“Being a self-made creative requires a lot of throwing paint at the wall to see what sticks,” says Zane Durham, a music consultant, strategist, and copywriter. “You have to keep going…even when things feel uncertain.” Durham, who dropped out of law school (someone else’s dream, he says) to pursue a career in music, understands the value of following your passions. But he also understands the struggle to get a foot in the door in a creative industry without a degree or any connections.
Enter D&AD Shift with Google, a free night school based in New York, London, and Sydney—and soon, Berlin and Hamburg—that caters to underrepresented, self-made creatives who didn’t pursue traditional institutional education. Knowing how difficult it can be to break into commercial creative industries without a college degree, Shift serves to help its students develop necessary skills and cultivate relationships with some of the world’s top creative agencies through training, mentorships, and collaborating on real-world client briefs. Moreover, they’re introduced to the varying roles that exist within their fields, allowing them to zero in on a career trajectory and leave with a portfolio of relevant work for brands like adidas, Spotify, and Diageo by the end of the four-month program.
Amongst New York’s 2022 graduating class are Durham; Nyaira Gibbs, a designer and art director; and Grace McNally, a photographer, videographer, writer, and art director. All three stumbled upon the program at a time they were feeling the burnout that comes with freelance life—and upon completion, secured full-time roles at Spotify, VMLY&R, and Area23, respectively.
Gibbs, who previously ran her own graphic design business, was drained but unsure how to pivot when she decided to apply. “Being an entrepreneur, I was used to being a jack of all trades, and I really couldn’t put my finger on what I wanted to focus on,” she says. “D&AD helped me narrow that down to art direction and design, and gave me a real-life insight into what those roles actually look like—I got a lot more experience out of this free program than I would have in college.”
Durham, who only just transitioned into music copywriting after completing Shift, now feels he can confidently move through the industry with the knowledge he gained through the program. “Before Shift, if you told me I had to create a deck and work with cross-functional teams, I wouldn’t have had any idea what you were talking about,” he says. “For me, copywriting meant something legal [as in copyrighting] instead of literal writing. Now, I can speak the same language as people with backgrounds in branding and creative.”
While the curriculum focuses on skill-building and real-life industry insight, the program’s numerous networking opportunities—think mentor pairings, agency-taught classes, and work showcases—allow students to establish connections with industry leaders, ultimately helping each one land a job.
“What the program really specializes in is the agencies they bring in—and who they bring in from those agencies,” says Durham, who considers Shift’s network to be “unmatched.” Those who come from self-made backgrounds are often barred from the opportunity to make the important connections they might have forged through schooling or college job fairs. But nonetheless, since the program’s 2016 launch, 64% of Shift alumni—all of whom are self-made—hold positions at prestigious agencies and companies like TBWA, The Kennedys, Spotify, McCann, and more. “The connections I can now call upon to chat with and gain direction and guidance… that’s priceless,” says Durham.
But just as important as networking is community building. This holds especially true for those who missed out on the chance to cultivate a college community with other students. “In college, you’re taking classes with people who chose to pursue the same things as you, so there’s this special connection amongst your peers—you inspire each other and each other’s work,” says McNally. “But when you’re not going that route, you have to find that yourself.”
This variety of connection, she notes, is something she found with her fellow Shifters—and she considers it the most valuable part of the program. Not only does she feel gratitude for the positive atmosphere, in which students push one another to lean into their talents, but also for the camaraderie and future collaborative potential of it all. “My classmates are all in different places now—some are still freelancing, others are at prestigious brands and agencies; we’re all doing different things,” says Durham. “But now I have a rolodex of creatives who are, essentially, like my family.”
Curriculum and connections aside, the program provides an opportunity for Shifters to gain newfound confidence as they prepare to pursue work in their respective fields—which McNally, Gibbs, and Durham can all attest to. “When creatives who don’t have degrees are looking to break into these industries, the automatic first reaction from most people they tell is, ‘Oh, you’ll be an intern, you’ll go get the coffee,’” says McNally. “Shift taught us that, no, we don’t need to do that. We may not have gone through the schooling, but we’ve still done all the work and still made it—and for that, we have a really valuable perspective.”
McNally credits both her peers and her mentors for this breakthrough. “Each day that I saw my classmates doing this inner work, in addition to the mentors who kept pushing us, I became more empowered,” she says, adding that her female creative mentors made the experience all the more impactful. “Being surrounded by powerful women who knew what they wanted made me realize I was here for a reason.”
For Durham, the program’s mentorship aspect helped him put his imposter syndrome at ease. “When I started, I didn’t feel sure of myself or what I could actually do within the industry, which I think is very real for a lot of people who don’t go to college,” he says. “This changed as I began working with my mentors, and now I know imposter syndrome won’t cripple me when it comes to new opportunities.”
Over the past six years, Shift has shaped the careers of more than 180 self-made creatives. And the program has also inspired many of those same folks to pay it forward, and help other self-made creatives. Outside her new full-time role, Gibbs is working on a few personal projects, including an interactive self-help book for creatives navigating the industry. “It’s going to be a collection of the advice I needed myself in order to get to this point,” she says. “I want to put something out there that other self-made creatives, especially millennials, can relate to.”
Durham, on the other hand, is looking to the new guard of creative talent, with plans to launch his own program for high schoolers within the next few years. “High school is where it starts; those students are the next generation of creatives. Look at Gen Z—they’re leading everything, and all of our trends are coming from them. I think it’s crucial to cultivate an inclusive space for younger generations to explore their creativity.”
D&AD Shift with Google New York is now open for 2022-2023 applications through September 16. Learn more about the program and application process here, and watch the video below to hear more about the experiences of the class of '22 and other Shift alumni.