Formal degree vs. self taught

For many web design professionals, there was no option but to be self taught. Years ago, the academic qualifications simply didn’t exist. Sure, you could study design, but you’d be left to learn the technology by yourself. You could take an I.T. course, but you’d be lacking design skills.

Perhaps that’s the reason web designers come from such disparate backgrounds; it’s hard to imagine accountants hailing from such wildly different career paths.

But times have changed, and academic qualifications focussing on both design and code are now commonplace worldwide. Many of those courses have been developed by the very designers and developers who chose to find their own way a decade ago.

So which is preferable? A carefully designed course, filled with modules covering the industry’s most commonly requested skills; or hard work and self application, learning techniques as and when required?

Check out the infographic below for a better idea of the pros and cons.

Education for web designers 


Are you formally educated or self taught? Would you have better off taking the other route? Let us know in the comments.

  • Jeremy Stewart

    This is a great article wish I had seen this before I embarked on 3 degrees and going into corporate IT. I make a good living but its not what I really want to do, now that so many resources are available online I am finally pursing my real goals and programming for what I want and the web not for what the big old companies want!

    • John D

      I’m finishing a degree in web technology and a sub major in digital design it has taken 3 years and I will have a Bachelor of Media Arts. The only problem with degrees like this is the rapid changes in the technologies and the ability for uni’s to keep up with it in their curriculum. For example just over the three years I have seen the acceptance of HTML 5, the decline in flash and the topic of responsive web design and CSS3 come to the fore. I think degrees are important as they do focus on the non sexy topics like Web accessibility and teach the essential principles of design. they also teach you how to write professional copy and critically analyse issues. Side subjects or electives, such as marketing and project management don’t hurt either. I think to sum up a degree is a good foundation but you need to keep up with trends and developments and keep learning all the time. people who are self taught may well be just as accomplished in their areas of expertise but I tend to lean towards a degree.

  • João Alexandre

    Outstanding infographic.

    The article touches a sensitive spot, and it’s not just with web designing, there are a lot of young folks doing some crazy good things, but there are also people ruining the industry. Everybody and their grandmother seems to do websites these days.

    But coming back to my point, there are plenty of other areas that do not necessarily require you have a paying education. You can be an excellent marketeer or copywriter and be all self-taught. Sometimes the worst place to learn something in in a university. I have seen people my age +30 that develop crazy good websites and don’t have any formal education into web design.

    Note however, the exception: I wouldn’t let a dentist or doctor handle my health without a proper degree. There are some professions where it is indispensable, others, doesn’t matter.

  • Kim B

    As someone just heading into a web design career, I’ve found that most companies looking for in-house designers want no less than 3-5 years experience AND a college degree. There are simply just too many qualified people out there today and the college degree can make the difference.

    • Rob Sawyer

      As someone that looked at a lot of different design/ux jobs before finding my current position, I can concur that almost all job adverts ask for a degree on top of at least 2 years of experience. However, in this industry, the most important thing you can have is a portfolio. If you can produce great work, you will get a job.

      • Jack Nycz

        Agreed. I don’t have a degree but have been in the industry long enough that when I was interviewing at the end of last year, almost every company that reached out to me required/wanted somebody with a degree but “were willing to make an exception.”

  • Nina Shaine

    Nice infographic! I would agree a combination of both is probably a good approach. I don’t know what actual Web design courses are like, and if they manage to strike the right balance between technical skills and design theory but I would say even a traditional graphic design education coupled with real-world Web design experience could kind of be the best of both worlds. Having said that, some of the most talented Web designers out there seem to be completely self-taught. Perhaps they’re just naturally very talented…? I guess there are no hard and fast rules.

  • Zell Liew

    This is such a wonderful infographic. I recently started learning about web design and these information here really helps me in making decisions about what I should do, and how much I should charge. Thanks for the great post!

  • les

    Great Article!

  • designcouch

    As someone who’s been gradually immersed in the world of web design (formal education is primarily in print design, and that’s where I got my start), I learned on the job. I totally and completely agree that a university education will get you started, but they tend to lag WAY behind the trends/technologies being employed by web designers. The main reason for this is that most professors are old—and most likely are not working primarily as web designers, either.

    I’m going to very heartily espouse learning on your own (not that I’m against formal education at all) simply because the knowledge is sought out by you and thus means much more. I learned as I went simply because I needed to get a job done, and have been building my skillset out the same way ever since.

    Going to concure with @disqus_t5qDAyaGJX:disqus about having a portfolio as well. That is far and away the most important component to getting a job in this industry. Important note: for a web deisgner, a portfolio means a well designed and curated personal site with work and thoughts on the industry (a blog or the like).

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Magnus Juhl

    Very nice infographic, well done!

  • Buffoon

    Being self taught and in the +30 category, if I had it to do all over again, I would have gone the formal degree route for a foundation and the rest would have fallen into place. One thing I do know, whether self taught or degree privileged, your always playing catch up to the latest trends.

  • Nodws

    The golden rule is tu use Freelancing to LEAN then go full time.

    and no employer is gonna ask for your degree or your grades! ever! they are interested on you and your work!!1

  • Adam Chang

    I went to college for web design a while ago, and I can honestly say that it was a waste of money and time. Every class the teachers basically gave us a book told us to read some chapters and turn in the work at the end of the week.

    I know there’s some good design schools out there but as many people mentioned, I think web design is something that can be self-taught and many people in this industry do not look at grades, degrees, gpa’s etc. The only thing that matters is the work in your portfolio.

  • Shirley Rikeros

    All right you convinced me, Tuts it is! Thanks for a great article and graphics and thanks everyone for their 2 cents!

  • Vonie

    Hi Ben, I am a self taught WordPressian,I have being asked to give a night class to adults next autumn, can you advise me on how to to make a tutorial like you would see on Lynda dot com. I’d be very grateful if you could help me out,thanks!!

  • Deirdre Baker

    I am self-taught because the formal education was not an option for me early on. I have always said that a formal education does not guarantee creativity, drive, self-reliance and common sense. There are many self-taught success stories and many who were formally educated and have run companies into the ground. The education is only part of the equation. I believe the web has made the self-taught option more accessible and can save many years of paying off student loans.