I apologize in advance for this lengthy blog posting! As you can clearly see, I’ve been writing this content for some time now and felt it important to keep the content as thorough and informative as possible. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re about to make one of the most important decisions of your life and your career. Hopefully, you will find this article helpful in deciding what graphic design school is best for YOU.
Step 1: Determine your goals for using your graphic design education.
I know some of you think I’m crazy for recommending step one be to determine what your goals are, but you would be surprised how little some people have actually thought about their options. For instance, do you plan to teach some day? Are you already in the design industry, but only needing software training to advance or freshen up your skills? Are you starting from scratch hoping that learning more about the technical and visual aspects of visual communication helps you find work as a graphic designer in the industry? Maybe you’re aspiring to own your own graphic design business some day? Is it possible that you’re already thinking about an advanced degree, like a Master’s Degree? Or hey, maybe you don’t want a degree, but you’re just hoping to learn some new skills to play with as a hobby?
Although most of you reading this are just hoping to specialize in what is needed to help you find work in the industry, you’d be surprised to know that not all graphic design degree programs are designed with that same goal in mind!
WARNING: Before you read further, it’s important to mention that “getting a degree” is NOT a goal! Graphic designers don’t find work because they have a degree, they find work because they are able to demonstrate strong understanding of visual, conceptual, workplace and technical skills in their portfolio of visual work samples. If you’re not sure whether you’ve selected the right degree major, stop reading here and instead read this blog posting: “Five Signs You Should Not Major in Graphic Design”. For more information regarding what they industry is expecting of graphic design graduates read this: “What the Industry Expects from Graduates”.
Step 2: Understand the types of schools out there.
There are various types of schools with various levels of degrees out there to help you attain your goals. Here is a generalized description of the types of schools, including the pros and cons of each type to help you narrow down your search based upon how each does/doesn’t meet your educational needs:
a. Technical Schools: These type of schools can be public or private and generally only offer technical AS Degrees or technical Certificates, which are industry-focused degrees that take 2 years or less to complete. Note, however, regardless of the degree earned, the focus of technical schools are purely technical in nature and will only prepare you to “click and drag”. Since being a graphic designer involves MUCH more than just operating a computer and graphics software in a technically sound manner, it is suggested that anyone who aspires to find entry-level work in the industry as a graphic designer enroll in a school that provides more than just a technical education – one that also focuses a great deal on visual communication, concept development, creativity and typography.
Technical schools are most often selected by people who are already in the industry, but are wanting to brush up on their software/technical skills or as a technical stepping stone to prepare them for advanced learning at another school. It’s important to include that many technical schools do not have the proper accreditation and/or do not have transfer agreements with other schools of higher learning, so check first with the institution you hope to advance to and make sure courses you take at a technical school will transfer if your goals are to move on to another school. Do not be surprised, however if courses you’ve taken won’t transfer. Remember those courses are purely technical and chances are high that just learning “technical stuff” won’t count towards credit at an institution of higher learning due to a mismatch in course content and institutional goals.
It is next to impossible for any designer looking for work in the industry to find work without an exceptional visual portfolio demonstrating skills that go far beyond just computer competency, so tread with caution if you are considering a technical school that boasts you will be able to find work if their degree focus is only technical. Sure, you’ll be able to find work, however probably only as a computer operator and opportunities to advance beyond that in your career will be next to none. It is also important to understand that most often than not, students enrolled in technical schools aren’t creating work that demonstrates enough understanding of visual communication, concept development, creativity and typography to consider putting in their portfolios. A portfolio that merely demonstrates technical/computer skills will not be able to compete against superior portfolios for jobs in the industry requiring more than technical acumen.
A final note of caution: if the program you plan to complete only provides a “Certificate” (regardless of the type of school) upon completion, this is a clear indication that not nearly enough course work in visual communication, typography, creativity and concept development is covered to qualify you for work in the industry. This includes technical certificates awarded by software manufacturers, such as Adobe, for performing well on a technical examination. You will NOT have a visual portfolio that can get you a job upon completion of merely a certificate program.
b. Private Schools that are NATIONALLY accredited offering an array of degrees: Note the emphasis here is on the type of accreditation. Institutions offering graphic design degrees that are not REGIONALLY accredited cannot ensure quality standards of learning are upheld to meet industry and/or educational needs. As a matter of fact, the degrees/courses taken at a private nationally accredited institution, because of their lack of proper accreditation, will not transfer to any public college or university no matter what type of degree you’ve earned.
