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Design Cuts

“Appreciate the genuine, real conversation – seriously chocked full of value. Looking forward to the next episode!”

Episode 4: Formal Design Education, Worth It?

In this episode we discuss whether a formal design education is worth it, or if you’re better off being self taught. We also look at what employer’s commonly look for when hiring designers, and how to make yourself a more attractive candidate. Some of the answers may surprise you!

Show Notes for This Episode:

[1.00] Finding out what is really in a design course
[2.15] How Lisa’s formal education helped her (and didn’t help her!)
[3.00] Some of the best points of a formal education
[3.50] Do employer’s ever look for a degree?
[4.30] The ego of only feeling like a designer if you have a degree
[5.15] Some of the more fun projects within a design degree
[6.00] Ian’s design education (multi-media course)
[7.19] Why courses don’t always help give you a ‘creative edge’
[7.50] There’s no substitute for experience
[8.00] Why the right decision for education depends on you and your nature
[9.00] Some designers that Ian follows who are getting an education whilst building a portfolio
[10.30] Employers look for experience above all else
[11.05] How we hired Lizzy for Design Cuts (she took her work to the interview)
[12.20] You have the weigh up the right path for you
[13.30] Why design school can give you accountability (but some other options for the self-disciplined)
[15.00] What Lisa looked for when hiring people in her role as an Art Director
[16.00] Design education can go both ways
[16.55] The financial cost of a formal education
[17.30] Other ways you could allocate the finances
[18.45] Think about what you want to do for a creative career (broad vs niche)
[19.40] Dustin felt like a poser, not having a degree
[20.25] Tom’s shortcomings from being self taught (the dreaded comfort zone)
[22.30] Design education can teach good process and workflow
[23.35] A design course helped Lisa a ton with her botanical painting
[24.10] Dustin’s music course, and his honest experiences of this
[25.50] Picasso’s ‘learn the rules so you can break them’
[27.00] Dustin chatting about the Beatles
[27.50] Lisa on how she does several courses a month
[28.50] “You can to train your head first, so your heart can soar” – Dustin and Lisa’s upcoming hit song lyric!
[30.00] How Ian benefits from online courses
[31.30] Why we should take advantage of the education available to us online
[33.00] Follow what you’re passionate about, there is no set path!
[33.40] Ask people who have been there and done it

“A must for every creative freelancer (or those aspiring to freelance). Thank you for being so… honest! Such a wealth of information from people I admire who have ‘been there and done that’. Listening to the podcast every week feels like I’m among friends. Can’t wait for more episodes!”AG_GD

23 Lovely Comments from our Community:

  1. kim says:

    Once again, another amazing discussion. Such an important one, too. I DID get a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design and now I have a huge student loan debt. There are aspects of my education I felt were valuable, learning the rules and such. But would I do it again? Personally, I probably would. I wanted the degree, but in all honesty, it didn’t help me get a job. I was in my late 40’s when I went back to school and it took 5½ years to complete. I’m glad I stuck it out because of what I was able to teach my daughter about education (no matter what form), perseverance and commitment. I’ve been out for almost 5 years now, and have still not had a formal job. Granted, I don’t look too hard. I’ve done some freelance work, but mostly I took matters into my own hands and started my own business. It’s been tough, and I’m lucky I have a husband who can support me. But I’m doing what I love, I’m my own boss and I make sure I keep learning. I agree with you in that area 300%. Be humble. Don’t think you know everything because you have a degree. I also have a Skillshare account with 112 tutorials waiting to be watched. It doesn’t matter if I already know Illustrator, Photoshop, calligraphy or illustration … because there is always something else or some different technique I can learn. I feel that education is a lifelong endeavor and it’s my responsibility to be proactive in that belief. Thank you for another great discussion, Tom, Ian, Dustin, and my favorite illustrator … Lisa! (Yes, I was surprised you still take Skillshare classes!) 😉

