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Director Spotlight: Holly Karlsson, Shillington School

By Liz Eggleston
Last Updated October 7, 2014


Holly Karlsson is the Director of Shillington School in New York, a graphic design school teaching both full-time and part-time courses. We talk to Holly about student visas (a unique offering from Shillington), their student-to-teacher ratio, and how they adapt to the changing world of graphic design. 


Tell us about your background and how you got involved with Shillington.

Shillington has been around for 20 years. We started in Australia where we have 3 campuses in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. We then opened two more campuses in the UK in London and Manchester and we launched the New York campus five years ago.

Andy Shillington, our CEO, was running a design studio and he struggled to find junior designers with the practical and technical knowledge that he required so he decided to started Shillington Education and turn the typical education model upside down.

I had been a graphic designer for 8 years working in London mainly for advertising, branding & packaging studios. I had a real desire to teach but felt a real world education didn’t exist until I came across Shillington. I had to be part of it so I started lecturing at Shillington’s London campus.  I was then given the opportunity to move to New York and start Shillington’s newest campus in the heart of midtown.


What is the teaching approach like at Shillington?

We cultivate a studio environment throughout a student’s time here. From the second day of the course we’re briefing our students in the same way they would be briefed by an account manager or a client. We try to replicate industry timescales for briefs, working to deadlines from two hours to two and a half days. We start at 8am and finish at 5pm, so the rhythm of a working day is pretty similar to that of a studio which we believe sets a student up to seamlessly enter the design industry upon graduation.

Now more than ever studios need to turn work around quickly to meet market needs and to run viable businesses. Designers who can think on their feet, manage their time effectively and are technically proficient are highly sought-after. We encourage students to present their ideas and their designs so they became comfortable with presenting and they are critiqued in a variety of ways reminiscent of the feedback received by clients. This enables the student to push their ideas and designs further.

During the course a student designs around 30 diverse briefs, including branding, packaging, advertising campaigns, digital publishing, UX, websites & corporate design; we fit alot in!


Are those all assigned projects or would a student come in with their own idea and work on it there?

All the briefs are assigned and are constantly updated to meet industry needs. We teach and then encourage a student to research, brainstorm and thumbnail before they start on the mac, enabling them to create original ideas that answer the brief and are as unique as possible

For all the briefs at Shillington there’s always a targeted demographic, a realistic deadline and client requests and restrictions as there would be in the industry. 


Shillington has been around for 20 years and in New York, even 5 years is a long time. Do you have a curriculum team or a team that is redefining what the learning objectives are? How are you keeping up?

All our teachers are practicing graphic designers and we all contribute to the course curriculum. The teachers every week have allocated time to work on new content for the course. Due to this, our course is ever evolving we can quickly adapt course content to reflect what is needed in the industry.


Are those instructors fulltime with Shillington or are they doing their own projects and working with Shillington part-time?

All my teachers contribute to the course content. We contribute to course content using a cloud based program so we can all update course content in real time so it’s reflected in all of our campuses internationally

Because of this linear company structure, everyone is encouraged to contribute. We are all graphic designers who work for Shillington including all the admin staff, so there are always alot of ideas floating around!


What do you look for in an instructor?

I ensure that the graphic designers I hire to be instructors at Shillington are talented, inspirational and down to earth. They teach from their experiences in the industry and we want to foster an inspirational learning environment for our students.


Does everyone have a hand in the admission process?

Yes. We are a very small school and pride ourselves on this. We have no admissions department, no sales teams; everyone who works at Shillington speaks with potential students.  When someone pops in to check out the school or phones up you will be directly speaking to one of the teachers, graduates students or myself! We want the teachers speaking directly to potential students they may teach. We all believe in what we do here at Shillington so it is easy to talk about it!


What are those admissions requirements? Do you have a technical interview or is there an ideal background that you look for?

The only requirement we need is a minimum of a high school diploma. Apart from that, no experience is necessary whatsoever.

We offer our students the best chance of employment as a grpahic design by laying that foundation of design theory and real world practice. We don’t say that we’re the be all and end all; it’s about getting that all important foot in the door of a creative studio. Lets face it, your real education starts when you’re actually in your first job, learning at the coal face.


