Don’t Go To Design School
TL;DR: There are specific industries that require formal education and specialized licensing; design isn’t one of them. If you want to go into design, consider studying an adjacent field like business or computer science.
Like so many other graduates from a design school, I became disillusioned by the education I received.
Once I stumbled into the real world, I quickly realized most of my college education was based in theory, focusing heavily on introducing concepts instead of their application in a professional setting. I’m sure some schools (portfolio schools, to name one) handle this challenge a little differently, but for the most part, design is all about application.
Here is a controversial thought:
Majoring in design (graphic design, communication design, visual communication) isn’t necessary for success in the field. In fact, if you’re considering a career in design, your time would be better spent studying and adjacent field like business or marketing while learning design-related concepts on the side.
This is true for a number of reasons:
Execution is a given; application is what sets you apart.
Most design programs start by introducing basic concepts like balance, alignment, contrast, and then transition to teaching students how to use specific design tools. These instruments are necessary, but they mean nothing without a marriage to application. Photoshop can be an extremely valuable program, but without aligning the work you’re doing to a specific, tangible outcome, it’s just another tool.
Context is key.
As a professional designer, your job is to tackle business-related problems by creating design-related solutions. How could you possibly create an effective solution if you don’t have any insight into the problem? This is why studying business or marketing can help provide context sooner while also giving you a basic vocabulary to use.
Design is about the process; business is about the outcome.
If you leave design school with one takeaway, it should be the development of your own process. The key word here is your own. Unfortunately, many schools don’t teach process; mine didn’t. If they do, they reinforce a generic framework looking somewhat like this:
Discovery > Concept > Revise > Polish
The issue here is that each of these steps requires a process of its own; a process that will look different for each and every designer. Furthermore, once they do teach this cookie-cutter process, that’s where the learning usually ends. Most design programs I’ve come across don’t tie this process to a specific outcome. This is where studying business or marketing becomes extremely useful.
In the real world, there is so much more to design than “making it look good.” Every single decision, from headline font to button placement and color, is tied to a desired result. This could be converting potential leads into paying customers, capturing email, or validating a new business opportunity.
My question is:
How could you possibly make an informed design decision without knowing the specific outcome you’re trying to achieve?
You can’t. This would be like choosing the winner of the World Series based on which uniform you like best. Without business context, you’re essentially taking a stab in the dark.
Lucky for future generations, there are already a few progressive institutions that have recognized this massive gap, creating innovative programs that include a dual master in Business Administration and Design. If you ask me, this should (and will) be the standard, not the exception.
Whether you choose to go to design school or not, the most important thing to consider is the purpose of education in the first place. In this day-and-age, education for the sake of learning is a given. We need to take it a step further and make sure we are actively learning how to learn.