So You Liked School, but What Do You Make of Work? | 6 Recent Grads Reflect on Life After Studies

It was Irvine Welsh who authored a collection of short stories titled, “If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work”. As we’re prepping to launch our annual Fresh Meat graduate series in January 2016, this sentiment played in our minds and sparked some interesting questions. We were curious to check in with some of the young creatives we interviewed at the start of this year to find out about their first 12 months out in the working world. Did their expectations line up with reality? Was there anything they wish they’d known beforehand? And what have their biggest IRL learnings been? We spoke to 6 past grads to find out.

Lukhanyo Mdingi, 'Taintless'
Lukhanyo Mdingi, ‘Taintless’

Distinct young designer Lukhanyo Mdingi’s most recent SS16 collection ‘Taintless’ drew from Oriental aesthetics to blur the lines between his and her fashion, and was showcased in one of the most beautiful lookbooks we saw all year.

Catherine Holtzhausen made the transition from in-house designer to freelance illustrator and has been adding to her playful, ongoing collage series using paper offcuts while making a living doing commissions and selling art.

Former advertising student Stratos Efstathiou was launched into international waters after completing his studies when he landed an internship with Ogilvy in Hong Kong. For the past year (and the foreseeable future) he’s continued with the agency as an art director.

Amy Ayanda has spent the year travelling, writing music and making art. In May, just before leaving for Europe for three months, she released her debut EP ‘Ports‘ exploring a mixture of electronic, house and a bit of folk.

At the beginning of this year Tatenda Chidora chose to further his studies and work towards a degree which focused on commercial directed work. Personally, he’s busy with a documentary called The Place We Call Home, and Transverse, a series of everyday people portraits.

Derick van Wijk‘s stand-out graphic design style is bold, confident and mostly monochromatic. Coming from a branding school has helped develop his systemic way of thinking, which he’s been putting to good practise while running a one-man design studio this year.

Derick van Wyk
Derick van Wijk

First things first. Are you doing now what you thought you’d be doing this time last year? How have you been making a living?

Lukhanyo Mdingi: Definitely not. It’s pretty crazy now that I think about it. Within my final graduate year I knew that fashion retail was something that I didn’t want to pursue. Having my own label was the goal, but having it before graduation was pretty unreal. I always thought that 2015 would be a year where I would take it easy, save and finally use the time to travel. I cannot be happier knowing that I made a complete 360 on that decision. Embarking on this journey of creating the Lukhanyo Mdingi label has been incredibly enriching. Of course, I’ve had my peaks and valleys, but by being consistent and persevering, it’s brought only goodness and fulfilment.

Catherine Holtzhausen: I didn’t really know what I’d be doing this time last year, so I guess not. I started the year by working as an in-house graphic designer. After 6 months I traded my keyboard (and back pain) in for my scissors. Since then I set out to produce one illustration a day as well as figure out how the heck to make illustration a full time thing. Living wise, I’ve been doing some commissions, editorial work, wholesale, participating in the odd exhibition and recently I launched my online print store, which after much stress and inner turmoil, seems to be doing alright.

Stratos Efstathiou: The job that I have now came off the internship I completed here at Ogilvy, Hong Kong. Nothing was guaranteed from our internship but we performed well and Ogilvy liked what we did and they hired us. And this is how I’m currently making a living, as an art director.

Amy Ayanda: I am currently working a part time job, getting my painting studio up and running as well as performing with my new Amy Ayanda band. I am earning from all these things. Since I have been back from Europe (August) I have been playing shows and have been making money! Which is something I did not think would happen, honestly. People have received my music extremely well this year, even though I have only released an EP of four tracks!

Tatenda Chidora: I would like to say yes. I sincerely tried to keep the train on the planned track. I decided to further my studies in photography, going from a National Diploma to a Degree qualification. Comparing this year to past years of studying, I wasn’t at university full-time which was great, though I was full-time in doing research for the degree program. This year was cumbersome because I’d work during the day and at night I still had to complete my school material. I found that the only way to get into the industry was by assisting prominent photographers who exposed me to the practical side of what I had been taught at university. This will form the foundation for the direction I’d love to take going forward.

Derick van Wijk: The plan for this past year was to work with clients whilst primarily developing my skills further – keeping a high standard of work, trying new mediums, tightening up others and pushing myself further than I thought I’d go.

Stratos Efstathiou, 'Chinese Fan' (personal work)
Stratos Efstathiou, Chinese Fan (personal work)

Have you put what you learnt during your studies into direct practice? 

Stratos: Yeah for sure. The biggest thing that I brought from AAA was the brainstorming process and the way that we have to think of different ideas from all different angles. Now at work, when you think you’ve run out of ideas, you have to push it further and think of more.

Tatenda: Yes, yes and yes. I give honour to my lecturers, they did a great job. Being an assistant photographer means you’re in charge of most of the technical requirements for a shoot. And I can say that I was exposed to most of it at university. The skills in lighting, Photoshop, setting up, logistics, creating a workflow and even making coffee for the clients, all these were put into direct practice. I just has to adjust to working with different people and personalities.