  2. Eliza Veta says:

    Thank you guys for another interesting discussion. Each time you are chosing the topic that corresponds to my reflections and doubts when I think about my job perspectives. I used to think that I have no future in graphic design because I don’t have formal design education and can’t use a real pencil or a brush to create something. I doubted my creativity and tried to change profession. Luckily I managed to gain some self-confidence, and I can see how my skills are improving, leaving the clients happy and satisfied with my work. Your podcasts are not giving some specific information, I see them more like a support group chat, but they make me feel a part of the graphic designers society and I am happy to know that a lot of us share the same thoughts and doubts regarding our profession. This particular podcast is a huge endorsement for the self taught designers like myself. Though I still believe that the formal design education is a good thing and can give a great basis for the future career, I am relieved to get yet another confirmation that you can be a good and successful designer even without diploma.

  3. Leslie says:

    I’m one more person whose confidence was lifted by this episode. I took a couple of commercial art courses in high school, and I majored in art — focus on sculpture — in college. However, I also majored in sociology and followed college with degrees in theology and law. I am old enough that I predate desktop computers, and I did not use a computer until I was a practicing attorney. But I became the lone attorney to join in whenever the folks from Microsoft came to train our clerical staff on the latest software — and I always stayed to ask more questions afterward. I ended up leaving my partnership at the law firm to return to my first calling, pastoring a church. There I encountered the banal clip art that clutters so many church newsletters. I couldn’t tolerate it, so I combined my love of art and my understanding of how office software functions and began figuring out Photoshop. I revamped all of my own church’s publications, then started doing the same for the churches of friends. That’s when a spinal stroke sent me into early retirement. Amid the many voices of sympathy, there was one clergy colleague who sent me an email saying it was time I started getting paid for my design work. A spinal stroke affects the body, not the brain, he reminded me, and then he told me to get to work. That was several years ago, and my online design business is now humming along, while my freelance work has steadily increased just through word of mouth. Along the way, I have taken several online courses in such things as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign (thank you, TastyTuts). I also have met with various types of printers who have generously taught me how best to prepare and package my work so that they can produce what my freelance clients need. The variety of the work I get asked to do is terrific, and I am having a great time providing clients designs they use, enjoy, and appreciate. But, at the end of the day, I still don’t have a degree in graphic design, and so I have wondered if I could legitimately called myself a graphic designer. After this podcast, I have decided that the answer is, “Yes.”

  4. Melissa Williams says:

    Thank you for this very interesting podcast! I think we live in a very exciting age where knowledge and education are more accessible than ever because of the Internet. I am a very late bloomer. A few years ago,with small children at home, I did an online Graphic Design course hosted by a local university which included basic graphic design theory as well as how to use Adobe Illustrator. It was a wonderful introduction into the world of Graphic Design but I knew that I was not and still am not fully equipped to apply for a GD job in the formal sector. I am more entrepreneurially inclined. What was missing for me is the local network one builds while one is studying or in an internship, such who to approach for print-on-demand, or fine art printing, for instance. Am I wrong in assuming one would find those contacts while in an internship or studying? I have through trial and error found some suppliers and services but am not entirely convinced I am on the right track with them.

  5. Leigh Maslij says:

    Seriously amazing job guys!

    I don’t often make comments for things like this but felt like I needed to reach out and say a few words.

    I’m a young guy living in Australia and I’m a self taught designer. After switching a career path and moving to a new city a few years ago, I felt kinda lost, kinda isolated and kinda shit at design. It’s been a journey, with the constant ups and downs of ‘Am I good enough?’, but I finally feel like I’m confident on my path and it’s been resources like this that have helped me dramatically – not only in ability but with my state of mind about it too!

    I love that you guys are honest, likeable, totally unpretentious and just willing to help others. Your talks are real and give relevant info about what your audience needs.

    Just want to say thank you! I hope you encourage and inspire many people around the world ⚡️⚡️✌🏼

    • Lisa Glanz says:

      Hi Mari-Nella,

      So thrilled to hear the podcast has helped you feel better about your creative path! If you don’t want to straight-out quit your job (if you’re like me, that would freak me out!), then I would recommend working on your freelance business in your off time – week nights and weekends where possible.

