Do You Need A Degree In Graphic Design?

Blogpost by Bejan Douraghy. He is the founder of Artisan Talent, an award winning staffing agency that has been inspiring better lives and matching talent since 1988, with offices in Chicago, New York City, Indianapolis, Washington D.C., Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

It used to be that you had to have a bachelor’s degree to succeed in the professional workforce, but that is changing. Many Designers and Developers are now asking themselves, do I even need a college degree?

Recruiters and Hiring Managers used to look at your degree as the first thing on a resume, but times are changing. “As higher education becomes less accessible due to rising tuition, and as more alternative learning platforms proliferate online, more people are able to acquire in-demand job skills without a formal college degree,” says Lauren Dixon, Associate Editor of Talent Culture.

Heading off to study design? Should you go to a traditional four-year university? Yes or no? Artisan Talent Recruiter Lauren Ray says:

The long-winded answer is: it depends. It depends on the industry, it depends on the company, and it depends on the niche. UX positions won’t necessarily require the types of degrees that traditional Graphic Designer jobs do. A huge, conservative financial company might want to see that B.A. while a small start-up agency might not.

It’s a good idea to have a degree though, because college in general teaches you a lot of life skills — how to manage time, how to keep on deadline, how to network — these are all skills you need to be a successful Designer. It matters less where that degree is from.

Obviously there are pros and cons to each side.

The ‘Pros‘ of Graphic Design Degrees

The pros of having a graphic design-specific bachelor’s degree is that you tend to get more technical experience with software, hands-on design, and instructors who are veterans of the industry…meaning you leave school with a tailor-made portfolio, having taken industry-specific business classes.

Educational experience aside, some employers simply won’t consider applicants without a degree. Sixty percent of employers hiring college grads over high school grads told the Chicago Tribune that skills for those positions have evolved, requiring more highly educated workers.

In general, the job market is much tougher for people without higher education. The unemployment rate in early 2016 was 5.8 percent for people with only a high school diploma, compared with 4.5 percent for those with some college and 2.5 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Tribune. Having a degree can put you in a more specialized group. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2015, more than 59 percent of adults completed some college, but only 33 percent earned their bachelor’s degree or higher.

The ‘Cons’ of Getting a Degree

With the fast pace of technology and ever changing needs of businesses, skills become quickly outdated. “The useful shelf life of a professional skill has shrunk to less than five years, which means gone are the days where the skills an employee acquired while getting their college degree are enough to sustain them throughout the expanse of their career,” said Mordy Golding, director of content at LinkedIn Learning.

The design industry especially changes with lightning speed. Something you learned in school could be nonexistent in today’s market. Technology, hardware, trends in design, all change. So after a while, a degree becomes something that no longer matters, and what does matter is the work and that you’ve kept your skills up to date and remain adaptive.

How Your Career Path Factors In

Another element to consider is the direction you want your career to go. Fancy yourself working with huge, multinational corporations in finance or education? You’re going to need a degree. Want to work freelance? You may be okay to skip it.

“In the freelance world, the designer with the best portfolio and most competitive rates often wins,” says Justin Seeley on 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,” he says.

The shift toward hiring those with nontraditional educations is going to be something that’s really, really good. “It’s just a matter of getting to a point where employers can really trust and understand the value that different types of nontraditional educational approaches brings,” says Aaron Michel, co-founder and CEO at PathSource.

How Can Employers Help?

Matt Muench, Senior Program Officer in the employment program at the Joyce Foundation, was quoted in the Tribune saying employers often use college experience as an easy way to winnow down large applicant pools and as a “crude proxy” for soft skills. This can result in overlooking qualified people with the same skill set. “A promising solution is for employers to adopt skills-based hiring and broaden their perspective of who can do the job,” Muench said.

Limiting yourself in this way could make companies miss out on the best talent. We’ve all heard about Bill Gates and his garage…but think of all the rest of the untapped talent out there. “When you only recruit from the same pools that you’ve traditionally recruited from, obviously the supply there is not sufficient to cover the demand,” said Kieran Luke, of General Assembly, a skills-based education provider Artisan often enjoys partnering with.

How can companies open themselves up to skills-based hiring? Obviously, working with a staffing partner who knows creative jobs is the easiest. Professional Recruiters have pools of talent ready to work and know their skills inside and out. If that’s not in the budget, spend some time making sure the hiring team knows what skills job applicants need to have and how to test for them.

Experience Matters

Bottom line? Experience matters. If you’re in a hiring position, don’t rule out applicants with online-based educations or boot camp experience. If you’re a designer, don’t rule out continuing education. Adaptability and skills are a sure bet for hiring the right candidate.

Recruiter Ray agrees, “One thing I’ve noticed after spending 17 years in the design world, is that the creatives who constantly reinvent and adapt are the success stories. The ones who were amazing in school and at the beginning only continue to be amazing if they stay sharp and they keep their focus.”

A degree can’t teach you that — that comes from inside.