Which graphic design schools are worth it?
October 12, 2006 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Which graphic design schools (and degrees) are worth the time and money? I am interested in taking some graphic design classes so that I can learn the techniques and skills needed to get a good job in the field. I know I need to learn more before I can really expect to get a good job, which is why I need classes, but I'm not sure whether I should just take a few classes on the side or actually invest my time and money in a years-long program.

Some programs offer full-on degrees (BA/BS, Masters, etc.) and others are 'certificate' programs, and I'm not sure whether any of these are necessary. (Or, if schooling is important, is it better to get a Masters than to get a certificate?) I know that my portfolio is probably the most important thing in my job search, but I barely have on eyet and I still have a lot to learn so I need to take some sort of classes. (Or, get lucky and find an employer who will teach me on-the-job.)

I am also curious as to whether certain schools' degrees are considered 'better' than others. How do online schools (such as, the Art Institute Online) compare to brick-and-mortar institutions? Are certain schools *known* for their graphic design programs, and is it really worth it to get into their program instead of taking a less-expensive set of courses elsewhere?

A little bit about me: I've done web design as a hobby for about 7 years and am familiar with Dreamweaver, Photoshop, etc. I am 2.5 years out of college, where I earned a BA in Psychology and Sociology. (Not exactly the type of coursework that is transferable to a graphic design program.) I'm currently living in the Boston area but am considering moving, and finding a good school might influence where I go next.

Any advice would be appreciated! (This is sort of a follow-up to this previous question of mine; I am getting more certain that I want to go to school in this, but I just don't know where to start!)
posted by inatizzy to Work & Money (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This recent AskMeFi thread may help you.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 10:08 AM on October 12, 2006

As a graduate of the Art Institute Online, I say don't even waste your time with it. It is expensive and I honestly could not apply myself well. The courses are crazy excellerated - 4 1/2 weeks for one class and the work is the same as a 9 week class. For example, all of my English classes required you to write 2-3 10 page papers a week. You will never leave your computer and it will seem like you aren't really learning anything. AIO is designed for 40 somethings with a million kids, a career and have NO IDEA about design at all. Go to a real school and get your money's worth.

I am glad I got out when I did. I almost dropped out.
posted by wildgarlic at 10:17 AM on October 12, 2006

I'm a creative director at an interactive advertising firm - I have a BA in English. There are many, many people at all levels of the industry who don't have a design-related degree (I even know amazing designers without a college degree).

Given your bio, I'd say a BFA or an MFA would make sense only if you want to teach (and even then wouldn't necessarily be required, depending on where you taught).

I'd consider taking individual courses that will allow you to enhance your portfolio and/or hone specific software skills (if you like animating with Flash, for instance, having Action Script, XML, and database skills will increase your odds of landing a job). In Boston, I'd start looking at the New England Institute of Art and Emerson College. I've worked with a number of very good designers who either graduated from or took classes at one or the other.

In the design field, it's really the work that people will look at. If you can show me strong design skills and you come across as personable and enthusiastic, I really don't care what you went to school for.
posted by jalexei at 10:34 AM on October 12, 2006

I learned a lot from Massachusetts College of Art's graphic design certificate program. I went in with web design and drawing skills, and I left with a design portfolio I'm proud of.

I'm not currently working as a graphic designer but I still feel like the program gave me a great skills foundation and prepared me if I want to pursue that path. It also offered great connections for internships and networking (plus most of the instructors were working in the field as well).

Just some notes, though - it was a lot of work (I took 2 classes per semester and also had a full-time job), and there was a heavy focus on print design (though that may have changed in the few years since I took the courses). Still one of the best decisions I've ever made, though.
posted by cadge at 10:42 AM on October 12, 2006

It all comes down to what's in your book. If you have a great portfolio, someone will give you a shot, and then find out right quick if you've got the chops to do the job day in and day out.

So no, I don't think you need a BFA and I know you don't need a master's to work as a designer. You need the chops is all!
posted by Mister_A at 10:47 AM on October 12, 2006

If anyone has recommendations for those not specifically in the Boston area, feel free to contribute those, too ;) I'm in almost the exact same position as inatizzy and would love to speak to someone regarding career advice - where you pick up the 'chops' that Mister A speaks of (yes, probably on the job - the trick is getting one then...)
posted by rmm at 11:15 AM on October 12, 2006

Of course some schools are known for their design programs, just like many universities are known for their literature or biology programs. RISD has a great all-around program, Parsons used to be very illustration-heavy, Cranbrook has a great theory and all-around program, Reading, in the UK, has one of the two or three best typography and type design programs (Emily Carr in Canada is another in that area). Cal Arts and OTIS have great experimental typography emphases and were at the forefront of the various hip typography movements on the 80s and 90s. Some of the UCs have good programs, and several CSUs have excellent drafting / advertising design centered approaches. SCAD has always been quite strong, although haven't heard much from them recently. Emerson is a good school for design.

