Do You Need A Design Degree To Succeed?

Design Degree Do you Need one

Do You Need A Design Degree?

Everyone wants to be successful. That’s pretty much a no-brainer. Who wants to fail? I don’t. Actually, I never have wanted to fail at anything, and I don’t know anyone who ever has. One of the questions that I get a lot is: “Do I need a design degree to be successful?”. The problem that I have with this question is that everyone is different. It is tough for me to answer that for you, because I don’t know you. I don’t know how talented you are, and I don’t know your work ethic. There are a lot of factors that go into being a successful designer. Here are some things to consider when going to school for design.

Are You a Self Starter?

One of the big factors in anything you do is whether or not you are a self starter. Do you have trouble staying motivated? Are you determined? Are you a hard worker? Can you prioritize tasks and complete them in a timely fashion? If you are going to tackle learning design on your own, you are going to have to be all of those things and more. You will have to set up a schedule and learn as much as you can. Do one will be looking over your shoulder, making sure you are sticking to your goals and lesson plans.

Do You Need Motivation?

If you look at the aspect of school, you have a staff that is there to help you and guide you. You have teachers, counselors, and a guided program that is set up so that you may learn design in stages. If you’re going it alone, you’ll have to figure out what you need to learn and set up your own personal program, which is a major feat all by itself.

How Do You Learn?

Knowing whether or not you need a design degree to succeed also greatly depends on the way that you learn. Do you have trouble sitting in a classroom, intimidated by other students? Are you an abstract learner? Not everyone learns the same way, but if you attend school, you’re stuck doing it their way. Do you have to be interested in order to learn? The problem is, if you’re going it alone, you can’t just learn what you find interesting. You have to learn it all in order to be a great, well-rounded designer.

The Cost

The average cost for a Bachelor’s Degree is between 40,000 – 60,000, depending on what school you go to, and maybe even more, depending on student loans and scholarships that you may qualify for. That is a huge price tag, when you may not even find a job in the end. Although, if you keep at it and refuse to give up, you’ll find success no mater what.

Do You Have The Time To Invest?

School requires a lot of time and effort if you actually want to get something out of it. You have to attend classes on the school’s schedule, and you have to work your life around being there. That is tough when you work a full time job, but it is possible. I did it, and look back on it with a sign of relief because that part of my life is over.

Do You have Talent?

This may burst a lot of people’s bubbles, but in order to succeed as a designer of any kind, you have to have talent. You have to have something to bring to the table. Do you excel at problem solving and love form as well as function? Great! However, you also need other skills, such as the ability to work well with clients, interpret what they are looking for, and be able to deliver by the deadline. Also, you’ll need to be good at negotiating, because negotiating with clients and compromise is prevalent in this business.

What are Your Work Ethics?

Do you have a “never say die” attitude? Would you stay late to finish a project for a class? Can you study other art forms and create unique solutions to business problems? Are you willing to do a lot of research? To be successful, you’ll have to study different cultures, different industries, and subjects of all kind. If you can do that on your own, great! However, for most this can be tough. Many just want to stick to learning how to “design” on a computer, without learning about the universe that surrounds design. This is where I might actually be in favor of school, if the things they taught you were worth anything.

In Favor of School

Here’s where I play Devil’s Advocate against myself and argue in favor of school. Theoretically, school is where you are supposed to receive a well-rounded education.

  1. You take multiple English courses: These are important for copywriting. If you can’t write basic English, how are you going to write good sales copy?
  2. You take multiple Art courses: These help you understand the fundamentals of aesthetics, etc.
  3. You have a decent level of guidance: Professors are experienced in the field. They’ve been there, and can give you good advice.
  4. Internships: Business are usually eager to help out students that need an internship for school. It’s a win-win, because they get free labor and you get real-world experience.
  5. Job Placement: Most colleges have job placement upon graduation, where they try to help get your first job right out of college. They help you with resume writing, and they compile everything needed to land your first real job.
  6. You have interaction and share ideas with other design students. You get the chance to see a wide variety of others’ design approaches. You get to see what works, and what doesn’t, and you get to see a lot of design concepts.
  7. Design Colleges help you build your portfolio. You work on projects with different restrictions, you have portfolio reviews, and you refine your projects with the objective of getting a job via your portfolio.

What do Employers Want?

It depends on what your eventual employment goals are. If you eventually want to work in a large agency, then yes, you’ll want a design degree. For most businesses like these, they are required in order to advance within the company. You might not even get hired without one, unless you have an outstanding portfolio.

If you just want a design job, basically any design job, as long as it’s design, then you won’t need a degree. Even a lot of small agencies and design studios require a degree. They want to know that they have someone serious on their hands. Degrees show you have the dedication to apply yourself, and it shows character.

My Story

Okay, here is where I tell my story, and then you may decide for yourself whether or not you need a degree to succeed. I went to a local community college for my Associate’s degree in graphic design many years ago. I couldn’t find a job locally as a graphic designer. With two colleges here, there were basically no design jobs. If any became available, they were flooded with every designer in the city. I had a good portfolio, but I was passed up several times only because I didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree (which I think is ridiculous.

