Congratulations, You've Graduated - So What Now?

You’ve spent the last few years thinking about your craft and developing a signature style, but how do you convert all that hard work into your own business?

Degree shows and end of year showcases such as New Designers are an essential stepping stone into the professional world, says Joseph Hartley, a designer-maker who has set up his own business following graduation with a BA Hons Three Dimensional Design from Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Artin 2012. 

For students entering the market for the first time, these trade shows can be daunting to navigate though. We asked Joseph Hartley, who was named as New Designer of the Year at New Designers 2012, and Sharon Blakey, his programme leader at Manchester School of Art, for their advice on how to make the most of these opportunities.

Joseph Hartley
New Designer of the Year 2012


I exhibited in a couple of shows during my second year, which were good practice, but nothing on the scale of New Designers. The best preparation I can recommend is to go and experience it for yourself in the years before you plan to exhibit there. It’s the best insight you can get. Talk to the exhibitors and ask them questions, chat to other people who are there. I found that people who I’d seen exhibit as a visitor came back to look at my work the following year. It was a nice reversal of roles and they were then able to tell me what they did afterwards.

You already know your work inside out, but this is an opportunity for other people to meet you and find out about what you do. I made sure that I was going to look presentable. I had a haircut the week before and made myself a jacket that was in keeping with my work. I also wore an apron which was part of my collection. When people asked where it came from I asked if they wanted to come and see the rest of my work.

At the show I was nervous at first, but as soon as people started asking questions it just came out. Through talking to people I learnt things about my work that I didn’t even realise when I made it. You get better at talking about your work with practice, so make sure that you talk to everybody. Some of the best contacts I made were through people who I least expected to be interested.

Be prepared to adjust your pitch depending on who you’re talking to though. Watch how they react to what you’re saying, how their faces change. After the first few it gets easier; you develop what you say organically. Be flexible and fluid, it makes it more fun that just repeating yourself over and over again.

The feedback I got was that my work was good, but the way I engaged with people amplified that. Many people exhibiting at shows complain that their work doesn’t get seen. My work was quite hidden at New Designers, but people will find what they’re looking for, even the awards judges.

Your work is under scrutiny, but it’s still a relatively safe environment. It’s a stepping stone into professional practice. The questions people have to ask about your work are really important. People are quite honest, so take on board their advice, or at very least digest it and perceive it. The first time someone said something critical about my work I was a bit taken back, but you become prepared for it. I saw some people get very defensive or even angry, but when it happens, look at it as an opportunity. Ask them more questions and try to get more out of them about what they like and don’t like.

Of the 12 objects I had in my range when I went to New Designers, some of those I thought were the best didn’t get any feedback, while others really grabbed people. It was helpful to see what the most popular items were, and the most popular aspects of each item. You can incorporate this feedback into your future work to make it more popular and appealing to your audience.

I took business cards with me, but I also made nice postcard packs, pegged together, which I gave to anybody I particularly liked. I also started a blog in my second year and still use it as my website. It’s important to have an online presence, so that even if people just search for your name or find one of your business cards they’ll be reminded of the work that they saw and why the liked it.

At New Designers 2012 I was fortunate to be named as New Designer of the Year, so I gained a lot of interest and thankfully took a lot of orders. Getting back to everybody is really important but it’s also important to prioritise. I found that during the show I started making mental notes about which contacts I needed to get back to first, but you might want to devise a more formal system. I went straight back to some people on the same day that I met them and others up to a week afterwards. For me it wasn’t just the quality of what they offered, but how well I got on with them – that connection felt important. When I contacted people I clearly explained that I was making work to commission, rather than holding stock, and kept them informed throughout the process about when they might be able to expect the work.   

I didn’t have my own studio when I attended New Designers, so when I returned to Manchester the first thing I did was establish a means of making work to fulfil orders. It was a nice way to start my business, knowing that I already had orders before making, but I had to very quickly digest what had happened and make some important decisions. For the first year I said yes to everything, so it did feel a bit overwhelming at times, but now I’m managing my time better and able to work out exactly what it is that I want to do and take the pro-active steps I need to get there.

Sharon Blakey
Joint Programme Leader
BA Hons Three Dimensional Design
School of Art
Manchester Metropolitan University

The Three Dimensional Design programme at Manchester Metropolitan University focuses on the objects that surround us, from the cherished personal to the everyday functional. With a hands-on approach to making, the programme encourages students to discover the potential for producing objects that blend the best traditions of hand-making, with the technologies of machine and digital manufacturing. We cover a wide range of materials and hand processes, from ceramics, slip casting, glass, metalwork and jewellery, to machine processes, furniture, product design, laser cutting and 3D printing. We help students develop a personal working practice within the context of craft and production making and equip them with the skills to achieve their own personal and professional ambitions.

For students, the end of year shows and trade showcases such as New Designers are about finding and engaging an audience for the practice they have developed. As such, we don't tend to focus on the degree show itself, but spend the whole final year concentrating on the development of work and contextualising practice to a professional standard. Successful shows are a natural consequence of this.


My first bit of advice would be to do your research before you go. Make sure that the shows you apply for are the right ones for you. Think about where you are going to find an appropriate audience for your work. 

Awareness is important. Analyse existing practice and then challenge it. Be innovative. Don't look to others for ideas, but instead develop your own genuine programme of enquiry. Joseph is a very good example of this. His interrogation of the bread making process and his application of hand-crafted methods to product design led to a unique collection of functional objects in clay, wood and cloth.

As you approach the show, make sure you plan your time carefully. The materials you work with will govern your timetable to a large degree, so build this into your schedule. Alongside the work you will need a portfolio that clearly articulates and conveys the narrative journey that your work has taken: your research, your ideas, your testing and your development. This is what people are really interested in.  Make sure you allow enough time for this, presentation always takes longer than you think.

Your portfolio is a big part of your professional profile and helps you display your work in a professional context, from your CV and business cards to your promotional pack and website. Screen based media has opened up a world of possibilities for communicating your work – perhaps a video would be the best way to articulate your journey, or an audio slideshow? You could recruit friends with other talents such as photography, film-making or web design to help you.

At the show

At the show itself, make sure that you talk to people and engage them in discussion. Engagement is not just about what you say though; it’s about how you present yourself. Look professional, look interested in your work. Smile. Be attentive. Avoid looking bored and whatever you do don’t slouch around or sit on the floor. Don’t do gimmicks unless they are appropriate to your work and your narrative. If you do decide to do something out of the ordinary, maintain your integrity.

People come to degree shows from a wide array of backgrounds and you never know who might walk through the door. Sometimes it can feel very demoralising if people don’t show an interest in your work, but try not to let this get to you. The next person could be your ideal customer.

Top tips

1. Be personable and presentable – talk to people, smile
2. Be pro-active – don’t wait to be discovered, engage your public. Invite people to your stand. Follow up with the people that you talk to.
3. Make contacts – make sure you have a comments book for people to leave their details; this will be the start of your mailing list.

Joseph Hartley, New Designer of the Year 2012, is a designer/maker who is now stocked at FAO, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Ferrious:

This year’s graduates from Manchester Metropolitan University School of Art’s BA Hons Three Dimensional Design will be exhibiting their work at New Designers from 26 - 29 June: /

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