Is "Web design degree" still an oxymoron?
May 13, 2010 6:40 PM   Subscribe

A friend is considering going to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco for "Web Design and New Media" with the goal of becoming a web designer. Questions are (a) Is this school well-regarded by potential employers and (b) is it a good value for the tuition? They have zero interest in doing straight programming without design work involved.
posted by benzenedream to Education (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Er, I don't regard it as a good school but that's from some reputation a few years back, it smacked of being the Devry of the Art World but that could changed.
posted by The Whelk at 6:42 PM on May 13, 2010

as far as i know- it doesn't really have a good reputation because i think it's not exactly competitive to get in- i think anyone who applies gets in? good art schools are the ones where they review your portfolio and you have to be a certain level of talented to get in, because those attract the good instructors and look better on the resume (as well as usually have industry connections for internships). i mean have you seen the commercials on tv for the school? if the "student work" they show in those commercials are kind of shitty it doesn't really raise my confidence about the quality of the school. it's also freaking expensive. the only people i knew there were either moneyed, supported by parents, or went heavily into debt. also i don't want to be mean but they weren't very artistically talented either and thus far still have trouble finding jobs.

i'm a little confused by the "zero interest in doing straight programming without design work involved". i'm pretty sure AoA isn't going to have any programming classes. anyway in the web design world, which is getting increasingly competitive, it's much easier to get jobs (including fulltime ones) if you're a programming ninja (everything from html to ruby-on-rails) as well as a good visual designer
posted by raw sugar at 6:50 PM on May 13, 2010

(oh to clarify- i meant i don't think AoA has any only-programming or CS classes, which are pretty essential if you want to be competitive in the field because employers like web developer/graphic designer 2-for-1 combos. it's likely to be design with some very simple programming. )
posted by raw sugar at 6:51 PM on May 13, 2010

Best answer: I really don't recommend "going to school" for this stuff. Just teach yourself, starting small by making little sites and expanding their functionality. A particularly good site for learning software (and even some programming languages like PHP and Javascript) is, a video learning site, costing only $20 or so bucks a month. I learned TONS more on my own, at my own pace and according to my own schedule.
posted by teedee2000 at 7:36 PM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Employers do like the 2-for-1 design+developer. And you don't want to work for them, because 95% of the time it's a job in a very tech-centric company that doesn't value design and doesn't want to spend resources on it.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:58 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

While I have little useful to say about the actual question, I agree with AlsoMike; very few reputable employers like the "twofer" designer/developer. A strict web designer should know html, but I wouldn't recommend getting into ruby or sql to be a designer, because many people will find that scattered or misguided... Jack of all trades, master of none sort of thing.
posted by shownomercy at 8:21 PM on May 13, 2010

Best answer: A close relative went there and I visited it. It seemed like a nice school, but it was expensive and they seemed to offer a lot of courses of study that might never result in job, or at least one with a big enough salary to pay back your student loans.

I'd look at cheaper alternatives. Many of the most successful freelance web designers I know learned by taking a handful of courses and teaching themselves the rest. I've also met many graphic designers with four-year degrees who are trying to get web design jobs, but who aren't capable of creating more than small "brochure" web sites.
posted by 14580 at 8:54 PM on May 13, 2010

Best answer: It's an open-enrollment, for-profit school. I don't think anyone considers it a "well-regarded" institution.
posted by halogen at 9:18 PM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

From my view as a SF resident, AOAU seems to primarily be engaged in real estate investment with valuable holdings throughout the city. The fact that they populate their investments with students and get a tax break for doing so seems to be a secondary undertaking.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:24 PM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There are really two separate questions here.

1) Do you need to go to college to do web design?
Doubtful, but some of us do better in a class environment. If that's true for him, there are options. Online, community college, specific software classes, etc.

2) Should he go to a for-profit college, particularly for web design?
- See: What is a Diploma Mill?
- In Hard Times, Lured Into Trade School and Debt
- one of many articles on Academy of Art real estate scams. This matters because all signs point to them being as slick as possible while providing very little bang for the buck. They're scamming the city, their students, and future employees who mistakenly think it was a legit school.
- he'd be better off learning on his own, picking up some community college classes if necessary, investing that money to 'paying' his time to actual experience or online classes.

