Should I go to school for Graphic Design?

This started as a FAQ answer but quickly developed into a larger post. It is a question that leads to more questions. The original query:

Should I go to design school? Is design school worth it?

These ideas lead to many related and also bigger questions:

Is college worth it?
Will my design job pay for my design education?
Can I find a job as a graphic designer?
Why be a graphic designer?
How to be a graphic designer?
Online versus Offline education?

I am going to touch on many of these while totally avoiding Why be a Graphic Designer. It deserves a treatise of its own, that I will address at another time.

Where to start?

In the beginning and with a caveat. Not everyone can or should go to school. Whether it be aptitude, attitude or finances, it is not always a good choice. That certainly does not preclude one from being or doing anything they choose, it only means you need to find another path. Some people are not good students and have trouble succeeding in a classroom environment. Some students don’t have the aptitude and will drop out. On the other hand, a 4-year college degree is not necessary for all vocations. A 2 year or specialty school may be a better option or alternatively a formal apprenticeship.

Even for the best students, going to school with no idea what your interests or professional aspirations can put one in a bad place. Choosing a major that doesn’t directly lead to a job is also a problem. College for whatever reason is not for everyone. For some students, it is a question of timing and for others, the question is should I be a student? Only you can honestly answer that, is college for you?

Should I go to design school?

On to the big question, Should I go to design school? As opposed to doing what? Learning on your own? Is design school worth it? Again, what are the other options? “Worth it” compared to what, alternative degree programs? These questions need context. I plan on either going to school or working at a gas station. I vote for the former.

You have options

Is your goal to be a graphic designer, and you are asking the best path to get there? In that case, you have options that may or may not involve design school.

What are the options?

1. Get an entry level position/internship, learn on the job and work your way up.
2. Teach yourself with books and online resources.
3. Portfolio/Ad school
4. Non-design related degree and some version of option 1
5. Freelance/learn as you go.
6. Online classes
7. 2-year design program
8. 4-year design program

That seems like a reasonable amount of choices, but we still need more context than “I want to be a graphic designer.”

What kind of graphic design career do you want? If you can’t answer that easily, stop reading and go do a little research. It is necessary to have fully formed aspirations, with realistic expectations of what daily routines and duties include. For example if “any job” as long as it “kinda creative” is good enough, then we can stop now, don’t go to a 4 year school, but if “creative director” sounds like a fit, you can plan the steps to get there, and they probably include some formal training.

Get an entry level position/internship, learn on the job

Number 1 is certainly viable if you work hard and have good luck with timing and live in an area with many opportunities, but you will probably be competing with people who have a 2-year degree, and they have an advantage. In fact, applicants with any degree may have an edge over you. You may need some basic skills, with image manipulation and/or layout software. The opportunities for advancement may be limited or nonexistent without additional education or training, but a path here for people who want a creative-type job.

This is an occasion where you might consider disregarding the job requirements. Ultimately the goal of the process is to prove you can do the job, for your potential employer to imagine you in the position. Lower level positions often have a little more flexibility in strictly respecting the requirements. Of course, I am speaking in generalities, and many places will tell you to hit the road, but the other places…

Teach yourself with books and online resources

DIY. This is the dream. The resources to do this are endless. It is entirely feasible that you could teach yourself everything necessary to be a successful graphic designer, and many people have. It also requires a ton of self-discipline, organization, and passion. If you are a person that procrastinates or needs structure you will fail on this path. Buying books and watching videos is not enough. You will need to put in the work, a lot of work, by yourself, when no one is watching. This choice can be fun and extremely rewarding, but you need, to be honest with yourself. Are you up to it?

Ironically when you are doing-it-yourself you are going to need a little help. You need to find a way to get feedback, some mentoring. Ideally, it is one person who can give you feedback over a long period and not only critique isolated projects. Someone who can see that over the past six months your typography has not improved and needs some attention.

But I am still concerned that the money I’m spending on a degree in graphic design will ultimately go to waste..

You may be the exception, but generally a self-taught designer, through videos and tutorials, will not be as good a designer as one who graduated from an average graphic design program. Your proficiency with software and tools may be sufficient, but your other skills will be lacking. How important are those other skills? It depends on the job you hope for and what your personal aspirations are.

Portfolio/Ad school

If you asked the question “Is design school worth it?” you are concerned about value, return on your investment of time and money. In that context number 3, portfolio school is probably out. The cost is generally high and you don’t get a degree, so there is increased risk as you are relying solely on a portfolio and networking. It is a viable and proven path to get a job. If money is not a concern and all that matters is a job in the field, this may be the straightest path from A to B.

Non-design related degree and some version of option 1

I don’t hate this idea. Many disciplines are related to graphic design and are immediately transferable. The position you are looking for would matter greatly. For example, your psychology degree is not immediately useful for an entry level position in a big firm, but it is better than starting at zero. Writing and communication skills will always be valuable and transferable.

