A flair for art and design is a pre-requisite for a career as a ceramics designer but you will also need a commercial mind and an idea of what customers find appealing…

Ceramics designers create designs for a range of pottery objects that are then made by shaping and firing clay. These objects can include:

  • ceramic sculpture
  • domestic and commercial tableware and kitchenware
  • garden ceramics
  • giftware
  • jewellery
  • wall and floor tiles.

Ceramics designers working for large companies interpret a product brief and turn it into a commercially successful design for mass production.

Ceramics designers/ceramicists who are self-employed or work for small companies are more likely to both design and make their own, one-off or limited edition designs.

There is, however, some cross-over and some self-employed designers/ceramicists may also undertake design commissions for major companies, where they provide the design and the object is then mass produced elsewhere.

Responsibilities

As a ceramics designer working for a large company in industry you will be responsible for creating designs for mass production and may carry out the following activities:

  • interpreting and working to a design brief, (which includes the materials to be used, e.g. bone china, porcelain, earthenware or stoneware, and the amount of money available) to design a new collection
  • creating designs and liaising with clients to ensure the brief is met
  • overseeing production to ensure the brief is met
  • deciding on decorative techniques and glazes
  • conducting market research to find out what competitors are producing and how well existing lines are doing.

Often tasks for self-employed designers/ceramicists, or for those working for small companies, are likely to include:

  • designing and producing one-off objects
  • selecting materials appropriate to the design
  • shaping clay by hand, thrown on a wheel or in a mould
  • loading kilns, glazing, decorating and firing products
  • preparing work for sale and exhibition
  • selling products directly from a studio, market stalls or crafts fairs, online, by mail order or through specialist craft shops and galleries
  • developing clear artistic objectives and a business plan
  • attending appropriate courses to learn new techniques and to keep up to date with current trends
  • teaching in further education and running community workshops.

Self-employed designers/ceramicists also need to promote their work to generate business. Typical responsibilities here include:

  • networking to connect with buyers and suppliers in their specialist market
  • researching trends, markets and prices by visiting craft exhibitions such as MADE LONDON
  • demonstrating skills at craft fairs and exhibitions
  • photographing designs for a portfolio, for websites and for catalogues to promote their work
  • learning appropriate software skills to develop publicity materials and websites
  • collaborating with other designers in a shared studio, joint exhibition, cooperative, craft guild or artists' organisation
  • entering competitions and applying for funding.

Salary

Salaries vary widely according to whether you are employed or self-employed, how experienced, successful and well-established you are, and how actively and skilfully you promote your work.

  • Starting salaries for those in an employed position can be around £15,000.
  • Experienced ceramics designers can earn over £30,000.

Earnings for self-employed ceramics designers/ceramicists can be very low, particularly in the early stages of setting up a career, and fluctuate from year to year. Most ceramicists develop a portfolio style of working, generating income through a number of different jobs, particularly teaching.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

If employed, working hours are usually regular, although you may need to do extra hours to meet deadlines.

Self-employed designers/ceramicists can find that their hours fluctuate to meet demand.

What to expect

  • You may work from a studio workshop at home, on an industrial estate, as part of a unit in a managed workspace complex, in a design studio or on the factory floor.
  • As a freelance or self-employed ceramics designer/ceramicist, location can be rural or urban. Most employed designers are based in areas linked with the traditional West Midlands potteries.
  • Fashion, culture and rapidly changing consumer tastes influence ceramic design. Self-employed designers/ceramicists need to be prepared to adapt their original designs to what the client wants. They may develop a niche market appealing to specialist interests, promoting their work as unique, handmade, high quality and contemporary.
  • Working as a self-employed ceramics designer/ceramicist can be lonely. Many become part of a creative community by sharing a creative workspace or joining a studio group sharing resources. Search for affordable studio space providers on National Federation of Artists' Studio Providers (NFASP).
  • Lack of job security and fluctuating income can be stressful for some self-employed designers. However, the advantages of being your own boss, and the flexibility to organise work to suit personal circumstances, can be appealing.
  • Working as a ceramics designer for a large company can give more job security, although the ceramics industry has suffered significant decline in recent years. Despite current challenging trading conditions, employers see good design skills as essential to the future success of the sector. Some companies have their own design teams, others use design agencies and an increasing number do both. As an in-house designer you're more likely to work in a team, liaising with external suppliers and clients.
  • Travel to meet clients and manufacturers or to research, exhibit and sell work at exhibitions, trade and craft fairs is likely from time to time.

Qualifications

Although a career as a ceramics designer is open to graduates of any discipline, in practice, nearly all will have studied an art or design degree such as:

  • applied arts or design
  • ceramics
  • 3D design.

For a list of relevant undergraduate courses search Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

If your degree is unrelated, studying at Masters level may be an option. Search for postgraduate courses in ceramics.

A postgraduate qualification is not required, although may be useful to hone practical skills and prepare for professional life.

For access to information about a range of creative careers, including ceramics design look at Creative Choices.

A variety of part-time courses, in further and adult education institutes are available, providing the opportunity to develop ceramics skills.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • creative flair and practical ceramics skills
  • time management and the ability to work to deadlines
  • excellent communication skills
  • organisational ability
  • attention to detail
  • patience
  • photography, computer software and design skills
  • a good understanding of health and safety issues.

