Is College Necessary for Design?

by | May 25, 2020 | My Life Adventures, Story Time | 28 comments

Iv’e been getting a few comments on here and in my online groups asking me the same question and what my take is on it. I figured I would tell you my story and experience so you can decide if it is right for you!

I was fresh out of high school when I was under the impression I needed to go to college, get a higher education to get a good-paying job. What did I major in?

Computer Graphics & New Media. Also known as: Graphic Design. 

How did I do it? Well, a huge thanks to my web design and digital design teacher from high school, they helped me out by putting together a portfolio and helping me apply to colleges.

Now, let me tell you something. I went to a university. The reason I chose this university was that you started your major the first day in. The other colleges I applied to didn’t start you on digital mediums up until junior year and I knew I didn’t want that. I wanted my primary focus to be on digital design. I would be living on campus and I wanted that college experience.

I will be very blunt here looking back while writing all this.

I do not feel graphic design should be a major in ANY  college. I feel like it is better suited as a minor, not a major.

In my personal experience, the design courses I took did not apply to the real world after I graduated. It was almost as if we were in a bubble making everything pretty and nice- but honestly, once you get out there- you realize all those pretty and nice designs probably won’t print well on certain mediums. You also realize there is so much more that goes into design than what is taught.

It’s not just making something look nice. It’s understanding what kind of printing. Who will print it. It’s making things legally compliant. It’s a business interaction. It’s interpersonal skills. It’s communicating with the client. It’s accepting criticism.

Which leads me to my next point:

Midway through my degree, I switched my major. I wanted to do business, not design. I was bored of all my design classes. I wasn’t being challenged and wanted to focus more on courses I felt would benefit me in the long run.

Yet, there was one huge obstacle in my way:

The business programs were heavily math-based and for those who don’t know me, math and I do not go well together! (unless it’s HTML or PHP, I’m cool with that).

I remember talking with one of my accounting professors. He was a bit confused as to why I was there. I told him I someday wanted to own a business. He kind of laughed and said to me “You’d hire an accountant if you owned a business! Not become one! Do what you love- your passion is design. Go grow your portfolio”.

He was right. Design is my passion. Well, Illustration is actually my passion (I always thought designers could illustrate but I guess that was not true hah).

So, I went back to switch my major. However- in the time being since I moved into a business major, I was unable to go back to my original design program.

Instead, I got a cool option to customize my program as I now fell in between two design programs- the new and old.

I had an idea…

I wanted to take the bare minimum design and art courses and instead, I wanted to focus on business and legal classes. All of my electives I wanted to be something that would benefit me if I ever were to go on my own.

So became my obsession with cyber law. Which, by far, was one of my favorite classes!

I loved researching trademarks, copyrights, and patents. My 15 page paper on WordPress GPL themes actually won an award too which was super exciting!

On a somewhat funny note while all of this was going on, there was an English writing class I had to take that was test-based (ie- you took a test each week with a certain subject and if you pass, you are done with that class for the trimester). I kept failing the professional writing tests and I couldn’t figure out why. I always considered myself to be a decent writer (and grammar freak), so failing an English course really got under my skin.

I was talking to my Cyberlaw professor one day who mentioned that the way I often spoke and wrote about subjects was so technical that most people probably had no idea what I was talking about. I figured my cyber law paper won an award- I had to be ok at writing, right?

I ended up taking the test with a different professor who passed me my first go! Low and behold, my cyber law professor was right. I suppose talking about building WordPress sites and going into detail about my process when developing sites wasn’t really a good choice for a “what did you do this summer” assignment hah! Mind you I have been doing websites since 2002 (taught myself and took some classes in high school).

So, I guess you all want to know about the design classes though, right?

Well. Honestly. I don’t remember much of them. I remember being bored. I remember asking for more homework because I was so bored. I honestly cannot tell you what I learned from any of my design classes because I feel like I didn’t learn much.

I won some awards and had my art at some exhibits. 

My partner and I won the state NSO competition for desktop publishing and got to compete in nationals in Anaheim, CA.

There was one bookbinding class I enjoyed! Other than that…

I tutored students because I was bored. I made my own comic series. I did some paid freelance jobs on my own.

I took an Internship my senior year and learned a lot from the freelancer who was there. She was amazing and taught me more in three months than I learned in 4 years as far as design goes. So honestly kudos to her, she went above and beyond what she had to do to teach me and she was an AMAZING mentor!

If you were to ask me what design classes I liked, I honestly can’t tell you because I feel like looking back, none of them really resided with me. They all meshed into eachother like one big blob.

