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Launching Your Design Career: Which Type Of Education Is Best For You?

Quick Summary

If you’re stuck in a job you hate and have dreams of becoming a designer and working in a creative role that fills you with excitement daily, the road to entering this completely new industry can feel daunting.

Making a major career shift late in life to follow your passion is scary. Not only is it sometimes difficult to know where to start to learn about an expansive field like design, but it can also feel risky, especially if you’re working a secure job.

Table of Contents

If you’re stuck in a job you hate and have dreams of becoming a designer and working in a creative role that fills you with excitement daily, the road to entering this completely new industry can feel daunting. Making a major career shift late in life to follow your passion is scary. Not only is it sometimes difficult to know where to start to learn about an expansive field like design, but it can also feel risky, especially if you’re working a secure job.

Luckily, you’re not alone! According to a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker changes jobs two times every four years during their 20s and 30s, driven by a desire to follow their passion, improve work-life balance and gain a stronger sense of fulfillment in their work. Additionally, over 2 million Americans quit their jobs every month, driven by a lack of fulfillment and recognition for their work. Thankfully, becoming a professional creative is now more accessible than ever because of the numerous educational resources available.

However, with so many resources out there for learning design, how do you choose the perfect method that fits your life? Rest assured, there is something for you. Whether you’re a high-school student getting ready to graduate or have been working in another career for 40 years and are looking for a major change, the right education exists!

Regardless of the type of design education throughout history, one of the most consistent things emphasized is the importance of learning from experts. Expert-based one-on-one learning is proven to be more impactful than learning by yourself and has been taught for thousands of years. Michelangelo himself, and most other painters throughout history, apprenticed with an established artist (Michelangelo apprenticed with Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio). Many acclaimed modern designers did not attend traditional schools but instead learned by immersing themselves in design and finding a teacher to mentor them. For example, Stefan Sagmeister (the founder of global design agency Sagmeister and Walsh) started his design career by working on layout and typography for the design team of an Austrian magazine called Alphorn, long before receiving a formal design education.

Stefan Sagmeister of Sagmeister and Walsh
Stefan Sagmeister of Sagmeister and Walsh (View large version)

Let’s return to the present. With so many options available just a few mouse clicks away, how do you decide which option is the best fit for you? And how do you ensure you’re getting feedback and critiques from experts that will help you quickly and efficiently build up your skills. We know that the options can feel overwhelming, so we’ve put together a list of the best ways to learn design according to your personality, budget, lifestyle and personal goals.

Before you read the rest of the article, we recommend answering the following questions first (write your answers down):

  • What is your preferred learning style? Do you learn best in a classroom or working on your own?
  • Do you learn best when surrounded by other students and teachers?
  • What type of learner are you? Do you learn best by listening to lessons or seeing things taught visually?
  • What are your restrictions on time, budget or family? How much do you want to spend on your education? How much time can you devote to it?
  • Do you like to learn quickly or go at your own pace?

Once you have answered those questions, everything else should fall into place.

Do You Prefer To Learn In Person Or In A Classroom?

If you’re the type of learner who absorbs things best when you’re in a real classroom surrounded by teachers and other students, and assuming you have the luxury of going to a classroom full-time, you’ll want to consider an in-person design education. The two main ways to do this are via a traditional design college or an intensive bootcamp.

Parsons School, one of the most renowned design colleges in the world
Parsons School, one of the most renowned design colleges in the world (View large version)

Traditional Design College

If you have the budget and time, then a formal education at an accredited design school is still one of the best ways to become a designer. Not only will you spend years learning the fundamentals and practicing with modern design tools, but you’ll also be constantly surrounded by students who are just as passionate as you and by teachers with decades of experience in several industries. Top Universities and Learn How to Become both offer a list of the best design schools in the world, and Niche lists the best schools in the US.

Upsides:

  • You’ll spend years learning the fundamentals at a design college. This can really help to set you apart when you’re looking for a job and expanding your technical abilities.
  • You will be surrounded by hundreds of people who are always trying to do their best work and by teachers who live and breathe design education.
  • Many top design schools pride themselves on constantly updating their curriculum to keep up with modern design trends.
  • An incredible alumni community and career services department will help you find a job upon graduation.

