They can major in graphic design at a traditional college or university. They might opt for any one of various other educational choices, either on or offline. But, the education of a graphic designer involves more than honing an ability to create a pleasing printed piece, logo, website or other communication vehicle.
It involves an understanding of people – what motivates them, resonates with them and determines their behavior, often on an emotional level. Graphic design requires a keen understanding of shape, form and balance. Add to the mix, an understanding of color, typography and texture along with a host of techniques and technical knowledge to bring it all together in a design that fulfills its goals.
Plus, it’s not just all about art, design and technical know-how. Like other professions, a graphic designer needs a fair amount of business savvy, whether they work in their own business or another’s. That means learning about sales and marketing, writing proposals, client and supplier communications, project management, scheduling, budgets and all the day-to-day behind the scenes tasks.
It’s enough to make one’s head spin.
A graphic designer is part artist and part social scientist, along with more than a touch of psychologist, sales person, researcher, marketing consultant and technical whiz kid.
Where and how to learn all this is a challenge unto itself. Is a traditional college or university the best route? Maybe a school that focuses on graphic design? What about an education by seat of one’s pants at the (notorious) School of Hard Knocks? These are questions that float about in most potential graphic designers when it comes to learning the ins and outs of their chosen profession.
The answers hardly come easy.
For many, choosing the best direction for their educational route is wrought with more than a bit of angst and anxiety. To make things worse, many potential graphic design students don’t know what questions to ask or where to go for advice. I expect there are still several conversations with guidance counselors that begin with something along the lines of, “I want to be a graphic designer.,” to which the counselor replies, “Oh. Really? Have you considered healthcare? It’s a growing field. Or, how about law? There are many opportunities in that field …”
Although we may hear more about the profession these days, it’s still not a “typical” career. Many graphic designers share the belief that their parents have no idea what they do for a living.
On the up side, there’s plenty of information, mostly online, about a career in graphic design if one digs a little bit. Google comes to the rescue, once again. A search will yield many helpful resources.
AIGA, the professional association for design, offers up several resources for potential graphic designers, including its Graphic Design: A Career Guide. It’s an excellent place to start. The articles were developed in 1993 as part of the AIGA publication Graphic Design: A Career Guide and Education Directory. Included within this online guide are:
• What is graphic design?
• What designers need to know
• Who becomes a designer?
• What goes on in design school?
• How do design programs differ?
• How to select a design school
• How to find your first job
• Designers at work
The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics provides some interesting, albeit basic information about the profession, requirements, outlook, compensation, etc.
Picking up a copy of The Education of a Graphic Designer by Steve Heller is also a good idea. Heller is author and editor of over 130 books on graphic design, satiric art and popular culture and is the co-founder and co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts, New York. He is also co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism, MFA in Interaction Design, MFA Social Documentary Film and MPS Branding programs. In addition, for over 40 years he has been an art director for various underground and mainstream periodicals. For 33 years he was an art director at the New York Times, 28 of them as senior art director New York Times Book Review.
Another good idea is to simply ask around. There are plenty of graphic design forums, discussion groups and social media channels to pose a few questions. Most veteran designers are happy to share their thoughts, insights and experiences with budding graphic designers.
With some background, it’s time to start hunting down possible educational venues. As mentioned, there are educational options both on and offline. The choice to get a degree, take a few classes here and there or opt for online training is up to you. I know very successful designers who have taken each route. Your choice will largely depend on how you tend to learn – and how deep your pockets are when it comes to tuition and other fees. You might need the structure of a college program and classroom environment. If you are well disciplined, online training and pouring over some good graphic design and business books might do the trick. Check the HOW Magazine Bookstore, My Design Shop, for some great titles.
Before I get into the various sources for your educational enlightenment, humor me while I share a guarded secret about the education of a graphic designer, or any profession for that matter. That secret is (insert drum roll here) – lunch.
Lunch? Yup, lunch.
Lunch isn’t about stuffing your face with some gastronomical delight halfway through the day. Lunch can be about learning. Furthermore, it’s about learning the stuff you need to know but probably isn’t in your teachers’ lesson plans.
