Monthly Archives: November 2011


Do Designers Really Need an Education?

As a designer, how much education do you really need?

When people wonder about that, they are often thinking about two totally different things. First, do they need a degree? Secondly, do they need some sort of formal education? As a largely self-taught designer, I have grappled with these issues in the past, and I know that many younger designers still do. As you may expect, the answer isn’t one size fits all. Some designers would benefit greatly from going to school, and to be honest, some just don’t need it. And it has nothing to do with their talent level, but we will get back to that point.

So, what you may really be wondering is whether or not you need a degree.

This one depends not so much on you, as where do you want to find a job? If you are going to go into freelancing, a degree probably isn’t going to help you much if at all. I have never had a meeting with a graphic or web design client who asked where I went to school, much less if I had a degree. Most agencies don’t really even care about degrees. They will look at your work, personality, and overall potential, and make a decision based on that.

However, if you see yourself working in a more corporate setting (for a company’s in-house design team for example,) here is where a degree will prove most beneficial to you. Many large companies like Amazon and Starbucks for example, have highly automated application processes that weed out applicants who specify that they do not have their college degree.

While having a degree can help you land your dream job, I don’t think it counts for half as much as for what it represents: that you’ve actually learned something. Some people have a natural curiosity baked into them. These people will seek out knowledge and learn regardless of whether they are in school or not. I don’t think most people fall into this category. My point here is that if you are questioning whether you should go get a formal education or not, ask yourself this: Will I learn anyway? If you don’t think that you have the motivation (or “motor” as I like to call it,) to learn on your own, then you probably should go to school. The rigidity of the college experience is what you will need to learn the skills you’re going to need to know.

On the flip side of this, if you know that you have the kind of motor I’m talking about, there will be no stopping you from learning. I’m not going to say that college is not still a good idea, but you can still be quite successful without it.

Please don’t misunderstand my advice: You still need an education. Maybe not a formal education, but education can come in many varieties and flavors. If you decide that college is not in your plans, here are some other great ways of learning your skills:

Online training courses

I am a big believer in training myself online. I have a subscription that has paid for itself more times than I can count. They offer courses on everything from graphic design theory to actual software program tutorial courses. Beyond Lynda, you would be amazed at what I’ve learned just from YouTube alone.

A la carte courses

I happen to be in Seattle, and there is an amazing local unaccredited design school called School of Visual Concepts that I have taken several courses from. They have an amazing variety of classes for graphic designers, web designers as well as copywriters. They have courses that last for 1 full day, as well as some that meet once a week for 5 or 10 weeks. They are very reasonably priced, and the best part is, you can just get in, learn what you need and get out. I’m sure that other large cities have similar schools or classes offered, either at Learning Annexes or community colleges.

Experience, experience, experience

Yes its that important. Any designer, whether schooled or not, will tell you that they have learned way more from doing than they ever learned from learning.

To answer the question of whether or not a formal education is for you, be honest with yourself. If you are one of the few who will honestly continue learning and challenging yourself on your own, then you may be well on your way to being a self-taught designer. If you think deep down that going to classes and sticking to a schedule is what you need, then you are probably right.

What do you think? Is a degree, or formal education a must for designers?


Web Design Trends for 2012 Predicted

With every new year, we see new design trends emerge, and old ones fade away. Now that 2011 is wrapping up, its time to look ahead into the ol’ web design crystal ball and see what 2012 has in store for us.

Web Fonts & Typography

In past years, little attention was ever paid to a site’s copy. It was an afterthought, and the only way to have anything close to resembling typography was to cheat it into an image. But now thanks to CSS3, and online font libraries such as Google fonts and Typekit, we can all embrace our inner typographers and create copy that is actually part of the design. You can now rethink almost everything, from line heights to shading.

Large Background Images

A full bleed background image can really make a connection with users. They can be beautiful landscapes, quirky people or product shots, photography or illustrations. Whatever the subject, the bigger the better.

Parallax Scrolling/3D

With 3D movies and now even televisions being big business, could the web be far behind? And no, I’m not talking about actual 3D that you need glasses for, but rather the illusion of depth. We will be seeing a lot of this sort of thing, with clever use of shadows, layers, gradients and textures, but perhaps the coolest 3D effect is parallax scrolling. This is where different transparent layers on the background scroll at differing speeds, giving a subtle sense of depth. The effect is really awesome and engaging if done correctly. Parallax scrolling is usually accomplished through CSS and JQuery plugins.


A large focal graphic can be very engaging, and given the interactive nature of sliders, you can really put across a lot of information in a relatively small space. Many smaller companies and personal pages are now opting to use a slider on a one-page layout. This created a nice minimalist effect with a single page, and the slider guides you through the different sections. With all the JQuery plugins available to do this, its not only striking but incredibly easy to pull off.


Illustration is the new photography. Since illustration styles are virtually limitless, they can say a lot about the culture of a company. They can be whimsical, minimalist, detailed, dark or kitschy, and with so many places to buy stock illustrations, you really don’t even have to be an illustrator yourself to take advantage of this trend. But note, if you are going to go the stock route, do yourself a favor and dig a little deeper. Don’t get one that everyone else is using.


Going away are the sterile flat colors of past years. Many websites are going for a more tactile feel, using textures such as linen and paper for a richer experience. Textures can be incorporated into the background, in illustrations, and even in typography, and we are going to be seeing a lot more of it.


Get All the Stock Images You Want & Make Money Doing It

While we would almost always prefer to use custom photography and illustration, it’s not a perfect world. Some clients simply do not have the budget for such extravagances. Stock images are a great compromise. An inexpensive way to add visual interest to any web design or graphic design project. I know what many of you are thinking, but trust me, stock images have indeed come along way, baby. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many of those over-used corporate shots floating around out there. The close-up handshake. Group of businesspeople. And my favorite: Lone man laughing with fruit salad (yes, its a thing.) Still, if you look, you can find many unique images that will serve your purpose.

If you have enough clients to the point that you have a need to purchase an average of 10 stock photos per month, you can essentially have access to as many stock photos as you can handle for free. Any additional images used beyond 10 per month can equate to pure profit for you. It does require a little upfront investment, but if you have the client base to support it, here’s how it works:

Step 1 – Buy a one year subscription to a stock photo site. ThinkStock is my image source of choice, and I am basing all my calculations on their yearly membership. ($2,388, which comes out to $199 per month.) And we are not just talking photos here. You can find icon sets, patterns, textures, you name it. They have many stock image companies’ inventory under their umbrella, so it truly is one-stop shopping for me. These plans are usually not unlimited in the true sense, since they do have a set number of daily downloads. ThinkStock’s limit is 25 images per day, and I have never even come close to reaching that.

Step 2 – Include a clause in your contract that states you will charge your client $20 per image sourced. This is what we call a markup, and it is completely above the board and common practice. $20 is what I charge, and that price is the basis for my calculations in this article, but what you charge is completely up to you.

So to recap, you make the initial investment of $2388, then charge a set amount to your client for every photo used. Assuming you charge $20 per photo, as long as you can charge for 10 photos per month, you have completely made up for the entire cost of the subscription. Thus any additional photos you charge for are icing on the cake.

If you have the client base to support this model, it works very well for 2 reasons:

  • You can make extra profit
  • You aren’t on such a short leash when it comes to choosing and downloading images. That freedom can help you to work more efficiently, and best of all, you won’t have to show your client comps with watermarks on them.