There’s a very serious debate raging about whether there’s value at all in going to a college or university anymore. The massive debt pressure you put yourself under for the rest of your life is a strong argument that it’s not worth it. If you leave school with $100K, $50K, or even $25K in debt, can you honestly say your education has given you a leg up in life? It’s difficult to justify it when the power of a degree in the employment market has substantially weakened over the past generation.
That’s not what I’m writing about today, but it’s good context.
If you want to be a designer, I believe there’s still tremendous value in traditional design education. In fact, I credit having one as being a key part of my successful freelance design career.
Why? Design fundamentals.
What are design fundamentals?
It doesn’t matter what kind of designer you are — graphic, digital, web, mobile, interactive, UX, UI, product, branding, [insert your favorite label here]— the same set of underlying fundamentals are what you apply daily to solve visual design challenges. These are things like:
- Space/negative space
Anything on that list you don’t recognize? If so, you may wish to polish up those design fundamentals before your next job. Here’s why.
Why are design fundamentals important?
They are the building blocks of everything creative you produce.
Being a designer without knowing the fundamentals is like being a chef without understanding flavors or being an engineer without a knowledge of geometry and physics. Sure, the chef could have amazing knife skills, but they’ll probably create beautifully crafted, tasteless food. That engineer could have an amazingly creative mind, but their creations may not be fit for purpose and fall over the next day.
If you know only one thing as a designer, these fundamentals are it. There’s no shortcut or sidetrack. They need to flow through your blood.
Can’t I learn those things online?
Not really. Not very well.
This is where the traditional education environment — a classroom full of instructors and other students — is an invaluable resource. Partly because these concepts start out quite abstract, personal instruction and repeated application are how you learn them best. Also, learning through trial and error and witnessing the successes and failures of your fellow students is far quicker than learning those same lessons all on your own.
But perhaps the biggest reason a traditional design education is ideal is one major factor: critique. Any design student will be well versed in giving and receiving feedback. It’s how you improve at anything. And, unfortunately, the internet is quite a broken place when you’re looking for constructive critique.
Without serious, constructive, and frequent critique from both peers and teachers, the learning process evaporates.
How many of us wish Dribbble were a place where you could share work for genuine critique instead of just a vanity contest where the most impressive fake interface animation wins the most “cool”s and “nice job”s?
There have been, and will be, design communities that have started out with the lofty goal of creating a place for serious critique online, but the very nature of online engagement opposes that goal, and they inevitably degrade into the shallow popularity contests you see today.
Without serious, constructive, and frequent critique from both peers and teachers, the learning process evaporates. You’ll stagnate quickly or learn so slowly that it will feel like you’re not learning at all. Self-critique, although possible, is very challenging even for the most well-trained and experienced designers — it’s not an adequate replacement for the real thing.
There are online resources that attempt to teach the design fundamentals, and I have no doubt many of them were created with the best intentions. But theory is one thing, and practice is another. Putting the fundamentals to use is only valuable as a learning process when you can get the immediate and useful feedback you need to realize your faults and improve for next time. That’s where a classroom environment can never be reproduced.
This becomes even more important if you choose a freelance career, where you’ll be working on your own more often than not. You won’t have the support of a design team to help you fill in the gaps on the job, so your success or failure lands squarely on your shoulders and depends completely on the right training.
My design education experience
I got a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with an emphasis in digital media. It was a traditional four-year undergraduate university program. By far, the most important and frequently used part of my education has been the fundamentals. I learned them from required drawing and painting classes as well as a class specifically called “Design Fundamentals,” which covered most of the list above, from theory to practice.
There are also many “softer” skills you gain from a university education that you don’t naturally absorb from online tutorials—things like the design process, managing your time and deadlines, problem-solving, collaborating with others, how to give and take critique, communication skills, etc. The value of these cannot be overstated. They are equally as important to a successful design career as any other job-specific skill you can learn.
Be the designer with the fundamentals and experience to weather the storm of ever-changing trends, and you’ll offer value to your clients and employers for as long as you like.
It must be said, though, that any design education with a digital focus will require a lot of self-learning. The technology and techniques in our field simply change too quickly for educational curricula to keep up. Skills like coding, in particular, require frequent supplementation and continuous learning to stay up to date. The good news is, those skills are the kind that are most easily learned from online resources. It’s the fundamentals — the concepts that never change — that are absorbed most quickly and deeply in a traditional education environment.
Fundamentals vs. tools
What this all comes down to is: How do you, as a designer, provide the most value to your clients or employer?
One flaw of many educational resources — and this applies to some colleges, universities, and design schools too — is an over-emphasis on learning specific software or tools. This is also a flaw in the strategies of many new designers or freelancers.
We think if we become a master of Photoshop—or Illustrator, Sketch, Figma, or whatever—learning all the keyboard shortcuts and hidden features, then there will surely be work for us. For all the time you spend mastering that tool, you’re spending less time mastering design.
The trouble is, tools change. They can change quickly.
Tools are like design trends. They impress when they’re new, but then the next new thing comes along, and you throw them away when they’ve reached their expiry date.
Employers are part of the problem. They put far too much emphasis on buzzword labels and software proficiency. Instead, they should shift their focus to hiring people based on fundamentals, soft skills, and a disposition toward learning new things.
As an employer, would you rather hire a designer with a firm grasp of all the fundamentals needed for truly timeless and effective designs and have to train the person in Sketch (which takes a few days max) or hire a designer with amazing software proficiency in every app under the sun but who struggles with problem-solving or maintaining consistent design output because they don’t know how to replicate an effective design process?
I know which I’d choose.
The right education makes you a more valuable designer
Be the designer with the fundamentals and experience to weather the storm of ever-changing tools and trends, and you’ll offer value to your clients and employers for as long as you like. Be the other designer, and you may find it difficult to deliver results today and even more challenging to adapt in a few years when the technology has all changed again.
The fundamentals are the foundation of consistent design success. Become best friends with those fundamentals. If you’re plateauing in your design career and can’t figure out why you can’t equal the great work of inspiring designers around you, you may just need to get better acquainted with those old friends.