From dough to design - how a web course gave rise to gold medal winner

3rd September 2010 at 01:00
Former pizza maker Kieran Aitken has put his creative talents to good use, thanks to an HNC course at Motherwell College

Rolling out pizzas and throwing them in the air was good fun at first, "but eventually I realised it wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life", says Kieran Aitken, 20, who has won a national award for web design while studying at Motherwell College.

Leaving school after fourth year had been a mistake, he says. "I wanted to get a job and make money. But I had a son when I was 17, and that made me think about the future. So I sat down with my girlfriend and talked about what I could do.

"The first thing that came to mind was designing - websites, posters, logos. My girlfriend suggested Motherwell College, since she'd done beauty therapy there. So I went online and found their interactive media course."

The next hurdle was the entry qualification, nominally one Higher, which Kieran did not have. "But at school we were all bedroom DJs, and I thought the best way was to get myself a website and get the music up. I'd taught myself web design and done quite a few layouts, and before the interview I designed more. When I showed the college all those, they offered me a place."

Web design is a focus of the interactive media HNCHND, but by no means all of it, he says: "It's everything to do with Adobe Creative Suite. I had used Dream-weaver, which is great for getting you started, but PhotoShop was new to me. Even after two years I'm still learning new things every day."

During the HNC year, the course was stimulating but not too stressful, he says. That came later. "There was such a lot to find out. You were always moving onto something new, excited by what was coming next."

Web design is a creative combination of artistic flair and programming skills, two sets of abilities not often found in the same person - or indeed, the same department, says Matthew Smith, head of computing, IT and creative arts at Motherwell.

"Creative arts, which is where interactive media used to be taught, came to us two years ago. It made sense because computer technology is being increasingly used. Then last year, when we moved to this new location, we got one room for all the staff to work together. That makes a huge difference. It means people with a range of skills are able to chat about their work, share ideas and learn from each other every day. Given the chance to chat, they see the common ground."

Computing and creative is an unusual grouping in colleges even now, says interactive media course leader Fiona Murnin. "Traditionally, you get this division between designers and technical people. But the barriers are coming down. We aim to teach both sets of skills - computer skills to students with artistic flair and principles of design to those more comfortable with coding.

"Kieran, for example, was a creative person to start with. So as well as enhancing those skills, we've taught him the technical side. He can now design websites that both look great and work well."

The key lesson for a well-rounded web designer is to realise that things rarely work first time, Kieran says. "That can get stressful. You need to get used to it, though. If you just want to design and play with PhotoShop, this course isn't for you. I know brilliant designers who hate coding. I find it harder than design, but do enjoy it now. I'm still amazed by the power of what code can do."

When it came to the competition in which Kieran excelled - winning gold at WorldSkills UK - stress levels were suddenly higher, he says. "For three months, I was designing two complex, totally different websites at the same time, one for a real business skills and training client for my HND, the other a CD and DVD review website for the competition.

"My pal dropped out of the competition to concentrate on the graded unit. But after all that work I wasn't going to throw it to the back of my hard drive, so no one ever saw it. I was working on it every night, sometimes till two in the morning, then I was up again at seven for college. Fiona was encouraging me, telling me I could do it. She's an amazing lecturer with a big heart who loves to give her students the best start possible."

Personal tenacity and college support were rewarded with an invitation to the UK finals in Milton Keynes, when participants were given a whole new brief - design a fully functioning website for a driving school - and two days to get the job done. "I finished with 30 seconds to spare and really felt I'd done the best I could," Kieran says.

The judges agreed and he won gold at Higher level, the top award.

"It was a great experience," he says. "I've learned such a lot since I came to the college - not just about design and coding, but about working in teams and dealing with real clients.

"Most of them have an idea what they want in a website, but not much more. I've worked with so many of them now that I have a structure in my head and I know which questions to ask.

"I'm a different person now. It has given me so much confidence. I've been accepted as a third-year student at the University of Abertay. After that, who knows?"

Kieran joins an elite shortlist of competitors for the chance to represent the UK at WorldSkills London 2011 in October.

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