Visual Communication is close enough to Graphic Design, right?
November 13, 2010 10:53 AM   Subscribe

I want to be a web designer. Am I making a big mistake trying to transfer from community college into San Francisco State's Visual Communication Design major rather than Cal State Long Beach's Art with an Option in Graphic Design or San José State's Graphic Design BFA? I currently live in southern California (Long Beach, to be specific), but want to get away.

tl;dr: I could get a Graphic Design BFA in a boring city or a roughly equivalent Visual Communication Design BS in an interesting city. How will this effect me on job interviews for my first web designer job, or just my first design job?

I'm not sure if I'm evaluating each school based on all the information that is available to me, because thus far I've only dealt with the counselors available to me at Long Beach City College. So here are the pros and cons as I see them now:

San Francisco State:

-The school is located in a city I have visited many times, in a neighborhood I would enjoy living in for two or more years.
-Their program is interdisciplinary, and would allow me the opportunity to tailor my program a bit away from traditional print graphic design and (while I'm not sure) maybe more towards web graphic design.
-It's in San Francisco, which honestly is my main selling point and the reason I'm asking this question.

-If the program is as general as I think, it might be too broad to be taken seriously on job interviews when I try to become a web/print designer, even if that is on a path that starts as coffee boy or junior IT worker at a small company.
-SFSU offers fewer typography classes in its upper division visual communication design program than San José State does in its Graphic Design BFA program.

San José State:

-San José is closer to Silicon Valley.
-San José is probably more web-oriented.
-San José's program has the golden name "Graphic Design" on it, rather than the relatively vague "Visual Communication Design" name.

-To go to SJSU would require living in San José for two or three years. I've heard San José is, while much closer to SF than Long Beach is, a suburban hellhole that requires a 45 minute train commute to get anywhere cool in SF. From where SFSU is, it's a much closer 20 minutes to get to the civic center or north beach, and even SFSU's neighborhood is nice, from experience.
-San José is slightly more expensive, tuitionwise.
-San José is boring.
-San José State would definitely require me to stay on in community college for another year, whereas I am in the process of applying to SFSU as we speak, and may possibly get in for Fall 2011 (though I won't know till Spring 2011).

Cal State Long Beach:

-There are more resources through my school, a community college that sisters with the local CSU that is Long Beach, for transferring.
-CSULB's Art program is renowned statewide.
-I can talk to a transfer councelor at CSULB next week if I wanted to, whereas talking to one from SFSU or SJSU would not be probable this semester.

-Cal State Long Beach doesn't offer a Graphic Design major, only a major in Art with a "concentration in Graphic Design".
-CSULB's transfer acceptance rates for my major are much worse than SFSU's (roughly 80% at SFSU vs. 50% at CSULB)
-I would still be stuck living around, if not with, my parents, which is something I'd be willing to take out about $15,000-$25000 in student loans to avoid. And yes, I have considered the consequences of doing such a thing. I have no debt now, and relatively few expenses. I figure that moving to San José would require taking my car, whereas moving to San Francisco would not, based on the neighborhoods the respective schools are located in.

Basically, despite this whole pro/con rigamarole, I have my heart set on San Francisco State, and what I'm wondering is this:

Am I endangering my future career as a web designer by attempting to transfer into the relatively more general visual design program at SFSU as opposed to the more concentrated program at SJSU? Their programs seem pretty similar, though I'll note that SJSU offers more typography classes as part of the core curriculum. In addition, SJSU is closer to Silicon Valley and probably has the edge on any possible job-placement abilities over SFSU. I really don't know.

I'm a returning student, and already have some job experience with HTML and CSS, and plan (maybe when this semester is over) to experiment with PHP, MySQL, and if I get time, other web technologies like ruby or python.

We'll see what the job market looks like in 2012 or 2013, but once I graduate college, I'm aiming for a job as a web designer. I want to get a job where I am definitely not a jack of all trades, but instead a valued creative member of the web staff, based on my portfolio. I understand that a design job right out the gate is not a guarantee, and having been a part of corporate hierarchies before, I can understand getting a job as some kind of lackey (hopefully a print lackey [I've had that job before and it was pretty nice for the pay]) and working my way towards an entry-level design job.

I've seen articles such as this that in the end say that, outside of a technical field like chemistry or engineering, what you major in doesn't matter that much. Still, Graphic Design seems to fall on the borderline. Looking at job listings for web designers in my area on Craigslist, most ask for a "Graphic Design BA or equivalent" and I can't help but wonder.

