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

A New Semester, A Fresh Start: Resolutions for a New Term

Marketing Textbooks

It’s finally here. My fresh start. My new beginning. It’s kind of like a reincarnation for the academic.

Last semester was very rough on the psyche. Not only did I have to withdraw from a class pretty late in the game, I’m quite skeptical of how well I did in my other Advertising Strategy class. In between breakups, moving apartments, and an infinite spin cycle of clientele and project combustion, I think I finally have my collective s*%t together!

For me, the first day of class is always spent inputting the syllabus into my calendar and stressing myself out for no good reason. Now that the task is done, I can move on to more productive things….like reading, discussions, brainstorming papers, etc.

Going to grad school online is very challenging. The program at Golden Gate is great, but I can’t depend on the invisible support of the group psyche online as much as I can when I have to attend classes in person. I often times miss the human interaction I used to take for granted as an undergrad…insomuch that I actually hop on a plane and attend an on-campus event in San Francisco. It makes me feel MUCH more connected to the campus that way.

I’ve spent the better part of one semester trying to convince people at the library and the career center to simulcast events and seminars. It’d be great if I could introduce something like VOKLE to them. (I didn’t know of the technology when I was in talks with them earlier…and now that I think of it, it would also be great for my interactive marketing class!) It’s kind of unfair that in-person students and online students pay the same fees and tuition but cannot take advantage of the same benefits of live events: live Q+A, networking with attendees, and additional instruction outside of the classroom. A “simulcast” component would really invite an enhanced global perspective for the student base. GGU is part CyberCampus, part brick and mortar. We should start acting like it!

I’m still thinking of ways to make my academic experience more relevant to me. Maybe I should consider posting more videos instead of typing out my commentary? Adding more screenshots to back up my points?

My academic resolutions for the Spring semester:

  1. Adhere to a pre-committed schedule for my academic work.
  2. Complete all of my assignments at least 24 hours before it is due. (Easier said than done for me…)
  3. If I have to make the choice between reading the material and participating for course credit…I’ll choose to do the reading. It will serve me better in the long run. (I am not paying thousands of dollars to teach other students or to prove to my professor that I am learning something in class.)

Last semester, my mantra was ‘Never let school interfere with your education.’ I learned a lot last semester but it’s time for me to buckle down and commit to spending my time and money wisely. I am, after all, paying quite a bit for this education. I’d better start taking it more seriously!