Downsides:

  • It’s slow. If you’re hoping to become a designer as quickly as possible, then design school likely isn’t the best option for you, because most programs take at least three years to complete. Some colleges have expedited programs, but those will still take at least a year.
  • It’s expensive. Most traditional design schools will set you back at least $100,000.
  • The curriculum is fairly inflexible. After choosing a major, you will have more choice in which classes to take, but you’ll still be required to spend at least a year focusing on a set core curriculum at most schools.

Perfect for anyone who:

  • learns best in a small classroom setting and likes to have someone to hold them accountable;
  • thrives when surrounded by other people who are trying to accomplish the same things as them;
  • has a high budget (design school can cost well north of $100,000 over several years);
  • has the flexibility to quit their job and not work for several years (or just work part-time).

How well does this option prepare you for the job market:

  • Attending design school will prepare you for a design job better than anything else, if you have the time and financial resources to invest in it.
  • You’ll spend a tremendous amount of time learning both the fundamentals of design and the technical skills needed to land a job in the field. You’ll also graduate with hundreds of portfolio projects to choose from when presenting yourself to employers.
  • It’s undeniable that a traditional university will give you the most well-rounded education and require the least continued education after graduation. You’ll get exposure to every aspect of the design world, from fashion design to illustration to UX design.

In-Person Bootcamp

If you don’t like your job and are looking to move to a more fulfilling career as quickly as possible, then an in-person bootcamp might be the best bet for you. In-person bootcamps come in many shapes and sizes, but they generally include 40+ hours of weekly classroom instruction, as well as frequent group assignments, one-on-one sessions with an assigned mentor, and great job placement opportunities once you complete the program.

General Assembly holds in-person design bootcamps around the world
General Assembly holds in-person design bootcamps around the world. (View large version)

Many bootcamps allow you to pay up front or take the course for free if you agree to pay them a fixed percentage of the salary from your first post-bootcamp job! Some of the best-reviewed in-person bootcamps are run by General Assembly and Shillington. Course Report has a full list of in-person bootcamps.

Upsides:

  • The job placement opportunities are extensive. Bootcamps cater to people who are trying to find a job quickly. Upon graduation, most bootcamps hold job fairs, with a lot of companies in attendance (mostly from the tech world).
  • You’ll be surrounded by a lot of other hyper-motivated people just like you. During most bootcamps, you’ll work on group projects with your classmates and be paired with mentors to give you feedback and critiques.
  • It’s fast. Most bootcamps pack an entire design education into three months. They’re hard work, but you can bet you’ll come out the other end with more knowledge than you thought possible in such a short timeframe.
  • The curriculum is built around the most modern and up-to-date design theories and tools, with a focus on preparing you for the job market.

Downsides:

  • It’s still expensive. While much cheaper than a traditional school, a bootcamp can still run you $10,000 to $15,000 over three months.
  • The curriculum is not flexible. Bootcamps are intended to teach you the basics and to make you proficient as quickly as possible, so they adhere to a single curriculum for everyone. If you’ve already spent several months taking online courses on the subject you’re pursuing, you might find yourself bored for the first month or two of the bootcamp.
  • You’ll have to keep learning once the bootcamp finishes. Three months isn’t a lot of time, and many employers will want to see that you have not just completed a bootcamp but have also actively continued to learn and build your portfolio afterwards.

Perfect for anyone who:

  • has the flexibility to quit their job and dive head first into their design education;
  • prefers learning in a small classroom setting, with a lot of one-on-one interaction between teachers and students;
  • is interested in entering the tech industry (most of the jobs available after a bootcamp will come from tech companies that see the value in hiring motivated newcomers, even ones who haven’t spent years in the field);
  • anyone who likes to learn in an intense, fast-paced environment (a bootcamp will push you to your limit, because it usually includes 50+ hours of classroom learning per week and runs for about 13 weeks nonstop — be ready to work hard).

