DISCLAIMER: The contents of the present article are just my personal opinions and are not intended as a recommendation of any particular school or education system, nor do they represent the value of formal education in every college.
I would like to preface this article acknowledging that I didn’t attend a very expensive design school, I went to my local University and most semesters my tuition amounted to very little money thanks to a grant awarded by having good grades which I had for most of my time in school, so I didn’t incur in any debt resulting from my degree. The return in investment from choosing a formal education will vary substantially depending on the price of your school and how much you were able to extract from it. I am also going to focus mostly on design, as it is where my experience comes from, but I truly believe that most of what we will be discussing applies to the arts as well.
My degree was finished almost 10 years ago and I have had the pleasure of working on a diverse array of projects in my career, in all those years, not a single one of my clients has asked for my degree, only my portfolio, the only significant impact my degree has had on my career is being able to teach on a University which I’ve done for the past 7 years. This has led me to ask myself, what is the value of formal education in art and design?
This article will attempt to list some of the actual benefits you might get from a formal education in art and design.
The design and art industry sometimes feels very small, a lot of people working on it will prioritize hiring their friends over other professionals, which has made it very hard to get some jobs without knowing the right person.
My first job was in a small local agency. I got it thanks to a professor who used to teach me animation. He was very busy with work and could not meet the time demands of the job, so he suggested they hired me instead. I worked on there for only a few months since I moved away from the city temporarily, but it was great experience, I got to work for some big names in the Maquiladora industry like Johnson & Johnson, JCI, among others.
Later in my career, a company specialized in video production became one of my most prominent clients at the time and I got to know of the vacancy in their ranks thanks to an old classmate. The experience was great, I got to work in visual effects and motion graphics for a few commercials, some educational content, and some successful political campaigns.
If I had not met these people, these opportunities might not have presented themselves. I find that getting to know like minded people, with similar interests to yours and making friends is probably one of the biggest upsides of formal education which might be harder to achieve as a self learner.
A vital part of a career on design is delivering work based on a brief, being able to interpret these documents and creating work that fulfills the client’s requirements is key to a successful job.
If the client does not provide a brief you are required to know what questions to ask in order to understand what a business needs of you to succeed in their marketing strategy. Having experience in making work to spec makes it very easy for you to ask the right questions and find out what the scope of the project is and what outcome is expected.
Most school assignments will come with a brief, the teacher should provide the requirements for the assignment and what criteria will be used to grade the result of your work. You should take them as creative challenges and work to present the best work possible within the provided criteria. I recommend you also work on understanding why each scoring criteria was chosen, how that affects the end product and how every part of the brief modifies the amount of time you need to finish a task.
It is important to remember you do not go to college to learn how to do something, that is what trade school is for, you go to college to learn how to learn. Your ability to take a lot of information, process it and create a solution that is better than the sum of all the parts. Learning this will make you a creative problem solver, the kind of person who can help clients develop real solutions to their problems. You can learn the tools of design and art on the internet easy, there is an immense amount of information, tutorials and courses online, but most, focus on how to use software or how to create a specific design, they don’t teach you how to create solutions for real life problems.
Another basic skill you must learn is working on a group. School is filled with team-based work, this translates well into the very collaborative media that is design. Especially in multimedia, I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of creatives, from videographers to animators and illustrators, and having the experience of learning to listen, understanding ideas, and communicating effectively was very helpful. This is especially essential if you are aiming for agency jobs, in which you are most likely to work on enterprises that require a lot of teamwork, communication and delegation skills.
As a student you can work out in your group of friends a way for everyone to take the lead role in different projects depending on their skills or interests, so that everyone can take the experience to delegate as a team leader, and to listen to the leadership of someone else. Learn to understand the skills of your teammates and how to delegate the tasks effectively.
Curation and General overview
Learning on your own can be a daunting task, there’s thousands of courses and tutorials on the internet with varying degrees of quality, you must spend hours looking for the right course or tutorial and you risk paying for a course that might not be the best quality or not have the information that you are looking for.
