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Industry Insight: Ellie Hegarty, Graphic Designer

For our first ever Industry Insight article, we interview Ellie Hegarty, a London based Graphic Designer who currently works as the Lead Designer at a non-profit social enterprise, Innovation Unit, who work to create change in existing services in the UK in mental health, education and children’s social care.

Ellie gives us a glimpse into her life, her career, and offers invaluable words of wisdom to those wishing to undertake a career in the design industry. You can view Ellie’s work on her website.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your work?

My name is Ellie and I am a graphic designer. I currently work at a non-profit social enterprise as the only graphic designer in the organisation. I enjoy having the creative agency to develop my own practice alongside lifting up the organisation’s values and principles. I specialise in illustration, brand identity and publishing.

How did you get to the point you are at now?

  1. I studied Fine Art at Newcastle University and graduated in 2015. It was a great degree, but towards the end of my time at Newcastle I found myself being a lot more passionate and directive about how the degree show promotional material should be designed and presented, instead of the actual art I was supposed to be doing. 

  2. After this, I knew that graphic design was something I wanted to do as a job, but I was very aware that I didn’t have ‘official’ design education and wasn’t confident in any Adobe programmes except Photoshop.

  3. It took a few years to decompress from university and feel ready to begin studying again to change paths. On a post-graduate-panic-whim, I moved to abroad to au pair, which was a disaster, I was fired twice and left four months later. The whole experience pushed me really far emotionally, as I was doing something I really wasn’t good at, in a language I wasn’t good at, with bad employers. But since then I feel reassured that I don’t have to use all my energy to work on something that doesn’t feel right to begin with, and there’s no shame in letting things go, which is also a really good skill that I didn’t have before, so no regrets.

  4. When I moved back, I did a few freelance graphic design jobs, and started an internship at a luxury fashion brand. I heard about the temporary role through my sister’s friend. It was to do some photo-retouching of product photographs for two weeks, and after a very short interview, I started immediately. They contacted me again for the next season, and then after that my internship was extended, and I started doing other tasks within the production department. It felt amazing to be good at something and to be acknowledged as such, and my confidence came back quickly.

  5. By building good relationships with a few colleagues there, it meant that when a vacancy came up for an assistant, I was able to get a full time job quite easily. Working there was a really positive working experience for me and helped me to develop high standards of working practice, a culture of assertiveness and ownership of my work, and to understand what was important to me in my career. The office was mostly women, and run by a woman, so it was really empowering environment in terms of using your voice and being heard, even in my assistant role. I loved working closely with people who were so passionate about the integrity of the brand, as well as material suppliers who had such refined crafts and skills. It was very inspiring.

  6. In 2018 I studied at Shillington College, which is an intensive, 3 month course in graphic design. I didn’t want to go back to university to study for a year or more, so this felt like a good option for me. Each day is modelled on a working day in a studio environment and was fast-paced and intense. For a while you feel like nothing is happening and you’re not learning how to be “good”, and then one day it does suddenly click and it is a great feeling. The atmosphere there is very positive and encouraging, and I would recommend it to anyone looking to start graphic design quickly. 

  7. After Shillington, I landed a job at a non-profit organisation as the only graphic designer which was amazing and I still feel very lucky to have gotten. When I got the job, they said my previous working experience, which, although was not design based, made them feel sure that I would work well in their environment as I had shown that I could work under pressure effectively and use my voice.

Can you tell us about a role model who has inspired you?  Not a designer, but Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. She is a woman around my age, has achieved so much, and I am always moved by her impressive public speaking. I aspire to be able to speak with as much integrity and power as she does. She is also is unapologetic about being a young, feminine woman in a largely male space. She doesn’t just ‘act like a man would’, she owns her femininity, wears makeup, uses Instagram stories for her work, does videos with Vogue, and has still created a significant space for herself in Congress, which is so admirable to me. She reminds me that being a young woman doesn’t mean you cannot achieve great things or be taken seriously, which is something that I do unconsciously think about often.

When you were a child, what career did you see yourself having?

It was a toss up between something creative (illustrator, artist) and something animal related, just because they are cute (zoo keeper or vet). I spent most of my time as a child quietly drawing animals, which was a happy middle point. I also played a lot on Photoshop, which turned out to be useful later on.

Favourite cultural product at the moment?

At the moment and always, National Geographic magazine. It appeals to my animal love, as well as having really impressive and beautiful designs in infographics and layouts.

What do you think is the biggest issue today facing women in the creative industries?

For me as an introverted woman, it has taken a while to find my voice and use it in a way that is successful. In the ‘real world’ my voice isn’t always received in the same way as I imagine it to be, and that, sadly, just behaving ‘like a man would’ has never worked well for me, as women have another hidden layer of prejudice to navigate. I don’t want to feel I have to shrink myself, but at the same time women have to approach conversations in a different way to achieve success, that involves other methods that aren’t spoken about, they are just learned over time. I think more needs to be addressed with young women at work on how they can navigate this male space successfully without changing who they are, and to be able to be taken as seriously as a man with the same level of experience as them.

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?

I have, in many roles, have been made to feel wrong for asserting myself. When you are alone, or it is your first job, in this situation it can be easy to believe whoever is telling you that you are wrong. For me, I have always found my confidence and self-assurance through conversations with other women. By having a team of supporters it makes tackling these barriers seem so much more achievable and allows you all to feel more empowered, and that you are doing the right thing by using your voice. I aspire to be like the most impactful female colleagues I’ve had: the ones who stick up for each other, who genuinely care for your goals and help you to achieve them and fight for your corner, in times when you aren’t able to yourself.

As its Women’s History Month, what is the most important message you want to send out to young female-identifying creatives thinking about their careers? Any resources you’ve found useful?

Try not to plan too much, or put pressure on where you are going to end up. Try to take every opportunity that comes your way (even if it feels like a detour, you don’t know who you will meet or what you will learn that will be useful later), and follow your gut – it will lead you to where you need to go. Also, it’s okay to quit, and it’s okay to get fired! The most important thing is to keep going and keep following what feels right.

‘Women Design’ by Libby Sellers – reassuring history of pioneering women in design, and how much we have progressed in the workplace thanks to them.

‘How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul’ by Adrian Shaughnessy – realistic outlook on what life is actually like as a designer, as well as a lot of useful career advice

Where can we find you? (Social links, website etc.)


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