I went back to school and received my Bachelor’s Degree from an accredited design college. Even with scholarships and such, I spent a war-pension on classes, and even though I’d had just a little experience, I’d been expanding my knowledge independently since I’d graduated from community college years before. I found that I knew more about design that 95% of my professors, and the whole experience made me sick. While getting my bachelor’s degree, I learned web design. I’d originally started with Flash (Gasp!) and Actionscript, but eventually went to html and CSS. I learned how to build websites, and found that I received more opportunities via building websites. I obtained my Bachelor’s degree, and still couldn’t find a job for a while.

I eventually landed an in-house job. It was a good job, not too demanding, but it paid terribly and had no possibility of advancement. Sick to death of everything, I decided to pursue freelance design on the side. In my off time, I started building clientele through marketing and word of mouth. I eventually built my business and creative Beacon up big enough to leave my job.

After it is all said and done, I own my own business, I make 5 times what I did at my old day job. I build websites, write tutorials, and help other designers learn how to design and use design software. I have met a lot of goals (still have tons more to come) and consider myself to be a successful designer.

Did my design degree help?

Honestly, no. I worked hard, but the design and agency path just didn’t work out for me. I couldn’t get in the door, either because others had more talent or I just didn’t have a high enough degree. I could have gotten discouraged, but I didn’t. I love design so much, and I refused to give up, so I clawed my way up to owning my own freelance design business. Honestly, I think I could have done it without paying tens of thousands of dollars to a school.

So, Do You Need a Design Degree?

When it comes down to it, you have look at what you want, and what you think will fit you, your life, and your goals. If you want to own your own business, forget about school. There are so many places out there to learn design, web design, and web development, that it is absurd to spend money on school. Look at places like Code Academy, Lynda, Udemy and places like that. Spend a few hundred bucks on courses, apply yourself and don’t stop til you have what you want out of your life and your career.


  1. An alternate perspective:
    I know I couldn’t have become a successful designer without my course… it was not an expensive degree, but it was an excellent 2-year college course. I have a great work ethic and I’m extremely motivated so I’m the type that sucked every bit of good I could out of my course. I honestly knew nothing beforehand and wouldn’t have known where to begin to do it myself. The countless hours of critique’s and input from my teachers and class mates over a very intense 2 years gave me the confidence I needed to land a great job a month before graduation, a year later I was asked to join the company I still work for 6 years later. I am able to support my family doing what I love but I’m still growing, always educating myself to learn more. My goal is to build my freelance business to where I can quit my job and work for myself… but growing a business is slow work in my small town so I’m glad I have my day job. Maybe school is not for everyone, especially if you know something to start with, but I didn’t even know what graphic design was… I credit my education for my success.

  2. I worked for 30 years as a designer for ever major studio in Hollywood. My total education in graphic design consisted of my high school art class. In my first graphic position, I went to a small company and told them their work was poor and that I could do better. They bit. From then I managed to find better and better jobs until I wound up in Los Angeles and worked by way through a few agencies to finally be designing for Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers and Disney. All that to say, the cream rises to the top. If you have talent and persevere, you can get somewhere, although admittedly, it is probably much harder today. I do think that it is essential for a designer today to know web-based design, so make sure you learn how to design for the web because the vast majority of jobs are asking for applicants to know web design in and out.

  3. I worked for 30 years as a designer for every major studio in Hollywood. My total education in graphic design consisted of my high school art class. In my first graphics position, I went to a small company and basically told them their work was poor and that I could do better. They decided to give me a try and it changed the course of my life. From then on I found better and better jobs until I wound up in Los Angeles and worked my way through several entertainment design agencies to finally design for Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers and Disney. All that to say, the cream rises to the top. If you really have talent and persevere, you can get somewhere, although admittedly, it is probably much harder today. I do think that it is essential for a designer today to know web-based design, so make sure you learn how to design for the web because the vast majority of jobs are asking for applicants to know web design in and out.

  4. This discussion comes up every now and again. The degree will not make you talented, but it may establish a base line. I did get a BFA in Graphic Design and the greatest thing it taught me was how to think. More knowledge was obtained on the job and I have been doing graphic design for over 25 years. On the other hand, this is also the reason designers do not get the respect they should…. because everyone can learn the software and be a “designer.” To me, the difference is the critical thinking one learns in a good design school.

  5. It is sound advice! Been in that crossroad and decided that, besides wanting to improve myself and learn more, i will like to not get chuck away during filtering of job applications because i didn’t meet the requisites. With the degree, I get opportunities to teach, not just because i win an award during school after working 10 years, and also win another publication award due to the opportunity given through the ppl i meet in school, the advancement of my design and the paper qualification that accredited me. The degree continue to open up doors for me besides my persevering effort to keep my design up to date and presentation of earnest passion in design.

    And yes, i do agree… if you are sure that you are going to be self-employed and good with making design, managing a biz, then degree probably won’t be super effective with the academic fees.

    Keep the fire burning, ppl. Go with the heart. Nothing is ever loss with that.

    Amy Ong


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