Studying design might not be the hardest thing a person can do on Earth. Studying design is actually quite easy – it’s very practice-oriented, every piece of theory is applied and there is no wrong answer. If you have good reasons for everything you do, there is no way somebody will be able to tell you that you are wrong. Hey, it might actually be one of the funniest degrees possible.
However, getting the most out of your education is something not many are good at, and especially in our business where everybody thinks they know something, finishing high and then getting a good job is something only a handful of people from each class manage to do throughout their life. So you might ask yourself how do others manage to get that dream job of theirs when they have the same education as you – the same degree that hasn’t landed you anything more than poorly paid jobs and difficult clients to handle.
Like any other business, you only hear about the successful ones, but the majority of people in the web industry are the ones who don’t really make it anywhere. Focusing on education is the only way to avoid being one of them and to have a successful design career.
There are two kinds of education in the industry: a traditional one and a practice-oriented one.
Traditional Design Education
This is the kind of education that was really popular in the industry ten years ago. Since now we have the opportunity to get a hands-on experience right in school, it is not as popular anymore and many people prefer to go the route of a practice oriented education. The degree might not even be too helpful.
This kind of education is not similar to the real world environment. It is based on lectures and grades which are most of the time subjective. This kind of education is usually good for programmers, as it will offer them a rigid, serious education which will prepare them for the real world. But this won’t teach you how to deal with clients and it won’t tell you anything about running your own freelance business and other day-to-day aspects of a web design job.
Image by Abacus
This kind of education might make you a good designer with a very good eye for coding, but this is not your goal. A web designer needs much more than just knowing how to properly code. If coding is all you think about, you should go for a career in web development. Although many don’t think about this, web design and web development are two different careers. You’re not in for the geeky stuff.
Moreover, a university teacher might not even know much about the field. I bet there are hundreds of freelancers out there (without a degree) who know more than the tutors do. The things they teach are day-to-day routine for freelancers all over the world. The curriculum is usually updated once per year in the design field, but this is not enough. Everything moves and changes so fast that what you teach today might not be relevant at all to students next semester.
Having such an education is not a guarantee that you will get a job. In the end, people with the best portfolio get hired first. A very technical and book-based education might not give you enough free time to work on different projects. By taking this education you might be technically bright, but you are still at a clear disadvantage.
This is very popular today. It is what I did and what many other freelancers out there decided to do as well. The main difference between these two educations is that the books and theories are not as important here. Sure, marketing and communication theories have to be learned and Gestalt and design laws have to be considered all the time, but the education is more similar to art than to math. In the end, design is art.
This type of education allows your creativity to flow. It allows you to collaborate with different clients (on school projects) and it also gives you enough time after school to do some freelancing and build up an impressive portfolio.
When collaborating with clients from here, you have a huge advantage over the real world. You are allowed to make mistakes – this is unheard of out there in the real world. No mistakes are allowed when money is involved. When you are still in school you are allowed to make them – and the good thing is that you can learn a lot by looking back at all the mistakes you made.
Image by CELALTEBER.
This type of education can only be describes as Learning By Doing. However, this kind of degree has a disadvantage as well. Being generally more free than the other type, it also requires a lot of effort from the student. If the student lacks motivation, he will not achieve much. This kind of education usually gives you the basics and sends you out there to learn more on your own. This type of education is solely dependent on what the student puts into it. If you’re lazy and don’t work on many projects, you won’t have as good a skill set as someone from the same class who takes on a variety of projects and treats them like paying clients.
How to learn?
One of the main abilities you will need if you want to go through a design degree is the ability to learn. You need to be able to find yourself the best way to get work done and to soak up new information. Pushing yourself is a skill not many are able to learn – but if you do it, then design will not be a challenge for you. In this industry the only way to survive is to continuously improve and learn. Three years ago HTML5 was not even released. Now, together with CSS3, it is slowly replacing Flash. That’s how fast things change.
As mentioned earlier, in a practice-oriented education the school will only give you guidelines. It will offer you some structure to – but it is up to you if you will actually make your time there worth it.
Is the degree necessary?
Definitely yes. You don’t need school in order to perform freelance design gigs. You might even find work in a small advertising agency without a degree, but you’ll need an impressive portfolio. However, even with the most impressive portfolio out there, the education might be the one which will in the end make the difference between two outstanding candidates. Having the degree offers you some clear advantages. It will not replace the portfolio – these two need to work in collaboration.
