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In conversation with Rebecca Ross and Matthew Chrislip

Sandwich Board Design
Sandwich Board Design

Written by
Ali Neilly
Published date
14 July 2020

With our world becoming increasingly smaller, and in turn industries better connected, cities such as London are arguably the ideal location to study, and develop a practice within an environment of creative convergence. At UAL we welcome large numbers of international students each year to our pre-degree, undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Within that community we have a growing number of students who join us from the USA.

But for a student in the US contemplating study in the UK – what are the key differences to be aware of? How does our educational approach relate to the teaching system in the USA and why can studying in this environment ultimately benefit an American student – from enhancing their practice to providing future employment opportunities. Who better to answer these questions than American academics who are currently teaching at UAL.

We opened up a conversation with Rebecca Ross and Matthew Chrislip from Central Saint Martins’ MA Graphic Communication Design, to discuss global study. As Americans themselves, who relocated to live and work in the UK, they spoke with us about the benefits of creative study in such an auspicious city and how the confluence of identities helps continually reinvent the approach to graphic communication design.

Read on to discover more about Rebecca and Matthew’s own practices and how they got there, their experiences as creatives living in London and an insightful look for those considering studying MA Graphic Communication Design at Central Saint Martins.

Banner in London City
London is Changing by Rebecca Ross

What are the benefits for US students to studying in London?

Rebecca: American students studying in London often find themselves slightly out of their comfort zones at first. In the UK, there can be greater emphasis on teaching as the facilitation of independent learning, whereas in the US there can be a little bit more handholding from class to class. Ultimately, most students find that doing the work to adjust to different expectations becomes the basis for a surprising amount of professional and personal growth.

Another benefit to studying here is that a deep diversity penetrates into the very foundation of our course in transformative ways. This relates to our community of students and graduates—who are generally from a wide range of cultures, languages, orientations, genders, belief systems, class and ethno-racial backgrounds—but has more to do with the opportunity to continually reconsider our subject through a plurality of perspectives. Something we’ve noticed working with our students over time is that the term 'graphic design' has totally different connotations and definitions in different languages. This observation became the basis for a film that we developed as a community with one of our recent graduates, Xiaoying Liang.

Matthew: The diversity of our student and staff community is also a reflection of the diversity of London itself. For a number of complicated historical and geographical reasons, London acts as a hub or relay between many other places in the world.

The confluence of so many different cultures enables a high level of activity and exchange in the creative world through galleries, museums, events, and of course, universities. Our students use their access to this exchange as leverage in the development their own work and positions.

What are the main differences between postgraduate study in graphic design in the UK and the US?

Matthew: All of my postgraduate teaching experience has been in the UK, but I studied in the US. When I arrived here, I was surprised by some of the differences in education. For example, as a student in the US, I was enrolled in the ‘core’ classes for my program of study and then supplemented those with elective classes taken across a range of subjects. Here, our students don’t enroll in individual classes. Instead, there is a singular, holistic, and shared curriculum comprised of lectures, tutorials, critical discussions, and workshop activities—all of which support the development of an individually-driven design practice.

There are also some key differences in terminology that are helpful to understand. For example, in UK education the word ‘course’ refers to an entire degree program—such as the MA Graphic Communication Design course.

Rebecca: Practically speaking, for North American students, postgraduate study in graphic design in the UK can be significantly more manageable financially. The fee for a year of study is normally less than half of that of our counterparts in cities such as New York. US students studying at UAL are even eligible for US federal student loans.

MA Graphic Communication Design at Central Saint Martins is a 2 year course running in what we call ‘extended full-time mode’. Many UK master’s degrees, including many at UAL, are 180 academic credits taught over 12 months, but we take the 180 credits and spread them over 6 terms (2 normal academic years). The pace is about 75% of full-time study, which equates to 30 hours of taught and independent study time per week—though it counts as full-time for the purposes of visas. It means that there are always a couple of days per week available for part-time work during term time. Students are also free to work or travel during breaks between terms.

Most students on MA GCD work part-time, some in creative industry roles, some at pubs or shops on the weekends, and some at the library – where they love graphic design students because of their interests in books.

Can you explain the typical trajectory of study for British students and how that compares with standard progression through American education?

