Be Free, Lance : Should You Go To School? | By Breanna Rose

I have received a lot of emails from creatives inquiring about how important a degree in their particular field is in order to start their own business. And my answer … well, it’s complicated. But since it’s such a hot topic nowadays, I figured I would open it up for discussion here on the Be Free, Lance column. I will of course give my own thoughts and opinions, but encourage you all to voice yours in the comments below as well. The more the merrier! After all, there truly are a lot of options here.

After much reflection, I can confidently say that I would NOT be where I am today without my time in design school. Throughout my four years in school, not only did we endlessly learn the basics – but our program was tailored to be very innovative as well. We were always encouraged to think outside of the box and make everything feel as “real world like” as possible. Plus, critiques came about so often that we became accustomed to giving + receiving constructive feedback on the daily. And finally, in order to receive my degree, I had to present my entire final portfolio to three chair members of the program, three times over. Without all of this, I’m honestly not sure I would have felt as confident going out on my own path like I did. Design school, in my opinion, is invaluable. But here’s the thing – my story doesn’t have to be your story.

Thanks to technology and countless other resources, creatives can now head down so many unique routes in order to learn their craft. With different lifestyles and busy schedules, it’s important to figure out what is best for YOU. In my case, I had always known that I wanted to go to college directly after highschool, so that’s exactly what happened. Other options include part-time college ( while balancing other things like jobs + family ), night classes, and online courses. And hey, maybe it’s a combo of those things.

The main thing I wanted to make sure I expressed today was the undeniable value of learning. We aren’t born masters of our chosen field. And if we don’t absorb information and learn from others, there isn’t as much room to grow and continually get better. Choose your path and decide how you believe you’ll best benefit from learning. Whether it’s through a four year program or not, the dedication you put into it is the most important part of all. Dig in.

  1. I love that you are addressing this topic! I know there are plenty of “self-schooled” individuals out there, and I think that’s fantastic. I find I benefit most when I have the guidance from a teacher to steer me, especially when it comes to the technical aspect. I am currently enrolled in a graphic design certificate program to switch careers – I will most likely not complete a full degree, as I already have two of those in fine art and interior design. The design concepts and aesthetics I have, it’s the technical knowledge I need. And I just get too confused and discouraged when I try to teach myself from the very get go.

  2. Great topic. I couldn’t imagine not having gone to design school, for similar reasons to yours. However, there are people out there killing it who didn’t take a single class! I think it’s just a matter of dedication and perseverance, however you get there :)

  3. I used to think going to school for design was entirely pointless since I was already working successfully on my own as a freelance designer. But now I totally echo your thoughts. Even though there’s a plethora of resources out there online, I don’t think I would have sought out the type of knowledge I gained in school if I were left to my own devices. Class projects also exposed me to certain design mediums I probably wouldn’t have otherwise explored (packaging design, book design, to name a few). And nothing compares to the type of growth that comes from the constant critiquing process. Can’t say I would have grown nearly as much as a design if I didn’t have that type of immediate feedback.

  4. I agree with you. I really believe someone can do whatever they want without going to school. But then I think, I loved so much my 4 years of school, everything that I learned, all the teachers that shared their knownledge, all the friends that I’ve made, all the nights I’ve spent awake trying to do my best.
    I’m not saying they can’t be as good as someone who went to school or even better, but they would just miss all of this amazing experience.

  5. Ben Johnson says:

    Hey, I think you make some valid points and I would totally agree with you. Everyone has their own path and you need to pick whats best for you. I wouldn’t be where I am at today without my time at school. There are times where I think I could be farther along in my career if I had gone a different route but that would mean my life now would be completely different. I love my life and wouldn’t want that to change. There are many people I know who didn’t go to school or didn’t finish and are doing great and I am happy for them. They have their path and I have mine. I would like to say, that my school experience wasn’t great. I don’t feel like I learned what I needed to or was equipped for life after college. But I will say that the experiences and people that I met in school have helped me get to where I am at today. For me, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

  6. Nesha says:

    I really love that you’ve bought up this topic, everything you said was spot on. I’m self-taught; I didn’t leave school with the circumstances to pursue higher education. I took up a part time job in retail straight from school so I could support myself, and felt for a long time that I’d never be able to do what I loved and work for myself. But I worked hard at teaching myself, I worked with other designers, I took part-time courses and online courses, I read books, and now I do work for myself! I do wish I’d been able to go to design school, but ah well! The experiences I’ve gained without schooling is something I would never trade.