Derick: Definitely. I came from a branding school and it certainly helped develop a systemic way of thinking. To see the whole picture. I always saw studying as a way of adding to my skill set, as I came from a visual merchandising background in London, rather than to simply ‘attain a degree and start working’. I had been working for 3 years prior to my studies and it altogether allowed me to look a lot further than physical design – toward the experiential thinking behind a project. Working out design experiences, so that immediately connections are made with the audience, loud or quiet, making a communication rounder and full. This is becoming more and more important.

Catherine: Well yeah, I mean I minored in graphic design, majored in illustration, so on paper it would seem so. But it definitely feels like I’m learning everything all over again.

Lukhanyo: Completely. However, in my case, what I learnt in varsity compared to what I’ve learnt in the real world are worlds apart. The practicalities of garment construction have given me a solid ground to work on, allowing me to further engage with my CMT’s on a more professional level. Emotionally, I think university gave me preliminary tasks that challenged my work ethic. 2015 has been a year of an extension onto these things. The working world and the studying world are dramatically different, but the latter definitely creates the foundation blocks to use as a spring-board to leap off of after graduating.

Amy: Definitely, perhaps a bit too much, which is why I feel like I have not made anything I feel confident about exhibiting yet.

Amy Ayanda
Amy Ayanda, ‘Take Flight’ (for Alice Phoebe Lou’s new album)

How did you find the adjustment from being a student to forging a career? Is there anything you wish you’d known beforehand?

Catherine: There have been many days I’ve wanted my mommy or to just tap out of freelancing and get a “real job.” but it’s actually hella rewarding to pat yourself on the back every time you get adulting right. I’ve had to figure out a lot of business skills, merging into the art scene, wholesale, etc. In all honesty I basically just learnt how to make pretty pictures, so it would have been nice to learn some of the practical applications and the business side of it all.

Amy: I have always worked during my studies so in regards to working a job, I did not find that challenging. I guess when it came to how I will be taking my career further as an artist, I still feel as though I have not adjusted. I think I have a lot to work on regarding my paintings as well as my music to figure out exactly what I am trying to do. Being a full time artist is difficult, especially when you have other monthly expenses, no one tells you how tough it is and no one tells you to just keep going even when you feel like it may not work out.

Derick: I’m grateful that the adjustment unfolded itself. I’ve learnt a lot this year. I was lucky enough to have some great clients, and got myself a studio space with my friends at Palm Black on Harrington St.

Lukhanyo: No. I’ve loved the emotional journey of it. Even typing this email right now, I’ve taken the time to truly reflect on all that has happened to me this year. Being unprepared for the unexpected has been a classic recurring role for me during the course of 2015. It’s given me the opportunity to see my resilience, to test my perseverance and to take responsibility when needed to.

Stratos: The biggest adjustment has been the speed at which things need to be done. As a student we maybe had two weeks for a brief. In the industry we have about three or four live briefs running simultaneously. We have great mentors at work so if it feels like if I don’t know something or am struggling a bit they’re there to help and break things down for me to understand.

Tatenda: Well, I had to do both, but I still had to adjust. The transition is quite different because your character and will have to take over. You have to position yourself for excellence because there is no one who will come after you. You are not just an assistant, you’re helping to shape the future of the person whom you’re serving that day. So one has to be prepared mentally, emotionally and be ready to take in whatever there is to be learnt. As a student you are taught what can can’t happen when you work, but this only becomes real when you are in it.

Tatenda Chidora, 'Zamokuhle'
Tatenda Chidora, ‘Zamokuhle’

What have been some of your biggest IRL learnings post studying this year?

Derick: Because of freelancing, I’ve learnt how to run myself as a small studio. Dealing with clients, doing paperwork, being a copywriter on the fly, creative input/output, when to push an idea further for the better, when to hold back and when to meet halfway to make sure a client’s original vision is never compromised. Also how important it is to seek advice when you need it and bounce ideas off of one another. Thank you Thomas.

Amy: I found out I was pregnant while in Berlin; I had very different plans for my future regarding where I would be this year and next. Studying abroad was one of my main goals as well as working on my music a lot more. I think that something I have learnt is that it won’t work out as planned. Things will happen that you do not expect but you need to just move with it. As a result of not being able to study abroad I have realised that this is where I want to be, I believe in this country and what we have to offer as young creatives.  Education is something which not many people get in our country and I would like to give that back.

Tatenda: That things in life never shape up the way we want them to. I have learnt a lot in this year. As an artist the path to follow is far less directed than other professions, so one has to be a self-starter. I learnt to reach out so that whatever I need done can be done. I learnt that without consistency and accuracy, growth will be stunted. There is so much information circulating and we need to keep learning every day.

Stratos: How expensive shit is. As a student and living at home before, I didn’t really notice the cost of things like rent, tax and pension, etc. Living in Hong Kong too has already taught and showed me so much about people, cultures and how big the world actually is.

