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My first work-based learning… – article

Posters filled the entire wall over desk like a giant colourful wallpaper promoting everything that could help in reaching eternal bliss in the 1990s. From a toothpaste that would ‘whiten your teeth even more’, through ‘paradise’ vacation in exotic destinations with a specific tour operator, to ‘an amazingly fabulous gastro-point in Krakow’. I love reading those texts, drawing pleasure from the unusual collocations, attempts to define the reality of the turn with a kind of newspeak.

The space around the desk was cluttered with piles of test print-outs, heaps of gadgets meant as product samples for clients. There was an excess of everything, excessively colourful, as if this excess and colour saturation were to compensate for the bleakness of earlier decades in Poland.

On adjacent shelves the letters of alphabet were screaming out in bright colours on the covers of business card holders. I remember that the ones with the letters ‘K’ and ‘N’ were most numerous. I still don’t know if it was the Kowalskis and the Nowaks (most popular Polish surnames) that dominated the client list. Below rested thick telephone directories from the previous few years – the older ones well worn with bent corners and disintegrating covers.

To the right of the desk there were two telephones (both brightly red), and next to them a sizeable fax machine. The remaining part of the desk was occupied by three computer sets – standing there with pride. Each consisted of a large central unit box and a heavy monitor. Each computer was assigned two chairs – one for the technician who operated the software, and one for the designer, meaning the artist…

Welcome to the place I worked at as a student…

I used to spend here long afternoon, and too often weekend and night hours. I was a part of a team with Ula – my personal computer operator. My duty was the ‘creation,’ i.e. creating, designing, telling her what to do, correct if necessary. Hers was to use graphic programmes, preparing the designs for print, and sending them on to contractors. I remember that we laughed a lot, she would tell me about her daughters and I talked about my days at the Academy of Fine Arts. We had our rituals – when I made the extra strong black tea for myself I would make chicory coffee (INKA) for her as well. The bright multicoloured mugs were ornamented with some not-too-clever caption, which was supposed to be funny, but it usually boiled down to being coarse or crude…

Welcome to an advertising agency at the beginning of the 1990s…

I got here by coincidence, when the first exam session at the university clearly showed how expensive studies I had chosen, and that being an artist required quite substantial financial input. Having bought all the canvas and boards for the warps, paints and pencils, brushes, materials to make a sculpture, and paper sheets I was broke and decided to find myself a job that I could do outside my university programme.

The first job turned out to be a total catastrophe – I can still remember the chapped skin on my hands and forearms, which looked as if frost-bitten, when I worked for a few weeks as a kitchen help at a salad bar. In fact I worked as a dishwasher, so when on wintry December bar, after the numerous hours my hands were immersed in hot water, I was going back to my student room (and usually I would forget to take gloves with me) my skin reacted with redness, dryness, and burning sensation. In connection with the clay left after sculpting classes and traces of oil paints under my fingernails, my red hands looked as if I suffered from an unusual and terrible disease… After a month I would fall asleep standing at the easel, and spent more money on hand cream than I earned. Nevertheless the ‘dishwasher’ friendships would last for many years. I worked there with a marvellously introvert philosophy student, marvellously extrovert biology student, and a number of girls from towns and villages near Krakow, who were looking for the meaning of life…

Just then, on the door of my Alma Mater I came across a note – advertisement saying that a creative, rapidly developing advertising agency with “long-term plans” (whatever it meant) is looking for artists. At that time I was the conglomerate of all the complexes that a first year student had, raised in the spirit “sit quietly and they’ll find you.” Going to the interview with my future boss I met a colleague who earned additional money by drawing caricatures of tourists in Florianska street (and the rest of us envied his stroke and skill). He said he would keep his fingers crossed, and that he was sure “they would readily take me on.”

They did take me on. I could start working full time, double full time, or even treble full time. I could work 24 hours a day, as designers were really precious. That was crazy time in Poland. The time of emerging capitalism, development of private enterprises and businesses (bars and restaurants opened at practically every corner), selling from “jaws” (basic, collapsible market stands) in open street markets, and whoever graduated from London School of Economics or returned from Fulbright rapidly climbed the career ladders at banks or corporations.

At that time I was not aware that this kind of learning through practice at a workplace has its definition (WBL). It quickly turned out that I am not only able to design but, more importantly, I enjoy doing that, and that my specialty are spatial elements, advertising stands, and light boxes. That was the time when trade fairs and exhibitions of all kinds were developing dynamically, therefore I designed exhibition spaces for numerous companies for the Poznan Trade Fair, AGROTECH in Kielce, trade fair in Dresden, or CeBIT in Hannover. I can still remember the trade fair in Bielsko-Biała, where a prepared a stand for a company dealing with monitoring overhead power lines with the use od helicopters. I was then invited to take part in a helicopter flight in order to have the first-hand experience of how it is done and to inspire me. Together with the camera-man, who was to make a film for the exhibition, we were numb with fear when the helicopter got near the high-voltage lines. We admired the pilot’s skill manoeuvring in close proximity of pillars and lines. The cockpit was really small, the camera hit my arm whenever the camera-man changed his position (it was a bulky TV camera, nowadays we would be able to get the same quality using a mobile phone or simply by preparing a computer simulation, but we wouldn’t even dream of such thing those days) During the flight the pilot explained to us the technical details, different kinds of insulation (even today I can recall they can be made of electrotechnical ceramics, tempered glass, and possibly some kind of plastic), or the characteristics of climate zones in Poland in the context of power lines (in Poland there is a division into wind zones and rime zones).

These were the months of work, when I learnt the difference between brand and product. I learnt which exhibition systems and materials I should use to create a stand in a few hours, and so that the transport wasn’t too expensive. How to organise and supervise the team and the assembly process. How to talk with clients.

It was the time when advertising experts were often seen as experts in… culture. They were invited to “important” conferences, contributed to discussions about culture…


This job was not only a source of income for me. It became an inspiration when it came to choosing the path at the university, it helped to gain knowledge and skills that I would otherwise never have gained. Contemporary WBL is becoming one of the most u=important tools helping in professional development, and more and more often defined as the key tool in improving the employability, especially of young people.

How to use WBL in creative and cultural sector, dominated by micro-companies and freelancers? How to define the role of teachers, advisors, or coaches in this process? How to develop the practical and methodological tools supporting their professional development

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