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As a graphic designer, there are usually two main routes to the workplace; a graphic design degree followed by a junior designer role, or an internship or junior position to gain work experience before moving up the ladder from there. In a global economic crisis, what use is a graphic design degree to aspiring designers, and what emphasis should be put on design education? In the UK, 41% of all designers hold a degree level qualification and as many as 350,000 people working in design consultancies are actually non-designers.

In the US, with costs at an all time high and set to continue, are the risks associated with student debt and tuition fees worth the study?

So, why get a degree?

Pro’s

A degree gives you a wider set of practices and academic background. By undertaking a degree a student designer is exposed to a wide range of tutors, their experience and styles of design. By working in a studio environment with other students the opportunity to learn and develop design skills is fostered within a specially designed academic structure. Students may learn creative thinking processes and have time to experiment as well as learning the required software skills.

An edge in a competitive industry

A design degree can act as a deciding factor for potential employers in a competitive and growing industry. Many see this as an essential base, to learn the foundations of design before putting it all into practice says David Hong, “I probably would not [employ someone with no degree] because I would want the person to have a strong design foundation. Too many people learn software and sell themselves without first attaining a design foundation.”

A chance to design and show off your skills before work needs to be commercial

Degree work, although usually in answer to a hypothetical brief, is a chance to develop your style, to experiment with techniques and concepts without the concerns of a client and their budget. Says Dave Bricker professor of graphic design in Miami, “I started working as a designer and design teacher long before I ever took a design class. I freelanced, was employed by agencies and started a studio long before I got my degree. However, my MFA project was seen online by many people. Having a chance to develop a project to my own tastes and standards (and not to those of a client) allowed me to show off what I like to do best. That project triggered a stream of inquiries from people who wanted me to apply the same design treatment to their own projects. Nobody hired me because of the credentials (though the university I teach at allowed me to stay on once I got the MFA), but the degree had a big impact on the kinds of projects that came into my studio.”

Greater earning potential

It has long been the school of thought that a degree can open doors to greater earning potential. Reuters offers a guide to student debt; “Borrow no more over four years than what you’ll earn the first year out of college. That can require rigorous budgeting and tough decisions, yet college administrators believe loans help make students feel more responsibility for their education.” The industry itself is buoyant, despite the global recession; employment of graphic designers is expected to grow 13% from 2008 to 2018, which is a huge 30% faster than the national average. Designers starting out can expect to reap between $32,000 and $57,000 per year, which amounts to the 50th percentile when it comes to wages; freelancers and senior designers may earn even more, with design directors finding themselves in the 90th percentile or above in terms of wages at over $74,000. (via GraphicDesign.com)

Cons

Costs

The sheer costs of attaining a degree in the US is enough to put many students off. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual tuition (plus expenses) at a private nonprofit four-year college stands at about $35,000. (via USA News) It is anticipated that the total cost of a degree in the USA will rise to more than a quarter of a million dollars by 2018.

Debt

To accompany a degree, of course, goes student debt. 2/3 of graduates leave university with student debt, which was an average of 9,200 USD in 2004, and 24,000 in 2009. An astounding figure is that the total outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. now tops $1 trillion, exceeding even credit card debt. ( via Reuters) By working in a paid position as opposed to paying out for tuition fees, a designer can avoid debt and gain skills from day one of their career. In this global economic crisis is this a scenario that is safer and preferential?

Is it necessary?

Michael Buckingham, from Holy Cow Creative says “I do not have a degree and would employ someone without one. Honestly, most of the people I’ve seen with degrees know how to use Creative Suite but little idea how to create concepts, generate ideas or to create art.” Nicole Speigel-Gotsch echoes this, saying she would employ someone without a degree “if they could show the requisite ability—meaning actual understanding of design concepts, not just technical skills.” Rafiq Elmansy also says “If the designer has good talent and good education (can be through course or self-training), I do not give much attention to the degree.”

Learning begins on the job

Although a design degree can give as much background as possible to an industry, nothing can match learning on the job; from dealing with clients and deadlines to realizing the day to day realities of design business, working in a design environment provides invaluable experience. Despite gaining a degree, most designers will still have to work their way up the studio ladder and get that real life experience, when their non-degree counterparts can be years ahead in practical skills.

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FYI – This poll closes at midnight Pacific Time on July 6th. The results of the poll will remain hidden until then so we can reveal the results in a follow up post early next week! Thanks for voting and all your comments!