Life + Tips / Tuesday, 5 Nov 2013

Should you go to design school?

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for awhile now–Is design school right for you. I’ve been pushing it off because I didn’t want it be solely one opinion, my opinion. I wanted it to be a comprehensive resource for those genuinely thinking of investing their time and money into a formal design education. I collected the thoughts of a few successful creatives who I thought would provide some valuable advice–Joy Cho of Oh Joy, Aimee Miller creative director of Real Simple, Anne Ditmeyer of Pret a Voyager, Merrilee Liddiard of Mer Mag, and Sarah of Sarah Jane Studios–though I know this a conversation we could all have. Please leave your comments about it too so we can represent a number of walks of life.
Joy Cho, graphic designer and blogger of Oh Joy!
“I went to Syracuse University and majored in Communications Designs (which is the same as graphic design) with minor in Textiles and Fibers. I loved school because we got to learn the history and the basics of design before fully emerging ourselves into designing for the real world. 
However, I don’t think you have to go to school to be a talented graphic designer as I have many friends who are self-taught and very successful at what they do. I would highly recommend school if you know you want to do design as a career and you can go into college with that plan in mind as school does help you build your skills and your portfolio. But if you are discovering an interest in design later in life or changing careers, I don’t think you always have to go back to school to learn. There are lots of Continuing Education classes available for learning the fundamentals of design and also some of the technical aspects of it, but then you just have to go out there and practice by way of internships, apprenticeships, or on-the-job training.
Talent is talent. And if you have it, you can foster it in many different ways.”
Aimee Miller, creative director of Real Simple
“Yes you should.
That should be the end of it most likely because my husband is a professor at our alma matter Pratt and we have this discussion all the time and are staunchly, radically pro-education. Old school, and obstinately so.
Still, I would never deter anyone from following their dreams, creatively or otherwise and lots of people’s journey’s can take them to fabulous places that look nothing remotely like the inside of classroom, but those souls are blessed with things that most of us are not–and I’m not going to get into that.
It’s just that there is an integrity to art & design specifically that cannot just be free-formed unless you are an amazing autodidactic. And you are going to royally plague the design community with your nifty computer skills but your ignorance to Brodovitch,  Saul Bass, David Carson, Paula Scher, Ruth Ansel, Peter Saville, Jonathan Ives, Josef Hoffman, Herman Miller, Charles & Ray, Charlotte Perriand, Agnes Martin, Josef Albers, Carravagio, Ben Nicholsen, Richard Mangold, Bodoni, Times Roman and Franco Bitossi.  You get my point.
On the flip, and I’m going to use myself as a reference because I know me really well.  I had no other vague interest as a child, tween, teen other than making things, thinking about making things and learning about how I could make what I wanted and make it better.  There’s a problem with that because that leaves little else.  While my intellectual curiosity was up there and my talent was built in–thanks mom–my practical skills and my academic focus was not built in or interested in getting in (putting this kindly to myself).  
I safely landed at a great school. Probably the only time putting all the eggs in one basket actually paid off for me.  I excelled but I was also taken into a room by all of my foundation professors and was told that they were not bestowing a specific scholarship/honor that I could have greatly used because I came off as cavalier.  Their word, not mine. So, from then on, I became a student and it wasn’t easy.  And I have never stopped being a student and quite honestly as someone who hires teams of creative resources, I would be (am) highly biased to anyone that didn’t respect the institution of higher education and the intensive study and dedication that is requires.”  