Work experience

Establishing yourself as a self-employed ceramics designer/ceramicist is hard work and competitive. There are, however, bodies that provide support with grants in order to help buy equipment and set up studios, like the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust and the Crafts Council. Regional funding opportunities are covered by websites including:

It's vital to document your work professionally, using the skills of a specialist photographer or developing your own photographic skills, to create high-quality portfolios and websites that illustrate different aspects of your work.

Making speculative approaches to prospective employers, (e.g. heads of design at the major ceramics companies), for in-house design positions or freelance commissions is essential to your job search strategy. Include work in your portfolio that demonstrates that you can work in the company's existing style, as well as offer new ideas.

Entering competitions and applying to exhibit or sell work at trade shows and craft fairs is also essential. Employers, retail buyers, galleries and the design press attend these events to look for new talent.

Self-employed ceramics designers/ceramicists have to learn how to run a small business. Ceramics degree courses increasingly include basic business skills' development. After graduation, you can find business skills training through organisations such as The Design Trust and creative workspace providers such as:

Employers

Many ceramicists are self-employed, working to commission or selling work directly from the studio, through websites, at craft markets, through galleries and at specialist retail outlets.

Many in-house ceramics designers work for long-established companies such as:

  • Denby
  • Royal Crown Derby
  • Royal Doulton.

For a list of member companies, which may be useful for speculative applications to smaller companies see the British Ceramic Confederation (BCC).

Companies are concentrated in areas linked with the traditional potteries of the West Midlands. Numbers employed in these companies have declined in recent years, but employers see design as a way to compete in global markets and hold design skills in high regard. Therefore, opportunities for in-house designers and freelance commissions continue to exist.

Design opportunities for ceramic designers with experience may also be available with major homeware retailers such as Habitat and IKEA.

The Crafts Council are compiling a one-stop shop for those wanting to make, see, collect and buy craft, see the Online Craft Directory.

Look for job vacancies at:

There are few advertised vacancies for ceramics designers. Self-employed ceramicists need to promote their own work through fairs, exhibitions and online. Networking and applying speculatively for freelance commissions may lead to opportunities.

Teaching positions may be advertised on university and college websites, as well as in educational press such as:

Advance notice of short-term teaching contracts and workshop leader opportunities can be circulated informally, so it is helpful to develop a network of contacts in colleges and universities and make direct approaches to heads of department.

Professional development

Continuous professional development (CPD) is essential for both employed and self-employed ceramics designers/ceramicists.

Keep up to date with trends and markets by:

  • visiting museums and galleries
  • seeing what other professionals are doing at trade exhibitions, e.g. MADE LONDON and Collect: The International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects
  • reading the creative press
  • attending courses and creative workshops
  • joining a membership body
  • networking with other artists at events and through membership forums.

In larger companies, training is often organised in-house. For self-employed ceramicists, short courses can provide opportunities to learn specialist production techniques and new technologies.

For a list of pottery courses and workshops, as well as details of relevant exhibitions, galleries and museums visit Studio Pottery, a portal for information about contemporary ceramics artists.

Some courses are targeted specifically at ceramics designers and ceramicists, while others, such as web design or photography, offered by further education colleges or universities, may also interest ceramics designers.

Specialist courses are advertised in trade magazines, through business support agencies, design networks and relevant e-newsletters.

As a self-employed ceramicist, you may need to take advantage of courses, like the Hothouse programme, as well as informal training opportunities (such as mentoring and peer advice), like Injection, both from the Crafts Council, to develop entrepreneurial, business and practical creative skills in:

  • business planning
  • bookkeeping and financial management
  • marketing and promotion
  • IT and photography
  • applying for grants and bursaries.

Career prospects

How your career develops will depend on your specialism. Many aspire to self-employment in the ceramic craft/studios sector and concentrate on design and production of individual styles and products. To help with this, ceramicists often develop a 'portfolio' career, combining self-employment with:

  • arts management
  • community arts work
  • gallery management
  • teaching.

Combining varied roles may spark creative ideas and keep you motivated.

A charity that helps designers and craftspeople run better businesses is The Design Trust. Its comprehensive website includes a start-up guide, information on costing, pricing and much more.

It is vital to showcase your work in order to promote your ideas and there are various organisations online that can help with this. An online information service for contemporary ceramics, which showcases selected ceramicists' work can be found at Studio Pottery. It enables purchasers to contact designers directly and provides galleries with a window into new designers and their work. An organisation that promotes new designers' products, including ceramics, internationally is Design Nation.

For those employed in larger companies, career progression comes from working with production teams, liaising with external clients and seizing opportunities to be innovative. There may be opportunities in research departments or for promotion to managing teams of designers within the studio. Increased responsibility will inevitably bring an increase in non design-related tasks.

If you opt for self-employment, career development will come by building your reputation through exhibition success and your visibility through networking, writing articles and giving talks about your work and techniques. You may exhibit or sell work abroad with the support of The British Council or organisations promoting international trade.

Another potential route is in academia. With further study, it's possible to work in higher education as a lecturer in ceramics.