Academic options for self-taught designer?
June 1, 2004 3:25 PM   Subscribe

What are the academic options for a self-taught graphic designer who wants to become more "cross-trained" in the field?

Short story long:

I've been doing web design (Photoshop, HTML and a little Flash) for five years for a small family-owned web shop. As I contemplate moving to a larger city, I realize I'm way behind the curve in terms of skill-set and employability. I basically need to be much more well-rounded in order to compete but I'm not sure how to go about doing so. For example I'd like to learn print design and some theory, but am not interested in taking a four year program at art school. I already have a bachelor's in Creative Writing and am not sure I want to start school all over to learn graphic design.

The truth to all this is that graphic design is not a huge passion for me. I like it and I'm pretty good at it and I think I should probably continue doing it for the meantime, but mostly it's a comfortable way to make a living while I concentrate on my real passion which is playing music.

So I guess what I'm wondering is: are there one-year continuing ed programs that immerse you in all-around web skills like what I'm describing? Do art schools offer shorter, specialized immersion programs? I've Googled some of the answers I'm looking for, but I'd like to hear from any designers out there who've found efficient ways to become more well-rounded. Thanks!
posted by dhoyt to Education (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in the same boat -- bachelor's in music performance, self-taught web designer via books and work experience.

All I can say is if you want to try a tech school or even some community colleges, talk to the students first and ask to look at the books/syllabus. Then quiz the hell out of the teacher. I went to a tech school for about 6 months and ended up teaching the class. It got me what I needed (a certificate) to get a job, but I didn't learn anything beyond what I could teach myself.

Granted, this was back in the boom when anyone with web skills was working, not teaching. But couple that with a student body that largely thought work in computers=instant $$$ and you get a paint-by-numbers certificate mill churning out graduates who are underskilled and lack any real passion about their new career. Avoid these places like the plague.

There is an online school called that looks to suit your needs, but I have not heard any first-hand comments from former students. And my experience w/tech school has made me very leery about any continuing ed. programs. Maybe someone here has taken a course or two?
posted by Sangre Azul at 4:51 PM on June 1, 2004

Fixed link. Ugh. Stupid musician.
posted by Sangre Azul at 4:54 PM on June 1, 2004

I'm almost finished a nine-month program that I've really enjoyed. A couple of caveats, though:
  • I'm not a designer.
  • If you've been working in the field that long, you'll inevitably find parts of any such program trivial or even wrong. Try to substitute of courses where you can and resign yourself to doing a review where you can't.

posted by timeistight at 5:11 PM on June 1, 2004

Here's what you do. Check out a class you might be interested in and get their syllabus. Then get a library card and save yourself the dough. A degree is not going to help you nearly as much as raw experience, particularly if you're any good. If you're not very good, then a degree still won't help you, but you'll also be a few grand in debt. Save your money; school is a racket.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:17 PM on June 1, 2004

...unless, of course, you get into Cooper Union or some other top-name school. Then the degree might be worth something. Going to some rinky-dink 2 year program with night classes is not going to substantially improve your talent any more than taking a few hours each night and practicing or reading.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:20 PM on June 1, 2004

Check out the local community colleges. If the city is big enough, it should have something to offer you at a decent price. From my experiences, the quality of teacher can go from totally incompetent boob, to experienced professional (a professional can help you find out which skills are actually in demand at the moment).

Really though, a lot of software could probably be learned well enough on your own, from a book. What you miss out on here is watching someone experienced with the software using it, and everyone acquires their own tricks and shortcuts, which can be very, very handy. Also, books only explain things in one way, generally, and if you don't understand that one way, and how it's presented, you can make a lot of extra work for yourself. If you get stuck, a half-decent teacher can usually help pull you out.

If, however, you're looking to hone your basic skills as a designer and an artist, you should really take a class and find a good teacher, because books are largely useless here. Art schools are better for this. Just watch out for the many, many flakes who pose as teachers, but actually suck knowledge out of your head. They're worse than useless and they are rampant in the informal classes scene.
posted by picea at 6:31 PM on June 1, 2004

Are you sure that you need that kind of training to be able to make money off of your skills? A close friend of mine is a credentialed graphic designer, and from what I've heard from her and her friends, it sounds like entry-level graphic designers generally hold one of two kinds of positions: they're either paying their dues at a design firm or department, or they're the only designer around and have to work in an environment that takes a lot of license with the process and discipline they studied in school. That being said, if design isn't your passion, are you sure you want to invest in that kind of education and career track? If you've got decent pixelpushing skills and a portfolio to speak for them, then there are plenty of small businesses, software firms, etc. that will have a use for the skills you already have.

I think the main benefits of formal education, in any field that I've had enough exposure to to make this call, are the connections you make, the reading lists you get, and the critical feedback you get on your work. I don't think a formal program guarantees you any of these, but at the same time, you don't need formal training to get them.

Here's another random idea: If you have a decent head for business, why not take what you know and just use it to start a web contracting firm of your own? You could manage a pool of freelancers (designers, programmers, copywriters, whomever you need to put together a web site). Your prior experience would come in handy, but you wouldn't be limited by your design skills.
posted by MonkeyMeat at 10:59 PM on June 1, 2004

Ignore the technical books and get a good grounding in theory, history, color, typography & grid. Read the Thames & Hudson typography manual, the Bringhurst book, the old Hurlburt layout book, and ignore all the annuals. Cancel your subscriptions to Print & How & the others. Read.
posted by luriete at 10:48 AM on June 2, 2004

luriete hit the nail on the head.
posted by oissubke at 8:25 AM on June 3, 2004

« Older How can I tell the computer that the installed...   |   Graphics on newer games don't look good on my Dell... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.