Do Designers Really Need an Education?

By: Wes McDowell | November 18th, 2011 | 4 comments

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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 Home" href="[page_link id=6]">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 Lynda.com 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?

4 Responses to Do Designers Really Need an Education?

  1. Kim says:

    this article was very informative for me! not from seattle but in the NYC area looking to get into some graphic design myself. i have applied to some schools but i guess it all depends on my portfolio and other factors… if i was to educate myself would anyone know of places in NYC that offer these ‘a la carte’ classes? i’m mostly looking to find something in sketching and / or drawing… any information would be greatly appreciated!

  2. Good article!

    I’ve been thinking I’ve gone as far as I can go in web without formal web training. I’m looking to upgrade at Emily Carr. They offer night and weekend classes!

  3. Casey B says:

    Thanks for this article. I’ve read some less then encouraging posts elsewhere on this topic. Yours is the first one to get to the psyche of it: motivation. I am learning anyways, and reading from someone who made it gives me hope. The next step is how to get more experience and pay rent! I’m going to try some Boulder / Denver “meet ups” to see if I can get overflow work.

    thanks
    ps… podcast are right on point and great!

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