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Meet AJ McLaughlin, Shillington Graduate and Art Director at Cyclone

Shillington Melbourne scholarship graduate AJ McLaughlin has always had a career goal to work as an art director before studying at Shillington and just six months into his part-time graphic design course with us he achieved that goal and became an Art Director at Melbourne based advertising agency, Cyclone. The course was a major factor in AJ landing his new role, as it helped consolidate all of the experience he had prior—further enhancing his creative thinking and process.

Why Shillington? What made you choose to study with us?

My career goal has always been to work as an Art Director. Advertising is a notoriously difficult industry to break into, so I had to get a bit creative to land a job with my Economics degree. When I landed in Melbourne three years ago, I found myself knocking on doors of agencies I wanted to work at, creating videos to introduce myself and messaging just about everyone my basic LinkedIn plan would allow. Without a design degree, I quickly realised that I could only get so far. Shillington had been sitting in my bookmarks for years and after months of humming and hawing, I signed up for the info session.  

You made a change over from what you were previously doing to design—what inspired you to take the leap?

Throughout my short career up to this point I had always worked in creative fields. I found myself up late trying to teach myself how to mask an object in Illustrator or the correct process to export in InDesign.

Being self-taught through YouTube can only really get you so far.

YouTube is an incredible resource, but you miss out on the fundamental processes trying to patch together a series of videos. You can’t ask for feedback, there’s no space for questions and you certainly won’t make any friends along the way.

What have you been up to since graduation? How has your life changed after Shillington?

6 months into my Shillington course I was lucky to have picked up my career goal of becoming an Art Director at a Melbourne based advertising agency, Cyclone.

Despite only being halfway through my course, Shillington was a major factor in getting that role. It had consolidated all of the experience I had prior to starting my studies and charged my creative thinking process.

Since starting at Cyclone I’ve worked on some pretty epic briefs across accounts like Dulux, RMIT and Nimble. 

Any recent professional projects you can tell us about?

One of the first projects I worked on since I graduated allowed me to seriously flex the skills I picked up at Shillington. I worked with a leading University, RMIT, to develop a new visual identity for their STEM program. Along with my copywriter, we played with this double entendre idea, STEM from STEM. It was new and different for RMIT. Having to fight for an idea you know ultimately will have a better result for your client can be pretty rewarding when you get sign-off. The result is an idea that is distinctly ownable for university and something that they’re quite proud of.

Although it’s not design, I just had my first TVC launch this month. And, well, I love it. 

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

Having moved from Ireland to Melbourne three years before studying I didn’t necessarily have a strong creative network down under. This was a big factor of why I decided to study at Shillington.

Everyone was incredibly supportive of one another and we shared each other’s highs and lows. Luckily we all stay in touch and I’m heading up to visit an old classmate in Sydney at the end of the month.

As far as the teachers go. Because it’s such a non-traditional learning environment the relationships you form with the teachers are like nothing I would have had in University or secondary school. My teacher’s partner became my copywriter for a stint. 

What was your favourite brief on the course? Tell us your process!

Project: Campaign, Bad BloodAn open brief can often be a blessing and a curse. It can feel somewhat overwhelming not knowing where to start and which direction you might take with it.

Fortunately, I had been wanting to crack open a topic that’s close to home for me for the last few years. Under Australian law, gay men and trans women who have sex with men, aren’t permitted to donate blood if they’ve had sex in the last twelve months. Each year, more people die because gay men can’t give blood. As a result, each year, more gay men would give blood if they could.

I wanted to hero this desire to give blood by choosing the Red Cross as my client and hosting an illegal 24-hour blood drive.

I had landed on this gothic, religious space with my mood boards which I felt added an element of poignant irony given the topic. Once I had the idea and palettes locked in, the design followed a pretty organic approach. There’s a turning point throughout the course, granted that it’s different for every person but things begin to just click. This brief was right at the epicentre of this turning point. 

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

Shillington had been in my bookmarks for about two years before I decided to apply. Taunting me every time I open Google Chrome. Having looked through dozens of alternatives I immediately recognised that Shillington just gets it. I could go on and on about all of the different reasons why you should study here but I would most likely max out on my word count and I know there are hundreds of reviews online that can put it into words better than I can. But I will say this, Shillington has a reputation for being the best design school in the industry for a reason.

The teachers are world-class, the students are extremely motivated and the portfolio you walk out with will stand out from anything else that’s out there.

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

In the beginning, it’s quite easy to get frustrated with yourself and your work. You’ll be battling with some demons telling you that your design isn’t good enough. Know that you’re in the right place and you have a unique opportunity to make mistakes and explore different design styles from day one. Create something, and save it. Try again. Take your time, don’t get frustrated and make as many mistakes as you can. You can always hit cmd + z. 

Big thanks to AJ for sharing his creative journey with us! Make sure to check out his website and follow him on Instagram!

Feeling inspired by AJ’s design journey? Read all about Shillington’s innovative graphic design course and become a graphic designer in just three months full-time or nine months part-time.

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