Is the University Route Right for You?


Well, it’s that time of year again. The time when high school seniors, some overachieving juniors as well, begin to finally see their educational journey for the upcoming fall be just right around the corner. By now probably close to a billion, if not more, college applications have been completed and processed by admission boards for this group of young individuals looking to expand their minds by pursuing higher education. At first glance this seems like a great scenario, having young people putting care and consideration into their future is what everyone loves to see. However, what if these graduating students are making the wrong choice about their educational journeys?

It is the predetermined notion put into many school children as early as their time in daycare that going to a university is the only guarantee at having a promising future, rarely discussing the reasons one should actually want to go to school. For those graduating with hopes of joining the creative workforce, this is a very difficult position to be in. On one side you see the route placed in front of you with the importance of continuing your education at a university, on the other side you see all these great resources (blogs, books, tutorials, videos, etc.) and learning opportunities online for free that can take you just as far in your career as going to a university.

This clearly puts a young creative in quite the difficult decision making predicament. Making the decision to pursue either route definitely has advantages that the other doesn’t, but there are also disadvantages as well. So that is why in this article there will be a breakdown of the positives and negatives of pursing either route. In doing so,  helping all those graduating young minds, or those interested in continuing their education, make a properly informed decision.

The University Route

*Image Credit: OZinOH 

Okay, by now everyone has heard almost every possible benefit of going to a university to pursue a degree after their high school years. So don’t expect to get that in this article, instead we are going to discuss the unconventional advantages of going to university and how that relates to improving your work as a designer.

You Learn a lot from Interacting with People

It doesn’t matter what type of person you are, how smart you are, or how many books on a subject you read. The most important learning tool, and often disregarded, known to the world is simply interacting and bonding with people different from yourself. This allows for experiences and culture to be exchanged, which brings about a better global understanding of the world around you.

How can this help me? Well, the main rule in being a designer is to create art that is appealing to those that are going to be viewing it. So a designer is somewhat an artist for the people, an artist who tries to predict what it is their audience will like and to capture it in their design. However, this could become quite the difficult task if that said designer never interacted with a wide range of people. The university route allows this person to gain a better cultural understanding of the world, and the different people in it. This in such, allows for better designs.

It is a Great Place to Start Freelancing

In the university setting, there are always jobs popping up for talented creatives to take advantage of. There is always a party, seminar, club activity, professor, other student businesses, fundraiser, or anything you could think of, that could use the services of a young creative trying to make some money. This is also where the age-old practice of networking proves to be most powerful.

How can this help me? Being a freelancer is a hard journey to embark on, especially when you are fresh out of college without any corporate world experience. There is a large portion of the freelance community that is struggling right now to find regular work, and any successful freelancer is not without stories of going through years of times like this. This positive of taking the university route gives you a good start on building a client base, and establishing yourself in the online and local communities if you do good work.

You don’t Automatically have to go to Design School

Okay the above mentioned reason is a great one to consider, but it doesn’t work best at a design/art school. Design schools are a great way to engage and interact with interesting people with all different kinds of artistic focuses, but that doesn’t leave much opportunity outside of school typically until after graduation. Taking the advantage of the fact that there are not as many skilled creatives will be a better opportunity, if you have the talent and the strong desire within yourself to put the appropriate amount of time into your craft.

How can this help me? Besides the underlying message above, not going to a design centered school allows you to major in something else outside of design. There are so many complimentary areas of study out there that every blog talks about how you can incorporate them into your designs to improve them, why not go to school for one? This will only work if you have the drive and determination to not only get what you can from the non design related degree you are earning, but if you also find the time to push your creative skills along the way. Design schools also cost A LOT, and those loans your likely going to need take a long time to pay back.

The Self Guided Route

*Image Credit: Montecal

Now this is not a choice that everyone can take and become successful. Quite often you’ll see many people in the creative field who overestimate their skill level and think that going the university route is a waste of their time, and end up giving up and choosing another field of work. Don’t feel troubled though. This may be the harder of the two to navigate, but it also provides advantages that the safer university route does not.

You can Craft Your Own Learning Journey

In a university learning environment, the bulk of what you will learn is determined by your professors and the school’s administrative board. For some people who don’t necessarily know what exactly they should be focused on to get the best results in their career, this is great. However for those on the opposite end, this is like torture. Going the self guided route allows one to pick the different areas of study they feel will have the best impact on their future career goals.

How can this help me? Well besides the obvious benefit of being able to tailor your own learning journey, which probably will be miles ahead of the slowly adapting one of a university, it is actually what you’re going to have to do throughout your creative career. It is always easy to separate those at the top of their field, from those at the bottom. This is so because the only real difference is that those at the top are ALWAYS LEARNING. In any creative field, it is important to remember that the learning never stops because everything is always advancing and there is always room for improvement.

It is Okay to Fail

When you’re young, it is truly rare to find something that you are good at and can become successful at in a professional environment. That is why youth is the adventure of discovery, and should be viewed as such by all. This is a time when it is perfect to start something, and then a few months or so later watch it become a complete and utter failure. So you think you have what it takes to become a successful creative right out of high school, why not go for it?

How can this help me? When your young it is hard to realize this, but you have nothing but time on your side. That is a luxury that can not be wasted, it needs to be completely taken advantage of. So one idea failed, then the next, and the next five after that did, it’s not the end of the world. In failing, a person finds the most practical lessons. Take a look at the late legend that is Steve Jobs, did he create Apple on his first try?

