While I know that going to a Design University is the most optimal way to learn and master Graphic Design, in my case, it would be difficult for me to attend one because I also have to do some other courses in a university that are not necessarily related to Graphic Design, and the university does not offer courses on Graphic Design.

What are some good methods to substitute a design education? How would you build up your portfolio for the future?

  • 1
    What's your objective career-wise?
    – DA01
    Feb 21, 2011 at 19:00

3 Answers 3


To substitute a design education you have to be aware of what you are missing out on. In my experience, learning at design school was mostly about two things; building robust theory and concepts, and the push-pull of designing in a social environment, eg crits, inspiration, encouragement etc.

In which case you need to find substitutes for these benefits of school life. I would suggest a doing a huge amount of reading to build robust conceptual theories. And joining an art group, (not necessarily graphic design exclusive) for the social learning. IMO flickr or deviantart communities are not a good substitute for face-face peer critique

As for the portfolio- well that comes by doing work. Real work for real clients is better than theorical work. But sometimes you just need to start somewhere.

  • 2
    +1. Really great answer, particularly the points about face-to-face peer review and the portfolio. Do look into taking non-credit, evening courses at an area art school. School offers both independent review (instructors and classmates) and final projects make for great portfolio material. I interview a lot of fresh graduates, and their portfolios are made up almost solely of work for school, friends, family, church events, and the like. I've hired both design graduates and "school of hard knocks" graduates alike (I am an alum of the latter) but school really is an easier path in the long run. Feb 21, 2011 at 12:31
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    Agreed. While jury is painful ("would rather chew my own eyebrows off" painful) it's also really the best way for you be able to start critiquing your own work fairly. If you're looking for some good books I am sure there's a list on here somewhere; some of my personal favorites are: "Architectural Graphics" by Frank Ching (great intro to basics of visual communication), "The Design of Everyday Things" by Donald Norman and "Universal Principles of Design" by William Lidwell Feb 21, 2011 at 13:53

Formal undergraduate design education traditionally offers these things:

A) technical skills B) contextual knowledge C) social learning, critique D) networking opportunities E) recognised credential

I have met many successful designers who haven't got a degree in graphic design and who I, with now 5 years of academic study under my belt, look up to. I don't believe that they were born with the knowledge and talent that I admire about them, instead I'm convinced that with the right attitude anyone can acquire a design education without attending a formal design programme at a university.

A) Like at design school, you need to practice your technical skills in order to become proficient in using the tools of your trade. Good starting points are the various tutorial sites that explain step by step how to use a software, tool or technique. Even the help pages of Adobe's Creative Suite can be a great technical self-education tool.

B) Read, read, read. It's what you normally do at university too. Depending on what area of graphic design you're interested in, find books on typography, layout, user experience, semiotics, anything. They don't have to be picture books either. I could make tons of recommendations, but if I had to pick one Universal Principles of Design by Lidwell et al. is great. But not only books are great resources for relevant contextual knowledge. There's a great number of very relevant design blogs, not just those that post 50 roundup posts with 300 random images every day. Find design blogs that stimulate your thinking, not just inspire you visually.

C) The social wrapper traditionally provided by universities is probably the most important aspect that people would mention when it comes to choosing to go the university path or not. In reality the quality of this social experience varies greatly depending on the programme you're in, the number of students, the student to lecturer ratio, the background of students and lecturers etc. In graphic design we're lucky enough that these days our practice has largely shifted to the digital domain. Social media enables you to actively (conversation) and passively (follow) engage not only with great designers and role models but also with peers that are on the same level as yourself. Put your work and your questions out there through social media channels like twitter, facebook, dribbble, flickr, YouTube ... you name it. Of course some feedback and responses can be trivial, but that's the same at university! If you want to get your work critiqued, be proactive, start the conversation and ask questions (you're already doing that here). Don't restrict yourself to the online medium though. Find friends or other designers who can feedback on your work. Be aware that you're your own teacher, nobody's going to tell you what's right and what's wrong. Find an internship, voluntary work, take part in competitions. These are all opportunities for critique. It doesn't always have to be a renowned design legend and in most courses you don't get this anyway.

D) following on from the last point, make the most of your social network to get freelance work, work opportunities, clients, advice etc. There are many free design related lectures everywhere, go to them, talk to people, network. Network with people on twitter, collaborate on projects. Networking is something the web excels at, you don't need to study graphic design at university for that anymore.

E) The degree is probably the only thing you can't get through all the free resources out there. It's the only thing you actually pay for at university. On the other hand a degree isn't required to be a graphic designer. I hope the industry will soon notice that too.

  • I've found some schools focus on A, while others focus on art and design theory/concepts. It's usually a difference between more technical schools (sometimes 2 years) vs. art focused schools. Both have their places, though I'd suggest those looking at school to look for the latter, as the technical skills can be learned on your own more easily than the former.
    – DA01
    Feb 22, 2011 at 14:05

I was scared off from going to a bona fide design school for university, so I know what you mean! But depending on where you are, you could go back after graduating from your current uni and take evening classes at a reputable art school. I'm very lucky to have lived close to Art Center College of Design, one of the best design schools in the US, and they offer night classes catered to people with full-time jobs. You don't have to apply or have a portfolio - if you can pay (and it is expensive), you can take the class. They had the same teachers as in the degree program, so it was a real education on an a la carte basis and without the pressures of actually being in the degree program.

If you've never taken a design class before, I highly recommend going this route if you can, at least to learn the basics. Nothing replaces critique by an honest, tough, discerning, and detailed teacher. I don't think I would have learned nearly as much on my own, especially when it came to self-critiquing, which you absolutely must be able to do. (I must be a masochist, because I love critiques. Probably because I'm a little TOO self-critical and I know my work always needs improvement, and the critiques are there to tell me how to improve my work!)

And as for a portfolio, you can gain one even by taking the art school night classes. If not, it's amazing how much work you can pick up by offering free/discounted design services (on a very limited basis, mind you, you can't go free forever) to friends and family.

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