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Is it required for people to go to design schools to become a Graphic Designer? I've heard many cases where they have started from scratch without previous education in design and are doing fine as freelancers/working in studios.

Would it be better to go to a design school to become a Graphic Designer? How much leverage would it give you if you went to one?

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15 Answers 15

A good portfolio of work that shows creativity and commercial sensibilities will be of more benefit than a qualification. Having said that, any course that leads to a graphic design qualification will include practical work which can be used to form the basis of a portfolio.

You can’t beat real-world experience though.

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True. From all I've read and heard, what your major was in (and where you got your degree) really only matters the first 2 years after you graduate when you're still building up work experience. That said, a lot of art colleges, like Art Institute, place great emphasis on job placement of their students and graduates. We recently just had a representative from Art Institute invite us to a job fair for their graduates and even directly put us in contact with 3 of their recent graduates who have the skillset we need. So there is definitely an advantage to going to a design school. –  Calvin Huang Feb 4 '11 at 17:03
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You will always take something from education (networking, friends that can later become work partners, field experience, inspiration, and so on...) if you select a good university but the amount of knowledge online makes it easy to learn enough to become a successful graphic designer if you have the required philosophy and self-control.

My advice: if you can go to a nice university = go!

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All of other answers to this question are all excellent advice that I would summarize as the following: Nothing beats practical experience, but if you are serious and have the opportunity to go to school, then I would suggest doing so. A degree gives a defined advantage in job searches and a speculative-yet-usually-positive advantage in quality of work. It is certainly possible to have a thriving career in graphic design without a degree, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have the degree. The same could be said about a lot of careers that have matching, or at least relevant, degree programs.

That being said, I should disclose that I do not have a degree (in anything, much less graphic design, but I'm working on a degree now), yet I've gotten full-time staff positions doing graphic design, won local awards and gained some local recognition early on, and I'm still with my company after ten years (and show no signs of stopping). My experience, however, was unique: my mother used old-school manual paste-up departments at newspapers as day care while I was growing up, and I was using the same tools to create my reports for grade school that were used to create the daily newspaper—stat cameras, x-acto blades, line tape, typesetting machines, and the like.

So, while I never got a degree, I did already have all the practical experience needed to land myself an entry-level day job doing graphic design when I was older, which led to one opportunity after another. It was obvious at times that I missed out on a lot of the focused, directed teaching that school provides and sometimes seriously struggled, but I did eventually learn all the necessary skills needed to create good, functional, printable designs.

YMMV

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Right on, Philip. There was quite an extensive survey done three or four years ago of successful, established designers. Degree/no degree was a 50/50 split. My own experience with recent (last 10 years or so) design school grads has not left me with a good impression of their schools. I enjoy nurturing talent and seeing them blossom, but it's a shock to realize they were never taught to read a spec, or prep files for print, or why alignment matters in a design. –  Alan Gilbertson Jun 6 '11 at 6:42
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If you have innate artistic skill, school will help you refine it and teach you real-world logistics, both of which you can do on the job.

If you are not innately artistic, yes, you need training. If you have a "tin eye" for design, it's much harder to pick up just by doing it without understanding why it works.

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I think it goes slightly beyond that. True, those with an innate predisposition for graphic design will be drawn to the field and find a way to make a career in it no matter what, but like most other fields, you save a lot of time from having an experienced instructor prepare a lesson plan for you. A self-taught designer who's playing it by ear could end up missing a lot of fundamentals or learning things in the wrong order. You can still gain the same level of skill, but it will be a much harder road. –  Calvin Huang Feb 4 '11 at 17:07
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In my experience I have seen that from going to good to great you will mostly need educational background. If you have real neck for details and have graphical sense then with the good college experience you will get a push with provided tools and techniques that you would not know otherwise.

Another major advantage of joining good college is networking. In such places many professors and students already work in the industry so you get to network with them which can indirectly turn into revenue in the future :)

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I was considering going to a school for Graphic Design myself. Through what seems like a complete accident I ended up have a phone conversation with one of my favorite photographers ever. His advice was that art school was a waste of time. If you have the talents, it'll show through your work.

Now, I'm not saying that I personally believe art school is a waste of time or money because I'm sure it has a lot to offer. But I would not say it's a requirement by any means.

Once you have a portfolio, education becomes irrelevant.

Think of it like this: The education is for you. The portfolio is for your clients.

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Keep in mind photography, even with the similarities, is a very different profession than graphic design. –  DA01 Feb 7 '11 at 14:28
    
Yes, and the photographer I talked to majored in music, which is even more different. Job-wise, graphic-design is probably one of the safest arts to go into. But yeah, of course there are difference, but I still stand by what I said :] –  Johannes Feb 7 '11 at 14:43
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The short answer is no. In some cases a design studio will want to see education credentials on one's resume; however, there are many, many graphic designers without formal education. So, in general it's not a requirement unless made so by a particular design studio.

There can be definite benefits to design school. Including networking, tools and techniques, principles of design, a historical perspective, exposure to design theory, workflow, etc, etc....