      If you don’t have any clients or small jobs to start off with, I would possibly think of either approaching businesses in your area or reaching out to friends and family and letting them know you’re available for freelance work. Word of mouth is one of THE most powerful tools to grow a business – do your freelance jobs to the best of your ability and go that extra mile for your clients, so when someone asks “do you know a designer?” They’ll be tripping over their feet to recommend you.

      And if you’re feeling a little uninspired from being in the same design rut for so long, you could choose a “dream” client as a mock job and design what ever gets you excited, like wedding invitations, or quirky book layouts, for me it was company branding for unusual companies, not corporates. This would be a fantastic piece to add to your portfolio and when you go see new clients and show them that piece, you will be proud that it came from you and the vision was yours from beginning to end!

      It really is possible to have a great and happy freelance business. It does take time and hard work, but if you’re willing to put that into the mix, you’ll succeed, gaurenteed!

      Hope that helps! Best of luck my friend 🙂

  6. Andrea says:

    Thanks to you all for taking the time to put out another thoughtful podcast!

    I agree that your innate creative talents and your passion will show to prospective employers and clients more than formal education. I agree, too, that experience and practice are key to developing the skills needed to actually create the stuff that’s in your head. The main reason I chose to enroll in a graphic design program is to learn design theory. I thought that would be a way to establish a foundation and differentiate myself from others who may know the design programs technically but may be lacking something beyond just the technical skills. I heard a designer say once that it is important to “get the bones right,” so I always think that anything good must have the bones right, even if I can’t see it. I also wanted to receive feedback from instructors – for some validation (as Dustin said, so I don’t feel like a poser). I hope I’m not wrong, as it is a significant investment (although it’s a continuing education diploma, not a university degree, so the cost is much less).

    As usual, your podcast provides lots to think about. Thanks again!

  7. Shellie says:

    I’ve enjoyed all the podcasts, but this is the first one I’ve felt I had any input worth sharing. I have experienced both sides of this debate. While I have a job that deals with a lot of design work which pre-dates my formal education, I have found that the formal education has not only sped up my work, but really elevated it as well. Listening to your descriptions of your different educational experiences made me realize just how different my school, OSUIT, is. (Shameless alma mater plug) It’s only a 2 year program and the overall goal of the instructors is to mold students into well-rounded designers with good portfolios. What really makes the program unique is that the school has hired people who have worked for years in the design industry, rather than hire “instructors” with advanced degrees. Plus, being a 2 year state school program, I won’t have to mortgage my great-grandchildren’s future to pay for it. While I’m glad that a formal education isn’t a requirement to be a designer, I am an advocate for it…at the right school.

    • Lisa Glanz says:

      Exactly!! You can become a master at something just by doing it! Experience and pratice is an amazing thing, I think especially for creatives.

      • Lisa Glanz says:

        Hi Andrea,

        I don’t regret the investment I made into my formal design education for a second, so I’m sure you won’t either. I also believe that a good foundation will set you apart and that’s the main reason I enrolled in my design college. I saw time and time again throughout my graphic design career the positive impact the formal training had on me and my work. There will always be those that flourish without it, and those that flourish with formal training, but for me personally it was a game changer, and it sounds like you are a perfect fit to benefit from it!

        Keep at it and enjoy the learning process!

        • says:

          Hey Leigh,

          Thank you so much for taking the time to leave such an awesome comment!

          I know your incredibly kind words will absolutely blow the team away and we cannot tell you how happy it makes us to hear that you are feeling confident again 😀

          A big thanks for all the support, it really does mean the world.

          • Tom Ross says:

            This comment is incredibly moving and inspiring Leslie. You’ve certainly been through a lot, and I’m incredibly glad to hear that you’re now focusing on the work you love. It sounds like you are absolutely a graphic designer, and a good one at that! An education is definitely not a barrier to becoming successful, as you’re proving right now.

            Thank you so much for sharing your story, and I’m thrilled that our little show could help you to validate what you may have already known about yourself :).