So, let me tell you now the expectation set for us by our design professors upon getting ready to graduate my senior year.

“Junior entry-level designers should be making a starting pay of at least $24.00/hour”.

Sounds awesome, right?! I remember this too because all of us were so excited because that seemed like such a great starting range! We would only make more money from there, then who knows!

So, now it’s almost May 2012 and I am getting ready to finish up my internship and all that fun stuff.

My tuition total for a 4 year “Graphic Design Degree” was about $136,000.00. My payments out of college would be $1200.00 a month.

Alright, well starting with $24.00/hour is good so that will help, right?

Well, my internship at the time offered me a job- starting at $10.00/ hour. I had to politely decline because there was no way I was affording an apartment, $1200/loan, and my utilities and everything else.

I graduated and moved back home.

I started applying for jobs. What I was seeing was baffling me. Why were the starting pays so low? Was I not searching the right criteria? Was I doing something wrong?

I was able to snag an interview with a lead art agency in Boston, MA. They did a full assessment of my website, portfolio, resume, and professional profile. I remember sitting down and them asking me:

“What do you think you should be making an hour?”

I told them point-blank what our professors told us. The expectation that they set for us. I remember the interviewer looking at me and going “they told you that was the norm?! You are lucky if you will be making $10.00/hour starting as a junior entry-level designer!”

So came that awful sinking feeling. How would I ever be able to afford anything with that and the massive loan I had every month?

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention I had a Bachelor of Science. So while I was interviewing with companies, many thought I did robotics or IT and didn’t even read my resume. So I had quite a few pointless interviews where I got midway and they said “oh. we thought you did IT”. Apparently adding to the top of my resume my major and portfolio link didn’t mean much to them when they were shuffling through applicants.

At one point, I was told I was overqualified because I had an internship. I was getting rejected from entry-level positions when I never had an actual job.

SO! I decided instead, I would apply to specialist positions. If everyone is saying I have the skills, why not?

8 months, over 1000 applications and 24 in person interviews later… (yes, I counted)

I ended up with my first job! It was for a packaging designer.

The funny part was, they hired me more impressed on my business background than the design background.

Anyways, I lived at home and pretty much just worked to pay my $1200 a month for that degree. Most of it was interest, too! So my loan was actually going UP in price!

It got to the point four-years in, my Grandfather actually took out a special loan to pay it off in full to get a better rate with less interest which helped out, but still…

My degree was not worth it in my eyes.

I’m in debt for 50 years. The price for a designer, working for someone is not there in the pay scale. It took me 7 years to work my way up to that $24.00/hour and I was doing project management- not even design!

So, what am I trying to get across here?

Be smart! For me, I was young and right out of high school some what pressured into going to college, thinking it was the right thing to do. Had I known that it would suck the life out of me for well, half of my future life (i’ll be 65 when its all paid at this rate), trust me- become a self taught designer or take some design classes- do not invest 4 years in a university like I did and put yourself in my situation. I’m pretty much in a situation now where I can’t move out or do much financially because everything goes on that loan. I was able to save money though while living at home for the last 7 years, however.

I am very fortunate though to have a wonderful family, great friends and an awesome boyfriend supporting me. After much talk, I recently left that project management job because I wanted to be creative and pursue my own market. Is it a risk? Oh, totally is. Yet I want to go back to something I dreamed of many years ago when I was in college.

I will be starting my own business. I’m young, ambitions, highly motivated and I need to break into the creative industry. I need to be able to focus my 100% on my work, building a portfolio and client base. I need to network with professionals in the industry who can provide me with advice and direction. I wasn’t getting anywhere with where I saw my career while managing projects and deadlines. If anything, I was pushing my passion further and further away. I had people reaching out I had to decline because I didn’t have the time to help them due to my work overload.

Yet, starting my own business allows me to build it from the ground up. I can run things how I want to run it. No cutting corners, no getting thrown under the bus and being stripped of my creativity. I will network and research and give it a shot, because it’s something I foresaw myself doing years ago. I finally took that step to make this a reality.

So, where do you fit in all of this? Granted, i’m sure there are much cheaper options for a design degree. Every college is different. 

My best advice is if you can, get a business degree and minor in design! 

With a business degree you can apply that across multiple industries. 

