The Tree of Knowledge, with modern symbols

Why designers should go to college

Oct 17, 2013

Nick Pettit at the Treehouse Blog made a case earlier this week that “Web Designers Don’t Need College Degrees.” His argument, in short, is that a four-year college degree is too expensive, doesn’t provide job-ready skills, doesn’t matter to many employers, and doesn’t give you industry connections:

The time is probably what’s most shocking. A four-year degree takes exactly that: four years! Assuming you live until you’re 80 years old, you only have 20 of these four-year periods in your life. Those four years could be spent working a full-time job where you earn money and gain real experience, but this opportunity cost is rarely considered.

There are plenty of things on a university campus to distract from this hollow void. The sports, fitness centers, swimming pools, activities, dorm life, clubs, Greek life… the list goes on. It’s like taking a vacation at an expensive resort hotel, when instead you could be building savings and a career.

I have a lot of respect for Pettit and his work: I recently became a member of Treehouse, and I love the work he does on their blog and podcast. But as far as his message about designers and college, I couldn’t disagree more. The argument is short-sighted and could steer many young people in a bad direction.

There are incredible designers in the field without college degrees; some of them lead the industry. You could learn everything you need to be a great web designer by studying design and code on your own, learning tools and techniques, and diving into the business. Many of the designers I respect the most did just that. But I don’t think that’s the best path for most young people coming out of high school.

First, let’s get some basic numbers out of the way. Higher education degrees, on average, doubles someone’s lifetime earning potential. Workers with college degrees have about half the unemployment rate of those with only a high school degree. So looking at it from the big picture perspective, the numbers say that in the long run, college is a worthwhile financial investment, regardless of what you study or what you do with that degree. But that’s really the least important reason designers should go to college.

Pettit argues that “college degrees rarely focus on critical thinking skills that apply directly to a job.” And he’s right. Most college degrees aren’t job training; the goal is broader and more general. Helping someone towards a career is a big part of college education, but equally important are a lot of intangibles: learning to write well, to think critically, to explore old and new ideas, to dive deep into into history, culture, literature, science, and philosophy. Outside the classroom, a college education usually broadens a student’s perspective by pushing them outside their hometown comfort zone, introducing them to students from other cultures and backgrounds, and teaching them independence.

I understand that many view a “liberal arts education” as a romanticized, expensive luxury. Pettit suggests that it is an outdated tradition in the world of tech and the web. But while that experience and education may seem esoteric and inefficient to some, it grounds students in a wide range of knowledge and ideas that may prove valuable in almost any career: law, business, government, education, or, yes, web design. The point isn’t to prepare students for one job; it’s to provide them with a broad set of skills, knowledge, and insights to help them with any job.

Pettit shares the example of someone paying $600 to take a one-semester college course on Photoshop, when you could easily pay a lot less to learn the same tool (and a lot more) on Treehouse or some other online learning site. And I agree that it’s a waste of money to pay higher education prices to learn how to use an application. Instead, that student should have spent that money on a course on art history or color theory or design fundamentals. If someone is in a university or college that forces them to take a class on how to use a piece of software, they’re in a bad program and should invest their time and money elsewhere. College isn’t where you go to learn software; it’s where you go to study big ideas, big questions, and learn how to think.

For six years, I worked as an Art Director, and over that time I hired several designers. Every time I posted a job, I got hundreds of responses. The best candidates have a wide range of backgrounds, but they almost always have four-year college degrees (and rarely were they design degrees). The top applicants have fine portfolios and display outstanding technical and creative skills, but they also show the ability to ask good questions, write and edit content, think abstractly and metaphorically, and effectively communicate their ideas and concepts to clients. From my experience, a college education invariably helps designers develop and build those broader skills and abilities that sets them apart from their competition.

Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, nobody knows what their career is going to be at 18 or 19. And you shouldn’t decide whether or not to go to college based on your notion of what you want to do with your life when you’re even not old enough to legally drink.

Let’s say you are finishing high school, love design, love the web, and want to be the next Dan Cederholm, Meagan Fisher, Jina Bolton, or Ethan Marcotte. That’s awesome, but may not be how you may feel five years later.

A college degree is expensive and takes a lot of time. It’s no guarantee that you will lead you to the perfect career or drive you on a straight line to your life’s passion. But, if you take it seriously and apply yourself, it will help prepare and qualify you for a wide range of possible futures. You could definitely skip college and make it as a web designer without a four-year college education, but what if you decide later on that you want to do something else?

I know a designer who has been in the business for more than forty years and seems more passionate and excited about about it now than ever. And I’ve known people who came to design after first working in journalism, politics, and real estate. But I also have a friend who was a web developer for years before deciding to change careers and go into law. I know an engineer who became a psychologist, a lawyer who now teaches middle school, and an entrepreneur who gave up business to become a musician. The most brilliant programmer I’ve ever known is now a venture capitalist. Having a college degree gives you a springboard for a possible second or third professional act.

Contrary to Pettit’s argument, I think you can always learn “job-ready skills” and build industry connections after college. Most college graduates do exactly that. It’s a lot harder to go back to college after you’ve spent years in the workplace, if you’re married, or if you have kids.

Yes, web designers don’t need college degrees. But it’s a bad idea to pass on college because you want to do web design. College can make you more employable, more well-rounded, and — if design winds up being your career — it will almost certainly help you become a better designer.

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