Freelance/learn as you go

Jump in the deep end. This is not for the faint of heart, freelancing is not easy. This is essentially the DIY option with the added pressure of needing to immediately make a living. Some people flourish under pressure and this may be a reasonable option for them. If life and procrastination keep you from learning on your own the pressure of not eating may change your behavior. For the majority this is the is the most least-best option.

Online Classes

This option is so close to being really good and viable. You get a little bit of the good stuff, but not quite enough. For example, you might get to see a variety of solutions from your classmates, but you, not the process. If you are a person that needs structure, this is a better direction than learning individually. Schedule flexibility also makes this an attractive option. All programs are not created equal, making research into value and credibility vital. We haven’t reached the point where this competes with an on-campus education, but for the right person and situation, this can be a fit.

2-year design program

A 2-year degree program. This is can be a half-measure, an exploratory option. Not quite the financial or time commitment of a 4-year degree, but if you are a little bit of a self-starter you can get a lot out of it. It is a vocational degree. It can also have schedule flexibility. You will learn enough to get an entry-level job. You will learn more tools than theory. Realistically though you will have what looks like a 2-year school portfolio. It is a great place to start, and if you love it you can go on and get a 4-year degree.

If you are unsure, my best advice is to take a class or two at a community college. Get your feet wet. It is good value and you can make assessments as you go. It leaves all the options open without over committing in any one direction.

4-year design program

Caution: This section contains an inordinate number of cliches, it was unavoidable.

Is a 4-year degree worth the money? This option opens up possibilities and positions that are closed or difficult with other paths. For example, the path to creative directive is more streamlined with a 4-year degree. The evidence is overwhelming that overall, across all disciplines and demographics, having a degree is better for your long-term financial success than not having one. But is that true for graphic design where alternate paths are possible?

Isn’t a portfolio all that matters? You will hear that refrain ad nauseam. There is truth in that. But a portfolio is about more than the work, it is about your process and ability to speak about and justify your choices. Your ability to communicate with colleagues as well as clients. Someone who has been defending their works in a college setting will be better prepared for those situations. College prepares you better for that than a DIY type thingy.

It is not exactly a one-to-one analogy but consider another profession. If you compare a carpenter who has been an apprentice for four years and a person who spent the same four years learning from youtube videos you get two different outcomes. They may share some of the same basic skills, but due to the training and experience, the apprentice will be a more fully formed carpenter.

There is no replacement for learning from and working with other designers. There is no replacement for group critiques. There is no replacement for hanging out with your classmates after-hours in the computer lab or studio rushing to meet a deadline.

Two cliches are true and matter regardless of how trite they sound.

  • You need to learn how to learn and a good school, a good design program will teach you that.
  • College is a great place to start to understand what you don’t know, a great place to get a sense of just how big the world is and how little you actually know.

Some more reasons

Professional reasons

  • easier to find a job/placement assistance
  • make more out of the gate
  • portfolio and professional practice training
  • internships and portfolio reviews
  • networking
  • clubs and professional organizations
  • exposure to others ideas and process makes you a better designer.
  • expose yourself to other possibilities you may never have considered. you may start on the path to being a graphic designer and realize you want to teach or some other job you never knew existed.

Nonprofessional reasons

  • Professors, resources, libraries, technology, guest speakers, etc.
  • music, plays, presentations, etc
  • going to college helps you grow as a person
  • you are exposed to new ideas, people
  • make friends
  • you learn about topics that you would not teach yourself
  • the college provides an opportunity explore other interests in a structured way
  • you learn a lot at school. Not just about design but about all kinds of things you could never imagine. You have choices of what to learn.

Will all stuff make you a better designer? On average, yes it will. Are the exceptions, successful designers who took another path? Yes, of course, this is the best bet.

One more thing

Attending is not enough. You need to take full advantage of the situation. Engage with teachers, other students, and the community. Never do the minimum, always go above and beyond. It is not a thing you “get through” it is an opportunity take advantage of.


Disclaimer. I am biased. I believe smarter is better, more knowledge is better and the best delivery system we have for that is college.

Each path will leave with gaps in your education. There are going to be more gaps when you DIY it and college will prepare with more skills to fill in those gaps, and even tell you what those gaps are.

I worked with individuals with developmental disabilities for almost a decade. When my father became sick with Alzheimer’s 10 years later those skills and strategies I learned became invaluable in caring for him. Those skills and training were unplanned but transferable and made a difficult time tolerable.

You can’t anticipate when you will need to apply your knowledge. I didn’t learn those skills in school, but college is the most efficient knowledge delivery system we have. You can’t plan when skills and knowledge will be useful, but you can plan to have diverse and useful knowledge. You have options to get smarter, the best system we have now is college, despite its many flaws. When we develop a better way, I’ll be advocating for that.

If money is the only thing that matters and all other things are equal, then design school is not worth it. Should I go to design school? Yes, absolutely, because money is not the only thing that matters.

We have a big list of graphic design programs here.