Ask DN: Significance of design education?

almost 5 years ago from , Chilling

I think it's great that design is a field where you can become a successful professional without a related degree, but I'm interested to hear how your design education (or lack of) has affected your career.

What kind of program did you attend, and how did it (or didn't it) shape you as a designer?

Do you have a success story with only a portfolio and no formal education?

For students, how do you feel the program you're attending measures up to the standards of the industry?

For managers, how much weight do you put on the education of an applicant when hiring?

15 comments

  • Chris MeeksChris Meeks, almost 5 years ago

    Great question.

    It is difficult to fully know our background's effect, since we have nothing to compare it to. For me, my design education (University with a decent program) was vital in providing me with the basics of design -- the tenets that won't change every decade or with a new set of tools. These are design principles like shape, contrast, composition, etc.

    There is nothing preventing an individual from learning these skills outside of an academic environment, but they are skills that need to be fostered and aren't directly relatable to a task you need to complete tomorrow. If you try and learn a "trick" to make something look better now, you won't ever learn those fundamentals that save you time and create more compelling work in the future.

    The biggest difference I've seen (and it is a generalization) is that completely self-taught designers often don't understand the fundamentals very well. Even if they do, they have trouble articulating them. As a result, they're work seems to follow the trends without a strong sense of cohesion.

    3 points
  • Drew RiosDrew Rios, almost 5 years ago

    I think about it all the time, did i really need to obtain a degree to be where i am today? I've gone back and forth on it but i think what it comes down to is not necessarily the curriculum or the school you went to, but the environment and mindset of thinking of design. By seeking a degree in design i was put in an environment of design curiosity and really delved into the world. They drove my curiosity and ambition to learn more and better myself.

    As a student i never really felt the program measured up. I learned what was new and happening in the real world while my older professors taught us Flash. If only they could have seen that it was going no where.

    As a director i definitely would hire anyone who had a grasp of design in their portfolio, no formal education needed at all. Those kinds of designers genuinely seek to learn and understand design on their own and i value that more than 4 years of mandatory bullshit projects and classes.

    3 points
  • Chris JenningsChris Jennings, over 4 years ago

    We've built a great design team at Disqus. When building the team education never came up. Not even once. I'd say it was at least partially because the founders, myself, and the people around us didn't have degrees. Our lead engineer at the time was a high school drop out.

    Instead we looked for real experience, good taste, and how the candidate approached problems.

    As a dropout, my advice would be to dive in and build real things for real people. In this industry nothing beats actual experience.

    2 points
    • Gordon TindallGordon Tindall, over 4 years ago

      Thanks for the insight @ Disqus. It seems like a lot of start ups are split with either teams that have no formal education, but have gained a lot of experience building and designing for others and themselves, or those that have formal education, generally from top tier universities.

      When you are looking at adding new designers to your team now, do you still favor something built over a degree, or are you looking for a combination of both?

      0 points
  • Nicola RushtonNicola Rushton, over 4 years ago

    I see my degree as really consequence-free practice time. I learnt more by laying out the student magazine, taking internships, and in my first few months of working, than I ever did at uni.

    I also think if you're going to teach design in universities, it does make sense to focus on principles and design history more than technical practicalities. You can learn how to use programs and how to code on the job much more effectively and those programs are going to become obsolete.

    I also think the state of design, at least web design, is moving much too fast for someone who is working as a professor and not as a designer to keep up with.

    I guess I'm of the opinion that design would probably be better taught as an apprenticeship. But on the same note - university was so much fun, I'd never want to take that experience away from someone.

    2 points
    • Raven KellerRaven Keller, over 4 years ago

      I'd disagree that a university design program is consequence-free. The expense of the program can be really burdensome, and you're spending four years on it - that's four years where you could be working as an intern to hire or junior level designer with real work experience.

      0 points
  • Jon GoldJon Gold, over 4 years ago

    I went to what was (at the time I joined) one of the best design schools in Europe. I learnt typography from old Swiss dudes with white beards.

