How to Get the Most From Your Design Education

Finding the best way to get a good design education is hard. The costs of going to a university are getting out of control and the wages designers are making are not going up. There is enough information online to teach yourself how to be a designer but finding the most useful information amongst the clutter can be tough. Motivating yourself to learn something completely new, and on your own, is something not everyone can do.

The world is filled with amateur and aspiring designers who never quite make it. So to not be one of them you really need to focus and get the best design education possible.

What a Traditional Education Is and What It Isn’t

instantShift - What a Traditional Education Is and What It Isn’t

For most people, in the US at least, we get a traditional four year degree after high school. As much is it has it’s flaws for people looking to pursue design, especially web and other highly technical areas of design, the degree is a piece of paper we need in order to get a lot of entry level positions. There are of course many self-taught designers who lead successful careers but I’m sure there are countless others who try it on their own and fail.

What It Isn’t

A traditional education is not real world training. It isn’t technical skills. A system based on lectures and grades is set up to teach people subjects but not really the best way of getting a person prepared for a specific job. You won’t learn how to deal with clients. You won’t learn much about billing or the other day-to-day aspects of conducting business.

If you are looking to learn the latest design technology, universities are not the best place for it. If you look to the leaders in most emerging fields, they do have degrees but they are also self-taught on the technical aspects. I know more about web design than the majority of people teaching it. It isn’t that I am that smart, it is the fact that I do it every single day. Teachers teach, and their curriculum are updated once a year, at the most. So chances are the people teaching web design courses are probably a little behind the times.

It isn’t a guarantee you get a job in the design field. Design jobs are still handed out to the people with the best portfolios and communication skills.

What It Is

While university might not be the best place to learn the latest software or web design techniques, it is still a good place to get a solid foundation. A solid foundation in design can give you the knowledge you need to pursue the other areas of knowledge required to be successful in your field.

Universities are also great places to learn, make mistakes, and grow. You not only get a foundation for your career but you grow as a person. You learn how to communicate about your work, which honestly, is more important than being able to create it. Anyone can learn Photoshop, and most people can put together a half-decent looking design, but very few people can communicate an idea well through their work. You also need to be able to talk about your design in order to persuade and pitch ideas to clients. Design is all about communication and you don’t learn that working alone in front of the computer.

Getting a degree in one field doesn’t mean you have to work in that field for the rest of your life. Most people never get a job in the field they studied in school. But if you want to get into design there are a few Majors that can help you on the way.

Learning to Learn

The best thing you will get out of your design education, is the ability learn. You will find the best ways to get work done. The best ways to soak up new information. Some of which you will forget the next day but you will also learn how to retain the important stuff. Everyone is different but going to school gives you those hard deadlines needed to push yourself to the point where you must know a subject, or fail.

If you try to learn everything there is to know about graphic design on your own you can do it, but it is really hard to push yourself and do it in a timely manner, without first learning how to learn. School gives you focus and a structure to follow. You won’t learn everything you need to know but you’ll find out what it is you are missing, and how to teach yourself those missing pieces.

A formal education isn’t necessary to learn or perform as a web or graphic designer. Everything you need to know you can teach yourself for free online. But having a degree has some obvious advantages.

Many positions, especially corporate or in-house, require one, to get an interview. You may have a great portfolio but it never gets seen because your resume/C.V. was tossed in the waste basket for not meeting the minimum requirements.

The other benefit of a degree are some of the more intangible ones. You become a more well rounded person. You learn how to build a network and can gain a strong foundation in design principals and/or art. You get to spend a ton of time experimenting and failing with your designs. You also can get valuable feedback on your work, something definitely worth the money. And although it is not quite the same, dealing with professors, fellow students in group projects, and having assignments is a step closer to what working with clients is like.

But ultimately you need to think not about getting your first job or what the minimum requirements are, but getting the job that you want. And be set up to get that ideal job five, ten, fifteen years down the road, if not right out of school.

Finding A Career Path

It seems odd that most people go to school and study something they like, without really considering what they can do with their degree once they graduate. Personally, I spent four years almost getting a degree in business before seeing how bad the entry level positions were and deciding I’d rather do something I could enjoy (design). Even when I did decided on design I shifted around from motion graphics/video to Flash to packaging design before finally settling on web design.

