Graphic/web design education for a returning student
February 8, 2014 6:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm evaluating several options for obtaining graphic/web design training and would love to get the opinions of those in the trade (pretty similar to this past question, but a bit more specific). In a perfect world I would love to get a (second) BA, but that's probably completely insane financially.

I discovered an unexpected interest in design over the past year, after my boss purchased InDesign for our org. and asked me to start using it to design ads and other things. Since then I have also begun learning Illustrator, subscribing to the web design track on Treehouse, and learning to draw. I have a lot of fun with this stuff, and even frequently regret having to leave work because I'm so absorbed in what I'm creating.

I would really like to pursue some type of education or training in this area such that I could actually have a design career someday. I've otherwise been on an administrative track because I've been really wishy-washy about a career to pursue and am incredibly indecisive (and also have had issues with depression which made me pretty lethargic about career stuff), so it feels really good to finally have discovered something that really excites me.

Of course, education costs a ton of money, which I don't have. And I already have a BA degree and a loan to payoff. My personal debt burden is not huge, relatively speaking (~$9,000), but my parents also have a loan in their name and I would assume I've maxed out all the Federal loan options for another Bachelor's degree.

I found this comment in the thread I linked above pretty eye-opening. Basically, the commenter states that it is very, very difficult to have a successful design career without a BA in the field. After doing some Craigslist research, I see that most graphic design job posts do require a BA. Web design jobs seem to require it less, but I also see less ads for web design jobs (is the job market not great in that field?). Ideally I would want to develop skills in both areas in order to be more employable, and also a better web designer. I understand that the 'easy' stuff to learn is the software/coding, and that a design education would really be about developing a good eye and sense of design.

Anyway, I have been thinking about various paths and would love some feedback. I think a straight-up BA is probably out - I'm probably not going to be able to borrow money at a reasonable rate, and even if I could go in as a second-bachelor's candidate it's going to cost too much.

One thing I am considering is getting a certificate, like this one I discovered from UMass online, here. It would cost about $9,000. My thought is that this would give a decent foundation and the chance to develop a portfolio. (But another thought is: is $9,000 a ridiculous amount to spend on a non-degree?). Then, I would hope to get accepted into a MA program, which I could finance with federal loans.

Any ideas on how this would be looked at by employers? When they list a BA in job ads, is it reasonable to assume that a certificate + MA would also be ok?

Another path I am considering is completing a certificate plus some type of web design course -- perhaps just working Treehouse really thoroughly, or doing this program from Bloc (the Bloc program costs $3,000 - they do have a $1,500 diversity scholarship, which I applied for a couple days ago). With this path, I am assuming that it will be tough to really make a go of it as a graphic designer but that I might have a good foundation for web design.

I would so appreciate any thoughts you may have on these paths or any other suggestions you might have. I might have made some incorrect assumptions or might be really misunderstanding the options that are out there - if so, please correct me!

Thank you.
posted by imalaowai to Education (5 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I actually don't know anyone who cares that much about what the education of a designer is. Portfolios are what matter.
posted by Jairus at 6:27 PM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Graphic design is a field that's in transition. Basic skills are a dime a dozen these days, and you need to have additional skills – 3D, animation, html/css, or marketing, social media skills and the like, to make a living wage.

Seriously, look at job boards and see what's being offered. Full-time gigs are almost nonexistent.

Beware of the fashion industry.

Do not invest money you don't have in becoming a graphic designer.
posted by zadcat at 6:41 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have been a graphic designer for 25 years. (old enough to have started on drafting tables) I'd agree that the degree won't make you a designer. If I were hiring, I'd be looking at two things: portfolio and business experience. Degree would be of minor importance.

I'd say you are already in an ideal position to build your skills and portfolio without having to go to the time and expense of school. You have the tools - software - and an environment that offers you chances to design real world projects. Learn all you can through the interwebs or workshops. Remember too that, while its important to know your software, it is equally important to know design principles. You can be an illustrator/indesign/photoshop mega-expert, and still be a horrible designer; but if you have a great base in design principles, you can create great stuff with minimal software skills. You can learn design principles online and with books. Ask your boss if he/she will support your learning efforts. One thing worth the investment is a computer of your own and a cloud subscription to adobe creative suite ($50/mo). This will enable you to learn outside the office and freelance.

