research focus on the history and future of publishing practices and the form of the physical and digital book underpins a rigorous, craft approach to teaching and professional practice. Currently art-director of the Royal Institute of British Architects Journal and one half of Mackinnon Byrne (an informal design partnership). Linda holds an MA Book Design from the University of Reading, a BA from London College Printing (now LCC), and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.


1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


Linda: Yes. My teaching and professional practice are intertwined and complimentary. Teaching partly led me to do an MA in Book Design at Reading in 2016. This in turn fed back into my teaching and redirected my practice (back) towards book and editorial design. My old friend and mentor Ian Noble told me – when tricking me into teaching and chucking me in at the deep end – “Don’t worry, everyone teaches differently. You’ll find your own way”. Finding that way, and working out what kind of teacher I want to be, has helped me focus on what kind of designer I want to be. I’ve edited out bits of practice that I was never fully comfortable with, and I am more strategic about the kind of work I take on.


Clients find it pretty hard to argue with rationale behind work, and are often really engaged in understanding the design process because of the way it’s described to them. I enjoy that immensely. Feels like a superpower.

2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


Linda: I’m inspired when students bring new things to the table and introduce me to stuff I’d never come across. This is also balanced by their fresh analysis of old dusty stuff I bring to them. A genuine exchange. Seeing and supporting students doing self-initiated work is also a constant reminder to make time for it. Time is scarce, but there is a long list of projects of various sizes on various back burners. I need some assessment deadlines!

RIBA Design Studio Volume 1, Linda Byrne
Linda Byrne: RIBA Design Studio Volume 1. A call to action as it sits on the shelf of the library, in the window of the bookshop, or in the hand of the reader. A present, active reminder to change.

3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?


Linda: Critical thinking, analysis, articulation and communication. I find that the way I describe work to clients is even more robust and succinct because I’ve had to hone those skills for teaching. Clients find it pretty hard to argue with rationale behind work, and are often really engaged in understanding the design process because of the way it's described to them. I enjoy that immensely. Feels like a superpower. That’s the same for discussions with students about their work or the work of others. In essence just the joy of doing and talking about design. Craft and attention to detail are also things that run through the way I practice and the way I teach. Big ideas are of course useful and wonderful, but a lot is achieved in the detail. That is something I love to work in both worlds.



Pali Palavathanan

Pali Palavathanan


Pali is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of branding and digital agency TEMPLO, which focuses on creativity for change. Founded in 2013, TEMPLO was set up as an experiment to see if design could be pushed into new territories to make real political and social change. Since then the studio’s work has helped arrest war criminals, been a part of the controversial 2015 UN Gaza Conflict inquiry and has produced groundbreaking work exposing Sri Lanka's war crimes. Pali is also a visiting lecturer at Arts University Bournemouth and Kingston University.


1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


Pali: The strongest students I teach often end up interning in the studio. You have to be unafraid and confident enough to give graduates the autonomy and the space to apply their thinking and add something new to the creative process. I vividly remember as a design intern being underused and undervalued, often spending my time stuck in the corner image searching. We have to be brave enough to give graduates more responsibility to allow them to grow and learn for both themselves and for the benefit of a project. TEMPLO's body of work reflects this; our creative output is always contemporary and true to our founding ethos but we have a varied approach and visual style because we allow everyone to contribute to the creative journey.

Signage for Climate Change Committee rebrand
Climate Change Committee rebrand, TEMPLO

2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


Pali: It's so important as a designer running a design studio to feel connected to the next generation of talent and to plug back into the education continuum. I think it's a two way exchange where teachers can pass on knowledge based on years of experience and students can challenge our preconceptions and show us new ways of thinking. Inevitably as a designer I get stuck in design ruts and I've become less and less interested in how I would approach solving problems and more interested in working with the next generation to show the way.


It’s a two way exchange where teachers can pass on knowledge based on years of experience and students can challenge our preconceptions and show us new ways of thinking.

