The Advantages Of A Formal Design Education

There are lots of factors that make the environment of a design school more conducive to creativity and new way of thinking. Image source.

I get asked by a lot of aspiring design students if it is better to get an education from a formal design school rather than be self taught, take short online courses and learn on the job. I had the opportunity to study in two design schools — Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh and National Institute of Design(NID), India and my experiences are derived from my time in these school.

While I have met and worked with many incredibly talented and smart self taught designers, I always tell the aspiring students that going to a design school has many merits.

The idea that going to a design school makes one a better designer is debatable, there are lots of factors that make the environment of a design school more conducive to creativity and new way of thinking.

1. Structured Vs Free thinking

Design schools explore the idea of “What can be done” more than “What has been done”. Students are introduced to various techniques to think differently and “out of the box”. Yes, creativity is not a gift people are said to be born with, but a skill that can be cultivated.

2. Multi-disciplinary environment

Design schools usually have multiple programs running in the same campus. I remember hanging out in the woodworking and ceramics workshop in NID and checking out the Dramatics department in Carnegie Mellon University. This proximity with students in other disciplines fosters new way of looking at things and the confluence of different people, ideas and techniques can give birth to new concepts and products.

3. Questioning everything

A large part of the initial year in a design school goes into “unlearning” what you have learnt.

Depending on your age, background and upbringing, it can be a very hard task. Design school tries to teaches you to look at things from an unbiased, fresh, and non-judgemental way and to try to forget preconceived notions. Easier said than done, but a very critical way of looking at concepts when re-designing products or even services. I remember struggling to unlearn the game of Chess when we had to redesign the game for a task. Also embedded in my mind was the instance where a bunch of girls in the school decided to shave their heads for no reason which completely shocked me in my first year. But by the end of my program, when I saw someone making a radical fashion statement(and you will see so many do so in design and art schools) I would be impressed by their unique sartorial approach.

4. Edge while job seeking

The design community worldwide is a much smaller community when compared to say management or engineering. There are few design schools and fewer designers in the industry. As unfair as it might sound, designers tend to be more partial to graduates from their own school. One does have a slight edge of coming from the particular school when applying for jobs. Getting in might be slightly smoother, but remember it will only get you so far. Hard work and talent wins in the long run.

5. Confidence

This is something that I have personally observed many times. Self taught designers take time to cultivate confidence that graduates from design school usually have embedded in them. Self taught designers try hard to prove their merits to make up for the lack of a design education. Design school graduates often have confidence(and at times, overconfidence) and deliver ideas that might appear more credible simply because they have the backing of a formal design education. Self taught designers who have been in the industry longer however, tend to be more confident in their skill and body of work.

Everyone has unique experiences and opinions. My opinion has been overall positive and I would personally encourage aspiring designers to think about getting a formal education.