I completely understand why people sign up for these schools, but except for very particular circumstances, these for-profit diploma mills are complete waste of time and money.
posted by barnone at 9:48 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

To give more details, their real estate strategy is apparently to buy buildings with lots of rent-controlled tenants (cheap), then evict everyone (as you're allowed to do if you're getting out of the landlording business), then renovating a bit and filling the space with students (since student housing doesn't count as rental property). After a few years, they have an apartment building unencumbered with rent-controlled tenants, which they can then sell for much money.

Personally, I knew a guy who went there for some sort of design program. He had some impressive sketches of cars, which was his area of interest. I believe he got a job working for a big European car company, so I guess it worked out for him. That said, I'm sure it's quite expensive and I'm pretty skeptical about the value-for-money front. If you have the drive to apply yourself and become skilled, you can do with or without the school. I don't doubt that there are plenty of wealthy layabouts who'll be going there just because it's fun and they have their parents' money to burn, which is not a good environment for a poor but ambitious student. The fact that it's in SF will only make this worse. My own prejudices lean toward a community college degree + work experience (volunteering for nonprofits, etc.) a thousand times over. Heck, if you want to come to SF, try CCSF, or SFSU. Both are no doubt far, far cheaper than academy of art. 90% is effort, anyway.
posted by alexei at 1:39 AM on May 14, 2010

Nthing diy. And tell your friend to got to important industry events like An Event Apart (see too). "Web design" is so much more than just drawing a pretty picture these days. It's user interface/experience (UI/UX), information architecture, mental modeling, usability, accessibility, content strategy, et cetera. There are excellent resources on all these topics and the learning is almost always diy. Yes, an excellent design/art sense is fundamental.

And anyone who can master the spectrum on content and design (which are inextricably intertwined) AND program, god love you. Most can't and end up giving short shrift to one or the other.
posted by jdfan at 5:13 AM on May 14, 2010

Best answer: When I lived in San Francisco about 15 years ago it had a reputation of the place where rich kids who got bad grades in high school/kicked out of other colleges went to spend their parents money on drugs and clothes. My ex boyfriend who attended there is now a 45 year old record store clerk (which is all he ever wanted to be really, but his parents would only pay his rent if he was in college).

In 2004 I met someone who was a teacher there and he said it hadn't changed, that it was mostly party kids with a few students who were serious.

It's also a school where a lot of wealthy foreign students go so that they can be in the US.

It's not like I do any hiring for web design or programming but if I heard someone had a degree from this school my first thought would not be that they were a hard working person with a great education.

In closing, I'd like to thank many of the students from the mid 1990s for throwing some really awesome parties!
posted by Melsky at 6:34 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some people learn well in a structured environment. The web designers I know are self-taught, but it does seem to be changing. I'd invest in a really good computer, possibly a Mac, definitely a big screen, Adobe CS Supreme, or whatever the grooviest, newest version is, a box to use as a webserver, and a hosting account. There are many courses on the web. Many community colleges, adult ed. programs, college & universities offer courses of varying quality, and you'll find certification programs that are not 4 year liberal arts degrees. Many employers have no ability to judge web designers, so certs can help get the 1st job.
posted by theora55 at 6:57 AM on May 14, 2010

Best answer: When we hire designers or programmers, we don't spend a lot of time on what school they went to or even what their degree is in. (I do believe that HR throws out the ones without a degree in anything before they ever get to us.) First we throw out any applications without a portfolio. Then we throw out the ones with horrible grammar or are otherwise cringe inducing. Then we split them up and look at portfolios. The rest of the hiring process goes as you would imagine.

So if someone were to ask me how to get into web design, I'd say learn how you are most comfortable. For some that's a classroom, while others do better on their own. Do some internships/volunteer work/Open Source work and put together an awesome portfolio. If you do want to pursue classes, a community college or straight up tech school is fine and probably more affordable.
posted by advicepig at 7:39 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: i'm a little confused by the "zero interest in doing straight programming without design work involved".

To clarify - I don't see this person getting into pointer juggling or dealing with complex threading issues. The farthest they want to get into programming is precanned Javascript.

Thanks for all the answers thus far - it pretty much confirms what I suspected (very poor ROI) but it's great to have neutral sources to refer to.
posted by benzenedream at 11:18 AM on May 14, 2010

Yeah. AoA is really overpriced and is clearly just in it for a) real estate and b) foreign student tuition.

Is you friend already in SF? If so, CCSF has a Multimedia Studies Program, which would be way cheaper. They could even just take some of the classes in the program to pick up specific skills, and learn the rest on the side.
posted by grapesaresour at 12:32 PM on May 14, 2010

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