How Graphic Design is helping James discover his passion for communication

James Urlini was initially thinking about studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts, but after speaking with his school's career advisors and researching different courses, he chose to take the leap and apply for the Bachelor of Design and major in graphic design. He spoke to us about his student experience so far.

James Urlini headshot

Were you always intending to major in Graphic Design?

I’m currently majoring in just Graphic Design, although when I started my course intending to do a Graphic Design / Performance Design double major. In choosing a single major, I wanted to broaden my horizons and have agency over the electives and breadth subjects available to me. The decision has allowed me to tailor my degree more closely to what I’m interested in.

You’re one of the first Graphic Design students in the Bachelor of Design. Why did you pursue graphic design?

I chose to study graphic design because I wanted to push myself further in understanding how to communicate. I’ve always loved languages and the entire concept behind communicating thoughts and ideas to one another through whatever means possible.

I also wanted to choose something that could be enriched and influenced by other courses of study and I’ve found the breadth system incredibly helpful for this. I’ve studied linguistics, Indigenous Art and voice, Australian Sign Language, and now I’m doing a Diploma in Languages in Italian. All these different modes of communication have been invaluable in deepening my understanding of typography, composition, imagery and graphic design as a whole.

What subjects did you complete in secondary school?

In my final years of high school, I ended up taking English, French, Further Maths, Studio Arts and Psychology. I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do at university, so I studied a little bit of everything. I think all my subjects have played a role in how I’ve approached the Bachelor of Design.

The Bachelor of Design doesn’t require a portfolio for entry. Do you think a portfolio is important?

Short answer – no. While portfolios are a great tool for demonstrating refined skill in media like painting or photography, I don’t believe they’re necessary for entry into the Bachelor of Design. Design appeals to more than just artists – it’s a combination of science, engineering, fine arts, and social science.

Collaboration between people who are interested and knowledgeable in different fields is key to creating well-rounded, thoughtful and sensitive designs. In the past two years I’ve been here, I’ve met people who have come from zoology, nursing, furniture design, and neuroscience, amongst other diverse fields. Everybody has something to say and something to contribute, and by keeping the degree open, it ensures everyone’s voice is heard. Anyone can learn how to draw if they’re given enough time but what’s really important is to have the right mindset and a desire to change the world through design.

What did you learn in your first year as a student?

I learnt that Design is more than just drawing and model making. It’s about being able to translate and develop thought into form. It’s about being able to conduct research, produce an appropriate design proposal and then be able to defend and justify your response to a problem. I’ve also learnt that Design is an iterative process – nothing’s ever perfect – and that part of the fun is being able to collaborate, learn from others and learn from the mistakes that you’re bound to make.

What has been your favourite Bachelor of Design subject so far and why?

I’ve actually got three. My favourite Bachelor of Design subjects have been Critical and Theoretical Studies (CATS) 1, 2, and 3. They’re Graphic Design major subjects that are taught through the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and we share the lectures with first and second-year Bachelor of Fine Arts students.

The subjects explore art from pre-history to the present day and challenge us to consider art from a critical and theoretical perspective, framing art history as a long line from pre-history to now and into the future. All three subjects demonstrate that art and design, have, are, and will be mediators for socio-cultural and political discussions. I loved the subjects because they helped to give meaning and context to my own design practice.

What has been the highlight of university so far?

My highlight has to be being involved in clubs. University can be quite an isolating place. There are so many people in the cohort who are studying lots of different things, and you often only see them when you have classes. Through joining the Design and Environments Students Society (DESS) I quickly became friends with people from various cohorts. Knowing people who have been through exactly what you’re going through and building that support network at uni is crucial for staying motivated and keeping up with the coursework.

You recently became the president of DESS. What does DESS do?

The Design and Environments Students Society represents students from all majors within the Bachelor of Design. It’s run by students for students. We host parties and events throughout the year and provide free pizza lunches every 2-3 weeks. Our Orientation Camp, which is usually run in the first week of uni, is the perfect way for first-year students to start off the year. Held over three days, there’s activities to help break the ice and get people excited for the year ahead. It’s a great feeling to walk into a lecture, tutorial or studio and immediately know someone from camp who you can talk to.

It’s not all fun and games though! We also run an annual Industry Night where students are introduced to design-related industry professionals and some people even get internships and jobs by signing up to programs on the night.

How does it feel to exhibit your work during your degree?

Being able to exhibit work at MSDx is an incredible feeling! You feel a real sense of accomplishment and pride in your work and for me, it just elevates my love for designing and motivates me to push myself even further. Exhibition is an intrinsic part of the graphic design process as it often defines the decisions you make regarding the layout, scale, and colour palette of each composition. Seeing your work exhibited helps you to understand what works and what doesn’t work with the way you represented the information and is a great way to learn about what you can do better for the next project.

What are the most valuable skills you have learnt so far?

Besides learning “hard skills” such as how to use Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, one of the most valuable skills I’ve learnt is to ask questions. Being inquisitive, digging deeper and exploring what’s at the heart of each design project or art movement is a crucial step in understanding what is being asked of you and how you can respond to the brief.

Asking questions is a way to learn about how the course content relates to design and what it means for you as a designer. I’ve learnt that creating informed, respectful and diverse design interventions requires being a multi-disciplinary designer, which arises from having an interest and curiosity for the world around us.

What challenges have you faced since coming to University?

Before starting the Bachelor of Design, I was a really shy person. I hated public speaking and having to stand up and talk to a room of people. Studio subjects in the BDes require you to present and justify your work every few weeks. While I mumbled and stumbled through the first couple of presentations, I soon learnt how to talk about my ideas confidently and cohesively, a skill that’s incredibly useful in everyday life.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to prospective students before starting the Bachelor of Design?

Don’t rush into things. Three years is a long time to be studying and, in those years, you barely scrape the surface of the world of Design. Take your time, make friends, discover passions, and explore who you are as a designer in a world that can benefit from your talents.


Interested in studying Design?

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