It can be hard to pick a career path without doing the work. For design careers it can be especially scary because we are judged by the quality of our work more than most professions. If you don’t know if you are good enough to make it as a professional designer it can be scary starting out. But if you want it bad enough you can make it.

To plan for your education is to plan your career path. Make a list of what is required for entry level positions and what you will need to know when you get to the highest positions you want to work at in the field. You education will probably include getting a degree but there are a lot of other ways to learn the technical aspects of the field.

Doing the Research

instantShift - Doing the Research

To start out, ask yourself these three questions:

What job/position in the design field do you want to work at?

Essentially, what do you want to do. Do you want to be a graphic designer, videographer, editor, motion graphics artist, photographer, package designer, logo designer, web designer, interface designer? Or maybe you want to get into advertising, marketing, social media or some other related field. You might see yourself doing two or three of those things or you might know you only want to do one.

Don’t worry about how hard it is to get these jobs, or how much school is involved, just pick based on what you really want to do.

What are the requirements to get there?

The easiest ways to find this out is to simply ask the people doing the work. Send out some emails to local companies who do design you like and ask them what kind of education they have, and what jobs they did that lead up to gaining their current position. You can also check job websites to see some basic requirements.

The funny thing is, no one fresh out of school has the requirements for an entry level design job. They usually ask for 2-4 years experience for entry level positions. They also like to post a long, ridiculous list of things you should know. For an entry level web design job I’ve seen lists requiring proficiency of: Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Flash, Final Cut Pro, Java, PHP, ASP .Net, Javascript, Ruby, Drupal and whatever else they can think of even remotely related to the field. Essentially they try to eliminate as many people as they can to make the process of finding applicants easier. Or Human Resources is putting the job description out and they have no idea what a web designer needs to know, so they just copy things from other job listings they see.

If you can talk to people in the field they will be able to tell you what the real requirements are. Most times it just takes a good portfolio, good communication skills and a willingness to learn and work hard.

But there are definitely some things that stand out on the resume more than others. Some schools are more prestigious than others. It could be an internship that you do, a specific firm or client you work for, or an extra curricular activity you do.

How much you can afford to spend?

instantShift - How much you can afford to spend?

This is the last question you should ask because you shouldn’t put any restrictions on yourself at the start. But when it comes down to it, it can be pretty expensive getting an education, especially if you need to get a four year degree.

Many people qualify for student loans but you really want to consider whether you want to fall seriously in debt for a design career, because in case you weren’t aware, designers don’t make very much money. And in the United States at least, there is no way of filing for bankruptcy for student loan debt, it is yours until you die.

If you know you want a four year degree, do your homework. Find out all the various options: transferring from a junior college, going to a cheaper state school, or going to a private or design school. Add up the costs along with living expenses and see which one you can afford or are willing to go into debt for. A design school might provide a much better education and look better on your resume but it could also put you in serious debt.

If you do plan on taking on some debt figure out how much your monthly payments will have to be before agreeing to anything. Subtract that number from what you will be making with an average designer’s salary. If you are going to be living in poverty for the next 15 years, trying to pay off your debt you should find a better option.

Another thing people don’t think about it software and hardware costs. Most computers don’t last more than four years. Mine seem to only go about two at the most. So you have that cost. You also have a lot of expensive software to buy. Being a student allows you to get heavy discounts on a lot of it, but it still is a lot of money for someone not really making any.

There are some ways to get a design education for a lot cheaper. The internet is free and has all the resources you need to learn pretty much anything. Many adult education centers offer classes on photography and Photoshop for cheap. Or you can go to a junior college and take some Photoshop courses. Some online courses can have lower unit prices as well.

What to Study at a Traditional University

instantShift - What to Study at a Traditional University

There are plenty of people out there in the design industry without degrees. But the trend has been swinging toward more with them. Not all, but any companies require them.

It isn’t necessary to get a degree that directly benefits your career but it certainly helps. For a traditional school, stick to the basics: Business, Art, Communications, English, Advertising or Graphic Design. These are all thing you can use for a number of different careers and serve as a nice foundation.