If you are dead-set on design, here are some pointers to consider before you enroll or think about college/ higher education:

  • Make sure you know the market in your area and/or where you plan on working
  • Are you looking at a state college, online college or university?
  • What is the starting pay where you are for a junior/ entry level designer?
  • Can you pay for your education if you get a job with the minimum starting pay?
  • What is the overall price of your tuition? Can you justify the cost?
  • Is there a backup plan if the market in your area is saturated and you need to find work elsewhere? Are you willing to relocate or work doing something else to be able to pay for your education?
  • Do you have a niche?
    • ie- A niche can be helpful. For example, while I did graphic design I also focused on print, packaging and illustration. So you could always narrow-in on something to dedicate some of your time towards

Now, what if you cannot justify the price for a design degree? Honestly, there are a lot of options still! I know plenty of self taught artists and designers who are very successful for themselves. You can always further your education though classes on skillshare (which I highly recommend looking into) or youtube. Some places offer night classes or certifications- you can look into that and see what they have in your area. Better yet- take some time to focus on what type of designer do you want to be (niche), and how can you break into that industry.

  • Do you want to be a general graphic designer? (ie- do it all! logos, flyers, etc)
  • Do you want to do packaging design and compliance?
  • Do you want to be an illustrator?
  • Do you want to be a web designer/ programmer/ developer?
  • Do you want to do print?
  • Do you want to get more into advertising and marketing?
  • Do you want to design for magazines/ editorial?
  • Do you want to freelance?
  • Do you want to do surface design?

Knowing what you want to be your focus area can help you get an idea of what kind of jobs to look at when you research.

Now, I did this backwards. I didn’t know the market before I went to college so I had no idea what I got myself into once I graduated.

Location is also key.

Your location determines greatly the starting pay in your area. It might be $10.00/hour in my area but be $16.00/hour where you are.

Don’t forget to look into the cost of living and other expenses if you are planning on not living at home! 

I have included a generic summary breakdown for what I did when I graduated to weigh my expenses. These are some options to consider when you are looking into if you can live off the job provided in your area and commit to the loan.

Note: Not all of these may apply to you and your situation:

  • Job Based
    • Starting minimum pay:
    • Monthly pay:
      • 401K’s
      • Medical:
      • Dental:
  • Apartment/ Housing cost (per month):
    • Utilities (per month):
    • Gas/Electric/Oil (per month):
  • Car (per month):
    • Gas (per month):
    • Car loan/ Insurance (per month):
  • College loan (per month):
  • Credit Cards (per month):
  • Children/ Childcare (per month):
  • Pet Care (per month):
  • Other (per month):

I know this can seem overwhelming at first. The reason I wanted to outline all of this in such detail is that I am currently living this. I have been unable to do so many things because of my college loan/ education. It is the price of a mortgage in my area! 

I want to prevent others from making the mistake that I made.

I want artists and designers to know the truth before committing and do their research so they don’t get blinded when graduating to the harsh reality of the job market. 

Make smart choices. You are your best advocate. 

This is simply my experience with the whole college thing. I have heard people say “education is never wasted“. I still cannot justify the high cost of it in relation to the job market. Now I know what goes into it.  Now I want to share that with others who may be in the same boat. I hope that at the very least, this can help you decide if higher education is right for you or weigh the options in front of you before you commit to something that may take a lifetime to pay back.

What about you? Do you have an experience you would like to share?

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4 years ago

Thank you so much for the time you put into this. I am the original poster who was asking about this on one of the other articles and you provided so much insight that I now have some direction. I too was under the assumption that a degree would offer more pay. Thank you for going into detail about the actual prices because all of my searches I was seeing such inconsistent. I actually out of curiosity googled my area to see the listings and I discovered I am actually making a lot more at my current job than if… Read more »

4 years ago

WHY WAS YOUR EDUCATION SO MUCH? Is that a standard price in your state? I got my graphic design degree for much less. About 36k which still to me is a lot and I am struggling paying just that bill I could not even begin to imagine what you must be going through. I did commute and live with people so I had no living expenses. I will say though I did not get the luxury of taking any business based classes. I started with traditional mediums and worked my way up to digital two years in. Your experience sounds… Read more »

Reply to  Franchesca
4 years ago

Please post and link your blog if you do it. I’m graduating and want to read all the stories I can. Ty.

4 years ago

This here. Thank you! I’ve been a group lurker and clicked your post because I too was curious about your take and I was blown away by this. Thank you for giving us the reality of what college can do to you. Higher education is not always worth the price and it is sad to say you are paying for it now. Just like many of us are. I too was doped into this. My loans are nearly not as bad as yours but I have a hefty sum I owe and there is no work as a designer near… Read more »

4 years ago

Now I am really happy to be a self taught designer! Thanks for the read and detail. I have no desire to get a degree in design after reading this and all the comments here. I’ll stick with freelancing for now 🙂

Thank you everyone for input.

