Ken Gray
image by David Eustace

Edinburgh based freelance graphic designer and photographer Ken Gray tells us how he got to where he is now.

I work on a large variety of pieces, including arts catalogues, magazines and corporate identities. My design work is at and my photography work is at

1 University Libraries Department, John Smith’s bookshop, Glasgow

For two summers, whilst studying Book Publishing at Napier in Edinburgh, I worked for John Smith’s bookshop in Glasgow. The job was based in a converted church building near the Mitchell Library. Basically I had to open boxes of books and check them off against orders. The part I really remember though was the weeks of adorning books with sticky back plastic protective covers. Much as I wanted to work with books, it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.

2 The Scotsman newspaper, Edinburgh

It seems that most people working in graphic design in Edinburgh went through The Scotsman at some point in their career. This was my first job after leaving college. I had to set adverts for The Scotsman and Evening News using Quark Xpress. I had never used it before, so I bought a visual quickstart guide, went to the pub and read it cover to cover. I was working the 4-11pm shift, which meant that most dinners were takeaway baked potatoes from the shop at the top of Cockburn Street. The advertising department was in the basement of The Scotsman building, and I was working with people of my age and time-served typesetters who really knew their stuff. I had to typeset adverts for the likes of ‘Dial-an-Iron’ and various car companies. The adverts, once we had printed them out, went to paste-up where they were glued on to the page layout. I learned a lot about working quickly and accurately to deadlines.

3 County NatWest, Queen Street, Edinburgh

Next off, I worked for the in-house graphic design department of County NatWest, a division of the NatWest Bank. This would have been about 1991. Already you could see technology changing whilst some practices remained the same. I had to print out the titles of reports for covers, then paste the printout on to a board for the printer. I would adjust kerning between the letters by cutting and moving the text printout on the board. I would make outline drawings in Freehand, then paste them on to the board and overlay the printout with a markup sheet for the printer to let them know what colours should be used. We had a photographic enlarger in its own darkroom. Eventually we had some equipment which seemed like science-fiction at the time – a desktop rotary scanner for transparencies plus Photoshop version 2.5 (before layers!). We would either commission photography or buy it in from agencies like Tony Stone, which at the time had an office in Edinburgh and would send across selections of transparencies for us to choose from. The job was mainly designing covers for the analysts’ reports, making up presentation material or charts, and producing small newsletters. I really learned to pay attention to typeface and layout details.

4 Shaw Marketing and Design, Edinburgh

I joined Shaw Marketing and Design in Edinburgh as a visualiser, which meant that I would take a rough sketch from one of the two designers and work it up into a full design. Whilst there, I worked on a lot of visuals, including making photo-realistic renderings of scotch whisky bottles with proposed labels mocked up on them. I would also work on the packaging artwork for whisky, including Cutty Sark and Glengoyne. I began to learn HTML and CSS, working on websites using the ExpressionEngine CMS. Eventually I became a designer in my own right. I learned how to take a job, right from initial idea and sketch, all the way through visuals, to final finished print-ready artwork.

5 Freelance graphic designer and photographer, Edinburgh

I went freelance in 2006 and was lucky enough to start working for Alliance Trust in Dundee. I worked on material for their newly introduced corporate branding, in co-operation with the in-house department. During that time, I also began to work for other clients, including Scottish Natural Heritage, The Scottish Gallery, Fettes College, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and St Columba’s School. I have worked on a wide variety of commissions, including arts catalogues, brochures, corporate identities, prospectuses, children’s magazines and websites. I know some really good creative people to call upon, so I have a roster of folk to collaborate with, including printers, photographers, paper makers, illustrators and developers. Freelance work comes with its own set of hurdles, but it also allows for opportunities. I’ve been able to develop (boom, boom) more of an interest in photography, and had a couple of photographs included in the RSA Open exhibition in 2014. The most enjoyable part of working as a freelancer is building really good, strong relationships with a client.

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We’ve asked professionals in creative industries what jobs they have had in the past to get their foot through the door (or at least pay the rent). For more in the “My First 5 Jobs” series look here.