Where talent guaranteed to maintain the country’s creative reputation is generated and grown...

When a degree course boasts award winning alumni whose portfolios include success in prestigious national and international design and illustration competitions, you can be sure the teaching, content and institution are all top quality. Which is why I’m about to give a shout-out to the University of Hertfordshire. This powerhouse of education consistently generates a talent guaranteed to maintain the country’s creative reputation and I’ve been privileged to talk to one of the lecturers as well as a couple of students to find out more.

‘We actively encourage students to enter competitions,’ says Dr Thom Cuschieri, Senior Lecturer in Illustration and Graphic Design. ‘During the second and third year we build these into the assignments and the University will typically pay for student entries.’

Great British Life: Becks (current 3rd year) My Tiny Town, Batsford Prize entry for 2023Becks (current 3rd year) My Tiny Town, Batsford Prize entry for 2023

Originally from Malta and with a career that began as a Maths tutor, Thom increasingly realised he was on the wrong path, eventually completing an MA in Illustration which ‘changed everything’. His role at University of Hertfordshire began eight years ago and he clearly revels in the role. ‘The nature of the subject, creating stories, bringing stuff to life, is fantastic. And I can’t imagine working anywhere else where I’d get on so well with my colleagues.’

While keeping his hand in as a freelance illustrator, Thom stresses the importance for students to build a portfolio. ‘It’s about their image making skills. Whilst it’s an asset, we don’t expect students to have completed an Art Foundation Course - in fact, we cover a lot of that ground in the first year. Our best students do tend to be the ones who grew up drawing on paper.’

Thom isn’t the only one who has instigated a career turnabout. One of his students, Mark Joshman, had a similar epiphany.

Great British Life: Celine Moya (MA graduate) TemptationCeline Moya (MA graduate) Temptation

‘I worked in a law firm as an administrator but wanted to do something different and have always loved creative work. Despite my secure job, I decided it was now or never and applied to Hertfordshire.’

With his eye on a career as a freelance illustrator focusing on picture books or editorial work, Mark enthuses about his last three years. ‘I’ve loved being surrounded by creatives and the lecturers are great. I also love the studio atmosphere. Prior to uni, I only did black and white portraits but I’ve been encouraged to experiment.’

For Mark, who insists the course has lived up to his expectations, one of its attractions is how it ‘promotes getting you ready for work life’.

Becky Steel, another mature student, is equally animated about her experience. She admits to having ‘always been an arty person’ while the variety of briefs has helped her push her boundaries. ‘The course has given me a good opportunity to try everything while also learning to time manage. And I’ve learned from guest speakers who have been from different areas of the creative industry.’ No wonder Becky, who spent last summer helping an artist with a digital project, remains open about her career options remain open – freelance illustration, maybe?

Great British Life: Charlotte Tisdale (BA graduate) Lobster ChefCharlotte Tisdale (BA graduate) Lobster Chef

Turning my attention back to Thom, he explains how the range of opportunities which both students expound is reflected in the techniques on offer.

‘We encourage both physical and digital processes. The number of students working digitally increases every year but we complement that by pushing the hand drawn approaches. Technologically, we are set up with the latest Macs, scanner etc but we also have a wonderful print room with printing presses, risograph machines, textile printers etc. What we find is, when everything clicks for a student, it becomes a combination. And we encourage an organic connection of all processes.’

Thom, however, stresses another point: computers can’t solve every problem, and certainly won’t turn every student into the next Quentin Blake. ‘Computers are a phenomenal tool. Nevertheless, you want to make sure you have an understanding of the processes underpinning the technology.’

Great British Life: Harry Woodgate (BA graduate) Timid, Published by Little Tiger 2022Harry Woodgate (BA graduate) Timid, Published by Little Tiger 2022

Given that there’s a first year overlap between Illustration and Graphic Design, a degree of collaboration between students is normal. In fact, Becky began studying Graphic Design before, 12 months in, switching to the ‘freedom’ of Illustration. ‘Our students start off with topics common to both graphic designers and illustrators,’ continues Thom, ‘before moving into a specific pathway. Even then though, illustration students may find themselves working with graphic designers on their briefs, and vice-versa.’

For creatives, whether or not they have a definite goal, this sounds like the perfect course. In fact, as Mark concludes, ‘I went to various Open Days but Herts was the most impressive.’ That’s quite a recommendation, isn’t it? Which is why, if you’re intent on maximizing your creativity, the county’s University of Hertfordshire might just be the place for you.


Great British Life: Valerya Milovanova (current 3rd year) I Am Upset, Batsford Prize entry for 2023Valerya Milovanova (current 3rd year) I Am Upset, Batsford Prize entry for 2023

Great British Life: Kay Wilson (BA graduate) Book covers for Elle McNicoll, Published by Knights of MediaKay Wilson (BA graduate) Book covers for Elle McNicoll, Published by Knights of Media