Way back when, in the Dark Ages of Graphic Design, circa 1970-ish, I often had lunch with my teachers. I can safely say that I learned more about my chosen profession while chowing down on a cheeseburger and a few fries than I ever learned in classroom sessions, blackboards or lectures.
Hooking up with your teachers (or professors, as the case may be) to break bread can yield some really useful stuff. Lunch is often a laid back, less formal environment. That means that folks can let their hair down a bit. I learned how they dealt with real projects, their dream gigs and the nightmares, their bosses and/or clients and a myriad of other “in the trenches” information.
This was the real stuff. It was information that couldn’t be conveyed in a classroom. It was one-on-one and it was important. I still use the information I learned back then in my day-to-day project-related activities.
The Traditional Route
Colleges and universities will offer the broadest education. In addition to design-related classes, many also offer typical liberal arts classes such as math, language, etc. For example, my alma mater, the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, offers a detailed and varied education for budding designers. In addition to the expected graphic design-related classes, their Bachelor Degree program also includes Principles of Macroeconomics; English Composition; Introduction to Literature; General College Math; Marine Biology; Photography; Principles of Aesthetics; Foundations of Physics; Introduction to Psychology and many other classes.
While some freelancers may think this is overkill for a graphic design career, I don’t believe it is. Every designer should have a thorough understanding of both the aesthetic and technical sides of designing for both print and the Web. Their clients and their clients’ audiences come from all sorts of backgrounds with very diverse and specific needs. A wide knowledgebase is more than helpful in understanding and meeting those needs.
The downside to acquiring this diverse knowledgebase is that higher education institutions can be expensive. For example, the article, Accredited Colleges & Universities Ranked from the Cheapest to the Most Expensive Schools, on Affordable Schools Online.com, notes that, “Nearly 70% of [American] graduates in the class of 2011 actually left school with debt, averaging $26,000.” The article also lists tuition fees for almost 4000 U.S. colleges and universities.
Other Education Options
Many continuing education programs offer some level of graphic design, particularly Web design classes. The upside is that these classes are usually inexpensive and held after business hours. The downside is that it’s often the luck of the draw as to whether the instructor is worth the price of admission. This is particularly true with local school district adult education. These are the types of classes held in high schools and similar locations. They’re worth investigating, but be sure to check the instructor’s credentials.
Another option is taking a few audit classes held at colleges and universities. Adjunct professors who are actively working within the industry often teach these classes. Although the student doesn’t obtain credit, the lessons can be very valuable by teaching not only aesthetic and technical skills, but also insights into the business side of design.
Given that designers spend a great deal of their time in front of a computer, online training seems a natural education source. Although online training requires more in the area of self-discipline, there are many benefits. It’s often significantly less expensive than obtaining a degree or even taking a few continuing education classes. Training is also very specific. For example, leading online training site, Lynda.com, offers a wide range of training topics for designers and offers software training by version number. Plus, online training can usually be done on your schedule rather than the educator’s.
Sessions College for Professional Design is another online option that is in between bricks and mortar classrooms and online video training. Since 1999, Sessions has offered online classes with an instructor, like a traditional school, but does it completely online. Their Web design programs leads to an Associate of Occupational Studies in Web Design. The course consists of six fifteen-week semesters over two years.
Learning Is A Never Ending Activity
Like many career education paths, a graphic design education isn’t a four or so year activity and then you’re off to fame and fortune. At least it shouldn’t be. Be prepared to be in it for the long haul just to keep up on the job requirements and employer expectations. That list of requirements and expectations has grown considerably over the years and there’s no end in sight. A graphic designer must be willing to invest both time and money into their continuing education … or be left in the dust.
Links to More Information
Open Education Database: Top Online Graphic Design Colleges
U.S. News & World Report’s Graphic Design Graduate Schools
Top 10 Online Graphic Design Degree Programs from Graphic Design Degree Hub
Graphic Design Schools.org: The Unofficial Guide to Getting Into Graphic Design School
A Career in Graphic Design: Assorted Information from OnlineGraphicDesignDegree.com