I've been through job interviews before, and I know it's a relatively shallow process. I take my four years experience and in a moment tell the interviewer that I'm an "X" major. But is "Visual Communication Design" going to have the same impact as "Graphic Design" when that's exactly what the interviewer's looking for? This is what I worry about. Or is there perhaps the possibility it could set me apart?
posted by malapropist to Education (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can't say I've ever given much thought about where our designers went to school or even what they majored in. Have a degree? Check. Application lacking in obvious misspellings and other indications of carelessness? Great. Then onto the online portfolio. And that's how the first cut is made. It may be different in other places and in other fields, but this has been the process everywhere I've worked.
posted by advicepig at 11:09 AM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


In my experience, what you major in doesn't matter all that much. (I majored in Literature, but I'm a network engineer.) Interviewers want to know that you can do the job you're applying for. If you love a certain job field and focus on that field, and you're good at what you do, and you're responsible and you show up on time, you'll be able to work in that field. It's not rocket surgery.

Honestly, I'd say to take the cheapest, least debt-creating option no matter what it is. I'm still paying off student loans from an expensive private university, and I'm probably older than your parents. Debt sucks.
posted by goblinbox at 11:13 AM on November 13, 2010

One of our designers went to Stanford, one to some art institute out east, and another majored in english at some school in the middle of nowhere. They're all really good, and no one cares. Live in SF.
posted by devilsbrigade at 11:14 AM on November 13, 2010

The options you're looking at are all appropriate and will not matter to your employers. You sound like a typical returning student, seriously trying to get the most out of school (unlike many students who are just following the track in front of them). You are likely to find that your own motivation to explore a topic and challenge yourself is greater than what your instructors expect from you at any of these schools. And some great news is that the personal motivation is what employers will really see, not where your degree came from or what it was called.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:21 AM on November 13, 2010

Your skills and your portfolio are much more important than your major in finding web work, yes. But that doesn't mean your major is irrelevant if what you major in doesn't give you the skills you need. Web design is getting to be a pretty technical field, I'm not sure a general arts degree would prepare you for it. And people who hire web designers are very specifically not looking for "artists".

My advice would be to worry a lot less about the towns and surroundings, and find out a lot more about the actual programs of study. Visit the schools. Meet the instructors. Find out for sure if you can focus on web design, don't apply based on a vague 'possibly maybe more towards web design I'm not sure but hey the town is awesome!'

I'm not saying SFSU is necessarily a bad choice, I don't know much about the place. What bothers me is that it sounds like you don't either. Whether your college is in a nice or a boring town is going to stop being relevant to your life five minutes after you graduate; what you actually learn there is the important part.
posted by ook at 11:24 AM on November 13, 2010

If you need a degree to get the skills you require to put together a good portfolio, then you should go where you'll get the best skillset for what you actually want to do. But jobs are totally about the portfolio and not at all about the degree.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:29 AM on November 13, 2010

Ok, here's a question:

Who should I email while I gather the cash to go up to the bay area? I do want to physically go, but won't be able to until February at the earliest. I've looked at the respective program pages on the SFSU and SJSU sites, and there are indeed links to the department chairs, but are these the people I should be directing my admittedly vague and general-purpose questions at right now?

What person is it appropriate to broach the subject with right now? My questions to the faculty at this point are more like, "Why is your program different from the other guy's," and less like "I'm going to be all up in your face this spring," so who do I talk to, keeping that in mind?

Honestly, this has been one of my biggest practical questions, going forward on this subject.
posted by malapropist at 11:54 AM on November 13, 2010

So from a career perspective, the schools you are talking about are all about on par. With design your portfolio is way more important then your school.

I'd lean towards SFSU. I'd probably actually try to get away from the campus a bit. Try the inner sunset or something. The area around the campus is not generally the part of town you'll be having the most fun in. Find a better more walkable hood. I'd look at the inner sunset area. Not too expensive, pretty easy commute to SFSU. Street parking if you need it.

BTW if you're going to be looking for a design job at an interactive agency as opposed to working "in house" at a company, there are a ton of these in the city. (This is the way I'd lean if I were an interaction designer).
posted by bitdamaged at 11:58 AM on November 13, 2010

To go to SJSU would require living in San José for two or three years. I've heard San José is, while much closer to SF than Long Beach is, a suburban hellhole that requires a 45 minute train commute to get anywhere cool in SF. From where SFSU is, it's a much closer 20 minutes to get to the civic center or north beach, and even SFSU's neighborhood is nice, from experience.