Lukhanyo: The dangers of comfort zones. It’s a completely different world when you’re in the working field. So just adjusting to those things that used to be pleasures has been quite interesting. 

Catherine: Taxes. Definitely taxes. This year has basically been the year of “skool geld.” Figuring out taxes, shipping, packaging, pricing, all the boring things.

Catherine Holtzhausen, zine spreads
Catherine Holtzhausen, zine spreads

What advice would you give to someone who’s just graduated and finds themselves in the position you were in a year ago?

Derick: Listen to your gut, focus, don’t get caught up.

Catherine: If you’re in the position to just produce work and make art every day, do it. Try not to worry so much about money. You should to be experimenting, making, learning, playing, finding yourself, getting your shit together and putting yourself out there. Even the bad work. There are too many egos out there.

Stratos: Have goals. Act short term, think long term and don’t stop until you get where and what you want.

Amy: Take every opportunity you are able to, people are interested in you even if you think they are not. Creatives are what people need and want, they are able to think on their feet. Differently. If you feel stuck, that is also ok. Be open to the space of uncertainty!

Tatenda: Know what you want in life and the direction you would want to go. Always learn something from the people you work with. Find a mentor, someone who is close to where you would want to be in life. Find a way of getting direct input and working with or shadowing them, even when there’s no pay, because knowledge is priceless. Keep up with the pulse and trends else you might be left behind. Ideas are not ideas until you write them down and action them. Do a lot a research. Keep going, eggs never hatch at the same time.

Lukhanyo: When opportunities come along that you believe will lead you on the right path, take them. Nerves, and sometimes doubt will come to mind, but feeling those cliché emotions are needed in order for you to truly suss out whether you’re on the right track or not.

Lukhanyo Mdingi, 'Taintless'
Lukhanyo Mdingi, ‘Taintless’

What were your highlights of 2015?

Tatenda: The curtain opener for 2015 was being featured in the 10and5 Fresh Meat series that set the tone for the year. The Unordinary exhibition at the Watershed directed traffic to me. I was featured in a few other group exhibitions and I sold some of my art works. I got exposed to some great photographers, whom I worked with on some great projects as their assistant. I nearly dropped out because of the pressure between work and doing my thesis and practical work but in the end, I finished by degree.

Catherine: Well, being featured by Dallas Clayton and hearing that he enjoyed my work was pretty amazing, Also, ArtMode 2015, where I got to exhibit and work alongside my pieces. But I think overall just having the balls to quit my job, go for my passion, and not fail has been nice.

Derick: Making work for the Goodman Gallery was great, collaborating with great local brands, spending a month in Singapore and Bangkok, screen-printing for a First Thursday exhibition and navigating my way around other mediums of making things are all standouts. Lots of exciting/scary plans for next year.

Amy: Performing at Design Indaba, releasing an EP, travelling Europe, singing Main Stage at Rocking the Daisies, growing a human!

Lukhanyo: Definitely having the opportunity to create. This has led to me having spent time and learning so much about life; because the Lukhanyo Mdingi label is a communal home to so many distinct individuals. None of them will ever know the amount of gratification I have towards them because there are no words for me to use. I love them.

Stratos: Work wise it has to be when some of my squid ink illustrations were produced on decals to go on the trams around Hong Kong. Walking in the street and then BAM! spotting them on the tram driving past, was a great feeling.

Stratos Efstathiou, Shangri - La Hotels & Resorts: International Festival of Gastronomy (Squid Ink Chef Portrait Illustrations)
Stratos Efstathiou, Shangri – La Hotels & Resorts: International Festival of Gastronomy (Squid Ink Chef Portrait Illustrations)

Would you like to study forever?

Tatenda: When you stop learning, that’s when you grow old. So for me, yes! I would like to teach one day. Hence, I need to keep learning. I’m considering doing my Masters. 

Amy: Definitely not, I think I have learnt more this year about myself and other people than I ever have throughout my entire four years of studies. But I am definitely going back! 

Stratos: I enjoy working. If I ever had to study again though I would do something in film, maybe something like cinematography or I would study fine art.

Derick: Definitely not! Haha. Although I respect academics that put in long legs of studying, I’d definitely get a bit too antsy to get down to it.

Lukhanyo: Totally. Lessons get thrown at me constantly in everyday life. Day after day, I find myself continuously learning from the exterior world and my immediate environments. It’s called the school of life.

Catherine: Most definitely. Are you offering?

Catherine Holtzhausen, 'Knees Up Mother Brown'
Catherine Holtzhausen, ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’
Tatenda Chidora, 'Lucho'
Tatenda Chidora, ‘Lucho’
Derick van Wyk
Derick van Wijk
Amy Ayanda
Amy Ayanda, ‘My first painting of District Six’ (work in progress)

Fresh Meat 2016 kicks off on 11 January, keep your eyes peeled!

Comments are closed.