4 years ago

I love how you went into so much detail with the price tysm. This is exactly what I’m looking for. I’m still in high school but I’m looking into taking a year off then going to college. Maybe. After reading this I am not so sure. I might want to read other stories to see if this is normal? What state are you in if I may ask? Any advice on what kind of work one can put in a portfolio when freelance? I love doing logos but I am open to other areas of graphic design. I just did… Read more »

Reply to  Kristina
4 years ago

Ty! Yes I will have to look into blog groups. That is a great idea I will need to do that. Can I email you? For portfolio advice? You seem to be really smart with this and are the first person responding to me and it means a lot. I reached out to other artists online and never heard back. I came across this post from a friend who shared it with my mom because she must be in one of your Blog groups. She showed it to me and told me that she doesn’t want to see me fall… Read more »

Anders Viera Dones
Anders Viera Dones
4 years ago

Hey Kristina! I was finally able to read your article and wow, what a story! I know we talked about this the other day, but for others I’ll discuss my own personal situation. I’m a recent college grad–an English major with a Concentration in Creative Writing–and I too, like others who have commented, have encountered the harsh realities of the current job market. Many entry-level job prospects require unrealistic qualifications, and it is discouraging, especially after being told by professors, parents, etc., that there are jobs available, and that job security is something guaranteed with a degree. Do I regret… Read more »

Bernard C.
Bernard C.
3 years ago

I found you on IG. Glad I decided to check this out cause this is what I have been feeling. I am 2 years in with my GD major and have been thinking about leaving since remote learning started. Not because of that but because I am bored and the classes are just not challenging. I feel I am going nowhere with this major. I hate critique classes because it just seems like opinion. Bill hates this design but Becky loves it. How do you know if a design is good or bad? It seems all like opinion. Like when… Read more »

Jeremiah F.
Jeremiah F.
3 years ago

I know this article is almost a year old but I couldn’t help but check out your site after reading your story in the Procreate group. I am so sorry that you are going through this. This is by far one of the realest posts I have seen in awhile and I am sorry that people chose to not heed the warnings. What you said is so true and I too agree that design is not the best major. I only have a minor in graphics but I decided against going for jobs in graphics due to the low pay.… Read more »

Jeremiah F.
Jeremiah F.
Reply to  Kristina
3 years ago

Sorry that person was being rude to you for sharing your story BTW. At least 5 of us agree with you though. I really think you should share this link in the post to show the realities. Plus all the comments here may be helpful for that person to make a decision on what to do and if they want to attend university for an additional degree in design. Just a thought. I’m going to share this with my friend James who is also a designer because I think he should read this and share his thoughts. I’ll tell him… Read more »

Reply to  Jeremiah F.
3 years ago

YO THIS! Some people are just rude. I was curious about this story too. There is a lot of good points and info in this post. I’m just an hobbyist so I only draw for fun. Why are some people so nasty? Like, OP here is just sharing her story and trying to be honest and then this person just comes across all being rude telling her that GRAPHIC DESIGN IS THE BEST FIELD OUT THERE WITH SO MUCH WORK AND EVERYONE WILL GET A JOB IN DESIGN BLAH BLAH. NOT TRUE! My cousin got his bachelors in graphics and… Read more »

Reply to  Amir
3 years ago

I thought it was odd to that the person was giving advice but unwilling to share her work and posts. I feel like most people in that group are very happy to share their websites and instagram. Why would some designers not have one or a website? Glad I wasn’t the only one curious. Giving advice but not showing what that degree did seems suspicious to me.

3 years ago

I just wanted to say thank you for making this blog post public. I to read your story like a few others here in the Procreate group and wanted to just say thank you for putting this all out there for people like me to think about. I know you did not directly post this but I saw your website listed and was curious. I understand people in different countries may have other experiences but moving to the US and trying to find work as a designer has been hard for me. I was contemplating on getting a alternative degree… Read more »

Mike B
Mike B
1 year ago

I found your blog thanks to the Omtech group and I was saddened to read this post. It also gives me hope that I can learn to be self taught and I do appreciate you taking the time to write this out. I was contemplating taking some design classes at a local college to learn some new tricks but now I am not sure if I want to take that on. I was not thinking of a degree but I just want to learn program basics so I can work on my own designs for my product lines and maybe… Read more »

About the Author

Kristina is a full time freelance illustrator, graphic & web designer as well as an avid DIY crafter! She loves nothing more than creating all kinds of things. This blog showcases her latest projects, shop updates, stories, reviews, freebies and more!

When Kristina isn’t making stuff, she can be found hanging out with her Goldendoodle pup Daisy and her two Axolotls, Pickles & Popcorn.

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