        • Tom Ross says:

          Thanks so much for commenting Leigh. State of mind is a huge part of being a designer, and we all seem to get periods of self doubt. It’s important to realise these are normal, to be honest just go to show that you’re striving to get better.

          Your feedback means the world to the four of us, so a huge thank you for taking the time to write. I hope that you’re continuing to enjoy the show, and if we can help in any way with your creative journey, do let us know :).

  8. Mari-Nella says:

    I absolutely love your podcasts. Being self thought myself and also always not feeling worthy because i never had a formal education, this has helped a lot to feel better about my path and career.

    Do you have any advise for a self taught ( or any designer) who wants to go and freelance on a permanent basis? I have been in the industry for 10 years. I live in Namibia. I have just started feeling I don’t get the satisfaction out of my career as I used to, working for an agency. I really want to get on my own and know that I get what I put it.

    Any advise?

  9. Lindsay says:

    You don’t mix colors just for shits and giggles? Man, that’s a favorite pastime. Though, in your defense, I learned color mixing in a university acrylics class and have been painting since I was a child. It’s just another hobby for me. haha, I’m teasing.

    I’ve always struggled with not having a degree, but the person who introduced me to graphic design has no formal design education and doesn’t even watch tutorials or take online classes. He’s been using photoshop since the beginning. So, whenever I’m feeling like an impostor, I think of his 4 TIME magazine front covers, his brain special cover of TIME, his Memorex tape packaging design, and his Superbowl commercial. Thankfully I’ve always had that to remind me that you don’t need a formal education. It helps that I know more about illustrator than he does. 😉

  10. Tamy says:

    This is fantastic! Exactly how I feel. The Picasso comment, know the rules so you can break ’em. And Lisa, yes, you totally make sense. Train the head so the heart can soar.. just what I needed today. Thanks to all of you!!

  11. Yolanda says:

    I really enjoyed this episode, thank you for liberating me from feeling like I wasn’t a full fledged designer without a diploma!

    • Lisa Glanz says:

      So happy this episode helped you feel that!! I use to feel the same way about illustrating, but now I feel because we’re creating anyway regardless of our formal skills, we’re still designers or illustrators in our own right! 🙂 And no one can really change that fact!

      • Tom Ross says:

        Thanks for sharing your experience Shellie :). It’s great to hear that you’ve had such a balanced and practical education. I’m definitely envious of the workflows and professionalism that degrees can impart, as I know through being self taught I’ve picked up so many bad habits and had to learn through trial/error (which can be stressful and expensive!). Honestly, it sounds like it was a great fit for you, and definitely a fantastic school :).

        • Tom Ross says:

          Hey Melissa, thanks for your comment and kind words about the show :).

          I agree, it’s a hugely exciting time, and more easy than ever to educate yourself on great design.

          In terms of building up a network, there’s no one best path, it’s really down to you to put yourself out there. Whether you’re surrounded by fellow students, fellow interns, or just out there on social media, it’s all about your being proactive in your business development and ‘networking’ (although I hate that word). Just focus on forming meaningful connections, and remember – the key is always to provide more value than you receive from the other person – it’s the key to a strong partnership.

          • Tom Ross says:

            Thanks for your comment Eliza, it’s great to hear from you. You’re definitely not alone in self doubt, it’s something we all go through. It’s great to hear that your confidence is building and I’m just excited we can be part of that process. The show started almost like group therapy for the four of us hosts, so it’s great that feeling can extend to you and other listeners :).

            So yes, 100% yes, you can be a successful designer without the diploma, just keep up the awesome work!

            • Tom Ross says:

              Hey Kim!

              I love this comment! We’re definitely not against formal education, and you’re living proof of some of the best aspects of it. Even if it hasn’t directly helped you to land a job, it may have done so indirectly. Besides that, as you pointed out, it helps to teach all kinds of qualities that benefit any freelancer or business owner. It sounds like you’re in a fantastic situation now, and I can definitely relate to the joys of running your own business.

              Thanks for all your support Kim, and I hope that you’ll keep enjoying the show :).

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