Do you really need a degree to be successful today? This conversation becomes increasingly popular when society praises guys like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg for becoming wildly successful despite dropping out of school.
If you have hopes of becoming a lawyer or a surgeon, bypassing a formal education isn’t really an option. But if you dream of being a designer, you’ll inevitably ask the question sooner or later: Is a graphic design degree necessary?
"I can say without a doubt I didn't miss out on anything by going to college."
The honest answer is no—it’s not necessary. There are scores of self-taught graphic designers who have launched careers without a formal education. But there are several overlooked advantages of acquiring a degree.
We spoke with a handful of other graphic designers with degrees who insist their formal education has played an instrumental role in their careers. Our panel of pros revealed seven things they never would have acquired without earning their degree.
7 things self-taught designers commonly miss out on
There is no shortage of graphic design tutorials out there to teach you standard software skills, but our experts agree that there are several important intangibles that self-taught graphic designers commonly lack.
1. Graphic design history & fundamentals
Believe it or not, graphic design has been around longer than Adobe software. Some people call themselves designers just because they can navigate their way around Photoshop. Knowing the history of the craft and mastering basic design concepts helps you build a solid foundation on which to build your entire career.
“Self-taught designers are generally looking for which buttons to push to get the job done rather than learning from the ground up with design principles,” says Ashley Schwartau, creative director at The Security Awareness Company. She says she can often pinpoint self-taught graphic designers based solely on their portfolios because of their blatant disregard for basic design fundamentals.
2. Freedom to fail
“The one thing I took for granted most in college was the freedom to fail and to fail spectacularly,” says Victor Ng, designer at Pinterest. Failures in the real world result in dollars lost, customers angered and brand sentiments tarnished. But in school, the worst outcome is a bad grade and a bruised ego.
"The one thing I took for granted in college was the freedom to fail and to fail spectacularly."
Ng says he’s grateful for the opportunity he had to be experimental with his designs in college. He was able to worry less about the finished product and focus more on the actual process, which helped him develop into the professional he is today.
3. Proper treatment of files
Many self-taught designers are unaware of how to properly set up clean files for professional printing, says graphic designer Anita Magaña. Design courses will teach you when to use a JPG versus a PNG versus a TIFF. You’ll also learn the difference between bitmap files and vector files and how to properly check files for color and CMYK separations before sending them to print.
“I consistently have to fix files from the previous designer [at my company] who had no formal training,” says David Block, entrepreneur and seasoned graphic designer. He frequently encounters files that have no regards to bleeds, improper image sizing and inconsistent margins—all things he claims a properly-trained designer would never do.
4. Presentation skills
“Being able to present your designs to someone—whether it’s your art director or a client—can be really daunting because it carries with it the fear factor of public speaking,” says Jennifer Ayotte, dean of the Rasmussen College School of Design. “Practice, practice, practice” is the best way to master the art of presenting your work, Ayotte says.
She says the ability to confidently articulate the rationale behind your color choices, font selections, art elements and overall layout is a sign of a true professional. Formally educated designers have plenty of opportunities to perfect their presentation skills in order to stand out when it really counts.
5. Critiques & feedback
“It takes a lot of practice to not take criticism personally,” says designer Andrew Le. In a cut-throat industry like graphic design, it’s important to have thick skin. He says being able to talk about design objectively helped him advance his vocabulary and detach himself from his work.
"It takes a lot of practice not to take criticism personally."
Ng says his college critiques simulated real working environments where people often have strong, opposing views. He describes the evolution that occurs between freshman and senior year— the timeframe during which students go from saying, “Is this good?” to “Tear this apart!” His formal education taught him to grow from the negative feedback rather than dwelling on it.
It’s not often that you have the opportunity to be surrounded by individuals who are just as passionate as you are about design. In its most basic form, graphic design is about solving problems. The beauty of it is that no two designers will solve the problem in identical ways.
“It’s uncommon in a professional setting to have dozens of peers in the same room working on the same thing in drastically different ways,” Le says. He adds that each project is a lesson in perspective, whether it results in idea envy or disdain. A lot can be learned from being surrounded by designers from different backgrounds, motivations and talents.
One of the biggest advantages that design graduates have over self-taught designers is the alumni network, according to Ng. He explains that many design companies recruit from universities their employees attended. Most design schools also organize events bringing employers to campus to connect with students.
Le says that finding others who share your passion can pay dividends in the long run. He says those kinds of people tend to stick together and are willing to help each other out down the road.
“You will inevitably run into the same people and there’s no telling where they’ll end up,” Le adds.
Don’t miss out
Our experts have made it obvious that there is a lot to gain by earning a degree in graphic design. That being said, they also agreed that the formal education is merely the starting point. Every great designer must become self-taught after graduation because the industry is always evolving.
“Unlike self-taught graphic designers, I can say without a doubt that I didn’t miss out on anything by going to college,” Le says. Take his word for it—it’s time to take your graphic design career to the next level!
If you’re ready to ditch the tutorials and become a true professional, the Rasmussen College graphic design program can provide you with everything you need!