The Specialization In Review

I recently completed the Graphic Design Specialization from CalArts via Coursera. This is a five-course, fully online, introductory graphic design program that is meant to give students the fundamentals they need for a career in graphic design.

The first four courses are structured into four weeks each, with videos lessons, readings, quizzes, written assignments, and design projects. Each course is structured slightly different, but all are meant to prepare students for a career in graphic design. The last course, Brand New Brand, is a capstone project that can be completed once all the other courses are finished.

I’ve reviewed each course in the specialization separately, but here I want to talk about the program as a whole, in addition to using the Coursera model for online learning.

You can find my review of each course here in full, including reviewing written assignments and quizzes. I’ve shared all my design work from the courses as well. Check out each post below:

The Design Specialization

Before you sign up for the Graphic Design Specialization, Coursera tells you that, upon taking the program (taken right from the site), you will:

  • Gain the fundamental skills needed to be a graphic designer
  • Communicate through image-making and typography
  • Complete a capstone project to add to your professional portfolio
  • Learn everything you need to know to work in interface design, motion graphics, and editorial design

This list is, however, not entirely accurate. This entire specialization is a fundamentals program, so students will absolutely come away from this program with a decent grasp of some of the fundamental design principles. Students will also complete a capstone project; that’s the entire goal of the fifth course. Students are also taught how to communicate through imagemaking and typography, but that entire sentence simply describes graphic design as a whole.

Lastly, the idea that students will learn everything they need to know to work in interface design, motion graphics, and editorial design is completely inaccurate. This program never touches on interface design or motion graphics, and hardly teaches a single thing about editorial design. I don’t even know why that bit is included. That being said, if you do want to work in motion graphics, interface design, or especially editorial design, having graphic design knowledge is a must, but this program really doesn’t prepare students for those specific areas of design.

Coursera Graphic Design Specialization home page

What You Actually Learn

Instead of Coursera’s ‘what you will learn’ write-up, here’s what you’ll actually learn.

Fundamentals of Design

Students are taught about denotation and connotation, about iteration and experimentation in imagemaking, how different typefaces communicate, and how to create symbols and patterns. Students are also taught some key design principles such as space, texture, form, direction, scale, and weight.

Introduction to Typography

Students learn some type terminology, the history of popular typefaces, how to design with type by using letter spacing, kerning, leading, line length, alignment, and proximity, and how to create a type poster.

Introduction To Imagemaking

In the imagemaking course, students are taught a little about how to critique art and how to make variations of a single object in many styles, which is similar to what was taught in the fundamentals course. Students are also introduced to the idea of different levels of abstraction in design, how to arrange images to portray specific design principles like scale, space, and figure/ground. Lastly, students are asked to make a short book out of the images they create.

Ideas From the History of Graphic Design

This course introduces students to the major design influences that came from the Victorian era, the Bauhaus, some more modern American designers like Lester Beall, Alvin Lustig, and Paul Rand, in addition to design influences from the 1950s to 1970s. This course is a proper design history course, not just art history.

Brand New Brand

Brand New Brand is the capstone project students are required to complete to get a certificate for the specialization. In it, students are asked to create a fake company that they produce a complete brand development guide for. This course doesn’t delve in deep into branding itself, but it is a good introduction to identity design for students where they can begin to learn about the visual branding process.

How Long Did It Take?

Coursera says the entire program will take six months to complete. Now I can’t really speak to how long it will take new designers to complete the entire Graphic Design Specialization, but for me, I was able to do it in just under three weeks, spending a few hours every day. Of course, that’s on top of the fifteen years I’ve been a professional designer. So…

Is The Specialization Enough To Start Your Career?

Not likely. If Coursera’s Graphic Design Specialization is the only graphic design education you’ve had (self-taught or academic), you likely won’t have a good enough portfolio to get a real job in graphic design. Of all the peer reviews that I did on other student’s design work, there were only one or two that were at the level I would expect for a design student, and even they had a long way to go before their work would look good in a portfolio.

The design specialization is a very condensed design education meant to give students an introduction to graphic design. It shouldn’t replace a proper design education, or years of being self-taught. That being said, if you’re interested in design, this program will give you some great fundamentals and a proper place to start learning about design.

Issues with Coursera

Poor Feedback

Going forward, I will be reluctant to take any more Coursera courses due to the peer grading system. It sounds like a great idea in theory, but the lack of actual professional designers reviewing your work means most of the feedback is bad. Sadly, poor feedback will only create bad design habits.

Once or twice I was able to review the same person’s project progress in two different assignments, and seeing that progress really helped in giving them proper feedback. Unfortunately, it’s rare when this happens.

Plagiarism

There is a ton of plagiarism on Coursera; simply because it’s easy. I’ve been designing for a long time and I can spot work that doesn’t quite fit much better than newer designers and used the Google reverse image search more than once. There was also work submitted that had stock photo site watermarks on them, making the plagiarism very obvious.

Quiz answers are circulated online and design projects that have been submitted are just ripped right from the site and plagiarized. Seriously, it’s a problem. It took less than two weeks before my final project for Brand New Brand was being plagiarized by other students.

Even project submission URLs can be shared with friends who are also taking the course to get full marks on a sub-par or incomplete project. I even ran across projects where people had submitted empty assignments, asking people not to grade them. This was likely so they could then grab someone else’s work quickly and pass it off as their own since Coursera allows you to go back and resubmit a project as long as it’s done before the due date. Ugh.

General Project Confusion

There’s also an enormous language barrier for some international students, which makes every part of the program difficult. Some of the written assignments I reviewed were difficult to understand. It often felt like many students did not understand the requirements of a given assignment at all.

Coursera’s Graphic Design Specialization – In Summary

Overall, the Graphic Design Specialization was a fun project for me and I did learn a few new things. That being said, if you’re interested in taking Coursera’s Graphic Design Specialization, do it to learn and to add to your portfolio, not to get the certificate.

In hiring a designer, I would never take a Coursera certificate as any indication of knowledge after taking this program. It’s just too easy to lie and cheat your way through it.

Fortunately, designers aren’t hired for their accomplishments or academic accolades. Graphic designers find work by having a great portfolio and by knowing how to tackle a visual problem. So let that be your focus, however you achieve it.

Discussion

Have you taken Coursera’s Graphic Design Specialization? Did you have the same issues I did? Let me know in the comments below!

If you want to learn graphic design fundamentals without taking a class, check out Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell. This book has 125 different principles of design; some of which are basic fundamentals you need to know and others that are absolutely mind blowing principles about how people see and learn. Highly recommend.

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