You might not even know how to look for critical skills due to your lack of knowledge of the workflow and what is necessary effectively deliver quality work.
It is difficult to find the right path to follow as a self-learner, you must figure out the order and importance of the lessons you need to get. Lessons on formal education are usually curated and follow an already tested path to mastery. You can usually check the entire program of a certain degree for the entire list of skills you can expect to learn along the path laid out for you.
Specialist vs Generalist.
While working towards a degree you learn about all the different areas that you could specialize in which is relevant if you know you like art/design but are not sure what area of it you would like to focus on. On the other hand, having to learn all the different areas of design when you want to work only on one specific one might be a waste of time, but there’s always value in learning at least the basics of all areas so you can easily work in holistic teams.
In my personal experience, a specialist usually makes more money for project, especially if their skills are not very common, unfortunately, if you find yourself without a job it might take a while to find a job suited for your skills. As a generalist you have more job opportunities available to you, but that might come with lower salaries.
I enjoy a wide range of design fields, so I have been able to work on a very diverse variety or projects, but I always try to learn the necessary skills and get familiar with the workflow, before transitioning into a new field, but if you are not a fast learner this might not be an easy task.
Most of us creatives who specialize in design aren’t great writers, we don’t like it, but it is an incredibly useful skill. You need good writing to create a great curriculum or a compelling website, to create stories characters and to engage people on social media.
Writing modifies our behavior and helps us create deeper meaning into our work, from adding characterization to our character design to building a brand using our personal experience and understanding of the world.
School forces us to at least learn the basics of formal writing as we create essays and investigation projects for our courses which will form the basis of our future engagement with the world around us.
Discipline and time management.
Being disciplined and always delivering in time shows your clients how much you value their time. As a freelancer, reputation is essential, and meeting deadlines is a very large part of it, both to get new clients by recommendations and to maintain your current clients happy. Knowing that you will always deliver in time and with great quality, no matter the complexity of the project, is a great incentive for clients to keep thinking of you when a designer is required.
Learning how to manage your time is one of the most crucial skills you should learn in school. School projects come in a wide variety of sizes and complexities, that should help you learn about your capacities and speed so you can properly assess the amount of time you need to create a great project for your client. No matter how talented you are, if you don’t meet deadlines, it’s very unlikely that you will get continuous work from the same client.
Critique and Feedback.
This is one of the hardest things to recreate as a self-learner, teachers are hired because they have experience and are capable of giving you quality feedback.
It is hard to find professionals with the time and desire to give quality advice, the ability to get mentorship from your teachers is invaluable and can change your work for the better. As mentioned before, lack of knowledge makes it hard for students to know the level of their work and the skills that they are missing. A great teacher will tell you your shortcomings and hopefully help you understand how to achieve the quality of work that will get you work in the industry.
Recently I read an article titled 1,000 True Fans, in it the author discusses a very simple but very powerful idea, you don’t need millions of followers, subscribers or fans to make a decent living out of your work, you only need a small amount of True Fans.
The article defines a True Fan as “…a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free YouTube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month.”
This idea is very true, you can totally make a living selling merchandise, tutorials, figurines, digital downloads to a very small but very devoted group of fans. And if you are working not necessarily as a public figure trying to make fans, but as a freelancer trying to get clients and working in great projects, you can make a decent living working on a few big projects every year. Your friends will talk about you to their employers, they will call when they need help with a project, they will look for your advice and they will definitely hire your when they start a new venture.
These 1000 True Fans can come from the friends you made while giving it your best as a student. People you know in person are more likely to become your fans, be nice, try to be helpful, do good work and people around you will notice.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the value in formal education, specially with all the self learning opportunities that exist on the internet. I hope I provided a few reasons why it might be a valid path for you and all the important things that you could and should learn in school if you decide to go for a degree in art or design.
I think it’s important to note that education is not for everyone, and for most the heavy financial burden might not be a great idea, but there is still some value in formal education if you make the best of it.
Try to find the path that makes the most sense for you and where you can find the easiest return on investment.