Anne Ditmeyer, blogger of Pret a Voyager
I should preface this by saying I technically didn’t go to design school. I studying art history and anthropology (the visual side) in undergraduate (University of Virginia). I never really had the desire to get a Masters, which is kind of ironic, seeing as now I have two (and the student loans to go with it). My first Masters was in Publications Design from the University of Baltimore. I liked this program because classes were nights and weekends so I could work full-time. I was actually interning in graphics at a local theater, and the two fed off each other brilliantly. I also chose this program because it wasn’t a traditional design degree, but more aimed at someone with a liberal arts degree. For me, it was far less daunting. The second Masters was another surprise, but it’s why I’m in Paris. I discovered a Masters in Global Communications at the American University of Paris. I had been working for architects at the time, but was itching to pull my background in anthropology and love of travel into what I do. So the lessons here are 1) school is an incredible way to meet wonderful and talented people. 2) It’s a lot easier to motivate when there are a ton of other classmates in the same boat. 3) School is a great way to help get you where you want to be. (Note: when I did my second Masters, I was older than most. Many people went to graduate school because they didn’t know what else to do after undergrad, so they did a Masters. I feel like any kind of advanced degree is much more productive if you have at least some idea of what you want to do later).
On the flip side, I love online learning. I take advantage of free tutorials, and I pay for great tools tool. I teachInDesign as well as Map Making on Skillshare, and absolutely love it. I’m seriously addicted to all the creative classes, and have learned so much from professionals in the field who I really respect. Most classes are $20, so it’s not a major commitment. However, I am completely guilty of watching class videos, but not actually completing the project myself. Learning by doing is always the best!
So now I have this deep emersion in both online and “traditional” modes of education. Despite the debt, I honestly wouldn’t trade what I’ve learned for anything. I think it’s really important to feed your brain and take classes that excite you. When I had an employer, I was lucky enough to get to attend some continuing education classes at MICA on their dime! All I had to do was ask. But it’s also because of my blend of school, and online learning that I have a unique perspective on the industry and was invited to teach a course called “The Designer/Entrepreneur” at Parsons Paris. If you read my twitter feed or blog, you can pick up a lot of what I tell my students, but it’s still never the same 1-on-1 attention as in a classroom and working towards an actual project. My main advice is to try any opportunity that comes your way, whether it’s a local workshop, attending a lecture at a local university, or signing up for a class that piques your interest. You can definitely make it without a degree, but there are other opportunities that a degree may lend you.
Merrilee Liddiard, illustrator and blogger of Mer Mag
“I think education is absolutely important. Knowing the history of design, what the greats have done in the past, what the greats are doing now and why and what they are referencing, etc. is a huge help in building the foundation of solid design skills. I think learning techniques of good design is crucial, even if you decide to break um, you should know um and know why you are doing it. I think those steeped in knowledge, experience, experimentation, critical reviews, etc. have a better chance becoming a strong designer for the long haul, rather than just a flash in the pan. Trends are fun and easy to jump aboard on but good design chops will carry you through for the long haul. 
Sooo then where to get this education? Universities are great but I’d definitely do my research. BYU is incredible. very picky but very good (at least they were when I went there, and I’m sure still are). Design schools are also great for connections. Connections with other students, teachers, and design firms for when you leave school. But of course you can educate yourself and glean from making many friends and professionals online and in the design world. Of course it can be done without the walls of a university but I will say you can get a whole lot of amazing crammed in when going through formal training, so I personally vote for that….IF your school is a good one, rather than just a trade school wanting to pop out students who just crank out subpar websites for a living.
My training was specifically in illustration and BYU was great for that (and major picky. I didn’t get in the first year but reapplied and got in after that). I was neighbors with the designers and we had cross over classes and let me tell you, they didn’t mess around. I looooooved my training and time at BYU. I know for me it absolutely gave me the skills and confidence to take things to the next level. I was always ambitious, even before school, so I know I’d still be working in my field if I hadn’t gone to design/illustration school but in all honesty, I think my work and my world would have been a bit smaller…But who knows…you’ve got gals like Sarah Jane who studied music and is now a very successful textiles designer and illustrator (but then again she did have art training…in Europe I think…she’d be a great one to get that side of things…)
hope this helps..sort a bit of rambling…”
Sarah Jane, illustrator and owner of Sarah Jane Studios
“In high school I had the privilege of going to a very prestigious summer program called Interlochen (likeTanglewood, but for various art subjects) and I decided to double Major. Art and Vocal Performance. 