In my own case I had no formal design education, but, I was always artistically inclined and in 1992 landed a production artist opportunity in a video production studio. After a year or so, I started getting overflow design projects as the principal designer. By 1994 my job title was officially "graphic designer". In those days, I was definitely lacking some skills and so took many classes and workshops to fill in the gaps.

Currently I work with an interactive media company as a project director. I'm now rarely involved in "hands-on" design. However, I hire both staff and freelance graphic designers. A graphic design degree can help, but I mainly look at a designer's portfolio and their ability to work on a team. My goal is to hire the right person, and over the years I've hired graphic designers with and without formal design education.

Just to add... When I hire at an entry level, a design degree is a big plus. This is in large part because achieving a design degree means learning to work under deadlines through good workflow and processes. So, at the entry level, without a degree, a candidate must demonstrate those abilities in some other way.

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I would go to school but make sure you are doing internships and/or freelance work from day 1. Designs schools are great for teaching you how to design but they can't give you real studio experience.

Depending on how your experience with studios go you may not need to finish school as you will be learning everything on the job. If you continue with school at the same time you still have that degree and a ton of real world experience that will put you above the rest of the graduates when it comes to finding a full time job.

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For some companies, not having a degree is going to create an barrier to entry (HR will drop your resume without any significant consideration). Experience and skill can, in many places, can override a degree, but it needs to be a significant amount of experience.

Whether degree is going to make you more successful is more about you and the school. Degrees are just requirement check marks. They don't get you jobs.

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There's a good point here: it depends on who's processing the application. If it's HR, degree will matter (as well as formal experience). If it's your would-be design colleagues, they'll be more interested in appraising your actual work. –  user568458 Apr 7 '12 at 14:41
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In the field of design, one might have the impression, that when you have the talent to sketch and imagine a creative masterpiece, you are guaranteed to have a good place in the industry. But with the desire for excellence and the existing competition among companies, employers would go for those applicants who have the education and credentials, above the talent alone. This is also the same with business, having the capacity to juggle capital and income wouldn’t suffice for corporate positions.

What higher education does, either in an institute, a college or a university, is that they provide a curriculum that offers holistic training. They provide basic knowledge, teach theoretical aspects, promote research, and applied work in actual settings. What makes the requirement for a degree so important is that it enhances the quality of workers, which results to a better work output and ultimately an improved economy. This what makes a degree socially relevant.

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I think the question needs some clarification.

If the question is does one need a design degree in order to find freelance or fulltime work in the graphic design field, then the answer is no, not necessarily, as many have pointed out already.

If the question is (or is also) does one need a design degree in order to become a good graphic designer then the answer becomes more complicated. I think the discipline, historical foundation and participation in critiques which a university course provides can make a huge difference to both hireability and creative innovation. Does everyone need a degree? No, but it can only help.

I started out without any design background, picked up freelance projects and learned on my own. I recall an interview I had for an entry level design position at one of the top design studios in Boston. The head of the studio, after reviewing my portfolio and commenting that there were some strong ideas and good work in it, said to me:

"If you are looking for a career rather than just a job, take a few design courses to give yourself a stronger foundation."

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I found my university education (in interactive multimedia, rather than graphic design) fairly useful but not vital.

I was handy for finding out which programs you are expected to be able to use in the field that you wish to go into and to get a good grounding in using them. I'd say, though, that practice, practice and more practice is more useful than a formal education. A good portfolio of work will get you a long way, even without the certificates to your name.

Put it this way: I sometime wish that I started from lower down but 4 years earlier than I did (especially as I left without a degree! Laziness + beer = little or no work completed). My skill-set rocketed as soon as I was doing what I do for 8 hours a day for actual clients.

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It depends on where you want to work. If you want to work at a larger design firm and/or ad agency doing primarily print design, you'll likely be MUCH better off with a 4 year degree from a reputable design program.

You don't NEED a degree to be a good graphic designer, it's just that it's going to help, and lots of firms still look for that.

On the other hand, if you have a killer portfolio, there'll be a lot of open doors.

If you don't have a portfolio, that's really the benefit of a quality design education. The years you spend in art school will produce a portfolio for you.

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Short answer:

  • As a Creative Director, I don't care where/if you went to school. I want to see your work then I want to meet you and see if you "fit".
  • As part of a big organization, it's going to be a challenge to get through the HR dept to show me your work unless they see that you have a degree.

So, the answer is, if your network is good enough and your portfolio shows promise, you're set. If you lack either of those two points, you better go to school.

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I can’t stress enough the importance of a degree, or for that matter, college education, whatever field you choose to specialize in. And in graphic designing, it’s true that employers will seek those with immense talent, but they would definitely look for a degree as well. A degree tells them you devoted time in studying a particular subject, sat through classes and gave your exams – that shows dedication to work. Secondly, being in college will bring you in contact with and form a network of like-minded professionals which could prove helpful when you begin working. So I advise you to apply to a college for graphic design. Check the accreditation, student life, and faculty along with tuition costs and graduation rate. For example, I had checked a site that lists accredited online colleges in Colorado. So go online and do some research before you enroll.

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