3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?

Pali: The same core design principles and processes I learnt during my design education still run through my practice today and this gets reinforced when I return to the teaching space. Our projects are still driven by rigorous research, visual exploration and testing before being delivered to the clients.


Phil Baines with Anne Bean’s Autobituary/Shadow deeds (Matt’s Gallery 2006)
Phil Baines with Anne Bean’s Autobituary/Shadow deeds (Matt’s Gallery 2006) in front of R by Martin Brown. Photo by Jackie Baines

Phil Baines


Phil taught at CSM from 1991–2020 combining this with a freelance career, mainly for arts organisations and small publishers.


1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


Phil: I always believed that teaching should be informed by practice, a Lethaby thing, and always tried to do both.


Teaching enables you to be a little purer and more theoretical, but it can’t replicate the interactions with real, long-standing clients.

2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


Phil: Some are fearless, I try to be (and am not).


3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?


Phil: Teaching enables you to be a little purer and more theoretical, but it can’t replicate the interactions with real, long-standing clients, who can often be quite surprising sometimes.


Zöe Bather

Zoë Bather


Zoë is an independent editorial designer with a particular fondness for illustrated non-fiction titles. She co-founded Studio8 Design, before going it alone to focus on her love of books and teaching. Zoë is the co-lead of the final year of BA Graphic Design at Kingston School of Art, where she’s constantly kept on her toes by a talented and inspiring cohort of young designers. Zoë also runs the Social Innovation Strand within the course, where they explore how graphic design can make positive and proactive contributions within communities.


1: Has teaching design influenced the way you work in your professional practice?


Zoë: I think it’s made me work in more structured ways. I was pretty organised before, but since teaching I’ve been more so (partly because I have to manage a working week of professional practice and teaching). I reckon I’ve honed my communication with clients ­and collaborators – I’m more mindful to explain my design thinking in an accessible way, and not assume that the obvious is always obvious to those with less experience or from a non-design background. I imagine if I still ran a studio (Studio8 Design) I would be a better Creative Director and boss to those I employed for the same reasons. I kinda feel like any designer who’s in a position where they direct or manage other designers, should have to do a bit of teaching, as I think it's invaluable to your ability to run a design team. Kind of like conscription for the design industry... probably requires more appealing branding than that.


Editorial structuring and design of ‘Forces of Nature’ by Professor Brian Cox, published by HarperCollins
Zöe Bather: editorial structuring and design of ‘Forces of Nature’ by Professor Brian Cox, published by HarperCollins

2: In what ways do students inspire/challenge you creatively?


Zoë: All the time, every day. Sounds like a cliché, but I genuinely experience it. Of course, by ‘challenge’ it’s not always positive! – I’m frequently challenged by the fact that the task/method/technique that I thought was infallible doesn’t work, that it doesn’t help a student or engage them or improve their work. And whilst sometimes frustrating, that’s also interesting as it's basically more problem-solving that forces you to think more creatively about your teaching practice.


Teaching is design. You design a brief, a lecture, a workshop, a set of physical conditions within a studio space, or a set of learning experiences within an online space.

3: Do you find any similarities in mindset/skillset between teaching and practising?


Zoë: From my point of view, teaching is design. You design a brief, a lecture, a workshop, a set of physical conditions within a studio space, or a set of learning experiences within an online space. I curate (lecture series), I edit (reference lists), I collaborate (with external specialist practitioners), I manage (students and staff), I research (subject matter for briefs), I experiment (with teaching methods and techniques), I user-test everything (and then iterate based on results and feedback), and I communicate and present all of this to my students. I do all that in my design practice.

Thank you to Alistair Hall, Catherine Dixon, Emily Wood, Emmi Salonen, Joe Hales, Gemma Ince, Linda Byrne, Pali Palavathanan, Phil Baines, and Zoë Bather for sharing their views.

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