    It was great, but it hardly prepared me for the realities of the industry.

    There was lots of box-ticking and (metaphorical) painting inside the lines; I couldn't live with that so I used the resources that I needed and spent most of my time freelancing and growing as a designer. I got a terrible grade in the end (because I didn't hand in a few projects), but I gained a hell of a lot out of it - I think I could have got a (crappy) job as a designer without going to uni but I needed the space to make mistakes and learn in a safe environment for 3 years to be the designer I am today,

    1 point
  • Bryan ClarkBryan Clark, over 4 years ago

    I've got two degrees in Industrial Engineering, and only took one design class while in college. Design was something I was interested in while in school, but it wasn't the focus of my studies.

    Fast forward a couple of years, and after starting as a web tester, then moving into web functional design, then teaching myself iOS interaction design and development -- now I'm a full-time mobile designer.

    For me, engineering didn't teach me much about design, but I did learn a hell of a lot about persistence, and learning how to learn. At a certain point, I decided that I wanted to design things, so I started small and grew from there. I began by thinking "There's a ton to cover in design, so I'll start with iOS." I read a few books on mobile design, read all of Donald Norman's books, and dove into a specific corner of design. Along the way, I learned a bit about interaction design, prototyping, visual design, etc.

    In my experience, it's less about what you've studied, and more about what you've made. Start making things, and you'll learn what you need along the way. The important thing is to start, and to invest in taking time to study the fundamentals as you go along.

    PS: Here's my list of things that helped me get started with mobile design: https://www.makesets.com/how-i-got-started-with-ios

    1 point
  • Liang ShiLiang Shi, almost 5 years ago

    If we are talking about careers and if you can be successful without education... then I think it depends on where you end up and how their company culture works. A large firm may require a degree in design for appearances or to impress their clients regardless of how good a portfolio might be.

    On the other hand, a lot of agencies I've worked with look merely at the portfolio. Schooling is a side topic, and the conversation ends at where I went to school, not what I studied (I did not study design).

    The way I got into it was self-learning since the age of 13. I started working professionally at 17 at a local design boutique and learned far more there than any design class, especially how to deal with clients. Trust me, no formal education could ever teach you that bit ;)

    I took a couple of design classes at my University and it was just covering the basics of how to use Photoshop and Illustrator. I learned nothing.

    That being said, this was at a large public university where it's not known for design or art classes. On the other hand, I've seen students come up with amazing projects from design schools around the country. I would attribute that partly to self-motivation and perhaps a better curriculum.

    But is the design education necessary? In my case, no - not at all. I studied advertising and photojournalism and never, ever has anyone wondered why I don't have a degree in design.

    0 points
  • Sarah Groff-PalermoSarah Groff-Palermo, almost 5 years ago

    Great question.

    My degree is in literary and critical theory, and originally I was going to grow up to be a writer and work in publishing. Now I am the head of user experience for a small company, which means I do a lot of the graphic design too.

    I have fallen into this job by job and step by step. When I was the managing editor of a small press, I needed to be able to work with our Quark files, then I started laying out books with the help of our designer, just for speed. When I left publishing to be an advertising pm, I learned what UX was and thought "I can do that" and had a boss who was awesome enough to let me try and coworkers who were willing to help.

    I went to a bigger agency and learned more. I wound up at a design studio full of trained designers and learned even more. Each step I was expected to make higher fidelity wireframes, till by the end I was creating designs within a pre-established system. This was helpful because it meant I had to replicate good design and extend it, but I had a framework. That combined with very high expectations meant I spent about 18 months freaking out and working hard and finally now I know enough about design to do a good job.

    That said I do feel always a little behind my colleagues in design understanding. I would never be right for a job that didn't draw on my strengths in UX. I spend a lot of my free time shoring up my design knowledge with books and personal projects and sometimes continuing ed classes. I can see the value in the education and confidence & knowledge it engenders.

