Designer Thoughts: Get A Design Degree or Teach Yourself?

This month I’m starting a new series titled “Designer Thoughts”. The purpose of the series is to cover topics that directly affect freelance designers and get the conversation going about them. Every designer has a different experience, so it’s always nice to hear other’s ideas and perspectives.  One topic that seems common among designers is the importance of a getting a graphic design degree. Do you need to get a degree to be a graphic designer or can you be just as successful if you teach yourself?




I went to school to study design and I have a BFA in art with a concentration in graphic design. I loved my classes, professors, classmates and overall, thoroughly enjoyed my time in college. Studying at a university is a great way to learn and definitely makes for a memorable experience, but honestly, it’s a pretty hefty investment. At a time when student loans were piling up faster than job offers, it wasn’t unusual to find myself wondering, “did I really need a graphic design degree?” Nowadays there are multitudes of online courses and resources available to anyone who wants to learn, many of them at little to no cost. But don’t get me wrong! Much of what I learned in school helped me get to where I am today and built the foundation for my design career. It just seems like some employers could care less whether or not I attended a four year university. I could spend hours tweaking my resume, editing my cover letter and rearranging my portfolio. Everyone thought my work looked great, but somehow I still didn’t have enough “experience”.



Do designers work in an industry where experience can make you more competitive than education? Click To Tweet



The focus was all about who I had worked for, not how I presented it. With only school projects to show, it was hard to convince employers to hire me. And to top it off, my portfolio was filled with different types of design projects, from packaging and t-shirt design to websites and print collateral; it was all over the place! My specialization wasn’t clear because I had such a large variety of design projects. With so many different types of designers out there (read more about them here), it’s critical for employers to hire the right type of designer for the job. In other words, it’s better for a designer to be really amazing at one or two types of design than okay at a large variety.





So is it better to teach yourself or get a degree? To compare the two, lets look at two hypothetical designers, Designer A and Designer B. Designer A goes to school to get a degree while Designer B teaches himself design.


By attending a university, Designer A has the opportunity to work on her creative identity before tackling projects for the real-world. She can discover her design style while taking courses laid out in a predetermined curriculum. There are professors available to answer questions about design software and techniques and the classroom is set up to help students learn from each other. College is essentially designed to teach students how and what to learn to be successful in their field. Students get a broad look at all types of design, getting a chance to learn what they like and don’t like. And school projects give students the freedom to fail. If they mess up, it’s a bad grade and a little dignity lost; not angry clients and a decreased salary. Higher education also provides the opportunity to network with a wide variety of people. Any student, professor or friend Designer A meets in college has the potential to be a helpful connection in the future.


Now Designer B has always had natural artistic ability and graduated high school knowing he wanted to work in the creative field. He isn’t the biggest fan of institutionalized learning and he definitely doesn’t want to pay for it, so instead he gets a job. By going straight into the workforce, Designer B can gradually teach himself while still getting “experience”. Working in the industry helps Designer B discover his specialization quickly and he builds up a portfolio of projects he’s designed for clients and businesses. Many of his starting jobs are entry level and don’t pay the best, but college debit is one less thing he has to worry about and he’s still making money. Not every job Designer B takes on is related to his design field, so much of his learning has to be done in his free time. This means he’s extremely dedicated and has the self discipline to create his own curriculum for learning his specialization. Over the years, Designer B meets and connects with coworkers and other designers. This network provides him with mentors, exposure and even higher level design opportunities.





So as you can see, there really is no right or wrong answer when it comes to whether or not you should get a degree or teach yourself. Everybody’s circumstances are different and there is no one way to learn a creative field. While having to teach yourself graphic design is by no means an easy task, being self-taught is more likely to give you job experience while you’re learning. Students are always encouraged to take internships while pursing a degree, but class schedules don’t always line up with these opportunities. Ultimately, college is a great starting point, but in the end, it is still just that: a starting point. Designers, both with or without a degree, have to know how to teach themselves in order to keep up with the ever-evolving industry.



So what are your thoughts as a designer? Did you get a degree or teach yourself? Do you feel that one is necessarily better than the other? Share your opinions below!

Ariana Nicole
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