abstract brush illustration

on education

back when i was considering whether or not to undergo a formal art/design education, i spent lots of time researching this dream of mine called design school, trying to find out what it was like, what i would learn, and whether it was everything i was fantasizing it would be. it was surprisingly hard to find the answers to all my questions, and so i took the plunge and learned the answers myself.

it’s been a couple of years and a Communication Design degree since, and looking back i think i finally get what a formal design education does, and what it doesn’t do, and how it might or might not benefit a creative individual. and just because i’ve rarely come across explanations on this topic i felt the urge to share my own thoughts on this, perhaps in the hopes of helping a lost and confused soul (such as me minus 3 or so years ago). here goes.

/// learning

a formal design education will not teach you everything there is to know about design, and it doesn’t in itself make you a more skilled designer – it’s how much effort and time and practice that you put into your work.

the education points out the way. it’s like a guidebook to show you the lay of the land, or a springboard to launch you into the designiverse, so you’re not left helplessly wandering. but it’s only the beginning of the journey, and the rest is up to you.

being a wide-eyed wannabe designer i dreamed of learning everything there was to know about typography, composition, colour, adobe programs, design history, you name it. i since realised that such a course would take far more than 3 or 4 years to complete. and one beauty of design is that there is always more to learn.

quite a bit of what i’ve learned over the course of my study (but not everything) has been self-taught through the internet or trial and error. but an education will likely expose you to certain topics you hadn’t thought of before, and that’s very valuable.

/// academic/critical thinking

this is something a degree will likely stress very much. while some of it won’t be used outside of academic settings, before doing this degree i’d never thought so deeply about my work and being able to do that, to make connections between different concepts and be aware of how design is situated in its context and affects its environment, is a vital skill if you’re looking to be more than just a basic designer. it’s also something i would not have learned unless an education made me.

/// opportunities

networking equates to half of your success (more or less). an education helps in that sense by creating opportunities for you. also, the job hunt is less scary in a way, because you get to ease into it with the help of your tutors. for introverts this is absolutely great. you’ll also learn to give presentations, critique sessions, and how to interact with clients.

/// student life

there’s nothing quite like the freedom to be a student, to have that “i’m a design student” license which lets you make mistakes in the classroom before heading out in the real world. and it’s nice to make friends who are in the same boat as you. a super huge value of an education is in getting to ask for tutors’ advice based on their own experiences, and getting their feedback on your work, study-related or otherwise.

/// style

i read somewhere that learning from someone else rather than teaching yourself can limit you, and this can certainly be the case. you can fall into the pithole of trying to conform your work to meet someone else’s taste or philosophy, whereas on your own you may feel more at ease to pick and choose what works and doesn’t. at the same time, learning from a designated curriculum will force you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t, and this is a great thing. so learning how to be open minded while staying true to yourself is important.

basically, designing for grades at the cost of your own creative voice can be dangerous (me at times, sadly). and on the other hand, being too self-absorbed in your own ideas and ways of thinking is not cool (also me at times). but whether you do or don’t study at an institution, this balance is something you’ll have to learn.

/// going beyond

it’s so important to do more than just what a formal education requires, to work on your own projects as well. but it can be hard because your design studies will take up so much of your time.

an education will give you a taste of professional design without having to commit to it. it will give you an incentive to reach your goals and finish what you started. but to truly come away and make the most of it, you should take those years to design and learn as much as you can. just remember to stay sane as well.

/// the piece of paper (a design degree)

the piece of paper (technically more like cardstock) does open up doors that would otherwise be closed or harder to get into. that said, your cv, experience and portfolio still matters very much, but the degree will get you that first foot in for those higher positions or employers who require a degree. at the end of the day, it depends on what your goals are and who you plan to work for.

i guess an education is like a ready-made backbone, which you otherwise would need to create yourself with guts, planning, and lots of initiative and discipline (must-have skills in any good creative btw). and once you have your backbone in place you can start building it up on your own. that said, if you have all the drive it takes, you could build yourself a customized backbone. if not, an education could help you to acquire those skills as well.

i think overall a formal education can be really helpful – but as there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to such things, it really depends on your goals and values to determine what works best. but knowing the differences and what to expect is a big help in making that decision, and i hope that these 1000 words managed to make some sense of the methods in the magical madness that is design school.