Tuesday, November 5, 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.


Kimberly of Kimberly Lewis Home said...

Great post Brittany and actually quite funny because I have a draft started for my blog about my background because people often ask me about it and have asked me similar questions. I attribute a lot of where I am today and how I think and tackle design problems through my education at Pratt. I agree that you don't need a design degree to make it but I feel like it really lays a foundation for the design mind and also it automatically surrounds you with a network of people which I have found extremely helpful going from college to real world and beyond.

Sharna said...

Great post!!
I have been wondering for myself recently if I need to pursue an art education to make it or not.
I can relate most to Sarah Jane, and I feel like my Engineering degree has given me a much different perspective than an Design degree would have.
Starting an Esty shop has made me realize just how many hats one can possibly wear: artist, photographer, graphic designer, sales person, accountant and business owner.
My greatest realization has been that you should do what you do best and pass off everything else to someone else who does it best. If you want design to be your 'One Thing' it makes sense that you would invest everything you can to it.


Gina said...

This such a great post! I loved it because even though the opinions differ all are truly valuable. I love design but I miss the foundations... they build almost everything around us (just like building a house? the house you've built!).
Bravo for sharing this!

emily said...

loved this post! I'm in the middle of working on a degree in interior design (I already have a degree in journalism). I am just working through it one class at a time to finish, but I can already see that school has taught me about the process of design and how to find my own process, which will be invaluable once I finish.

Meg Sheeley said...

Oh good topic! I worked my BUTT off on my MFA in Graphic Design, and many times I thought to myself - is this worth it? My undergrad degree is not in design/art, but I have a lot of formal fine art education. After finishing my MFA I now know I am a skilled designer, but the point that I finally realized that design school was worth it? While doing my MFA teaching internship. Today, in the art dept at the company I work at, we all have varied degrees, but those with degrees got farther in their career faster, we are the ones with big loans, but hey - it's a personal choice.

tina @ colourliving said...

Interesting topic. There are no rights or wrongs... it's very much an individual decision.

I cannot imagine my life and career without having gone to Art School. In my days there were no loans. We paid a ridiculously low fee so maybe it was a no brainer?

If you want to work in Design and really understand it, School Education is best. I find it gives people a foundation they cannot get anywhere else.

Studying before the inception of the Internet also allowed us to have fantastic tuition, which I'm forever greatful for. I studied Graphic Design at Central St. Martins in London in the 80's and no online course could ever replace that.

My answer would be 'yes' but understand how different this is today and how having debts is not everyone's cup of tea.

Either way, learn and read as much as you can for the wisdom lies there.

My analogy would be it's like learning to drive. Initially you have to observe all the rules and go by the book. Once you've passed, you take on your own individual way of driving but have all the Foundations to make wise decisions.

juni // hej juni said...

Wow this is a really informative post, thank you for the time and effort that went into putting this together! I'm going to Pratt right now, and have plans to leave after this semester to take a break. And will probably complete my degree else where. I would say that pursuing a design degree is not for everyone. I agree most with what Joy said, talent is talent, it can be nurtured in more than one ways. College really is just one way. It's great for some, but for some folk, it's just not what's going to be stimulating your mind and pushing you to make good work. It can have the opposite effect.

Audrey - This Little Street said...

greta post - loved reading everybody's opinion! I've been pondering for a while now whether I should add a degree to my belt, or just take a few classes here and there. I've always been pro education, but I need to really figure out my goals and see if going back makes sense.... thanks for getting all of this info together, super useful!

Jenn said...

"well educated crafter" I like that. I've been trying to decided what to put on my business card as my title since I haven't quite settled on what I want to pursue, so I quite like that title. Maybe I will have to use that for the time being. It sure sounds better than, "someone with a passion for all things design related, to include interior design, graphic design and architecture, but with a degree in history and art and spanish… oh and historic preservation too.

Great post. I've been considering going back for formal education myself, but I'm "older" and not sure which path is best for me now. It was great to read the opinion of a variety of professionals.

susan said...

Oh this is such a fascinating subject, and one I'm always eager to discuss! I'm a self taught interior designer, and believe that you make your own opportunities. That being said, education depends greatly on the field one chooses, and design offers a lot more freedom of choice than other professions. This inspires me to write a post about my non-traditional educational journey, thank you ;)

Erica {let why lead} said...

What an amazing post! I'm not really even interested in going back to school for design (I'm pretty much just happy reading design blogs and dappling in my own home!), but I really enjoyed reading everyone's perspectives and reflecting on my own undergrad experience. Pinning! Thank you!