To go to SFSU would require living in the Sunset for two or three years. I've heard the Sunset District is, while much closer to SF than San Jose is, a suburban hellhole pretty similar to any small town in the region and requires a 45 minute ride on MUNI to get to anywhere cool in SF.

San Jose is the largest city in the Northern California. It's not as sexy or exciting as San Francisco, but it isn't boring and the SJSU campus is in the heart of downtown San Jose. The bullet train from San Jose to San Francisco is faster than MUNI. There are a lot of nice things about San Jose, but you probably heard what a hellhole it is from people who would never go there. Ever. Maybe you should visit. It's a nice neighborhood and hardly boring.

You should definitely go to the school you like. I'm just chiming in here because most of the people I hear rule a large city out with an epithet like "suburban hellhole" have never been there and WOULD NEVER GO THERE ever. I mean, San José? You're fucking kidding right? What are you, a soccer mom, why would you ever go to such a hole? Seriously.

Since you're from Southern California, I'll give you this word of advice for when you go to college in the Outer Sunset: Bring coats. It is never warmer than 60° in that neighborhood. It'll take a little while to get used to the fog and cold. (Even in the summer.)
posted by phoebus at 1:25 PM on November 13, 2010

All the schools are pretty similarly, but judging from their websites:

CSULB has an Art department that's focused on artists, and a separate Design department focusing on professional design, but only Industrial Design and Interior Design. The Graphic Design program is in the Art department, and it seems like a sideline. You get a BFA.

SJSU has a combined Art and Design department, but most of the programs are professional programs for designers. There are a few programs for artists, but they seem like sidelines. Also a BFA here.

SFSU has separate Art department and Design department, and the Visual Communication program is in Design, which is focused on industrial design, product design, etc. This is a more technology-focused department, so you get a BS, rather than a BFA, and it used to be called BA in Industrial Arts with a concentration in Visual Communication Design.

The goal of "web designer" is pretty vague, but it sounds like you're thinking Marketing and that means SJSU is probably the best fit. But you also want to learn programming languages, databases and such? That has little relevance to marketing, since you'll mostly be working with pre-built CMS software. That stuff is more relevant to building web products, where you would be an interaction designer or UX designer, part of the Development team. If you want to do that, SFSU is the place for you. If you're thinking you can make yourself appealing to employers offering jobs in the Marketing department by having tech skills and design skills, don't bother. You can be good at both, but employers who want that are cheap bastards looking for a 2-for-1 deal, and they value neither technology nor design.

In most companies, the coffee boy duties have been outsourced to outside companies who run specialized coffee locations. If your portfolio is not strong enough to get hired, you can definitely try to apply for a job as a barista (as they are sometimes called), but this isn't a stepping stone to working your way up the company hierarchy. If you get rejected for design jobs, your hiring manager isn't going to say "You know what, I like you, kid! Let's start you out in the mail room!" so I wouldn't count on that either.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:06 PM on November 13, 2010

I'll give my alma mater a pitch: when you leave SJSU's design program, you will have a solid portfolio that will not be embarrassing to show off at your first set of interviews. The program is geared toward getting their graduates out there and into jobs. Most of the 3rd and 4th year courses are taught by part-time instructors who are also holding down industry jobs.; when I came out of there my first job was at Lucasfilm via connections through one of my professors.

I don't know how the CSULB or SFSU's programs compare but IMO the number one thing that will get you into interviews upon graduation is where your professors can get you in. It's worth asking for the names of the various school's instructor list (the real one, not the faculty list on their websites) and figuring out if they have connections to the kinds of companies where you want to work.
posted by jamaro at 3:20 PM on November 13, 2010

In addition, SJSU is closer to Silicon Valley and probably has the edge on any possible job-placement abilities over SFSU.

I just wanted to say this is not true. There are tons of design firms in SF, and it would not make a heck of a lot of difference where you went to school if you want to work there. Unless you're talking about internships while you're in school, and in that case I would still say SF might have an edge in terms of density of jobs, but there would be opportunities up and down the Peninsula, probably. As long as you can get to the train, it won't matter whether you're in SJ or SF for a summer internship. Go to the school that has professors and students that do the work you'd like to do.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:15 PM on November 13, 2010

Thanks a lot, everyone! I didn't mark a best answer because every one of these was helpful.
posted by malapropist at 3:39 AM on November 14, 2010

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