    • Amanda says:

      It’s great hearing that someone can be successful without going to school. I got a degree in Communications but I love design. I always get worried when the topic of “Everyone can be a designer now…with photoshop and what not…” But I’ve received lots of feedback from clients that they love the work…so I am going to just focus on that. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Alecia says:

    yeah I have to say everyone has their own path to learning. Mine just didn’t happen to include a 4 year college degree. I think the person needs to decider for his/her self what is best for their circumstances and goals.

    • Erin Haslag says:

      Alecia – love learning this about you! I totally thought you were!

      I’m not a designer by way of education; my background is psychology and systems development but I couldn’t shake the desire to design, even though I spent waaaaaaaaay too much money on grad programs that were unrelated to design. Agreeing with Breanna – the value in the education was in learning. I’m mastering the technical skills along the way and continuing to learn as I go. I think what attracts so many people to design as a career (or hobby) is the continued room to grow and learn. The abundance of challenge and learning how to creatively approach those challenges keeps me engaged and excited to be in this field (even if it wasn’t where I saw myself 7 years ago!).

  8. Anna says:

    A topic close to my heart! (And I’m pretty sure I asked you this very question about a year ago!) I recently returned to school for a graphic design certificate program and now that I’m a couple months in, I know that there is absolutely no way I could achieve this quality of learning on my own. School provides me with a safe place to experiment, practice and most importantly – fail. Plus, the community of like-minded designers pushes me to be better everyday. I believe that school would be beneficial for most individuals, but the type of program depends on your current understanding of design and where you are in life. If you have the time and can afford a four-year degree, great! If not, a few continuing education classes can go a long way too!

  9. Angel Y. says:

    I hope everyone has the opportunity to find out what works for them! What I love about good design programs is how they focus on the basics and those things remain engraved in your brain throughout your design career. I am self-taught and that was the best route for me. I’d love to sit in on a design class one day just to see what goes on in school. I also think everyone, no matter what route you go, should always be practicing and always be learning new things because the industry changes so often!

  10. kathleen says:

    Great topic. This is very relevant to my situation.

    I have decided to switch careers after I already had my Bachelor’s. I have an English degree and not many of the options there appeal to me – I tried teaching for a few years. I took a design class over the summer and just loved it. My local community college has a decent program (awesome for a CC) and so I am planning to just get my Associate’s. Through it I have access to lynda.com and other resources and I just intend on learning as much as possible, in and out of class. I am reluctant to get another bachelor’s because I am already living with my parents and and don’t need to be more in debt.

    Hopefully when I finish my associate’s I can get a job and learn on the job. My eventual goal is to be self employed, but I want to have work experience to gain more confidence in my design skills before going solo.

    • Kelly Brito says:

      Hey Kathleen! Same story here… English/Portuguese major. I worked as teacher for a few years, but just wasn’t for me. After stumbling (and enjoying other professions and courses), I decided to dedicate myself to the things I love the most: design and photography.

  11. Clarsisa says:

    I love this so much. I reflect on whether or not my time in schooling was worth it, but it definitely was. :)

  12. Jensen says:

    I did a four year program and think it was super beneficial. Like others who commented, I enjoy the classroom setting and found that to be super valuable to my learning. My program was also super flexible, so I got to take a lot of courses outside of the design department, which I think is super important for anyone, really. And if nothing else, the friends that I made in school are well worth all the time + effort it takes to get a degree.

