Do graphic designers need a degree? Cherry Sorbet Creative founder Jo Gifford recently posed the question along with a poll on GraphicDesign.com, and the results indicate a near 50-50 split in respondent opinion. Half of the respondents believe that a formal education offers graphic designers a solid foundation in design theory while creating instant career options. The other half believes graphic designers can educate themselves to develop a skill set that is every bit as impressive as a degreed designer’s.
I agree with the latter half. While I have no doubt that a formal education can mold excellent graphic designers, the real measure of one’s ability is, well, one’s ability. At the end of the day, a graphic designer is only as good as the effort they’ve put in to being good at what they do. Who can argue that a self-educated designer can be infinitely more talented than a C-average slacker who attended just enough classes between frat parties to land a college degree?
There is no shortage of paid and free online resources for learning design theory, gaining design inspiration, being an active member of the design community, and learning the tools of the trade (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.). I’ll go so far as to say that some of these resources rival or are even more robust than formal classes held by universities, online and off.
Another important factor to consider is creative liberty. Understanding design theory lends a great foundation, but being driven to follow any type of specific, standard mold hinders creativity and design innovation. Graphic designers set themselves apart not by doing what everyone else does, but by crafting their own style. A unique design style creates the kind of demand that can only be fulfilled by the sole designer who is responsible for it. And that’s money in the bank.
How does a graphic designer measure one’s own success? Recognition or revenue? The two are intertwined, absolutely; but graphic design is a job, first and foremost, the goal of which is to generate the income necessary for survival, comfort and entertainment. Reputation is secondary, and carries more weight via professional experience versus college coursework.
There are plenty of graphic designers who do not have college degrees yet earn outstanding incomes. That fact alone proves that a design degree is not necessary. Gifford brings up another important metric: the cost of college tuition. She says that while a college degree is often considered a “free pass” into a design job, skyrocketing costs make earning a degree prohibitive for many. Once an important career investment, now a design degree is just another bill to deal with when budding designers are forging their career paths.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that subjectivity means that as long as clients are willing to pay graphic designers based on the merits of their work, the necessity for a design degree will decline. I don’t question the value of graphic design education; but I do question whether it must be earned from formal institutions.
One last point: it’s interesting to note that Gifford’s poll was posted on a community for graphic designers, but the reality is that the collective opinion of the graphic design community is irrelevant. What really matters is what clients think, so it would be infinitely more telling to see the results of an identical poll answered by the business community.
What do you think? Do graphic designers need degrees? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.