How do you manage to issue student visas?

I am so happy that Shillington (US) can now offer M1 visas to eligible international students. We typically have a 40% international 60% Local split of students and having a great mix of cultures and experiences really adds to the Shillington experience.

The M1 visa enables students to enter 30 days before the course starts, the course entirety and 30 days after the course finishes to leave the US. This is a wonderful opportunity for students from countries such as the UK, Australia & Scandinavia to come to Shillington and study and enjoy all that New York has to offer!

The application process was somewhat lengthy and involved but our course curriculum, facilities, equipment, teachers and portfolios were reviewed and the fact we have so many students gaining jobs as graphic designers enabled us to be approved!


Wow- that’s a lot of accountability.

It is, for sure but it is worth it; We have a high graduation rate at Shillington as our students are passionate about design and they want to make it into the design industry. We are strict with attendance, our course is fast moving and intense, if you miss 10 minutes you have missed alot! We run Shillington like a studio, you wouldn’t be late for your job so why be late for School?


So 46 students in this 3-month, fulltime course that’s just started?

Yes, that is correct, the full time 3 month courses run 3 times a year in September, January and April.  The 2 part-time classes run 2 nights a week from September through to July.


How many instructors do you have at any time? What’s the ratio?

We have 2 teachers per 23 students maximum per class. We have two classrooms spread over one whole floor in Midtown. It’s a great inspirational place to study.


Where’s the Shillington classroom in New York?

The school is right opposite Grand Central Station. We chose this location for its transport links and the area has good choices for cafes, shops and amenities. We have Bryant Park 3 minute walk away and of course the New York Public Library.


Do you find that most of the students that are coming to Shillington are coming to graduate and get a job at a company? Or are there other outcomes?

We have students attending for a varied range of reasons. We have our “typical” mid to late 20s creative career changers who want to become graphic designers but then there’s a whole range of other people that come and study at Shillington. We have companies that fund their employee’s education so they can use their new skills they learnt at Shillington to benefit their current place of work. We have people who have their own businesses, that want to create their own brand, website, marketing and advertising material.

We get quite a few creative or art directors that aren’t technically skilled so they come and do the course and go back to their job with their added skill set. They can then technically critique their designers and manage realistic timings and processes. Graduates may not necessarily design when they graduate from Shillington but the skills they learn whilst here can be applied to so many roles.

Having all these different people come and study at Shillington enhances our learning environment - what is fantastic is everyone is excited to be with us!


Does Shillington work with hiring partners to place students?

We don’t have an official placement scheme but we have so many connections. We actually had Creative Circle, a recruiter, come into our open houses because they were seeing our graduates approach them and they were so blown away by how good the portfolios looked that they wanted to see what we were all about. We also have creative directors approach us as they have heard of us and have seen the students work for themselves. They often hire one Shillington graduate and then see how seamlessly they have fitted into their studio that they ask for more student referrals.


Shillington does not take a referral fee?

Absolutely not. For us, Having Shillington graduates hired is the ultimate icing on the cake. We want these talented people to get jobs. We’ve a lot of connections that literally come to us to seek out our graduates.

We have a LinkedIn graduate group that I post jobs on; we also have a jobs board on our blog. So we are actively helping, but we obviously can’t guarantee jobs.

We do find that more and more people are contacting us, wanting to employ Shillington students because they’re finding that our graduates can create really great work and they can also do it to a deadline – and that’s what it’s about in the industry. It’s not just about designing something that may take you 6 weeks; it’s about designing something in a realistic timeframe and to present that to your client.


I saw on the website that there’s a shorter form week-long web development class. Is there any chance that Shillington might do a web development immersive or expand outside of New York or any plans for the future there?

There are lots of plans in the making. There are some new and exciting short courses coming soon. There’s going to be everything from digital courses, hand lettering workshops, copywriting lectures & many more - We will be unveiling these very soon!


Want to learn more about Shillington School? Check out their School Page on Course Report or their website here!

About The Author

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Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students researching coding bootcamps. Her research has been cited in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube!

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