I Want to Be a Designer… Do I Need to Go to College?

Do I have to go to college if I want to be a graphic designer? This is a question that I hear on almost a weekly basis. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as cut-and-dry as one might think. These days the rules are much different than those that governed the workplace even five or ten years ago. Do you need to go to college? Well, maybe, and maybe not.

Some Thoughts on College

Before we get into the nitty gritty of where I stand on this whole issue, let’s talk about college for a moment. I’m on record as saying I’m not a big fan of the traditional education system, but college has much more to offer than just education. College is a great place to find oneself and figure out what it is that you’re destined to become in this world. I made several life-long friends while I was in college as well, and I can’t overstate the importance of having a support circle like that in my life.

College isn’t just books and tests, it’s preparation for life, really. Going to college is oftentimes the first experience of really fending for yourself. There’s no one there to get you up in the morning, cook you breakfast, or do your laundry. Mom is usually hundreds or even thousands of miles away, and that can be both liberating and scary at the same time. Even though I don’t think a lot of what is required to “succeed” in college is relevant to the real world, I do think that there are certain intangibles that you get exposed to along the way that make the experience worthwhile to just about anybody, no matter of what area of study you’re interested in pursuing.

Choose Your Path

The first question I ask people when they ask me whether or not they should be attending college is what type of designer they want to be. Do you want to work freelance? Or do you prefer a corporate environment? This is, in my opinion, one of the first decisions you need to make when deciding whether or not you should attend college as a graphic designer. You can always change this choice down the road, but the initial choice will determine much of what you need to do next.

If your choice is freelance, I would argue that you are not required to go to college. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go, but you’re much less likely to need that piece of paper when you’re meeting with clients than if you were trying to get your foot in the door at a big agency. Freelance work is all about the portfolio, and answering the question of “can you do this work?” for your clients. I did freelance work for a few years and not once did a client ask to see a resume, transcript, or diploma before I got the job. All of them, however, asked to see my portfolio.

The corporate world is much different than that of the freelance world. You get the benefit of a steady stream of income, health benefits, time off, and many other perks not afforded to freelancers. However, the corporate world is still ruled by a lot of people from a previous generation that still firmly believe that a college degree makes you better-suited for a given position. In the freelance world the designer with the best portfolio and most competitive rates often wins. In the corporate world, if two designers have comparable portfolios and interview well, the deciding factor more often than not is who has a degree. Until there’s a changing of the guard, college is still a must-have credential in this environment.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, there’s no clear-cut answer to this question. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide what’s best for you and your future. Personally, I think you’d benefit greatly by attending college. There are several things you can educate yourself on while you’re there that will help make you a more rounded designer, like marketing, finance, and public speaking.

Many people ask me if I had it to do all over again, would I have gone to college or would I have just become a graphic designer? My answer to that is simple… I didn’t become what or who I am today until I went to college. The knowledge I gained, the experiences I had, and the friends I made all contributed to the successes that I’ve had in my life since then.

Do you have to go to college? No, you don’t. Should you go to college? Well, that’s a complex question that you’ll need to ask and reflect on yourself.