In order to get an interview at many companies you need a degree. The portfolio usually never gets noticed before the “education” field. Your CV might end up tossed in a shredder because you don’t meet the minimum requirements, even if you have an outstanding portfolio.
Image by University of Denver
An education offers something else as well. It teaches you how to build a network and gives you the basics of design laws and theories. It allows you to fail without serious consequences, like losing a job. It gives you invaluable feedback through your tutors. It might not seem like it, but working in a school environment is more or less the same as working out there in the real world. So you will get that from school too.
Which is your career path?
Many people go to study something just because they are passionate about it – but do not really consider what exactly they want to become. This happens even more often in the design industry, where the limit between graphic designer and web designer is almost invisible. Moving from web to graphic is very common nowadays, so you could even say there really is no limit.
But starting a design education with a goal in mind will ensure that throughout the years you will stay focused. Spending years to take a design degree only to realize afterwards that you like graphic more than web is a shame. Instead of focusing on both, you could have used all the available opportunities to focus on graphic and become better at what you actually like.
Image by Jim in Times Square
Now don’t get me wrong. Switching careers or departments isn’t always bad. But knowing from the beginning what you really want to become might give better results in the end.
Sure, it is hard to pick a career when you are 18 and ready to go to study. But today we have a world of information only a click away. Doing a bit of research will usually lead you to the necessary conclusions.
Knowing that you want to be a motion designer for example will help you right from the start. You can make a list with all the things that are required for such a job and, during school, focus mostly on them. You don’t want to get out as a Jack of all trades and Master of none.
In some countries, especially Europe, this is not a concern for students. Education is free for everybody in countries like Denmark and free for the ones with good high school grades in other top European societies. But in the US you need to think of how much money you can afford to spend on education. A design degree can be pretty expensive, especially with the necessity for sudden changes in curriculums.
Student loans are something many people make use of in the US, but you need to seriously consider if you are ready to go into debt for a design career. In case this is not something you are 100% sure of, don’t spend too much money on it. Start with learning a bit from the internet and doing some freelancing for a period and if it is what you believed it would be, then go to school. Otherwise, try to find another career that suits you better.
Now I don’t know much about US schools, colleges and universities, but I am quite sure that there are junior colleges, state schools and probably more expensive private schools a student can attend. Do your research and make sure you pick the right one for your situation.
When thinking of finances, considering the software and hardware a designer needs to buy is something important too. If you are a freelancer, you will have to buy every piece of software yourself – on top of that expensive computer that can render a video or a 3D scene fast enough. If you are a student you can usually get huge discounts, but it is still a lot of money to be spent by somebody who doesn’t really make much.
As said earlier, the internet is the cheapest school you can attend. There is so much information out there that you don’t even need school to have a successful career – from a technical point of view. You can learn every programming language; every design law; Photoshop and Premiere Pro; literally everything. Many online courses do offer discounts for young people and are usually reasonably priced. This is the place to start from and get the basics if you can’t afford to pay for a degree.
I’ve mentioned earlier that the only way to have a long-time successful career in the design industry is to learn all the time. New technologies appear every year and the more you know, the better you will be rated by your employers. Thinking that once you got that so-much-wanted design degree you are done with learning is the biggest mistake you can make. The hard work only begins after you get out there on your own.
The degree is basically just a piece of paper, so normally you could do a lot without necessarily having it. But in my opinion, as stated earlier, a degree is required if you want to have a successful career in the design industry, especially in a company. The advantage over other educations is that the grades do not really matter. What matters is that you have a good portfolio. An employer will overlook your grades if you have delivered quality projects on the side.
Networking is also something very useful in the industry. If you work as a freelancer, many of the jobs you will get will be through recommendations. And I highly recommend you build a strong network. It will help you throughout your career.
Image by svilen001
Having a solid design degree is definitely an advantage, but it doesn’t mean everything for an individual working in the industry. At the same time you need a very good portfolio in order to impress the potential employers and prospects. If you are not sure about how much money you want to spend on a solid education, then the internet is the right place to start.
What do you think about this topic? Are you one of the ones with a successful career even if you have no degree? If yes, how did you manage and what tips do you have for the ones who wish to do the same?
Christian Vasile is an enthuziastic Romanian web designer currently living in Denmark. He is passionate for the industry and writes about design, usability, coding and freelancing and is a regular publisher here at 1WD. You can follow him on Twitter at @christianvasile or visit his web portfolio by clicking on the link above.