    That said, I don’t think college is the end all, be all. As long as you’re putting yourself out there and learning and finding community you will be golden, no matter what that looks like for you.

  13. Mara says:

    Love this topic!

    I have two four year degrees in Advertising and Writing which means I skirted the very edge of graphic design in college and when I realized it was what I actually wanted to do I was a senior in my last semester at college! Sometimes I crave what my peers learned by following a pure graphic design schooling instead of teaching themselves illustrator in their dorm room late at night, but I didn’t even know the wonders of design.

    Maybe more schooling will be in my future! We shall see!

  14. Sarah says:

    I feel lucky to have chosen graphic design as a career the first time around, I know there are many out there who come to it later (or something else that they love). I would not take back my experience of design school, but I think there’s a new wave of education options on the horizon. Classes like Alt, Skillshare, and various other online courses, are so attainable and affordable. It might not take the place of a degree entirely, but it’s awesome that you can supplement or continue your education so easily.

  15. Saskia says:

    Thanks for posting, Bre. I don’t come from a formal design background and taught myself the basics on my own. Though I think official schooling in design would have absolutely helped my career, I was able to start up a small freelance graphic design endeavor on my own. I’m currently obtaining a master’s degree in technology, innovation, and education, and now more than ever before believe in the power of online access to knowledge. Because of the internet, way we learn is changing drastically, and the way potential employers view academic and/or training backgrounds is also shifting. We’re beginning to enter into a world where having a formal degree in a field is less relevant than having practice and skills in that field (unless, of course, you want to teach or study at a formal institution). With online resources like Coursera, Lynda.com, Skillshare, General Assembly, and even YouTube, it’s possible for us to construct our learning entirely online. While I do think there’s much to be learned by studying design at school, I don’t think people need to feel discouraged anymore about not having chosen that path for themselves, given the wealth of alternate learning options that now exist. I certainly don’t!

  16. Josephine says:

    Spending 4 years in design school was the best investment I have ever made time and money wise. I would also recommend getting involved with the American Graphic Artists Guild or, like me, the Graphic Designers of Canada.

  17. alicia says:

    I have a similar experience as you do. I took a pretty condensed program which was four years squished into two. After I graduated I was so ready to be done with school but I also felt like there was so much more I should be learning? Learning never stops, that’s for sure and I’m so thankful for it. I love learning and since I graduated from my Graphic Design program I’ve further developed my skills via evening and weekend (+ online) classes in the web and marketing fields.
    Besides school being valuable for learning the connections and friendships you make with your teachers and fellow classmates are so important too. Certain teachers were a huge inspiration to me and kept pushing me and my skills so far that I sometimes hated them. We learnt about different processes and how to look at our own work critically, as well as how to give other constructive criticism. I had a few really though teachers, I have them to thank for my hard skin. They pushed me and my work to grow in such amazing ways that I didn’t even know was possible.
    As you mentioned too, we also had a huge emphasizm on conceptual work. Work that actually had a solid theme and story behind it, and didn’t just look pretty. Anyone can go to school for six months and take a few classes that teach you to use illustrator, indeisgn and photoshop, but knowing the tools isn’t all that graphic design is.
    Whether you go to school full time or part time, take a two year program of four year program I don’t think it really matters. I do believe that a lot depends on the quality of your program and how much YOU decide to take out of it yourself.

  18. I can also say that I would not be here were it not for my many years at design school, what was priceless was the interaction you got with other like-minded creatives and insight into how other people work. BUT I also did learn A LOT on my own, just by practicing. And I feel like I still have so much to learn!! So, the learning always continues after your degree :)

  19. Irene says:

    Recently, I’ve been struggling with whether to go back to school, so I’m so happy that this topic came up! Breanna your perspective, along with everyone else’s, is super helpful. My story is a little different than most designers. I started off crunching numbers for a living (business major). After some time I realized I wasn’t fulfilled and made the very difficult decision to pursue my passion in art and design. As a current freelancer that didn’t study design, I can say that I’ve managed to grow a pretty successful business — but that wasn’t without struggle. My main struggle was that I didn’t have the time I’d like to experiment, find my style and receive feedback from industry experts. I’m pretty envious of those that discovered their passion early on and had the change to study what they love and build their portfolio. But after a Bachelors and a Master’s degree I just can’t justify the cost of going back to school (time or money)!

