Should I go back to school or continue gaining experience in the field? In part one of this interview series, I spoke with Taurean who worked in the field as a designer for about five years, before returning to school at Ohio State University to pursue a master’s degree in design development.
Now I will switch gears and feature a conversation I had with Zak, who came to graphic design via a more non-traditional path. With an undergrad degree in writing, Zak worked as a marketer and SEO specialist for several years. He is a mostly self-taught designer and although he sometimes considers returning to school, he is currently pursuing graphic and web design full time, working for more experienced designers to build up his portfolio and skills.
PsPrint: How did you get started in the world of graphic design?
Zak: There were little elements of graphic and web design involved in working at my various marketing gigs. Things like brochure design, layout and graphics with little bits of HTML here and there. I realized that those hours were always the best part of my day. Discovering all the amazing things you can do in Photoshop was really a revelation for me. I remember the first time I realized you could resize images and layer them by clicking and dragging — it nearly blew my mind!
PsPrint: Aside from print design, do you also do website development?
Zak: Yes, I actually consider myself a web designer first. Pure graphic design for print is great, but I love all the steps from wire-framing and laying out a website all the way through to doing the graphics and code. It's equal parts creative and technical, and I'm always learning new things on both ends. I think I'm definitely more marketable for having those skills. I also did some years in public relations, web marketing and SEO, and it always helps to bring those kinds of extra skills to the table.
PsPrint: What was the hardest part about breaking into the design profession?
Zak: The hardest thing was finding someone to give me a chance. I learned the software and the code writing over a long period of time at other jobs and on my own time, but a lot of web design shops want someone with "x" years of experience, and I didn't have that, at least not officially. I'm eternally loyal to the first guy who gave me a shot. I hope to give someone else that shot some day.
PsPrint: What are some resources that have been vital to you learning the industry?
Zak: W3CSchools was like the bible for me when I was teaching myself to write code and do CSS. It's free, and it's awesome. I still refer back to it frequently. In terms of developing design chops, that's still something I'm learning, and I hope to be for a long time. The world is filled with good design, so I'm constantly looking around and taking pictures of things I like to refer back to. My wife has a background in art, and she also has been an invaluable resource.
I also owe everything I know about being a design professional to my current and former employers. During my first two months working at a real web design shop, I learned so much that it makes me dizzy. If I compare what I knew walking in the door that first day to what I know now, it's like I'm not even the same person anymore
PsPrint: Did you ever consider going to graduate school for design, or are you still considering graduate school?
Zak: I did consider going to school. Going to graduate school, especially a well-known one, you'll probably set yourself up nicely in terms of contacts and having the pedigree. But I decided rather then pay someone a ton of money for that degree, I'd go out there and find the knowledge myself. It won't be the same for everyone, but I have a great boss who was willing to direct my learning and buy me books. I'm very glad I decided to jump right in as opposed to going to school. I'm definitely not as polished a designer as a lot of people out there, but I love where I'm at and what I'm doing, and if I can continue on this course, I will. I am considering auditing a few classes to sharpen up on some design concepts, especially in terms of learning the design vocabulary that I missed out on from a formal studio education.
PsPrint: What types of graduate degree programs would you consider?
Zak: It seems like the exact degree program I want isn't out there. A lot of web design programs are either heavy on art and light on computer science or vice versa. I wish there was a program out there for people who want to be equally proficient at both. I want to master both sides of it, to design and develop web applications that both look and function beautifully.
PsPrint: Do you think design clients and employers are looking for work experience, graduate level study, or both?
Zak: They're most interested in a strong portfolio. Once you're past your first job, where you went to school becomes less important. I think that applies across most, if not all types of employment. You prove yourself by what you've done, not where you went.
PsPrint: What advice would you pass on to aspiring graphic and web designers?
Zak: If you really want to learn something, you don't have to pay someone to teach you it. I The sum of human knowledge is available at your fingertips. Also, give out a lot of business cards and talk to people all over the place about what you do. Being able to schmooze a stranger will take you a long way. Word of mouth is great. You can't throw a rock without hitting someone who wants a new website these days.
PsPrint: Do you have anything to add that you think will be helpful to other designers out there?
Zak: I'm gonna quote Bodie from “The Wire” here: "Do what you feel, but be ready to finish what you start."