Do designers need post-secondary education?

Gaining a post-secondary education can be an incredibly valuable experience for your design skills. The popular perception of needing education to be successful is getting a college or university degree and working for a company which pays you per your education level. However, it doesn’t always make sense for your career or your wallet.

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The type of design job you want will help to determine whether a degree is necessary for your career. If you’re planning on becoming a freelance designer, a degree won’t matter very much to potential clients; the same goes for a lot of design agencies. What matters most is the quality of your work, your personality and potential.

When I was at the Ontario College of Art & Design, they were transitioning to a full university. I had the option of transferring my advertising diploma to a degree, but I’d have to take math and sciences. For me, I didn’t see how taking unrelated programs just to get a degree would be beneficial to my career. In a position like mine, I think it is safe to say that if your portfolio of work is strong, then the fact that have a diploma or degree doesn’t matter much.

On the other hand, if you’re planning going corporate (whether it’s a position related to your degree or not) a post-secondary education will prove more beneficial. A lot of large companies and in-house design teams use a degree to help narrow down the initial applicant pool. Without a degree on your resume you may automatically be disqualified for jobs before you even have a chance to interview with anyone.

If you decide to forge your own path as a designer, there are actionable steps you can take to help make the lack of a degree into an afterthought to potential employers.

How will you learn to be a designer?

Start by asking yourself if you’d have taken the time to learn everything you could’ve without the deadlines, grades and professors in a post-secondary education? Some people have a natural curiosity and passion to learn. And that makes them successful when they put their mind to something. Unfortunately, many people don’t. Most people need the structure a college experience provides to learn the tools, tips and tricks it takes to be a designer. If you go to college or university, you get run through the ringer when it comes to deadlines and harsh criticism.

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If you go your own way, it’s best to know the ins and outs of your creative process. Practice does make perfect. Any successful designer, whether they have a post-secondary education or not, will tell you that you’ll learn a lot more from actual experience and practice than you’ll ever learn in school. Being in the real world and constantly working on your design skills will naturally make you a better designer. However, I was lucky when I went to OCAD before it went full university. I learned from actual professionals working in the field, rather than all professors with no real-world experience.

Either way, be prepared to face the inevitable creative blocks. There are always times when you’ll find yourself in a rut. Set it aside and take care of other things, like your email backlog or a side project.

Always have work on the side

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Doing work on the side is a good way to ensure you’re always practicing the skills you want to learn; whether your client demands it or not. Side projects allow you to avoid getting stuck in a specific design role forever. They can give you more control over landing your dream job in the future. Since you get hired for the kind of work you already produce, if your day job isn’t fulfilling this need, do it yourself. Starting a new side project is a great opportunity to learn a new tool or design method. I remember being asked to design and create an email marketing campaign. I was pushed to work on my coding skills to implement the design, but thankfully I remembered some basic HTML skills I learned in high school.

Where do you begin? Make the time and treat it just like any other client work. Schedule time outside of your current to pick a singular project and pursue it until it’s complete. Make sure that you hold your personal work to the same bar as you hold your professional. You can also check out a post I did on how to start a successful freelance career.

Stay curious

The only way you’ll be able to maintain your growth as a designer is to stay curious. Having post-secondary training is great for fundamentals. But once you enter the real world of design the only two qualities that matter are insatiable curiosity and very hard work. You need to continually tell yourself that your best work lies ahead of you. And you need to be unafraid to venture outside your comfort zone of skills mastery. Pick up an awards book and study the work of experts, because it’s completely healthy to be envious of their work and accomplishments. Be envious. Hell, get jealous. Use that feeling to push yourself to move above the work you’ve done to date and inspire you to push yourself.

Have peers to get proper feedback on your designs

One of best parts of a traditional design education having peers and mentors who you can bounce your ideas off. Don’t just be open to feedback, seek it out. If you don’t have the community of peers that a college or university offers, talk to trusted design friends and ask if they’d be willing to give you honest and open feedback.

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If you don’t have friends who are designers willing to do that with you, then start by going to some local design events and trying to make some friends. And eventually see if they might be open to something like this. Or you can find other designers who inspire you by asking them a question or two over email and then meeting over a coffee to discuss design (but try not to come across as a stalker in your email). Eventually you can build this into a longer standing relationship. Be active in finding mentors, but it may take some time, so be patient. Connect to peers with whom you can grow and who’ll hold you accountable for your work.

Be prepared to suck

If you decide to go it alone in your education, the most essential thing you need to do is own up to the fact that you will sometimes suck. Don’t be cocky and think that you’re the shit. Leave your ego at the door, be humble, and just do the work. But be prepared for your work to suck. Then go back and figure out why and how to make it not suck. The downside to not getting those initial training wheels in a post-secondary education is that you won’t have the cushion of failing on a class project. You’ll have to start by failing in real-life.

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Developing that critical eye for your own work is a skill itself; one that will take time and practice. In fact, being able to figure out why a design isn’t working is much harder to attain than being able to recognize good design. Fail as often as you can, as early as you can. It’s part of the design process to get out all the crap ideas before the good ideas start getting tossed out. Click here to look at ways of improving your design portfolio.

So, do you need a post-secondary education to succeed in design?

Be honest with yourself when you ask if you need a post-secondary education. I can only tell you that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my future; it wasn’t until college I discovered the path to becoming an art director. My courses gave me the tools I needed to start out. My teachers gave me constructive criticism that pushed me to be better and every day I went to class and tried to improve my work. I didn’t become what or who I am today until I went to college. The knowledge I gained and the friends I made all contributed to the successes I’ve had since then. But that’s just my experience.

Ultimately it’s up to you to decide what’s best for you and your future. If you truly believe you can continue learning and challenging yourself all on your own, then by all means. In the freelance world, the designer with the best portfolio and most competitive rates often wins. In the corporate world, if two designers have comparable portfolios and interview well, the deciding factor is often your post-secondary education experience. So, if you can’t see yourself pushing your skills on your own, go to college.

Where does that leave you? Do you need a post-secondary education? Share your opinions or experiences with us in the comments below.

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