Design School or No?

May 30, 2018

Graduation season is here, and high school seniors are choosing whether to go straight into the workforce or to attend college. For those interested in design, there’s an additional dilemma: if they go to college, should they enroll in a formal design program? To gain more insight into the outcomes of this decision, I spoke with design professionals Sam Adaramola and Hali Bakarr.

For Sam, a digital media specialist for Our Revolution, his interest in design started with helping a friend with a party flyer. Using Photoshop was a convenient way to start.

“I didn’t know much about graphic design. All I knew was that Photoshop was the tool commonly associated with design. So I went to the school library and looked at YouTube videos on ’How to Design a Party Flyer with Photoshop.’ Then, six hours later, I created something I felt proud to call my work.”

Though Sam had fun dabbling in design while in college, he had not put much thought into making it his career.

“I majored in mass communications, and I imagined a career in advertising or public relations building cool campaigns. I didn’t like managing budgets, timelines, and scopes of work. I wanted to create! I scraped together all of the things I created in college, the work I felt most proud of, and I made the best portfolio I could. [An art director] gave me books and resources to sharpen my skills; she even gifted me a Wacom tablet. Then I made a conscious decision to try and become a designer on my own. I decided that I didn’t need to go to school. I can learn what I could on my own and seek mentorship from professionals, which is what I did.”

Hali is a front-end engineer at AddThis/Oracle Data Cloud. For her, the initial interest in design started through education.

”I decided I wanted to be a graphic designer when I first learned about the field in the 11th grade of high school. With my artistic skills and ambition, I figured it would be a great career track. I attended a graphic design ‘camp’ at American University and my interest spiked from there. It was the first time I was surrounded by individuals who were also interested in the field. Seeing others kids present their work was fun as was seeing my own progress by the time the camp was over. Sometimes all it takes is a creative environment and cool people to help develop a passion for design and for a short period of time, I had that every day.”

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina.

Hali later attended Drexel University, and their design program offered her access and connections.

“It was only worth it because the school facilitated internships and there was a wealth of knowledge to be gained,” says Hali, who admits to not being the most-engaged student.

“I didn’t take full advantage of the creative freedom allowed in design school. I would have explored more creatively, especially after paying so much!

Sam admits that having a critique from a design professional early in his career would have pushed him further.

“If I could go back, I’d go to a design school, because I think I’d be sharper. Being younger and around other designers would have given me more challenges.”

Agencies and companies offering internships expect potential hires to have some level of formal design training, which could mean paying a lot of money for an education with little certainty of a viable job.

“All of my instructors were professionals in the field with years of experience,” Hali mentions. “We also got to touch [on] different tracks of design (environmental, web, and advertising). If I didn’t go to design school I wouldn’t be where I am but that’s because of my own work ethic. Others who have a stronger work ethic might have survived without a degree in graphic design.”

“On one end, the fact that I was able to have a career in design without going to design school makes it worth it,” Sam adds. “I proved that I could [succeed] without a formal education, but on the opposite end, there is a constant battle with impostor syndrome. I’m sure even folks who did go to design school deal with [this], but it’s more crippling to me, someone who hacked together his design education. Sometimes I wish I did go. Sometimes I’m proud that I didn’t have to go.”

The decision of whether or not to attend design school is complex. In my design program, one of my professors once said “If you want to do this as a side hustle, don’t. You can’t do this halfway. If you want to do it well, you’ve got to be all in.” Whether you are self-taught or learn design in a more traditional way, education, networking, and building relationships should be part of that success. The choice is yours.

Header Photo by Paul Hanaoka.

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