    I'm not necessarily sorry about my winding path because I have had a chance to do a lot of fun things and learn a ton (and that gives me some confidence of a different sort — I know I can always "figure it out"), but if someone knows they want to be a designer and they have the opportunity to go to design school, they should.

    0 points
  • Sorel ArghireSorel Arghire, over 4 years ago

    I am a 21 years old high school drop out from Romania. I made my first website at 12 and I have been freelancing since 15. You can take a look at my dribbble to see how am I handling it now http://dribbble.com/sorelmihai.

    Abandoning school gives you a lot of time but lefts you numb. I had a lot of time to exercie, work, advertise and build a network but I started with no real knowledge on design. I had to learn and discover the fundamentals by myself, that took some time and I am still having doubts I have to clear

    I'd say education is significant and valuable and following an academic life gives you some. If you decide to educate yourself do it fearlessly, many have done it before , just don't be ignorant and always evaluate yourself honestly.

    0 points
  • Geof CrowlGeof Crowl, over 4 years ago

    I think the best way to sum up my design degree experience is that it gave me confidence in my work, the ability to be critical of my work (and others), it taught me how to talk about my work, how to continue to teach myself and how to create a process to solve problems.

    Could these be self discovered without formal training? Yes. If I had the ability to rewind, would I made the same choice and get a design degree? Absolutely. The sense of community and freedom of creativity is unparalleled.

    0 points
  • Dennis Vries, deDennis Vries, de, over 4 years ago

    I made a post about it yesterday! Degree vs. Freelance/Experience

    http://subform.net/blog/index.php/posts/bachelors-degree-versus-experience

    0 points
  • Sam SolomonSam Solomon, almost 5 years ago

    This is a great discussion question, and I think it deserves a few more up votes.

    I stumbled into the design world a few steps at a time.

    I studied public relations in college, but worked as an editor for the university newspaper. Often I was in charge of paginating the news section. I grew sick of staying late in the office, so I went out and bought a copy of the Creative Suite from the campus store (If you are still a student and don't own the CS suite go do that it will save you close to a grand). I discovered a few Photoshop tutorials, and started designing graphics for my stories.

    A year later I started a coupon business, FRUGGL, while taking classes. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and made about every mistake you can starting a business. But I spent time putting together graphics for our blog and Facebook page.

    After graduation I did contracting work for a few companies. One of them was drchrono, a YC healthcare startup. I filled in a few cracks here and there. They needed sales people, but also needed someone to start their growth team. (Running my business, I learned how to start and track PPC campaigns).

    My favorite part of working at drchrono was building and testing landing pages, so as my contract was winding down I looked at other options, and discovered The Starter League. For those that don't know, TSL was the original "Hacker School." It made news last fall when 37signals invested in the program. I joined the Rails for Designers class.

    I led design and front-end development for our final project Mountain Metrics, an analytics platform for Tumblr. While I have a pretty limited portfolio, that project has helped me land a few freelance jobs, and got me a few interviews.

    I've only been designing for a few months, but absolutely love it. I don't think I could have made the jump to design as quickly without The Starter League. But, I don't think a formal design education is necessary, or should be.

    Also, if you are interested in hiring a rookie designer let me know :)

    0 points
  • Andrew McCarthy, over 4 years ago

    Wow, thanks for the answers. Some really great points, I can't disagree with any of them. That's what I truly love about design: there's never just one way. Of course being formally taught the principles and fundamentals will likely make you a better designer, it's obvious that's just one route to becoming a great designer.

    For me personally, the university experience was totally invaluable. I owe the position I'm in today largely to the quality of the program, the professors who motivated me, and the peers who inspired me. While it's not always necessary, I'm glad to see that most of us highly valued our time and experience at school.

    I think one point that hasn't been brought up is when design becomes too academic. I've definitely encountered designers that become too wrapped up in the study & theory of design that it becomes self-servicing, or design for designs' sake.

    0 points