A young designer asked me if formal education makes a difference in becoming successful. Having earned a degree, and having taught part-time in a design program for 25 years, I have some bias about this topic. I’m framing my response with my bias in mind. The designer who posed the question is not formally trained. Her question was if formal education makes a difference and not if it is necessary for success.
Formal design training helps.
You’ll receive differing opinions about formal design training depending upon who you ask and what criteria is being used to assess the merits of earning a design degree versus not earning one. Formal training is not a requirement to succeed. But it helps, in my opinion.
If you are looking for a job at a company, agency or firm, chances are a minimum hiring requirement is a bachelor’s degree. That’s one thing to consider.
Another consideration is this: If you don’t join a formal education program, how will you learn what you need to know? Experience will teach you, but it may take years. School gives you principles and skills in a concentrated, focused environment, tests your understanding and application of those principles through projects and assignments, and provides you with a habit of lifelong learning. You also develop your portfolio under close supervision.
Experience will teach you, but it may take years.
Another thing a formal education will do is define things for you. You learn the visual language. You learn how to evaluate your own work from an objective point of view, and assess your own creative strengths and weaknesses. You learn design history. You receive input directly on how and where to improve your craft, build your skill set, and refine your thinking. You learn to collaborate with others. You learn how to separate yourself from your work so that when your work is critiqued (and it will be), you won’t take it personally.
School helps you to understand design as a whole.
You will also learn the design process from how to define a problem, how to develop ideas, and how to implement them and test them. You will learn what a finished design looks like, and when something needs more work. You also learn that design is a gestalt. Your color theory course and your basic typography course are not mutually exclusive, but part of a whole.
School also allows you make mistakes in a safe environment where you can be corrected so that they don’t happen again. Make those same mistakes as a professional and it will affect your livelihood.
Some schools offer internships and assistance in job search and professional networking. While these are not exclusive to the schooled designer, it is easier to make connections and certainly to earn credit for internships.
The quality of education is of course going to depend upon what school or program you select. Design programs are not all equal. Some are technology-oriented and call it graphic design while others are entirely focused on design theory and don’t prepare students for the realities of real world work. If you’re going to enter a design program, I recommend one that balances theory with practicality.
Talent is where you begin your training.
Aesthetic sense and talent are raw materials. They amount to nothing without discipline. Education forces you to add skill, discipline and expertise to your talent. And in order to meet project deadlines, you learn to steward your time.
Only the person with a certificate or degree can determine its value. If you earned a certificate but don’t value it, that’s on you. If it fell short, then consider a degree program. If that isn’t enough, consider a juried degree program (portfolio requirement for admission). Or find a mentor in the profession to teach you.
Schooling can do only so much. Ultimately your portfolio and your character will determine your success in the field. The onus is on you to continue to learn and perfect your craft throughout your professional career. As designers — visual creatives — we cannot stop learning. Ever.
If you are predisposed against a formal education, then don’t seek one. But don’t devalue those who have gone through the rigor of earning a degree. It comes down to the fact that you are competing for jobs and clients with formally-trained creatives wielding professional-quality portfolios.