My question is one to be debated.

I am currently working as a marketing assistant with many design responsibilities. I have grown to love this and wish to take my career in this direction. Here is the problem: I have no real college experience. I am however very fortunate to be located in a city that has many opportunities to remedy this issue.

I have come across a great program at The New England School of Art and Design (at Suffolk University) that offers a certificate program in Graphic Design. My hope is that a certificate from a respected institution coupled with my work experience will be all that I need to kick-start my carer in graphic design. I do worry that will simply not be the case, that I could be overlooked and have wasted money as a result.

As design professionals, which weighs heavier in the hiring process: a certificate or an associates degree?


I would have to say that in my experience, neither of these matter as much as work experience and a demonstration of your abilities/knowledge.

I have zero certifications or degrees in graphic design and I have been doing it professionally for about 10 years and I'm currently the creative services manager for a magazine.

I have always had an interest in creating art and I began teaching myself photoshop in roughly 7-8th grade. I was in college and was pretty much in your same position. No experience, no degree, but I was lucky enough to get my foot in the door because I had some knowledge of photoshop. I took on as much work as I could for my company and tried to learn as many things as I could, in order to make myself more appealing to future employers and expand my skill set.

I'm not saying don't get a degree (I have my BS to fall back on, so that always looks better on paper than nothing). I'm just trying to say that I don't think either is essential or required, as long as you have a demonstrated aptitude for design and an eagerness/ability to learn.

That should be enough to at least get you started someplace. If you get in with a good company, they may even pay for you to get more training/certifications or have other designers there that can mentor you on certain things.

I suggest that if you can avoid a student loan, do so. haha

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  • Locale also plays a huge difference, where i am a BS is minimum requirement for nearly anything (done in office, others have 3-4 years of vocational training). Seems like most cleaning ladies pass this level of education too. So what makes sense in one locale may not make sense in others. I agree with loans but in my locale universities cost nothing so... – joojaa Jun 22 '15 at 18:38
  • I'm sure everyone knows how poor we American students are, so I doubt I need to go into why I would opt to avoiding student loans here haha I do agree about location though. It might be a little more competitive, in a city like Boston, but I'm not exactly out in the sticks down here either. I live in the Ft. Lauderdale/Boca Raton area of Florida. – Manly Jun 22 '15 at 18:44
  • Thank you all for your input! I can say that I certainly have a decent understanding of the technical side of things, as well as solid design experience (branding, editorial, etc.) Although I would love to avoid student debt, I feel that some sort of higher education would be beneficial. Whether it be a certificate through an arts school or an associates degree through a local community college. It's all about appearance, isn't it? – Rebecca Wade Jun 22 '15 at 22:05
  • As I mentioned and as @scott pinged on as well, it's all about your experience and abilities, not necessarily how you got them. I got mine through hours of exploring software on my own, following tutorials, watching how other people coded/designed things, SITES LIKE THIS. A degree is more or less a fast track version of banging your head against the wall and trying to figure it out yourself, but I often find the latter more gratifying and I have always seemed to better understand things through figuring them out myself than by being shown. – Manly Jun 23 '15 at 0:01

The really important thing is that you gain the knowledge so you can handle the technical aspects needed for various production methods.

How you gain that knowledge is often of little consequence. Whether it's from a certificate program, an Associates Degree, or on-the-job training doesn't matter after you land that first (decent) job in the profession.

A formal education merely gives perspective employers some indication that you should have at least touched upon technical aspects you will need. Previous employment positions on the same career track do essentially the same thing. So really it all boils down to what you learn, not necessarily the piece of paper you receive, if any, for learning.

On the whole, neither a certificate or associates program is inherently better. Although on paper, due to existing competition, often more schooling looks more favorably if you have zero work experience. This is easily offset by any actual work experience though. A new designer with a certificate and six months of work experience and a fantastic portfolio can easily offset a new designer with an Associates degree and zero work experience and a so-so portfolio.

You need to dig a bit deeper to see what each educational track covers. You should be more interested in "lab" or "study" time as opposed to "lecture" time. You'll want hands-on experience, not "listen to this" experience. Which program do you feel will result in a better portfolio in the area you want to gravitate to? Does the certificate program cover more web design than print design? Is the associate's track geared more towards traditional production methods or digital methods? That sort of thing.

No one can really state emphatically that one is better than the other without knowing in detail what is covered in each.

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  • This is a fantastic response - thank you, Scott. – Rebecca Wade Jun 22 '15 at 22:20

As with nearly all professions, a degree tends to weigh more than a certificate in the eyes of the people hiring you.

Do you need a degree? Well, that's a whole other question. In this profession, your portfolio is the key. A degree can help you get to that point. Sometimes better than a certificate can.

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In my opinion, it sounds a bit backwards. People often go to an education program before landing a career in their chosen industry. If you're already working in that position, stay there and get as much experience as you can. When you have nothing left to learn there, move on to another employer and use your current position as leverage for an increased salary and more responsibility.

You'll learn faster on the job and you're being paid to do so. You'll learn slower going to school and you'll have to spend the next 5 years working to pay off your tuition.

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