And it was very difficult. Both schools were demanding all of my after class attention, and I found it very hard to dedicate my soul to either school 100%. 
So, for my university experience, I knew I had to school one or the other. I couldn’t do a little of both. I essentially prayed about it and chose Musical Theater. I met my husband in the program, so essentially I have no regrets. 
But despite that, I really would do it again I think. 
People have asked me how I had the guts to start my art business, brand myself and really go for it when I had no professional art experience, and I tell them it’s because I studied Theater. In Theater, you are, like any art program, put on the spot, critiqued and criticized, but unlike any other art form, it’s you that they are criticizing, not an instrument or a canvas. The program I was in was extremely competitive, to the point where we had to reauditionevery semester. It was so intense. So I was forced to have thick skin, and a strong backbone. I’ve noticed in the visual art classes at BYU that many of the students are introverts, and didn’t push through like the performing arts students do. 
Another reason I’m glad I chose another major, is that I feel like my personal artistic style is truly authentic, and not reassembled pieces of the styles learned in a university.  As a Musical Theater student, I can honestly say that much of what I came out learning has a similar feel to many of the other students I studied with. The way I learned technique is similar to how the other students learned technique. The students that went on and did Broadway for instance, all tended to get cast in the same kinds of shows. Had I gone to art school, I wonder if that could have happened to me there.
But because I didn’t go to art school, my style isn’t anyone Else’s…it’s my own. 
Another reason I feel better off because of it, is that I feel much more well rounded and feel like I’ve lived more life, and forced my brain to understand other ways of communicating in the arts, and I know that’s helped me widen my spectrum and learn from other art forms.
That said, there are definitely technical lessons that I had to learn on my own, or maybe have never learned that I wish I did. I’m not as proficient or as fast at my work like maybe I could be. But then again, that’s what private lessons can do, or online e-courses. 
When I started my business, I knew that in order to reach out and contact the amazing clients that I wanted to work with, I’d need a few things: 
1) very good art
2) professional experience
3) business know how
SO, the very good art part…I worked my butt off, and created, created, created. 
The professional experience part….I started my own business because I knew it would force me to learn how to manage deadlines, work with multiple clients and get my work out there in the world. 
The business know how….I took classes and joined groups. 
So, I’d say no. You don’t need an art degree. It doesn’t hurt to get one, for sure! But there are so many other things that can help to add to an artists repertoire of skills. 
I know people who went to school for design, and people who didn’t. I don’t know if it matters. But I will say that educating yourself continually, going to take classes, and constantly challenging yourself is key. Whether it’s an official degree is besides the point as long as you are willing to get yourself those three key elements, and call it good!” 
And moi, Brittany Jepsen, with an interior design background
SO, should you go to design school? My answer is…it depends. Could I be more vague?!
I did my undergrad in art history and then immediately worked in interior design for a large hotel company. To be frank, I got that job because of who I knew–it’s all about connections! While I was there, I knew I needed to know the more proper skills of interior design. In interiors, there are certain technical skills that you don’t necessarily “pick up” once at a job, especially if you want to work in commercial interior design. Commercial interior design jobs generally require a knowledge of certain computer programs and a stellar portfolio, and most likely, you will need a degree in interior design to even score an interview. However, In residential interior design, I’ve seen a lot of academically untrained designers run successful companies. Interior design can be more about running a business than being creative–I had a boss once say 80/20–so it requires a lot of ambition, organization, hard work, which are not taught in design school. 
Interior design is one of those rare fields where you don’t necessarily need an undergrad in interior design to apply for and be accepted into a master’s program. It depends on the school. In fact, it’s partly why I considered interior design in the first place. There are a number of programs throughout the country that are set up this way, but I looked mostly on the East Coast. I looked into Savannah College of Art and Design, Pratt, Rhode Island School of Design, George Washington University, Parsons didn’t have a program at the time but does now, New York School of Interior Design, and finally Corcoran College of Art + Design. I’m less familiar with programs elsewhere, but I know UCLA has a program.
