I notoriously did not go to university. So when designers ask if I think self-taught or school is better, I can’t give a fair answer.
Of course, design school can be extremely valuable. It’s here you learn the principles and build the foundation. You have all the resources you need and experts dedicated to helping you grow. And if nothing else, you have the luxury to experiment and learn within the most ideal circumstances.
However, those circumstances don’t always reflect the real world. You learn the best-case scenario in school, often without realistic boundaries. You are taught following a specific, curated program of philosophies and guidelines. So when you do enter life outside university, you can’t expect everything to be precisely how your professor said it would be.
So I asked several designers, most of whom graduated from design school within the last five years or so, what most surprised them about entering the workforce after their studies. In what ways, if any, did design school fail to prepare them for the "real world?" What were the expectations vs. reality?
While these are personal experiences and naturally don’t apply to everyone, they highlight misconceptions I’ve heard from many other designers as well.
"Outside of school, time is truly money, and there isn't much to spare."
Misconception 1: Time
“The idea of time – time to explore and time to experiment,” says Cori Corinne, an independent, multidisciplinary designer and 2015 graduate. “In school, you can really dive into a project conceptually and bring forth a deep narrative with every piece of design. Outside of school, time is truly money, and there isn't much to spare.”
As a self-taught designer, this is a lesson I had to learn early on. When you’re getting paid hourly, your time suddenly becomes a lot more meaningful. You can’t always afford to explore every angle, look under every rock and perfectly polish the story behind your concept. You’d never meet deadlines or make money that way. So you learn to use your time wisely, become more efficient and be smart with the time you do have.
“Clients are detached from the creative process so the time put into the narrative isn't as important,” Cori says. “So as a designer, you do learn how to work quickly, but you become accustomed to quick tricks. I think as I grow in my creative process I'm working to always challenge myself to not fall into what's easy, but it's hard when you feel tight on time.”
Misconception 2: You should pursue excellence in one skill
"The push to specialize,” says Aaron Covrett, a freelance 3D artist who graduated in 2019. “For years, I was told that dedication and commitment to a single path equal success. Fortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.”
I couldn’t agree with this more. The ideal designer today has diverse skills, whether those secondary skills are 3D design, coding, videography, illustration, writing, the list goes on. And that’s what many companies seek in a designer. In most interviews I did with companies in our How to Get a Job at X series, creative directors or recruiters said they want the “hybrid” designer, the designer that can help see a project through from beginning to end. That doesn’t mean we need to be excellent at everything.
“Don’t get me wrong; distributing tasks and playing to strengths is vital,” Aaron explains. “But if you’re curious about something on the fringe, get your hands dirty. Being multifaceted offers a new and challenging perspective, and more importantly, keeps things fresh."
I call it being a jack of all trades, master of some. It’s useful to have a couple strong skills, especially when you’re just starting out. But continually building on that knowledge and learning new skills can only make you better.
Misconception 3: There’s a “right” way to design
“One thing that was stressed at school was following specific rules in order to create ‘beautiful work,’” says Matt Vlach, an interdisciplinary graphic designer and recent graduate. “While guidelines and rules are in place based on a long history before me, I've found that the most important part of a project is the experimentation of form through research-driven play.”
If we all stuck to the rules and guidelines we learned at the beginning, nothing new or inspiring or innovative would exist. But by laying the guidelines first, we can more effectively experiment and stray from them.
In a conversation I had with Malika Favre, an artist for the New Yorker and many other publications, she voiced a similar sentiment. Put simply: Learn to follow the rules well so you can break them later. If you look at Picasso’s work, noses where ears should be and vice versa, you might not know he was a master of the human form. Long before he created his famous cubist works, he learned how to draw the human figure precisely. From there, he created works that are so distinctly unique, so far from the rules, anyone today will recognize “a Picasso.”
“Long story short,” says Matt, “the most important part of designing in the industry versus school is that being yourself in your work – solving problems for clients the way you would – makes you an individual that people will seek out, because only you are you.”
"Probably one of my biggest misconceptions was to think that being a freelance designer meant doing design from 9–5."
Misconception 4: It’s all about design
“I was really surprised by how much time I would spend in meetings or on the phone doing project management,” says Georg Schober, a graphic designer and art director who graduated in from university last year. “Probably one of my biggest misconceptions was to think that being a freelance designer meant doing design from 9–5.”
Most designers, whether they work in a standard agency setting or as a freelancer, probably spend at least 50% of their time on everything but design. Meetings, calls, answering emails, chasing clients for invoices, timesheets, checking in with your team. All of it is a necessary and regular part of a designer’s job. It may seem exhausting some days, but it’s reality. No designers I know, no matter how successful they are, have the luxury of simply creating all day long. The better you get at project management, time management and communication, the better off you will be.
Misconception 5: There is one path to success
“The design industry doesn’t care about degrees,” says Anthony Morell. “I didn’t finish school, my portfolio is my degree. So I wasn’t aware of the scope of the design industry. Advertising agency, freelance, small studio, digital agency, corporate agency without creative life, but a big salary… it’s all very scary! So I had to figure out exactly the job I really wanted.”
I can attest to the fact that your work speaks more than a degree, both as a designer and an employer. You may have also seen news announcing Google, Apple and other huge corporations are no longer requiring degrees for their employees.
And as Anthony suggests above, there are plenty more paths beyond just university vs. self-taught. You can work on a team, you can work independently, you can do both at the same time. You can set out to make a “name” for yourself or you can work quietly, just as successfully, without anyone knowing your name.
When you first enter the design industry, you may observe other designers and assume their path is the only right way to do it. You will eventually learn, as you find your own way, that it’s not.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!