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From Lawyer to Designer—Ulrika Johnson, Shillington New York Graduate


Originally from Sweden, Ulrika Johnson spent 7 years of her career working as a lawyer. She had always felt a need to make beautiful things and enjoyed the creative challenge of having an idea and how to bring it to life. It was when her profession left no time for her passion projects that she decided to pursue graphic design full-time in New York.

After graduation in 2016, Ulrika landed a job at Elmwood brand consultancy and is currently working as a designer at Fantasia Accessories, a multi-directional fashion accessory company.

Read on to hear about transitioning careers, her passion projects, and advice to future Shillington students.

Prior to Shillington you were working in an entirely different career as a legal counsel. Tell us why you decided to change careers and take the plunge to study design.

From the age of 6 years old, art was my favorite subject in school. But oddly enough, I never considered art as something I could pursue as a profession, perhaps because no adult ever introduced or supported the idea of being an “artist.” Even though I’ve always spent most of my spare time on painting and crafts, it wasn’t until I began working as a lawyer that it really hit me. I finally had a career—but was it me? I didn’t decide to shift professions overnight. In fact, it happened very gradually over the course of 7 years as a lawyer.

I felt a growing and overwhelming need to express my creativity.

It just came to a point where I realized that I invested all my emotional energy and passion into my “hobby” instead of my job. There was no alternative except to turn my hobby into my career.

How did you find the Shillington classroom environment?

It was so inspiring! I had the privilege to meet and learn from teachers who were so knowledgeable, talented and dedicated. They were up-to-date on the latest styles and technical skills. They were also passionate about the craft of design and expected the same level of passion and respect from all of us. They were strict on punctuality and dedication—every class started right on time. The very tight schedule flowed into every detail, and we were pushed to do our absolute best every day. And then we were told to push it some more! The teachers created a classroom where everyone worked extremely hard with great focus, always encouraging and supporting each other. For this reason, we became close as a class.

What was your favourite subject during the course? Why?

Because everything was new to me, every subject was exciting. I think what I loved about Shillington was how well the program was planned, to the last detail and minute, with careful thought behind everything we did. It was a great mix of art history, art theory and technical skills. But if I have to pick one (or two) favorite subjects, I’ll say Color Theory and learning how to illustrate and create patterns in Adobe Illustrator.

Your portfolio has really strong work and I loved the concepts and execution. Did you have any favorite briefs?

Thank you! I have two favorites, but for different reasons. First “The Good Greens,” which was one of the later projects we did in the course. It is my favorite project because by that point I had gained enough knowledge to execute it how I wanted. It is a project that represents me very well, with its playful pattern and colors. My second favorite project was the “Saul Bass Exhibition,” because I had the opportunity to learn more about and be inspired by an artistic genius.

What was your biggest challenge during the course? Why?

The best thing with Shillington was the intensity and vast content of the curriculum.

However, in the midst of the program this was also the biggest challenge for me. Not having any prior skills or knowledge about design and the different software, I felt that we moved from one subject and project to another very quickly. It didn’t matter if you had understood perfectly what we just had talked about or if you had finished a project, we had to move on to the next thing. This was frustrating at times, but it’s also what made the Shillington course so effective—molding you into a graphic designer in three quick months.

Did you make any meaningful connections with teachers or students during the course?

Yes, definitely. As I said before, we all became pretty close. I regularly meet up with some of my classmates who stayed New York. Also, during the end of the course you get a mentor appointed to guide you through “portfolio week.” My mentor gave me so much great support during that time, and also after graduation when I had questions about the industry and applying for jobs.

What would you say to someone who is skeptical about the Shillington course?

If s/he is questioning whether or not you can truly become a graphic designer in three months, my classmates and I are living proof of that.

If you have a genuine desire to become a graphic designer and if you are ready to dedicate three months of your life to Shillington, focusing your energy on each project, you too can do it! I will always be amazed by how well the Shillington program was planned, thought through and up-to-date.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone starting at Shillington, what would it be?

Ask teachers about and research upcoming design contests for which you could qualify. I didn’t think about it nor did I know of any design contests in advance. So I really regret missing a few deadlines, since contests are an amazing opportunity to shine and showcase your work. Give everything, never give up, be curious and ask questions. I asked a ton of questions, and I also received a lot of valuable answers.

How did you feel at the beginning versus the end of the course?

I’ll describe my feelings at the beginning, middle and end of the course: Excited. Exhausted. Euphoric!

How was your experience during the job search? You landed your first design job in January 2017. Tell us about your experience working as a designer at Elmwood and how did the course further build your skill set?

It was actually through a Shillington contact that I got my job at Elmwood, just a few weeks after graduation. The introduction was helpful and very timely, since I contacted Elmwood just as they needed extra help. When I started, I was immediately thrown into the business and expected to deliver as any other designer at the firm. This was very scary at first, but also the absolute best way to learn. I felt prepared for a situation like that since our Shillington teachers always tried to create a realistic work environment and treat us as designers at a design studio with very tight deadlines, sometimes little feedback, and an expectation to always push a little further. At Elmwood, I learned so much from all the designers, and was grateful for the opportunity to build my technical skills and work speed/efficiency.

Tell us about your current role at Fantasia Accessories since September 2017. What projects have you been working on? Any hits?

I got this job through the staffing company Creative Circle. I started as a freelancer, but am currently working full-time in Fantasia’s beauty department, where I design fragrances, cosmetics, bath products, etc. for both kids, tweens and adults. We are hired by different retailers to design both non-licensed and licensed (Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm, etc.) products for them. In addition, Fantasia also owns their own brands and produces open stock items that are displayed in their showrooms and open for sale to any retailer. It might sound cheesy, but every day is a highlight for me. I feel so lucky that I’ve found a job that fits me so well in my design style and interest. I am so grateful that I have a lot of creative freedom, responsibility and variety in my job. I have been designing Disney fragrances and Marvel Comics bath fizzers, emoji-themed beauty gift sets and most recently photorealistic dogs with fun bling-bling accessories for next holiday season.

What do you love about being a designer?

I am proud of myself for having shifted careers, and I love being able to be me, and who I want to be.

I love being able to express my thoughts and ideas in colors and shapes, and having fun at work!

Outside of design, what are your favorite things to do?

Visit cute coffee shops to write cards and letters to friends and family, create my own greeting cards, cook and hang out with friends.

Are you working on any passion projects? Your Instagram has so much color, beautiful pattern illustrations and hand lettering.

Thank you so much! I feel like I’m always working on some passion projects. Last year I participated in “36 Days of Type” (a fun challenge that I highly recommend). I’ve also been refining some Shillington briefs. However, my big passion is designing my own greeting cards and patterns. I haven’t updated my Instagram in some time, but I’m working on a larger personal project that I will hopefully be able to share soon.

Huge thanks to Ulrika for sharing her story! Follow her on Instagram and website for more.

Study design 3 months full-time or 9 months part-time at Shillington in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, New York, London or Manchester –>

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