The Calculated Creative

Is a Graphic Design Degree Worth It or Worthless?

A design degree can provide invaluable training but gaining real-world experience and developing stellar work are what truly counts.

A graphic design degree can open doors for aspiring designers, but is the investment of time and money truly necessary?

There are compelling arguments on both sides of this debate.

Carefully weighing the pros and cons can help you decide if a formal design education is the right choice.

The Pros of Earning a Graphic Design Degree

Pursuing a graphic design degree, whether a Bachelors or Associates, offers some significant advantages that are worth considering.

  • You'll receive comprehensive technical training. Degree programs provide intensive hands-on education in design principles and using professional software. This includes crucial skills like color theory, typography, digital layout, user experience design, and more. Having formal training in the foundations of graphic design can give you a significant leg up.
  • You'll have access to cutting-edge tools and technology. Most design programs provide access to the same top-notch software and equipment used in the industry, like the Adobe Creative Cloud suite. This gives you the opportunity to become proficient with essential programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Familiarity with these tools is a baseline requirement for most design jobs.
  • You'll get insider industry knowledge from professors. Classes are taught by design professionals who can provide invaluable perspectives and guidance. They can share tips on best practices, portfolio development, networking, and navigating a design career. Their wisdom and mentorship is very beneficial.
  • You'll make connections. Through peers, internships, mentors and faculty, you'll form relationships that can help you land jobs after graduation. The alumni network from reputable design programs can provide useful contacts and references.
  • You'll build an impressive portfolio. Design school gives you years to conceptualize and create polished design work to showcase your abilities. This comprehensive portfolio is vital for impressing potential employers and clients.

The Potential Drawbacks of a Formal Design Education

On the other hand, there are some definite downsides to pursuing a traditional graphic design degree that should factor into your decision.

  • It requires a major time investment. Most design programs take 2-4 years to complete. That's a long time to be out of the workforce not making money. Seasoned designers argue that you'd be better off using those years to gain practical experience in the industry.
  • The costs can be prohibitive. Between tuition, student fees, materials and living expenses, getting a design degree can leave you with a heavy debt burden. You need to be sure the salary boost from having a degree will outweigh the costs.
  • Much can be self-taught. In the age of the internet, there are abundant online tutorials, training courses, and communities that allow you to pick up design skills independently. Self-motivated learners can cobble together their own curriculum.
  • Your portfolio and abilities are what really matters. When applying for design jobs, your actual skills and the quality of your portfolio will be evaluated more than whether you have a degree. Strong work and results matter most.

Key Questions to Consider

When assessing if a graphic design degree is worth the time, effort and cost, here are some key questions to ask yourself:

  • What are my ultimate career goals in the design field? Will having academic training help me achieve them?
  • Do I have the discipline to adequately build my skills if I opt for an self-directed education?
  • Can I handle the time commitment of 2-4 years of schooling?
  • Am I comfortable taking on the student loan debt required to pay for a design degree?
  • Would I be better off using those years to gain practical work experience?
  • Is there a compromise option where I take some college design courses while working?

Carefully examine your own motivations, resources and ambitions. For some, a graphic design degree can be incredibly worthwhile. For others, a different path may be optimal.

The Takeaway

Weigh the pros and cons and consider your personal situation.

A design degree can provide invaluable training but may not be mandatory for success.

Gaining real-world experience and developing a stellar portfolio are what truly counts.

With drive and dedication, it's possible to break into graphic design from many different paths.

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