So... How can you apply for jobs that "require" a degree? You will be able to apply because 1. You have a BA (ie "I did college") 2. You have a portfolio of real design projects (vs the school projects most new grads have, 3) you have real world work and business experience. and 4) you will have whatever additional learning experience you have taken on - workshops, online classes etc.

Build your portfolio any way you can, and look at the portfolios if others. Take on freebie projects for friends and freelance projects if you can.

Don't do contests or work for companies looking to take advantage of student/beginning designers. Don't take an unpaid internship (not an issue if you can learn within you current position).

I would encourage you to also begin to build your web skills. Right now, the best start for that is learning Wordpress, one of the most common and accessible website platforms. It's free! You'll need it to put your portfolio online. Learn how to get a domain name and set up web hosting.

Also, learn how printing works and what it takes to get a piece printed or an ad submitted to a publication. Learn how to bid a printing project. They rarely teach much of that in design programs.

Learn a bit about postal regulations and mail piece layout (online).

Learn about managing creative projects, scheduling them, and juggling priorities. Again, not taught in school, but likely part of your job.

Learn how to work with clients and help give them what they want. In my experience, graphic design is rarely a complete "outlet" for your creativity, but rather a kind of service where you extend your creative abilities to your clients' needs.

Learn some marketing basics - direct mail, email marketing, newsletters/blogs. Etc.

If you can start to become a well rounded designer-business savvy person you would be indispensable to many, many companies!

Really, don't spend a ton of money on a degree. It won't make the difference. Companies want versatile, experienced people.

If you have questions feel free to mefi mail me.

Go for it!
posted by ecorrocio at 8:14 PM on February 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have worked in design for my entire professional career and I am totally self-taught. My degree is in something entirely different. I'm pretty much going to say what most have already said.

1. Build a basic web skillset. I would recommend html, css, and an understanding of Wordpress. Add PHP and jquery to that if you can, maybe javascript.

2. Read The Non-Designer's Design Book. I know it's super basic but it lays out a simple mantra to learn and internalize that sort of was my spot check when I was still green. It helped me become a better designer.

3. An exercise that really helped me increase my skill was to find designs I liked, then, try to recreate them. Movie posters, album covers, vintage packaging, logos. It'll force you to learn techniques that you will then apply to your own, unique style.

4. For skills in design and programming, I wouldn't spend my money on a traditional class. My choice would be stuff like Khan Academy for programming and a subscription to If I were to take a traditional class, it would be drawing. I know that sounds weird but I wish I was able to sketch my ideas out better than I can. It would save me a lot of time.

5. Every time you take something to print, take it to a professional shop that has good pre-press people. Let them know that if there is anything wrong with your file, if they have to touch it at all, that you want to know about it and be told how to avoid it in the future. They know so much, like crazy amounts, of technical stuff. I have a lot of admiration for the pre-press guy I work with the most and he has taught me how to hand over files that are bomb-proof.

6. Get a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, randomly pick a page, and read it. Your editing skills will go apeshit and, like me, you may even be offered a job because of your mad skillz.
posted by Foam Pants at 8:58 PM on February 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for your help and advice. I will definitely not spend money for a degree after reading your tips. Phew. I do have a subscription (paid for by work) and CS5 on my personal laptop and work computer and have been following their Illustrator tutorial (I also have about 20 other things in my playlist!). I really enjoy learning HTML/CSS and am definitely planning to learn Javascript as well, and to check out Wordpress.

I did read the Non-Designer's Design Book (based on recommendations from past Asks) and wow, it was awesome. It's amazing what seems so obvious once someone points it out (like how much better things look when not center-aligned). There's definitely a big difference in the things I made before reading that book and after.

Thanks again!
posted by imalaowai at 7:49 PM on February 9, 2014

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