To School or Not to School

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October 27, 2009

Education undeniably changes us. Learning new things completely alters our perception of life and the world around us.

But formal academic training is a touchy subject for some people. Going to school to learn a discipline is still not an option for everyone.

As someone who has worked in the graphic design field for quite some time without an advanced degree, I understand that self-education is not to be underestimated.

But just how far can this type of training get you in life before you reach an impasse?

This is one of the big questions in the world of graphic design: is design school worth the time, money and effort? Does it pay off?

We have all heard tales of such self-taught design heroes as David Carson, who single-handedly ushered in a new era of digital design. He didn’t go to design school. He had a gift and was disciplined enough to refine it.

But is Carson’s extraordinary story relevant to us? Is there even an answer to the question of whether design school is actually worth it?

Why Go to School?

We have to consider this question in the right context. Not all graphic designers want to pursue the same career path.

In today’s market especially, art and design are such diverse fields that colleges are finding it more and more difficult to keep their curricula up with the changes.

When I was going to school, my program focused mainly on print and had only two classes on web design. Now, only a few years later, almost all of the jobs I am offered are web-related.

Designers not only are expected to be aware of design principles and how to apply them to physical forms, but are also often expected to have detailed knowledge of many other subjects, including:

  • Coding
  • HTML
  • CSS
  • PHP
  • RSS feeds

The acronyms are enough to make your head spin. Many top design schools still do not cover even the basics of these modern aspects of design. For example, Yale’s graphic design program does not have a single class covering web design.

This makes sense if design is studied as theory. Design principles are somewhat universal. However, it means that students have to obtain further education in their field of choice.

Degrees Help

I recently spoke to a colleague of mine who graduated from the graphic design program at Yale. I asked him where he learned his Flash, Dreamweaver and PHP skills, which are the cornerstone of his business and account for most of his income.

He told me that he got all of his knowledge of web design from free online tutorials. Hearing this, I asked whether he regretted spending so much money on his education at Yale.

He quickly responded that the contacts and portfolio that he built at Yale led directly to his success in business. He did admit when pressed, though, that he considers his MFA unnecessary for the actual work that he does.

Degrees Don’t Matter

Yale or Parsons or SCAD or NYU may be one person’s foot in the door to design success, but what about those of us who don’t have the opportunity to attend such prestigious institutions. Is our design career toast?

Let’s look at another example. A few years ago, I met Andrea Campbell, now Art Director of Orange Element in Baltimore. She told me that when she considers someone for a position, she bases her decision on the interview and the applicant’s portfolio, and that’s it.

If the position is an upper-level one, she also makes sure the applicant has some experience under their belt. But degrees don’t matter. Those words, degrees don’t matter are now stuck in my mind.

Here are some key points to remember:

  • Emphasize your portfolio. It is the key to your success.
  • If you are interested in a position, ask someone at the agency if you can send your work over. If they like what they see, you might just get an interview, even if you haven’t gone to Yale.
  • The most important thing is to know what you’re doing. If your portfolio looks good and you can talk design, you will be considered for the position.

Gaining an Edge

Getting your foot in the door is not the only battle, though. The job market is tough, and the graphic design field is extremely competitive.

According to Linda Katz , an employment specialist, the key to gaining traction in the job market is to have an edge. For graphic designers, that edge could be different things, but the main challenge is to show the employer why you are the best person to fill that position.

The simple truth is that, in some situations, a college degree is an edge.

Another fact to remember, especially if you’re a freelancer, is that teaching is one of the best side occupations.

Teaching pays well, and some colleges even offer benefits to their long-term adjunct faculty. Freelancers often need this, but a degree is almost always required for these teaching positions.

No School?

But let’s say design school is not an option for you. Perhaps your situation doesn’t allow it. Perhaps you’ve already gone to school for something else and don’t want to go back. Or perhaps college just isn’t your thing.

Whatever the reason, fear not. Many successful graphic designers are self-taught. In fact, skipping design school has some definite advantages. You learn how to educate yourself; you avoid a big debt; and you can take advantage of market segments that are not over-saturated.