Learn REAL Life Lessons

The one thing any university will never be able to teach its students are the real lessons of life. For many college students, they are living in a bubble provided by the university they are attending. Of course while on the inside of the bubble one will never really know, in fact college students within this bubble will even begin to think that they are actually learning the same life lessons they would if they weren’t in school. That is far from the truth. For students in university, the real learning of the difficulties and challenges of life don’t start until after graduation. For those on the self guided route, everyday is a lesson being taught to them in the classroom of the world.

How can this help me? Learning lessons about life, and the world around oneself, this way is truly tough on a young mind. There are many different ways things can go wrong, sometimes ways in which an escape route is not to be found. However if one can properly navigate their way, there is an endless amount of possibilities that await.


Okay, it is clear that both routes have their ups and downs. That is okay because this is life, and in life there is no such thing as a sure-fire road to success. A person needs to experience their downs, just as much as their highs before they understand the true meaning of the word success. That is something many young people were never taught, or honestly payed attention to. So in closing, let’s take a look at a few tips for each route.

University Route

  • You don’t have to finish university right away, if you feel you have learned enough take time off to start your career. You can always go back.
  • Take advantage of every opportunity and resource you have. That one professor looking for you to design their professor site, could be the one to kick-start your freelancing business.
  • Don’t settle for what is being taught in class to be enough, go out and challenge yourself.

Self Guided Route

  • Don’t think that going to school later on is not an option, there is always time to further your formal education.
  • Continuously learn something new every day through a book, blog article, or just experiencing something. Whether career related or not.
  • Understand that this is the harder route of the two, and will bring more failures. However when you do succeed, there won’t be a better feeling.

Any Advice You Would Share?



  1. Courtney

    I preferred the difficult way out. Already being a self starter, I chose to go the long route and make mistakes. I learned from those mistakes and I asked a lot of questions and spent hours and hours on youtube (lol). I feel that school was a waste of my time and in the end I would come out of school in serious debt. So those four years I made mistakes, but I made money in various ways performing various jobs in the graphic design world.

    What was good for me, might not be good for the next person. If you can read you can learn.

  2. University was right and bad thing to do at the same time. I didn’t learn anything there because I visited like 1/5 of the all lectures but its still was the best experience ever.
    I met my business partner there as well as many great people that supports me on my business and many are my clients or we do some business ventures together.
    If you want to learn then university is not the place, or at least it wasn’t for me but it is worth it anyways!

  3. Sean

    One more way is to go to companies. I mean those web design companies that teach their employees and provide a supportive environment and where the process and designers’ interaction could be very instructive and helpful for you when choosing your university courses or going the self guiding path.

  4. Justin

    Great content! Was just recently having a conversation with a fellow entrepreneur. We concluded that different routes work for different people. A large part of the decision should result from proper analysis of how well the major that you choose enables you to reach a desired goal. If you attend a school to study an unrelated major, then there is an opportunity cost because you can be learning the ins and outs of your business through real world application.

    • Hi Justin, thanks for commenting. There is much logic to that, and that is the main downside of our profession. We can go to school, but 10 times out of 10 what you go for isn’t going to be exactly related to the industry. If it is, your going to be learning outdated techniques. So it is really a toss up, and hoping that you land in the right major of interest. If your not going to art school though, I’d would honestly recommend business degrees or a social science like psychology or sociology. We also have to make sure young students know they DON’T have to finish, or they can always go back if they feel they need time away from school.

  5. Lindsay Gattis

    I would also add to not think it has to be one or the other. I started my freelancing business two years before I graduated and managed to learn a lot of lessons in the process of doing both. I learned really quickly how to prioritize my clients and not take work just because I needed the money. I had to prioritize or it would infringe on my school work. I also learned what did and didn’t work in terms of marketing myself as a newcomer to the design industry. I did this all before I went “full-time” with my business. So once I graduated, I took what worked and applied it immediately. As a result, my business never went through the downs that most new businesses go through. Actually, let me rephrase. It went through the downs while I was still in school, receiving financial aid and able to keep my costs low. Once I graduated and had no other income coming in for bills, my business thankfully had moved past it’s “down” period.

    The other thing I would recommend if you’re going the freelance route is to not make the mistake that you won’t need any start-up capital. I made that mistake. It’s doable, but it’s difficult. You won’t need as much as other industries but it will help you sleep better at night if you at least have some!

    • Very good additions Lindsay! I can relate to your story because that’s my current situation right now, and I would say that being in school does give me certain things not going couldn’t. But I have missed out on business opportunities because of my enrollment in school as well. We really don’t stress enough the importance of start up money when beginning freelancing do we?

  6. Cosmin

    Personally I believe that it pretty much depends what kind of family we talk about. If we talk about a family with great academic achievements, then is most probably that parents will have great expectations for their children and unavoidable they will have to go to university.

    Another great thing is that you have diversity and the possibility to learn and share experiences with tons of amazing students.

    On the other hand, following the self guiding way will make things a lot more interesting and educational. Since we talk about web design and business and not becoming a doctor, the best way to achieve great results and to evolve naturally and real is to make mistakes. This is one of the things you can barely do at the university because the vast majority of activities are in a small frame and mostly focusing on theory.

    So…if you are a dynamic person and have lots of connections and you are a part of cool social groups sharing your passion for design, then I recommend following the self guiding path.

    • Hi Cosmin, the pressure to go to school at the university level isn’t always based on one’s family history of doing such. A lot of times, there is a lot of pressure on young students to go and be the first of their family to get a bachelors degree, or higher if they choose to. That is a little heavier, but different burden.