I would try to avoid things like Web Design, Video, or other majors that are heavily reliant on technology, even if that is what you want to do. Most schools are behind the times on technology and much of it you can learn from better, more current sources on the internet.

For any design career you will not be done learning, ever. You have to learn how to teach yourself, and there is no better time to start then while you are still in school. Take your regular courses and learn your trade skills in your free time. If you can fit in a couple of classes, try and take Photoshop, a basic web design course, basic accounting, copywriting, the things that are relevant to your career.

A degree is just a piece of paper but there is no reason why you cannot get the most out of it. Focus on the classes that are meaningful to your career and just barely pass everything else. C’s earn degrees. Grades really don’t for designers. Your work does.

Treat School Like A Job

There is no student design, there is just good design and bad design. Take every assignment and every design project you work on seriously. Developing a solid work ethic now is so important for when you get out into the work world and have real clients and deadlines.

Use Every Resource to the Fullest

Talk to your councilor early and often. Have them find the easiest path for you to graduation. Do whatever you can to replace your general education courses with those that you want to take. You might have to create your own major and you might have to be a pain in the ass, but it is your education, get the most out of it you can.

One way schools keep you from taking the courses you want is to make prerequisites for them. If you talk to the professor and explain how you are in a different major but plan on having a specific career, they should let you in. If not, just sit-in on the class. You can listen to the lectures and get most of what you need just by being there.

Networking with professors is good practice and may lead to a good internship or a job after school. Professors can be good for letters of recommendation as well. If you want to know something about a subject but don’t want to take the course, see if you can talk to the professor during their office hours. You can learn a lot in a one-on-one conversation, sometimes more than in a classroom setting.

Also, network with your fellow students, especially those in different majors. Find people with skills you don’t have and keep in touch. Whether it is networking through social media or within the social areas within your school, growing your network is always good. You don’t have to know everything and don’t want to. Just have a skill they don’t and trade services.

You should relish every group project you get. This is the best way to learn how to communicate design, being amongst peers, working on solving a problem. It doesn’t matter how lame the project, you should put your full effort into each and every one.

Student loans can be a gamble, but while you are in school you don’t have to pay interest. So if you need some money to start up a small business or buy equipment, the option is available to you. Just remember you can’t file bankruptcy, so if you really mess up you are stuck.

Where to Learn the Technical Skills

School is good for learning design but it isn’t very useful for learning technical skills like front-end development. So you need to learn how to teach yourself. The tools of the design industry change every year so you will be learning new things all the time anyway, might as well learn how to do it while still in school.

The internet is full of blogs, forums and general websites on every topic imaginable. There is really no design software you cannot learn completely for free online. Of course some of us learn in different ways. If you are a visual learning you might be more interested in video blogs and such. And you have to consider how much time you have to spend. Some of the paid resources can be pretty good.


Getting a solid design education will help you get on the right track to a successful career. Just don’t plan on learning everything you need to know.

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  1. It is really awesome post from Tyler. I like your way of presentation. Nice post. Keep updating.

  2. Great advice, Tyler! Too often students float through school as if it were some comedy movie on college life. Dedication is the key to success!

  3. Networking with professors is a great tip. While receiving my university education, I regularly visited with professors during office hours ( you are paying for those idle hours every week, so take advantage of them), to discuss project ideas and get some feedback. It’s a great strategy that helps you create more worthwhile, often better-graded work, and it give the professor a strong familiarization with your style and “voice”.
    Attending university or college will benefit you only to the degree that you engage with the resources and the course subjects themselves. What you put in is what you get out of it.

    Thanks for the article,
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  4. excellent way you describing in this post.

  5. This is a very usefully tutorial for Photoshop. It have a grate information for us.

  6. Great post! My tertiary education led directly to work in that two weeks after finishing my web development course I was invited back to be a course tutor. I’m now in training for a lecturing position. I put 200% into all my assignments and practical work while studying and was very inquisitive. I think this made me stand out from the other students and led to my job offer. I freelance as well so I keep my skills as current as possible. I also have to say that the networking potential while studying is great. I met and maintain contact with talented graphic designers, programmers, and database experts all of whom I have involved in different client projects since graduating. I learn so much myself from interacting with these colleagues.

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