I took the research process seriously because I knew it would be an expensive investment. For me, the two top contenders were Pratt in NYC and Corcoran in DC. I was already living in Washington, DC and wasn’t quite ready to leave, but I was also super drawn to New York. The program at Pratt is 3 years, same as Corcoran, and there is a certain rigidity that I noticed from the program and more of a commercial focus. I knew I wasn’t interested in commercial. Plus, the cost of living in NY was so expensive.
Corcoran, on the other hand, seemed a bit more flexible and that was exactly what I needed. There were classes in textiles, furniture, products, the history of the Bauhaus. I found out that some of the design history classes were taught by historians from the Smithsonian, and since I was an art history nerd, I was ALL about that. Plus, I liked the play between the Corcoran museum and the school. 
With that, I accepted at Corcoran and deferred Pratt enrollment thinking that I still wanted that NY experience so if Corcoran didn’t go as expected, then I could always go there. That never happened!
One thing you must know, design school will be expensive. REALLY expensive. I took out massive student loans to pay for my education, of which I’m VERY SLOWLY knocking them out of the way. For me, it was a matter of, “will I be financially successful enough after to pay it all back?” Honestly, had I known I’d be a blogger afterward, I may have changed my mind! HA! Student debt is very real so make sure you weigh it carefully.
Student debt aside, was it worth it? It’s something that I ask myself frequently. And I have to say yes. Once I decided to invest in school, and not just $ but time (I started when I was 25 and graduated when I was 28), I also decided to go for it. I used school as the opportunity to work really hard, network, go creatively crazy. There were some students who didn’t have to worry about finances and I don’t know if they went for it as much as they could have. Just an observation. Not always true. I had fantastic internships (I talked about them here) and did a fantastic study abroad in Copenhagen studying textile design, which is where I met my husband.
For me, school helped formulate my creative mind. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do out of undergrad, and being in a formal education–and please know that I love and thrive in school–was the right fit for me. I have much more confidence about my work. People have more confidence in my abilities. Knowing that I have a degree in it, people call me “legit,” which is funny because we live in an online world where people take on the title of “experts” all the time, which is a major theme going on with bloggers right now (thoughts for another blog post on its way). 
The other day, I talked with an intern of mine who said that she was busy doing really fun projects outside of school and she had considered focusing on those instead. If she did, she would probably do just great! She’s talented, hard working. However, there is no substitute for formal critiques and learning your craft from the ground up. Perhaps you can do it yourself, but you have to be super disciplined. And you wouldn’t necessarily get feedback on your work, which is so crucial. Plus, there’s something really great about the competitive nature between students. You tend to learn tricks along the way that you wouldn’t otherwise. 
That said, if you’re older, and thinking of changing careers or getting into one, perhaps a formal education is not for you. Like a few other people have mentioned, there are Continuing Education courses and SO many online courses now. Some are super cheap! Take advantage of those. Read up. Do your homework. Do a really good job at it all. Meet people who are doing what you want to do and get some feedback. Reach out! 
To cap it off, I’m a big nerd and really loved school. In fact, I considered staying in academia as my profession. Ultimately, I realized that I wanted to be a maker and needed a formal environment in which to harness my skills and talents. I hadn’t been creative in many many years, so this brought it out in me. 
Do you need a master’s to be a blogger? NOPE! In fact, a friend told me, “Brittany, you are the most well-educated crafter.” This was not an end goal of mine, it just happened this way. The beauty of the Internet is that anyone can do it. But, for me, to learn who I was as a designer, education was imperative. 
ALRIGHTY, it’s time to hear your thoughts. What was your experience? Did you go to design school? Would you recommend it? Are you self-taught? I’d LOVE to hear that too! 

Top image from here.
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