    I think the consensus here is that education is an invaluable investment but self-learning is so important too, as long as you’re committed to it! I try to schedule time between project a few days a week to practice new techniques and experiment…browse Pinterest, Reddit, design blogs, whatever it takes!

    I find that the design community is so supportive. There is a wealth of resources online, so if you want to learn and have the passion you can. It just takes time! Breanna, I have to say you’ve been a HUGE part of my journey. It kind of feels like you’ve been coaching me the whole way and I don’t know if I could have made the leap into design without you! :)

  20. Kadie says:

    Beautiful post and so well put. After four years of design school, this is my first year on my own and the thing I have learned the most over the past few months is that I am so not done with my design education! The design world evolves so quickly and there are so many more resources daily being added to the internet, and even to communities through workshops and special skill classes. I’ve been so encouraged to take the time to continue to develop my skill as well as being open to new outlets! There is no better teacher than experience and no better mindset than that of a student. Bravo! Please continue this series, it is always such an amazing resource for me!

    • Kadie says:

      Will you do a post on how you stay organized throughout a project? I tend to stay old school and like to have things written down, but start to get lost when my projects pile up and feedback is coming in from a million directions (not to mention notes from meetings). Have you found a system that works?

    • breanna says:

      That’s a great topic! I think everyone has their own way of staying organized and I may have touched a little bit on it before in the Be Free, Lance archives … but in the future I’ll definitely cover it more comprehensively. xx.

  21. Alexa says:

    Great post! Just wondering- any tips for a wannabe graphic & web designer with little experience for schooling beyond undergrad? I am currently a senior in college major in marketing, but would love to possibly go to art school down the road. I know a decent amount of self taught photoshop and html, but not nearly enough to do it as a profession. The problem is that I don’t know how to get into a master’s program without the undergrad design experience. Would love any tips you may have!!

    • breanna says:

      Hey Alexa, that’s tough! I would say, though, that there are a ton of options for you out there to learn the technical side of things. Skillshare ( online website ) has a bunch of classes and if you browse, you could probably find some great lessons on what you’re looking for. Similarly, there are books beyond books as well as the WHOLE internet full of information, if you want to go the “self taught” way. Otherwise, I would suggest a few classes here or there that could be available to you locally. I’m not really sure how that works and I bet it’s different everywhere, but there have to be options if you do a little research. :)

  22. Shayla says:

    I wrote a blog about this topic awhile back (http://www.designingalifeblog.com/2012/05/degree-or-not-to-degree.html) so it’s nice to read another and hear your thoughts. Though I didn’t go to school for design I spent several years working in marketing and then for an advertising agency where I received invaluable experience and knowledge.

    I agree that everyone’s path is different, not everyone (me for instance) knows what they want to do when attending school and some simply can’t afford it. The key to me is not whether you go to school in the traditional sense but that you take the time to learn which to be honest I don’t always think a lot of people do so I like the different learning tools you suggested on here; Skillshare is one of my favorite online learning tools! http://www.skillshare.com/

  23. I’m a beyond happy that you choose to do an article on this particular topic at this particular moment. I’m really at a time where I’m asking myself so many questions. I started my studies in something that didn’t quite fit me, who I was, or who I wanted to be. An internship in fashion last year made me realize that I wanted to go on a more creative path. And from then, I quit university, to keep on doing internships, in different big brands and in different cities in the hope of one day, getting hired. A lot of people are giving me a disapproving look when I tell them my story because they still consider, mainly in France, that studies are the only way to make it. So I’ll try to prove those people wrong.
    And I can really say that in one year, I learnt so much from so many different people and mediums. I learn a lot from you guys, freelance designers. I follow your blogs, observe, try to reproduce and push my limits and my skills a little bit further. And I also moved to Amsterdam, where the people are more open minded about this topic, in the hope of meeting creatives ones there, and learn more.
    So I would say, the key is your confidence. Whatever you decide what way you’re gonna take. Meeting great people and always have projects, personal or else, just make things! And I’m sure It will do!