Rebecca: Traditionally, British secondary, further and higher education prioritizes specialism and depth over breadth and interdisciplinarity. At the point of graduating from a BA in Graphic Communication Design, a typical UK student on the CSM BA, for example, will have studied mainly art and design intensely from the time they finish secondary school at around the age of 16. At that point, they will study just 3 or 4 subjects for 2 years at A-level usually—including ‘Art and Design’—before doing a Foundation qualification in Art and Design, where they decide to specialize in graphic design and apply for a place on a BA. From there, all 3 years of their undergraduate coursework are likely to be specifically focused on graphic design.

Students coming from the US will therefore usually have had less specialized graphic design coursework than their British counterparts as well as colleagues from certain parts of the world. However, they will have greater awareness of a wide range of other subjects and academic contexts—literature, history, math (which Brits call maths)—as well as more developed skills in areas such as expository writing, presentations, library research and critical discussion.

Our approach to the subjects of graphic and communication design depend deeply on students being able to position their practice and put it into a context, so American students’ strength in general knowledge provides an important counter-balance across the community of the course.

red and yellow patterned poster
UCL Urban Lab: City, Essay, Film by Dowland
Book cover with photograph
Draft 2 — Satellites (with notes by David Reinfurt) by Dowland

What is the position of this course, MA Graphic Communication Design, in relation to the broader discipline?

Matthew: We don’t give preference to any specific medium over another, nor do we have a set definition for the discipline. Instead, what we share is an interest in exploring graphic design as a research practice. Across all disciplines, the formation and transmission of knowledge is inseparable from activities of mark-making, publishing, illustrating, etc., and we’re constantly interrogating this relationship. We’re interested in using the tools and methods of graphic communication design to engage in open-ended experimentation with existing knowledge and to propose new forms of knowledge that can only be generated through creative activity—that is to say, through making things.

Shop window
The Dowland Shop by Dowland

Could you tell us a bit about your own practices as graphic designers and how those experiences inform your teaching at CSM?

Matthew: I was a very academically-driven student, so I appreciate the critical and intellectual rigor that this course requires of everyone involved—students and staff alike. When I was doing an MFA, I half-intentionally and half-blindly stumbled into a way of working that I would now recognize as ‘practice-led research’. At that time—and to an extent, even now—there was little discussion in US design education of modes of practice that make equal space for open experimentation and rigorous writing. In this context we can start to interrogate graphic design as a field of academic study in its own right while also recognizing that it challenges the very foundations of academia.

As a professional designer (under the studio name Dowland) I’ve always had a very hybrid practice. I mean this in 2 senses (at least). First, I’ve often worked simultaneously as an independent designer and for others—and I’ve rarely stayed in 1 place for more than a year or 2—so my perspective on professional practice is fairly broad (and fairly skeptical). Second, I’ve frequently worked across or between disciplines, so I take a very open approach to defining and contextualizing graphic design.

Rebecca: My design and research practice experiments at the intersection of media and communication studies, urban humanities and graphic design. I am particularly interested in the agency of images, media and data in space and place, the situation of graphic design as a knowledge practice, and alternate forms of academic publishing. My projects include: London is Changing, a discussion about the future of London staged on large-scale digital billboards; Urban Pamphleteer, a printed and digital serial publication confronting key contemporary urban questions at the intersection of university and community perspectives; and a recent journal article in Design and Culture that advocates for new approaches to thinking about graphic design and research.

Studying graphic design alongside other disciplines has given me an appreciation for how graphic design operates as a knowledge practice with an under-considered relevance to many other subjects and fields. This has been an important starting point for the MA GCD curriculum.

Printed book
Urban Pamphleteer by Rebecca Ross
Booklets against grey background
Urban Pamphleteer by Rebecca Ross

What direct or transferable skills can come from studying in London/studying GCD that may be appealing to employers, whether in the UK or the US?

Rebecca: The MA GCD curriculum is more focused on facilitating a strong individual position than on any prescribed career pathway. This means that while our graduates are not explicitly trained for a certain specific job, they are well-equipped in the medium- and long-term to participate flexibly in the rapid development of the creative and communication sectors, and indeed become leaders.

To give you an idea of the range: one of our graduates is designing money as part of the Chinese civil service. Another works in the art department on Wes Anderson films. Another works for Transport for London in the Service Design department. Other graduates create editorial illustrations for the New Yorker, the Guardian and the New York Times; author children’s books; start web design studios; do PhDs; or take academic positions. And some have taken creative leadership positions at large companies including Facebook and Nike.