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Should You Go To Graphic Design School? Is is Mandatory?

Here’s something that was never even considered when I was researching graphic design schools in the early 2000’s: Should I go to graphic design school to become a designer or learn on my own? At the time, there was only the one option, which was design school. There was no YouTube, no Skillshare, no Coursera, or TheFutur. I guess Lynda.com existed, but I didn’t know about it yet.

Aside from learning about design from books, if you wanted to become a graphic designer, you went to design school. Period. Fast forward twenty years and now you have some pretty compelling options if you want to enter the design industry. For this reason, you now get to ask yourself if you should go to graphic design school at all. The answer is maybe, because it depends. But do you absolutely need to go to graphic design school to become a designer? Nope.

What Does Design School Teach?

If you do end up deciding that you should go to graphic design school, you won’t just learn design. Most schools take a pretty broad approach at teaching different aspects of design, marketing, psychology, business, etc. to give you a very general idea of the industry. There’s a lot of theory, a lot of group projects, and at the end you’ll have a portfolio you can use to get a job or further your design education.

Of course, this really depends on the type of program you take, but in general, the academic design route teaches you a variety of topics you might not otherwise learn on your own. This is a great way to round out your skills as a designer and help you to understand the exact career path you want to take within the design industry.

Additionally, design school is a great place to make connections. My first design job was a referral from one of my instructors and I’ve referred former classmates to companies I’ve worked at as well.

Design Schools

Design school programs vary in length. Some are two or three year diploma programs, four-year degree programs, or even quick one-year certificate programs. Some schools, like Emily Carr, even offer a Masters degree in design, which I think is pretty cool. There are even graphic design PhD programs if you’re really ambitious, but those are likely overkill unless you intend on teaching design at a high level.

If you’re interested in perusing a graphic design education in British Columbia, I’ve written a few posts about the design schools in BC:

The Big 5 Vancouver Island Graphic Design Schools
8 Design Schools in Vancouver – Learn Graphic Design in BC

The Cost of Design School

The main drawback to going to design school is the cost, and it’s a big part of why so many graphic designers are self-taught. For example, a diploma in digital design from Vancouver Film School, which is made up of one foundations year and one specialized digital design year, would cost you $48,900 CAD in tuition alone. Now, this is a specialty school so tuition would be higher than that of a design program at a college or university, but not by that much.

Since new designers don’t make that much, paying back a student loan debt can be crippling; and you’ll be paying it back for a long time. If I was considering design school now, I would opt for the self-taught route instead. There are so many great resources out there today that I would rather learn from them than be saddled with that much debt so early in my career. With all that being said, if you can actually afford going to design school, it’s definitely worth considering.

The Self-Taught Route

There are many reasons why someone would want to go into graphic design without going to design school. Those reasons could be an inability to do full-time school due to a job and/or family, not living near any schools that teach design, or, as mentioned above, because of the high tuition costs. Others might simply want to learn at their own pace, which is also totally valid.

How To Learn Design Online

When we talk about being self-taught, nowadays that means learning design online. You’re welcome to try learning everything from design books but it’s hard to learn everything that way; especially design software. Overall, you’ll likely want to learn from a variety of sources such as:

If you’re new to design and want to learn the basics, check out Graphic Design: The New Basics by Ellen Lupton.

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Check out some of my posts on learning graphic design online:

12 Awesome Intro Graphic Design Classes on Skillshare
The 10 Best Graphic Design Classes on Skillshare
Learning UI Design Online Free – My Experience With Uxcel
A Full Review of Coursera’s Graphic Design Specialization
The Best Free Courses To Learn Graphic Design Online

How Do You Learn?

People have different learning styles, that’s just how it is. Some of us learn best from reading books, some from videos, and some from in-person lectures. The way you learn best should be a major factor to consider when deciding if you want to go to design school or not.

For me, personally, I’ve never been great at quickly absorbing information from in-person lectures. I do much better with video content where I can stop, rewind, and go back over something I might not have understood. That being said, I did learn a lot from reading and doing the project work in school. Having projects that were guided and had generous deadlines was great, not to mention the value in the feedback I received on each project. The feedback from not only instructors, but other design students as well, was insanely helpful when learning graphic design.

When you’re a self-taught designer, it’s easy to fall into bad habits and continue them for a long time. You might not have every piece of fundamental design knowledge other design-schooled designers have. On the other hand, many of the design theory topics are thrown at you very fast in design school without much time for you to really absorb or understand them.

Design school doesn’t teach you everything. No matter how long your design program is, you’ll still learn significantly more once you enter the design industry as a professional.

The big question here is which learning style fits you? Do you think you’ll learn better on your own, working at your own pace; taking a variety of online classes, watching videos and reading books?

Or instead, do you feel that you need an instructor to guide you and keep you accountable in design school? You’ll get to critique the work of your fellow students and they will do the same for you. You will get projects that are similar to ones you’ll have as a professional, but without the risk.

Your Portfolio is Key

Sarah Hubbard portfolio website

Weather you choose the self-taught route or the design school route, in the end, your job prospects will be dictated by the quality of your portfolio. This is true weather you’re looking to work for someone or become a freelancer. Employers and clients care about the work you’ve done, not where your education is from. If your work looks great, then they might have a look on your resume to see where you learned about design.

You could graduate from a well-known design institution, learning from the most talented instructors in the world. But if your portfolio isn’t up to par with what employers or clients are looking for, you simply won’t get the work. It’s that simple. But if you’ve put in the work, learned your trade, and know what you’re doing, self-taught or not, it will show in your portfolio.

Where To Start

If you’re unsure about which direction to take, start where there is no financial commitment and minimal time commitment. Check out design videos on YouTube from designers and software experts and read design blogs online (which you are doing now so yay!). If you want to learn more, consider a subscription to Skillshare or LinkedIn Learning. There are tons of design videos you can watch and learn some amazing things.

If you still want to learn more, you can take it further and check out more structured online course from TheFutur Academy or IDEO U. There’s a bit more financial commitment involved here, but the material you’ll learn is gold, and it’s still significantly cheaper than design school.

If at some point you feel like you’re not learning enough, or fast enough, or just need more structure, then maybe consider if you should go to graphic design school. There are some great design schools all over the world, and if you have the time and money to attend one, then by all means do.

Just know that you will need a portfolio to get into design school. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to show you have potential. Show the work you’ve done from online videos and classes and that should be enough.

If you want to start actually designing but really have no idea where to begin, check out The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. It gives a quick overview of the fundamentals then helps you dive right in to actual projects.

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Should You Go To Graphic Design School – In Summary

Weather you decide to go to graphic design school or not is really up to you, and how quickly you want to start your career. A formal design education can take awhile, but you’ll leave with vital theory, fundamentals, industry connections, and all the basics to get your career started. Learning design on your own can also get you into the industry quickly if you’re motivated and know where to start. The best thing you can do right now is to just start learning.

Do you want to go to graphic design school? Did you go to graphic design school previously? Do you think one path is better than the other? Let me know in the comments below. 

Photo Credits

Photo by Zachary Keimig on Unsplash
Photo by Christopher Gower on Unsplash

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