The degrees earned at a nationally accredited private institution, no matter the level of degree (yes, even if they offer a Master’s or PhD), will also disqualify anyone with hopes of teaching at a public college or university since college professors at regionally accredited schools must have a degree from a school that is also regionally accredited. This doesn’t mean that all teaching is out of the question, however, because degrees from private nationally accredited schools do qualify someone to teach at their own type of school.
These schools, because they are private, charge an exorbitant amount of money to enroll and as a result are able to afford impressively designed and presented marketing collateral, recruitment personnel and learning facilities. You can be assured that the majority of private nationally accredited schools are run much more like a business and much less like an institution of learning. If you’re not planning to teach or to transfer to another school and are unsure of whether the private nationally accredited school you’re interested in will offer you the type of education you’re hoping will help you find work in the industry, consider some of the other points mentioned later in this blog posting before deciding. It is safe to say, however that red flags that indicate the institution is more concerned with their ROI and less concerned with your educational goals are: 1. aggressive marketing, 2. aggressive recruitment, 3. cost that doesn’t fit into the formula mentioned in Step 4 below, 4. recruiters that drive expensive cars and educators that don’t, 5. lack of student work samples available for the public to view that isn’t on some sort of marketing collateral, 6. insufficient accreditation, and 7. a reputation among local hiring professionals that is negative.
c. Community Colleges: Under many situations, this type of school would be lumped into the “Technical Schools” category simply because the degrees they provide are only 2-Year AS Degrees. Surprisingly, however, many of these programs are designed well enough to provide an education that is more like a 4-Year College or University in terms of the quality of industry-focused courses provided. This is mostly due to Community Colleges having the proper regional accreditation as well as regular oversight from industry professionals ensuring students are receiving a good education.
Since the degrees offered at Community Colleges are AS Degrees (focusing primarily on job readiness), you can expect the program to match personal goals to find work in the industry upon graduation. Caution must be applied when selecting the right Community College, however, as many of the AS Degrees in Graphic Design at these type of schools might only provide a technical education if they have the wrong industry guidance regarding what is necessary for graduates to compete for jobs. Remember, it’s the degree to which a graduate demonstrates visual communication, concept development, creativity and typography in his/her portfolio that ensures they can compete in the industry — not the degree itself and certainly not simply savvy computer skills. More often than not, Community Colleges fall short of truly preparing students beyond a technical level, so it’s very important to research a Community College graphics program by viewing student work samples and asking local hiring professionals regarding the quality of the graduates. This will help you know in advance whether or not the program is focused too heavily on the technical aspects of design.
The great news about learning at a Community College is they tend to cost significantly less than any other type of school and, because of their regional accreditation, many courses transfer to 4-Year schools. This cost-saving aspect is often why students begin their coursework at a Community College with the primary goal of transferring to a 4-Year program. Also, if they have a well designed program with talented faculty who don’t just focus on the technical aspects of design you can be assured a great deal of exposure towards industry expectations and ample opportunity to design work that demonstrates those essential visual and conceptual skills needed to compete for jobs. Another great thing about the Community College environment, is you can expect to have exposure to educators who aren’t just professional educators, but are teaching part-time while working full-time in the industry. These are the same people who are out there doing the hiring and who understand just what type of preparation is needed to help their students compete. Not only that, but having exposure to industry professionals will also ensure the fundamental aspects of being a strong visual communicator are not just taught in theory, but are also connected to how they can be successfully applied to the ‘real world’ of design. Do keep in mind, however, that “industry professional” doesn’t always equal “great educator”, so quickly adapting to a vast variety of teaching styles and flaws is expected.
What you save in money, however, expect to pay with your time. Since these are 2-Year programs meant to prepare students for work, you can expect a well designed program to be very intense and focus primarily on industry coursework and less on general education requirements. They do, in fact, only have two short years to get their students well enough prepared to compete against students graduating at the same time with four years worth of study behind them, so there is no room to waste time on course content that strays too far from that goal. Word of caution, a good Community College will provide curriculum and coursework that is extremely intense with a workload that can often be overwhelming due to the 2-Year nature of the program. Full time students can expect to spend anywhere between 24 to 40 hours per weeks just doing homework outside of class. With this in mind, students who plan on working while going to school are recommended to only work part-time to ensure enough time is set aside to learn and apply learning on a deep enough level to produce quality work. Too little time spent applying concepts learned on projects and assignments will equate to less visual maturity (especially in competing for jobs against graduates who’ve had four years to develop), a weak visual portfolio upon graduation and a less likelihood of competing against fellow graduates for industry work.