I would ignore the online courses and faux-professional schools like AIO and even their brick-and-mortar alternate; I've heard dozens upon dozens of horror stories about them from employers, students and even faculty.

Read some of Stephen Heller's books on design education. I'd start there before I even investigated schools, let alone programs. Personally, I think a graphic designer would be better served by an interdisciplinary program in design, journalism, sociology, art and advertising/marketing. But as someone who changed majors several times, those were just the areas I personally draw from the most in my own work.

Certainly the social sciences are tremendously important if you are doing advertising work. As for your technical skill, having technical ability is wonderful and there are certainly many graduates who don't have much technical skill, but a formal education in graphic design & typography will go a lot further to making your work original and interesting and good.
posted by luriete at 11:27 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I went to RISD and it was a great experience. I knew several people like you who already had degrees -- some in their 30s -- but they decided art was their calling and they started from scratch on the BFA program. That is very expensive and it will take up all your time for four years of your life -- there are no shortcuts. If that doesn't sound like your thing, they have plenty of excellent Continuing Education classes and certificate programs in print and web design.

Whatever you do, make sure you take classes that teach you the why of good design. You need a deep understanding of basic concepts like balance and rhythm. Learning the why will keep you fresh -- there are already a million people out there who just ape the Look of the Moment with no real understanding of what they're doing. You also want more than "Here's how you make a coffee cup in Illustrator!" It sounds like you are already capable of learning the technical stuff on your own.

I would steer away from AI if reputation is important to you. It is not well-respected.
posted by Marit at 3:02 PM on October 12, 2006

Art Institute (brick and mortar) graduate here. I split my education between their Seattle and Orange County campuses, which were fairly different.

I found that the Seattle campus stressed the fundamentals a bit too much. We did a lot of things that involved t-squares and x-acto knives and cutting and pasting. Some computer stuff as well, but that certainly didn't seem like the focus.

The OC campus was a bit too "new" and focused too much on the computer side. Most of the teachers (but not all) were more of the new generation and weren't as focused on the fundamentals.

I also took a few online courses, and I would only recommend them to those who absolutely can't attend physical classes for whatever reason. They're way too rushed to get much out of them unless you're looking for a quick degree. I find that people don't put very much effort into them either, and the whole experience isn't very fulfilling.

Essentially, you will only get what you put into the education there. This is true of most schools but Art Institute in particular is set up as a business and have no problem keeping the coasters around, while other schools might be better at weeding that sort out. There is quite a bit of crap that gets talked about AI, and for good reason. However, I take pride in the fact that I milked my education there and have good skills as a result.

Mister_A is right... it will mostly come down to your portfolio. On the FAQ section of their website, Asterik studio mentions that none of them have more than 2 years at community college (not saying that they're the top firm in the world or anything, but their work is certainly inspiring and this fact should be encouraging to you).

Feel free to email me if you'd like to know any more about my experience.
posted by chimmyc at 8:05 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, everyone. It sounds like AI is something I should avoid, since I am looking for a place that will really teach me what I need to know, and not breeze right through it so quickly. It sounds like the best way to go would be to go for a real program at a real school, but I admit I'm hesitant to wait for 3 years to give this a shot. It gets back to the post I made before this one, where I'm still trying to determine if this is what I want to do with my life. It's the best idea I have at the moment and I am excited about it. I'm just worried that i will lose that excitement once I get through a program and start working; so you can understand why I'm hesitant to take on a very expensive graphic design program.

But perhaps I just need to bite the bullet and go for it. I don't think I'll know until I try. And I really need to find a place that can teach me good art basics, too, like drawing and such, so a well-respected, well-taught degree program is probably what i need. Mass Art's looks the most appealing to me right now, since I can probably take it while still working during the day, even though I know that will make me crazy-busy.

Do any of you have any advice for how to obtain financial aid for this type of thing? I'm not sure how it works for this, since it's not exactly right-out-of-high-school. Is there any sort of federal need-based aid?

Thanks again. This is the best community ever.
posted by inatizzy at 5:13 AM on October 14, 2006

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