Katerina said...

Oh, this post hits home!! I have a BArch from Cornell. I met my husband there and then moved to a small "architecturally conservative" town in western NY. I worked in the residential sector for a while, mainly drawing tract homes for an engineer, which I'm sorry to say felt like a huge waste of my talents and education. I wasn't even getting paid my annual tuition! Recently, I've turned to blogging as a creative outlet and hope to pursue an e-design service in children's interiors. This way, I won't be limited by geography. But I have to say, this blogging business is hard! Not the blogging part but the difficulty in reaching people.
If there's one positive thing I can say about that expensive education, it's the competitive atmosphere you're in with such a selective program- it forces you to be better.

Erin said...

I'm a little bit of both! I left a state school (failed out) and deferred continuing my degree until i was 24 and picked Advertising at the local university by my house. It was when I was taking graphic art classes for my major, was when i fell in love with graphic design. By then I was in my sixth year of college and just wanted to finish, otherwise I would have transferred to the local art institute school. I graduated at 26 and took every design class I could while in school. Wish I had more art history classes. We touched on it in a section in one of my classes but wish there was a class offered.
In 2010, I went back to the local community college to take continuing education classes in Photoshop, Photoshop Advanced, InDesign and Illustrator. It helped immensely since in school I learned Creative suites 1 and now they 6. HUGE difference from graduating to now in terms of the CS upgrades. I'm glad I took those classes but they only taught you technical things about the programs. Not insight in the "whys" of the design. I've been self-taught with that. I feel in my current job (graphic artist for a wine distributor) am I always teaching my self new technics and i often find inspiration off the internet and try to see how I can use that design for my work.
Sorry for the tangent! Hope I made sense!!

Brittany Cramer said...

I loved this post, love hearing both sides of the spectrum. I have a degree - in accounting! - but always wonder if pursuing formal design education would benefit. I do think in my case, yes, but agree that it all depends! Also, I definitely want to read about bloggers calling themselves experts. It's all about the climb to the top and how you can fool your readers into thinking you're the best. Drives me nuts, and honestly 99% of bloggers are SO transparent...really, stop trying to fool us.

Laurie from Laurie Jones Home said...

I went to design school and I will say I learned so much about the technical aspect of it all and the history of design but with that being said there were so many students in my program who got As on their assignments simply because they followed codes or instructions or directions but they had no business becoming an interior designer because they didn't have "it", I'm a big believer you either have it or you don't so I think you don't necessarily need to if you have the talent but I'm thankful that I did!

Eva @ Sycamore Street Press said...

This is something I've asked myself so many times. I have a BFA and MFA in fine art printmaking. I learned so much and met and interacted with so many really smart, talented people. But are those degrees necessary to what I do? Probably not. And I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I would have bypassed the masters at least and spent that time getting a head start on my business instead. But, I did LOVE school... especially grad school. It just seems like such an amazing luxury to me now!

Anonymous said...

I graduated with a BFA in interior design at Parsons, which isn't what most people think of interior design. It was much more interior architecture than interior decorating - we never worked with decorating and I am glad of it. I think that aspect of interiors can't really be taught. That said, my education was not at all technical. I had to learn the adobe suites and rendering programs and drawing programs on my own. I often used community colleges in summer to do this. My education was learning how to think creatively. I'm not sure I would recommend it to everyone, and I am still a bit annoyed that my $30K+ annual tuition didn't even cover auto cad classes. But there is absolutely something to be said for the atmosphere of design school. i learned a lot of my classmates and professors.

nancy john said...

Truly said, interior designing has now a days lot of scope not only in designing for house or office but the requirement of interior designer is required in each and every sector of industry.

Manipulative hallway

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Anonymous said...

Great article, but this idea is totally delusional:

"But because I didn't go to art school, my style isn't anyone else's...it's my own."

Her lack of education is what allows her to believe that her work is without influence, without reference, and totally unique.

You refine your craft, evolve your style based on what already exists instead of doing this literally in the dark. It's really sad she thinks her work is born without precedent. Unless she works/lives in total isolation since birth, her work will ALWAYS reference something that someone else has already made. Which is fine, because we all have the advantage of standing on the shoulders of giants.

This sort of belief is exactly you should get an education--whether it's from an institution or just reading/seeing as much as you can about the field. This self-delusion and self-grandeur is just plain ignorant and sad. I hope it doesn't deter anyone from seeing the value in education.

Also, sorry, but the connection between musical theater and design is totally nebulous to the point of non-existence.