For AS Degree graduates who have put in their time in a high-quality Community College graphics program and have matured to impressive visual communicators, don’t be too concerned if the job descriptions you’re reading for entry-level Graphic Designers state “Bachelor’s Degree Required”. Really, what they’re wanting is to only encourage job candidates with the necessary visual, conceptual and technical skills to apply. Unfortunately, since many schools only offering AS Degrees have weak programs (and therefore weak graduates), it is not uncommon to be up against a negative stigma that has developed in many regions in the United States that don’t have exposure to a strong Community College Graphic Design Program or who are unaware of the impressive reputation some Community Colleges have earned elsewhere in the country. With this in mind, it is even more so important for graduates of Community College Graphic Design Programs to develop their self-promotional material, resume and portfolio in such a way to educate hiring professionals regarding the quality of their work and the education received regardless of the type of degree. No pressure.
d. Public 4-Year Colleges/Universities and Private REGIONALLY Accredited Design Schools: 4-Year schools (public or private with proper REGIONAL accreditation) offering Bachelor’s Degrees and Master’s Degrees in Graphic Design-related fields are the type most often referred to as required in job descriptions. Just with other types of schools already mentioned, the schools within these categories also have their pros and cons and also require research on behalf of the degree-seeking candidate prior to enrollment regarding the quality of the program, degree emphasis and institutional goals. As you might guess, if you’ve read this far, not all schools are created equal and not all schools provide the same learning opportunities due to differing institutional goals regarding graduates, design of the program, cost and quality of the faculty.
Although most students with Bachelor’s Degrees from a College or University find entry-level work, it is not uncommon to come across reputable institutions in this category who’s graduates don’t compete well for jobs. This is often due to the institutional goals having a “research” focus (expect a lot of course content focused on theory, history and fine art) as opposed to an “employment” focus (hands-on, employability skills, project oriented, technical). This is a good thing for students who, instead of having a primary goal to work in the industry, instead aspire to be innovators, researchers or educators — something this world is always in need of. This is bad news for students who incorrectly assumed the institutional focus was to prepare them for working in the industry. It is not uncommon to witness graduates from research-focused schools complaining of a disconnect between program study and what is actually expected of them as they try to find work in the industry. This, of course, is not the institution’s fault because they have maintained their institutional goals to be research-focused, it is the student’s fault for assuming the institution’s educational goals was to prepare them for work in the industry. Remember, Step 1 above is to make sure your educational goals match those of the institution prior to selecting a school.
Faculty at 4-Year Colleges and Universities more often than not are research-focused themselves with little industry experience. Expect to learn a great deal from them about important typographic, visual and conceptual communication concepts because they tend to be the better educators in that regard. Be aware this might mean what you learn from them isn’t taught in a way that applies to the industry because it’s possible they really don’t know how it applies. Note that “great educator” doesn’t always equal “industry professional”, so it’s often left to the student to figure out a way to connect course content to how it applies towards industry expectations. This can be challenging for most students since they haven’t had enough exposure to industry expectations to be capable of making these important connections on their own.
The only type of 4-Year Bachelor’s program that warrants caution is they type that only offers a Bachelor of Arts/Fine Arts with merely a “Studio Art” focus. This is because there is too little coursework required that is graphics industry-focused, giving students inadequate opportunities to master any aspect of the graphic design industry. This also means a “Studio Art” degree won’t provide enough opportunities to adequately develop a competitive visual portfolio. If you’re unsure if the curriculum for the various schools offering Bachelor’s Degrees will provide adequate opportunities for your portfolio, just count up the total number of courses required that are specifically design-related. Ideally, the coursework for a Bachelor’s Degree in design will be approximately half of the total number of classes you’re required to take.
The cost for these type of schools will vary depending on whether or not they are public or private and whether or not you qualify for in-state tuition rates. More will be discussed regarding cost of schools in Step 4 below.
Step 3: Determine if location is important
In the case where you live in a region or state that lacks a reputable program that meets your educational goals it is highly recommend, instead of just picking the closest program, you pursue enrollment in a program elsewhere. Whatever you do, don’t select a program simply because it’s nearby if the program isn’t matching your goals or doesn’t provide a strong learning opportunity for you. Although the convenience will certainly be irresistible, it will prove to be disappointing in terms of time and money invested towards an education you feel is useless when the time comes for you to need it. It’s mentioned in Step 4 below, however; you will need to be aware of what the cost implications are if relocating.
As of the date of this posting, there is one school that is working hard to transcend location by offering a strong program purely online. Note, there’s only ONE program that has been able to do this successfully for a program of study, such as graphic design, that is visual and often tactile in nature. In case you’re wondering, the school I’m referring to is SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) which is a private properly accredited art and design school that comes with a pretty hefty price tag. Not a single school offering a graphic design degree online (other than SCAD) as of this posting has a strong enough, reputable enough or well enough accredited program for me to consider recommending. Online degree programs are NOT for everyone, so it’s important you know well enough in advance if you are disciplined enough and already possess strong enough independent learning skills to learn in that type of environment.
