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Graphic Design – My College Experience

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From an early age, Gabi had the inclination to design, create, and to use art as a form of expression. After Matric, she pursued her passion as a motivated student at AAA and now works in the Graphic Design department for an advertising company in London. Here, Gabi talks about her experience with life during and after college.

For 12 years, I attended the German International School in Cape Town, where I matriculated in 2009. My high school subjects were English, German, Afrikaans, Maths, Science, Life Orientation and Art. I dropped Accounting, which gave me some free lessons, and I spent most of them working on perfecting my Art projects. Art had, after all, been my favourite subject since… forever.

I knew by Grade 10 exactly where and what I wanted to study. Following a job shadowing experience at the leading advertising agency Draft FCB, I realised how much I enjoyed the design environment and how much fun being in the ad industry could be. I thus steered the majority of my energy towards getting a distinction in Art so I could ensure my acceptance into the AAA School of Advertising. My good school friend’s sister had studied there, and ever since I had heard of it, I dreamt of studying Visual Communication and Art Direction there. I knew it was a tough career path to get into, because there are so many talented people out there, but this didn’t waver me from my decision to pursue those studies.


And so it began…Graphic Design at AAA College

I applied for the 3-year Visual Communication course in September of my Matric year and got accepted only a week later. I started studying there in 2010, along with roughly 50 other students, and we tackled the tasks that college threw our way.

The briefs we used to get at AAA would vary from week to week so that we would cover all angles of Visual Communication and be able to suss out which direction we would potentially like to pursue further down the line. A practical task might have been to design a logo for a hotel of your choice. We’d then have a week to complete it. We also learnt about the design process which meant we would have to come up with about 15 to 20 logo variations, select 2 thereof, and then cut it down to one final logo, which needed to be perfected and applied to corporate stationary. Theoretical tasks would come up more often in the Marketing courses where we would have to complete anything from an outline of a target market profile, to conducting an in-depth brand study.

It Ain’t Only a Breeze

I worked extremely hard from the get-go, as it was (and still is) my passion to be creative and express myself visually. Apart from my passion, the expensive course fees were an additional motivation to rock it. I had taken on a student loan from Standard Bank and I didn’t want to disappoint my parents and waste any money by slacking. The loan unfortunately didn’t cover all the materials I needed nor did it cover my printing costs, so my parents had to support me with that.

My studies went very well for the most part, but some challenges are inevitable when entering tertiary education. College was hard work and resulted in many late nights (or may I say, early mornings), as I finished projects to meet the deadline of the following day. Though I didn’t fail a single subject in my 3 years of studying there, I did scrape by a couple of exams and practicals. But at the end of the day I learnt from my mistakes and grew. That’s what college is all about: finding your strengths and weaknesses.

It’s also about learning to transform challenges into something positive. For example: I still lived at home in Durbanville during my studies, and because I didn’t have my own car, I had to drive in to town with my mom who would drop me off before heading to work. Most days I would arrive at college before it was even open and I’d sit outside. But instead of just waiting around, I used the spare time to my advantage and got some work done on my Mac.

A Sense of Direction

Initially I thought I’d pursue Art Directing, but during 2nd Year I realised I’d rather focus on Graphic Design. Art Direction requires a more outgoing personality than I have, and it lacks the design and aesthetics elements that I  fell in love with during 1st Year.

What I loved most about my course was that at least 75% of the work was practical and I got to be creative all day long. I was also surrounded by other young creatives which inspired me and helped me progress every day. I met my best friend in college and have built lasting relationships with others whom I still have contact with and with whom I often share current work (via Whatsapp or Email). We often give each other feedback on the work, or just compliments. The creative industry is all about networking.

At the end of 3rd Year we had to complete a one-month internship at a company of our choice. I interned at Fuel Design in the new Woodstock Exchange building. This was a one-man company in a shared office space owned by 28 Stars. I got to experience first-hand how a design gets turned into a real,  tangible, finished product, and to see the printing process from start to finish. I also helped design ions for an app for 28 Stars.

AAA unfortunately didn’t offer an Honours course, but we had the option to study for a fourth year and specialise in either Art Direction or Graphic Design depending on which area we had already qualified in. I decided to rather continue to gain work experience. After my internship at 28 Stars, they offered me my very first job, and I ended up working there for a year before I moved on to new things.

New Chapters, New Callings

Life after college and 28 Stars brought along many different turns and many new, unexpected working experiences. When my time at 28 Stars came to an end, I spent a term working as an assistant nursery school teacher. I realised that working in a small office wasn’t what I wanted. I was looking for a more creative space in which I could grow and feel inspired.

My mother works at the St. Martini Kindergarten. At the time I had no work, so when they had a sudden position available for a term. I jumped at the opportunity, as I thought it could be a good experience until I figured out what I wanted to do and it helped me pay off my student loan for the time being.

I soon decided I needed an entire change of scenery, not just in terms of both the childcare and office environment, but also geographically. What followed was my relocation to Switzerland.  I am a Swiss passport holder and arrived there as a fully qualified graphic designer, but I struggled to find work in my field. Needing to support myself, I ended up as a waitress at Zur Trotte, a restaurant known for its asparagus dishes, in a Swiss village. Little did I know how much I would learn from waitressing. I got to package wine and be part of the whole packaging process, which I found very interesting. Packaging and label design is essentially what I would like to see my self doing in the future. It’s my dream to see a bottle with my label on the shelf.

Currently I am working in London for a growing advertising company and am still glad that I decided to pick this career choice 5 years ago. I moved to London for two reasons: I wanted to work in an English environment in my field as a graphic designer, and just as importantly, I had found love here and wanted to give it a shot (glad I did!).

When I moved here all I had were my savings and a place to stay with my friend (who is my now my girlfriend). I sent my portfolio and CV to hundreds of agencies and design studios in London and waited for their replies. I was unemployed for a month just hoping for someone to give me a shot. It wasn’t always easy, but eventually I was given a break at Media Zoo and have worked here for almost a year now.

My Advice

Studying Visual Communication and specialising in Graphic Design was definitely the best decision I have made for myself.  I absolutely encourage this area of study and work. For anyone who is interested in taking this path, here are some tips:

  • Learn to deal with critique. This was definitely not always my cup of tea. It doesn’t feel very assuring to hear someone ask you whether you “chewed something out” when you have been carefully cutting it out for two hours. You need to grow a thick skin and not take things too personally.
  • Find the right balance between work and play. It’s never easy to have the right balance between a social life and study or work, especially if you are doing everything you can to work hard and grow within your career. But you do get the hang of it, and can still blossom into a major social butterfly (sometimes even a bit too much).
  • Find your passion, work hard, and never give up. Study something that makes you love what you do. You want to love your career, even if it doesn’t pay as well as something else.
  • Learn to deal with printers. 
  • Red Bull. It gets you through all-nighters. Trust me! When you haven’t slept for 3 days you will understand.

FundiConnect 2cents

Studying a creative course is very expensive and you need to learn to save on paper and know where the best places are to get student deals. Look for retailers that offer student discounts or have a relationship with your college. Deckle Edge has great design materials and students can often score discounts there, sometimes even up to 20%.


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