Do You Really Need a Degree To Succeed in Graphic Design?

In short…kind of.

Bauhaus Poster

For people who are unfamiliar with the technology and processes of design — from the artistic form to the technical know-how necessary to execute ideas — going to school is one of THE best ways to learn. You have to choose your school carefully though. If you don’t, you run the risk of getting caught up in a program that doesn’t necessarily fit your goals or approaches.

I was lucky to go to a private art school for one (very short) semester. In that space of time I learned a lot about the art behind it. I spent almost ten years learning the science of it beforehand, and imitating what I saw in magazines and books. In that short period of time I was thrown in to the more artistic, ethereal challenges behind my projects. When I left that private art school and transferred in to a local state university, I was flabbergasted. Students were still learning to kern. They still tried to run RGB layouts through our four-color printer. They were designing booklets in Photoshop. They hadn’t the slightest cue about binding technologies, HTML, print production, etc…all things that I had essentially grown up with.

The traditional design school experience was very tough for me. I breezed through the coursework but quickly approached my two design professors and asked that they challenge me as hard as they could. (That they did…one drove me to tears!) In my experience it wasn’t the actual course work itself that taught me a lot, but instead my interaction with my professors and the internships with which they connected me. It was also in my dealings with my classmates, by being patient and helping them grow as designers through fair and honest feedback and critiques. It was in helping them understand that design was simply not just a pretty picture but a piece of visual communication that was to eventually be consumed by millions of people…and that it needed to be taken seriously.

What I also never expected was to deal with politics. Different professors had different teaching styles and their own philosophies about how to run their classes. When it came time to seek funding for an international project, I had to deal with the politics between departments, and getting recommendations. Some of the hardest lessons I learned in design school was knowing when to drop a design argument when it became apparent that it came down to taste; understanding that honey attracts more flies than vinegar; and that sometimes it didn’t really matter what other people thought — that if you could unequivocally defend your design, you were designing from an informed point of view. It was also really difficult for me to deal with rejection: I had applied to create my own masters degree program but was rejected on the grounds that my GPA was not high enough. (All credited to the hop-skipping of majors I did prior to switching in to design.) In retrospect that was a blessing in disguise: I would have missed out on the opportunity to work for a boutique ad agency and learn the reins of running a business from the inside out. I would have missed out on working with The Rainmaker Network. I would have missed out on starting my own company. I would have also missed out on enrolling in the degree program at Golden Gate, which has served me so well thus far.

No, it wasn’t the brand identity assignments or the poster designs or even the portfolio class that taught me a lot about the design process. It was the people. It was the patience that was required of me to finish the classes. It was learning how to follow protocol, even if I didn’t want to. It was learning that forms of expression require a process, and that there were no shortcut to success. Design school taught me that I would have to work hard, commit to goals, and set to achieving them if I were ever able to make something of myself.

Amara Poolswasdi Working
A quick snapshot of my working process while I was in Thailand. Note the Advil and sketches EVERYWHERE

So, although you don’t really need the degree itself, I believe that it will help you build the patience and understanding necessary to succeed.

(crossposted to