Related to location, however, I’ll touch upon how in-state and out-of-state tuition ought to be a consideration when it comes to the cost for a higher education in graphic design in the next step below.
Step 4: Weigh the cost/benefit
All across the nation, more and more people are understanding the importance of a higher education when it comes to reaching career goals and earning a living. The same financial opportunities exist today, however, just as they always have for low-income earners, so finances alone should not necessarily be the sole factor in determining if you seek a college education. Believe it or not, there might even be more opportunities than ever before for low-interest student loans, scholarships, grants and part-time employment while attending school to help pay for the cost. This ought to be very encouraging for those of you who have financial challenges you feel might interfere with your ability to go to college. No matter how rough your financial situation is, affording college will take proper personal financial planning, a TON of paperwork to apply for aid and possibly part-time or full-time work with a part-time school schedule. It is not recommended any student consider a full-time school workload if he/she is also working full-time… rushing through your graphic design education for financial reasons will only hurt your job prospects if your visual portfolio only demonstrates what “you have time to do” versus what you’re truly capable of doing. It’s the tortoise in this case that will win, not the hare.
There are many additional costs that ought to be planned for beyond tuition you can expect when selecting a school. There’s housing, transportation, food, books, supplies, fees and no doubt other things I can’t even come up with right now. Don’t forget to plan those items into your cost equation. Make sure you fully research whether the school you’ve chosen is primarily a commuter school with no housing facilities or whether or not they provide dorms to students at an additional cost. Each of those scenarios will also have to be weighed in the context of transportation considering students who are staying in campus housing will have very low transportation costs, while those who have to commute to school will probably have lower housing but higher transportation costs.
Regardless of whether or not you have any financial concerns, the cost of higher education at some schools can be set way too high considering a major in graphic design. My favorite radio/tv talk show host, Dave Ramsey, provides financial advise as it relates to the cost of a higher education I’ve always felt just hits the nail on the head. In a nutshell, he counsels parents and students to only pay a price for higher education that is equal to or less than what you will be making in your field upon graduation. So if you expect to be making around $30,000 your first year employed as a graphic designer, which is a pretty average estimate nationally, then the cost for your degree should be that amount or less. Yes, even if Harvard had the best design school in the nation (costing approximately $55,000 per year!), it would not be worth what they charge to earn their Bachelor’s in Graphic Design unless you could expect to make $200,000+ right out of school being a graphic designer. Dave Ramsey also provides additional college-related spending advice that I have come to respect and admire over the years you should also take into consideration: http://www.daveramsey.com/articles/article-list/category/100374/
It is common practice for pretty much any type of school to charge three or four times the amount of tuition for students who are enrolling from out-of-state. This is certainly a cost consideration that needs to be factored into whether or not the cost benefit of a higher education in graphic design is within the range mentioned above. The cost of education CAN actually be rather low if you’re fortunate enough to be residing in a state that has a reputable graphic design program at a state college or university. Whatever you do, don’t assume that the program isn’t strong simply because it cost less! A great example of this is Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the most reputable schools in the nation for their arts and graphic design programs. It would seem silly if anyone living in the state of Virginia were to pay three times the tuition cost to attend a graphic design program outside of the state, when a phenomenal education can be obtained at the low in-state tuition price!
Spending more on your graphic design education will not earn you a higher paying graphic design job your first year out. And Remember to also consider Step 3 above (Determine if Location is Important), when doing your financial planning as well. You don’t want to make the mistake of selecting the wrong school for you simply because they’re the cheapest and closest guys in town. Steps 1 and 2 are more important determining factors.
If you’re needing to research what graphics designers are making these days, AQUENT and AIGA partner together each year to bring to you The AIGA/AQUENT Survey of Design Salaries.
Step 5: Select your school and enroll
Lets say you read this entire post and you’re still considering selecting the wrong school for the wrong reasons. All I can do is share this one final thought with you all: It saddens me every semester to hear stories from students who had selected the wrong school first, graduate and cannot find work, have weak visual portfolios, cannot transfer their credits, have accumulated $85,000+ in student loan debt and who have wasted years of their life earning a degree they find useless. It saddens me because there is no advice I can give and no magic wand I can wave that will qualify them for work, give them their time back or pay off their debt. Please, accept the advice in this blog posting openly if you happen to read it BEFORE you choose a graphic design school because once you’ve made that very important life decision, there’s not much more any of us can do if you make the wrong choice for the wrong reasons.