  24. Toni says:

    This was super interesting to read. I live and studied in London and wish I had never gone to university. The universities I went to were said to be some of the best in the country, but practical lessons only covered about 3 hours a week. Tutors were stuck up, frustrated creatives and there was a lot of Cultural Studies (history of nothing really) and a good amount of essay writing. Working for a design agency now, as an evening and weekend freelancer as well as having worked as an in house designer for a publishing house over the past six years I feel I would have benefited much more if I had done an apprenticeship at a design agency. Possibly adding a part-time course to hone my creative and out of the box thinking. And of course I would have saved a lot of money over the years ;)

    I am glad to have read your view on things though and to see how things can be so different in another country. Thank you for sharing. xx

  25. maddie says:

    Exactly. Everyone’s journey does not have to be the same. I went to both a “regular” university (University of Miami) as well as art school (SCAD). Both were great schools but in all honesty, I’m not a school type of person. I’ve never had the personality of someone who needs an institution to learn – I can learn on my own. But my life path is different than yours and although your route worked for you, it wouldn’t work for me.

  26. A constant flow of learning, reading and inspiration is how I can call myself a self-taught artists and entrepreneur. If I didn’t have that, I’d probably be working a 9-5 mediocre job. Thanks for sharing your take, I sometimes wish I had the experience of working with a design team, but then again, I do love to work in my own home in my own space :)

  27. This article was so interesting to read! I’m in my senior year in high school and I was actually thinking about all this, my options after high school. For the past years, I’ve been teaching myself design and coding since the day I first started blogging. Now, I have a base yet I’m still guiding myself and learning from the best. All my knowledge mostly comes from the Internet including YouTube videos, written tutorials, blogs and other media. I love learning by myself although it can be really stressful and time consuming. My dream is to become a (real) graphic designer.

    Samantha

  28. Brittanny says:

    I was asked by a local high school that focuses on the students working on toward their careers than traditional schooling to talk to a few students who want to be fashion photographers like myself. One of them asked me if it was necessary to go to college. I told him it truly depends. I went to college and got a BA in film studies. Would I have gone to college for photography? No. For filmmaking? Absolutely. For graphic design? I think so. Others may think that for filmmaking, you don’t have to go to school and teach yourself but for graphic design, it’s a necessity. It is up to that person on what route they want to go for schooling. I told him that whatever field you go into, education is important, if it is going to college, just taking continuing ed classes, or shadowing and assisting in the field he wants to go in. The commitment to learning never stops. I never had a class in photography but I took books out the library on how to learn photoshop and watched videos online and I kept shooting all the time. It wasn’t a formal education but it definitely was an education in photography.

  29. GABRIELA says:

    Hello! This is a very interesting and helpful post, some days ago I was thinking about taking some classes because I love to design but I have forgot some things that I learnt at university and I need an update too. I am also very interested to have my own business as a graphic designer. Thank you very much!!!!

  30. Lance says:

    Great article Breeanna!
    It caught my eye for three reasons, 1. My name is Lance, 2. I am a freelancer :) and 3. I have never had any formal education. My design chops came partly from my genes (my mother is a professional calligraphist) but mostly from an endless curiosity and capacity for consuming and absorbing information as you mentioned. Although I have probably had a bit more unique of an experience than most, I would have to agree with you that some people are more comfortable learning in a formal, structured environment and some are just not. But regardless of the paths we take, the progression of our chops, passion for what we do and determination to grow as designers are of utmost importance for all of us.

    Cheers!

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