May 11, 2013

Design School vs Work Experience

Design School vs Work Experience

Society is simply more comfortable when their surgeons, aerospace engineers and library scientists have earned a degree from an accredited university. However, work experience has value, too, and it’s certainly possible to learn valuable techniques from observation and association. If you were trapped on a desert island and found you suddenly experienced a brain hemorrhage and the only other castaway was the janitor from a neurological surgery clinic,  would you feel major reservations about giving him a sharpened stick and setting him to work? Hell yes you would.

We’re kidding, naturally. There are certain things you learn in an academic environment that you simply can’t absorb just from being surrounded by the workplace. Of course, this certainly doesn’t mean that you emerge from your degree program fully formed and ready to tackle any job or project; you get the foundation and the framework from school, work experience gives you the stucco and window treatments.  We feel that having a mix of both is what can truly make you destined for greatness.

Argument for School: History

When dealing with clients (and yes, that is one of the two main differences between being a graphic designer and an artist), you have to have a fairly detailed knowledge of the works of other graphic designers. This means studying campaigns from the past thirty years or so to determine what worked, what didn’t and why. Now, you can do this on your own, but being in a classroom setting surrounded by people with different ideas will give you a far more balanced and well-rounded perception of other works. Even if your classmates have no ideas and nothing of value to contribute, you can still flex your mental muscles by articulately and elaborately shooting down their misguided concepts. Believe us, it’s great practice for consulting with clients who insist upon making everything vaguely “edgy.”

When you work for a firm, rarely does someone have both the time or the desire to help you learn. There is no safe place for trying new things and making mistakes; you have to know what you’re doing, and you have to exude the kind of confidence that tells your clients that they are in safe and knowledgeable hands. Of course, you can naturally have that kind of attitude and charm yourself into developing a long list of clients, but something else you can gain from academia that you might not already possess will help you keep them, and that’s…

Argument for School: Scope

Many people with a natural artistic bent find it difficult to go to school to help them develop their talent because school forces them out of their comfort zones. You might do one thing really well, but you’re going to have to master many other disciplines before you can call yourself a designer. While you might have your own strength, vision and aesthetic that pleases you, your one dragon-tattoo based concept ain’t gonna fly for a client who wants a print campaign for her obstetrics clinic.

Even if you somehow managed to attract a series of clients that all have very similar marketing and packaging design strategies for which your natural gifts would be perfect, your concepts have to be diverse enough to make your final works seem completely tailored to the client’s needs, rather than something that can be recognized as “your style.” You’re selling your client’s products and services to the public, not your own flair.

Argument for Work: Customer Service

It is very possible to get bogged down by the self-importance of artistry while you are in school. A scholastic environment is more naturally merit based than a corporate environment, in the sense that the students with the most talent and the best work ethic succeed. Not so in the real world, where glad-handing, ego-stroking, fake belly laughs and sales make careers, not necessarily artistic flair. Wow, we sound like embittered old insurance salesmen, don’t we?

Even though you have to have an artistic temperament for graphic design, your main focus in the work environment is Always Be Closing. That’s right – the amount of salesmanship is breathtaking. Not only do you have to sell your own work to close your contract with your client, you have to then sell the client’s product (the second of the two main differences in being an artist and a graphic designer) in such a way that the client is not only satisfied with the response of the campaign, but with the campaign itself and with your work overall. This is one tricky skill.

Obviously, not every school is fantastic and comprehensive, just like not every work environment will supply you with valuable teaching moments. In order to help you become the fully formed graphic designer you so clearly desire to be, you are going to need every available tool; some only come from school and some only come from work.


by Kevin Smith
SmashBrand helps brands create, optimize, and launch successful products, services, and customer experiences. Our data-driven process is the key to accelerating sales and minimizing risks.

We use a strategic combination of market research, design, and consumer testing to solve complex brand problems more effectively, create differentiation, and forge more meaningful connections with customers.

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