How to become a graphic designer? A conversation with David Worthington FCSD

The Chartered Society of Designer’s (CSD) Designer Talks podcast asks designers, how they do it, why they do it, what makes them tick and most importantly, what design means to them. The design podcast is hosted and produced by Lefteris Heretakis aCSDf.

In our latest episode, we had a conversation with graphic designer David Worthington FCSD about how to become a graphic designer and his career to-date.  Please find the episode show notes below and be sure to listen to the full episode here.

About David Worthington FCSD

David is non-exec chairman of branding consultancy Holmes & Marchant with offices in London, Singapore, Shanghai, and New York. He is also an independent consultant to various clients, including Sainsbury’s and Swiss Re, prior to which he was managing director of the Conran Design Group and chairman of Designersblock. 

He is chair of trustees of the River and Rowing Museum and a former trustee and trading board chairman of the London Transport Museum.

In the education arena he has recently completed six years as a governor of Ravensbourne University London, prior to which he was chairman of the Skills Council for the creative and cultural industries – CCSkills.

He is a Fellow of CSD, the RSA and an Honorary Fellow of Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Why graphic design?

Many aspiring creatives today may be asking “how do I become a graphic designer”? However, when David was first considering his career path graphic design was not presented as a tangible option.

David recalls reading a paragraph about graphic design whilst at school, which in short said that few people were able to become graphic designers, most people would fail at it, but the ones who succeeded were ‘extraordinarily rich’.

When reflecting on his journey, David mentions that his father wanted him to train to become an architect, which David was planning to study at Newcastle University. However, he went to Leicester College and completed a Diploma in Art and Design – which he cites as one of the best times of his life.

During that time, he spoke to the head of the course, as he was battling with the commercial elements of his studies and wasn’t sure if it was for him.  The head asked him whether he enjoyed practising design, to which David replied that he did. In response the head quipped: “well get on with it then, most people are accountants and hate their lives”.

David later muses that you can’t create designers, they just exist. Everything he does and thinks about always centres around design.

Experiencing graphic design in London

David’s first practical experience of graphic design came in the form of work experience at Conran Design Group. When he arrived at the design agency’s offices – which were then at Covent Garden – he remembers being overwhelmed by the scale and sophistication of London, especially as he grew up in Yorkshire.

After his time at Conran Design Group, David never looked back and after finishing his studies, he hired a van, set off to London and went job hunting – he notes that he was very much making it up as he went along! At first, David freelanced but eventually secured a job as a design associate at Stewart McColl. Eventually, after three years of working for a couple of agencies, David decided to work for himself and has continued to do so ever since.

Reflecting on his early years in London, David considers how difficult it was being thrust into a world of enormous wealth and privilege. At first, he was unsure of the city, but after a while, it soon became one of his favourite places on Earth.

Digital transformation in design

David considers digital tools to be one of the most defining elements of design practice both currently and looking into the future. As the Chair of Trustees of the River & Rowing Museum, David often considers how digital design can unlock a museum experience for people remotely, regardless of their location they are now able to experience exhibitions online.

He also notes that until recently, most designers never had access to such clinical data, hence their work wasn’t driven by such precise information. David considers how design, in a more rounded way has an element of intuition and thoughtfulness. He ponders that there are often “happy accidents” that form part of the design process.

One of the most notable changes in design, in David’s view, is how data and design work together, and that design is now part of a much bigger and all-encompassing process. He feels this relationship is still evolving and has some way to go.

Reflecting on being a graphic designer in the 80s, David recalls when a client said to him: “I don’t care what you do, make it look like the designers have been there” – many people saw design as means to boast, rather than seeing the true value of it. He notes we have progressed so much from this, and design is now firmly embedded in everything we do.

Learnings and experiences

So, what would David do differently if he was to do it all again? He says, he probably wouldn’t change anything, although he would have taken his pension more seriously!

Some projects stand out for David in his career, but they’re not necessarily the ‘big ones’, rather the projects where he was able to make a big difference. He considers the work he and his team delivered for First Choice, which while he feels it wasn’t amazing from a design point of view, the difference they were able to make during their time working for the brand is something he is very proud of. David is also proud of always letting people get stuck into projects, and while they were thrown in at the deep end, he always looked after people and allowed them the opportunity to join in and learn on a project. 

Finding inspiration for graphic design

Outside of design, David’s other biggest passion is boats. In fact, he even has a side business buying and selling boating items. This love for boats also inspires his design work, as he mentions a nautical expression: “it looks right, is right”. He explains that if you look at a boat, and, you take the shape of the boat, and if you can see the inside and the outside, at the same time and while you’re looking down through the cabin; you can see the ribs in the frames and everything then when it looks right, it is right, and it works well.

He believes this is a kind of an abiding aesthetic, which doesn’t seem to have much place in the modern world. In David’s view, it’s the root and branch of the industry where someone walks into a room and just gets it. Someone walks up to a hotel desk and just lives it.

Advice for other graphic designers and clients

David’s biggest piece of advice: just enjoy it, graphic design is a wonderful way to make a living. He enjoys there always being a task to solve: it’s never going to be the same, regardless of the project, it will always be fresh and new.

When considering client relationships, David notes that the best working relationships are when the client is firmly engaged in the process. He says that, in his experience, the client will work as hard as you.

Advice for clients? Don’t assume the pitch is the answer, it’s only the beginning of the journey. He says that even if you think a concept from the pitch is brilliant, always road test it and experiment, as there will be situations or considerations that were overlooked due to the fast-paced nature of pitching.

As the conversation ends, David considers that ultimately people are the most important thing, design must work for them, and that the best design is when you can’t see it and it sits there and does what it’s supposed to do.