I know of several designers who, upon finishing school, did not learn how to self-educate. Either you quickly learn to adapt and update your knowledge of the field or you quickly become obsolete.

Graphic design changes rapidly. If you don’t pay attention almost constantly, you can easily lose your competitive edge.

No Problem

What kinds of opportunities are available for graphic designers who have chosen not to go to design school? Some of the best ones are often overlooked. For example, outsourced work from big agencies.

Big agencies often make short-term commitments with designers to see if they are a good fit. Because the position is not permanent, they often pay less attention to degrees and more to the quality of work.

Another opportunity is direct competitive design. This is a growing model for many online graphic design studios. The most well-known example is CrowdSpring. CrowdSpring allows any designer to submit mockups for the projects listed on its website.

At the end of a competition, the client chooses the designer whose work they like best. I have gotten some work through CrowdSpring, and it is a wonderful opportunity to get criticism and feedback.

It is also a potentially good money-maker. One of my colleagues makes an excellent salary solely from his CrowdSpring work. He treats it like a full-time job. He puts in 40 hours a week and treats each client as if they had hired him for the design. He makes $60,000 a year, and his degree is in business administration!

In the end, you can do very well without going to design school, if you know what you’re doing.

Know Your Stuff

One of the biggest challenges of forgoing a traditional education is to actually get an education at all.

Self-taught designers must be extremely well disciplined. In addition, they must have the resources to be able to study graphic design and learn any skills they will need. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. We’re so used to finding everything instantly that we forget the importance of internalizing information.

  • Attention to detail is of utmost importance. People will judge you harshly because you don’t have a degree, so you have to show them why they are wrong. Know your design principles and practice them well, and the critics will shut up pretty quickly. In addition to tutorials and online information, read books on graphic design. Some recent research-based design books introduce new principles that are here to stay.
  • Like it or not, people have a bias for academia. You need to prove why being self-taught gives you an edge to better engage your audience. Don’t forget the importance of the portfolio as a tool to earn people’s trust in your skills. In addition to conventional projects, make sure to showcase work that is somewhat academic in nature and that shows off your knowledge of sound design principles.

Again, if you know what you’re talking about, people will listen to you and respect you.


Whether or not you have a degree, remember that you are a graphic designer; to maintain your standards and keep up with developments in the field, self-education is imperative.

Good designers forever seek out resources to update and hone their skills. The Internet is a vast bank of shared knowledge; you just have to know where to look.

Aside from free resources online, classes won’t set you back too much. The classes I teach in graphic design and typography at McWeadon Education, for example, are college level but cost only $99 each. Similarly, offers inexpensive online classes taught by seasoned professionals.

Not all professionally written resources cost money, either and there are literally endless resources online.

Google Tips

Google is often the best place to start pinning down resources and sorting them by subject. Be specific in your searches.

For example, if you need free resources, be sure to include the word “free” in your search. You can often find exactly what you are looking for by phrasing your query right. For example, “standard packaging templates” would probably return jumbled results. But “standard package design templates for Adobe Illustrator” would return more helpful websites.

The same is true of web design. If you need a specific code for a website, don’t just search for “HTML code.” You would quickly get lost in the sea of information. Try something like “HTML code for bullet points” or whatever it is you are looking for.

Also, remember to archive good information when you find it. Bookmarks are great, but if you have space, save the pages on your hard drive. Information, especially on blogs and message boards, can disappear rather quickly.

Plenty of Hard Work to Go Around

We must always remember that good design communicates something.

Training ourselves to be able to research and develop solutions to design problems that we face every day is essential. Training is the launching point for any successful career in design.

Whether at school, at work or on the Internet, continually expanding our knowledge base is crucial, not only to keep up with changes but to maintain the edge we need to win clients and wow employers.

Going to design school and self-educating both take dedication and effort. Even the best curriculum doesn’t contain everything you need to succeed. Gaining that edge entails crafting your own personal program of sustained education.

Written exclusively for WDD by Christian Hurst. He has an MFA in Graphic Design. He is currently senior designer at Kristag Design and teaches graphic design at McWeadon Education.

Did you attend a school or are you self educated designer? How has your choice impacted your career?

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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