How much will this option prepare you for the job market?:

  • Next to a design college, a bootcamp is the most effective way to quickly learn design skills while having constant access to teachers and a classroom of peers who want to help you succeed and improve. This helps bootcamps stand out from most other educational paths.
  • While you’ll spend time learning the fundamentals, it’s impossible to get a full education about every aspect of design history and concepts in just a couple months. And you’ll likely produce only a few portfolio pieces that you’re truly proud of, because many bootcamps focus on a lot of small projects, which the class works on each day, and they allow time for only a few larger personalized projects that you can showcase in a portfolio.
  • If you attend a bootcamp, you will need to continue your education on your own after graduating. Many employers are hesitant to hire bootcamp graduates right out of the program because they know their skills are still fresh. In order to stand out and land a job, you’ll need to continue learning afterwards (both concepts and technical skills) and build a handful of laser-focused projects that demonstrate not only that you are adept at basic design skills, but also that you have a unique style and you grasp tangential skills such as UX design and front-end development.

Apprenticeship on a Design Team

Finally, one of the most traditional ways to become a designer historically has been to enter into an apprenticeship on a design team at an established company. While apprenticeships can be a bit more difficult to find these days, many companies are still willing to teach young designers via hands-on experience, similar to an internship. And while apprenticeship opportunities are easier to find if you have at least a bit of experience or have done some design education on your own, if you’re able to secure a position, it can be one of the most effective ways to learn quickly. You might have more luck finding an apprenticeship (or internship, as they are more likely to be called these days) at a large company with established HR and recruiting teams. Smaller agencies and studios are likely looking for interns who can immediately contribute to projects with little to no hand-holding. There’s no better way to learn the real day-to-day skills of a designer than by working alongside professionals at the height of their careers.

Apprenticeship provides an opportunity to learn design in a real-world environment
Apprenticeship provides an opportunity to learn design in a real-world environment. (View large version)

How much will this option prepare you for the job market?:

  • If you’re able to secure an apprenticeship at a company you like, then a strong performance and demonstrated willingness to learn and improve could be a direct pathway to a job offer. And even if the company doesn’t have any openings, hardly anything is more valuable to other employers than a personal reference letter from a designer at a real company who has enjoyed working with you.
  • Working as an apprentice, you’ll likely learn hands-on skills that are much more readily applicable in a real office environment than what you’d learn in an online course on the same subject. Learning the short-hand of designers and seeing how design actually functions and works in a job is invaluable.

Do You Want To Learn Online?

Quitting your job to attend a bootcamp or a full-time program at a university isn’t a realistic option for most people. Luckily, a wide array of options cater to people who prefer to learn at their own pace and who don’t have a big budget. These alternatives still let you work through a structured curriculum built for those who are trying to build a career in the design field, and many of them even feature one-on-one components.

Online Bootcamps

Schools such as Bloc and Springboard have been paving the way for online bootcamps. Their curricula largely mirror those of their in-person counterparts, the difference being that you work from a laptop instead of spending 40 hours a week in a classroom. Course Report has a full list of online bootcamps.

Upsides:

  • Like in-person bootcamps, online bootcamps offer extensive job placement opportunities.
  • They’re fast. Also like in-person bootcamps, online bootcamps pack years of education into a few short months.
  • They’re flexible. Online bootcamps generally let you take lessons at your own pace. Some lessons are taught live, and others are prerecorded videos, allowing you to work around the other responsibilities in your life.

Downsides:

  • They’re still expensive. An online bootcamp will run you between $5,000 and $15,000 for three months of education.
  • The curriculum is not flexible. While the speed at which you take lessons is a bit flexible, you’ll still need to adhere to a rigid curriculum and complete assignments by certain deadlines.
  • They’re not highly personalized. While you’ll be assigned a mentor and will work with other students on projects, you’ll be missing out on one of the things that makes bootcamps so effective: being constantly surrounded by other motivated students and teachers. The benefits of an in-person education are hard to quantify, but they exist.

Perfect for anyone who:

  • wants to dive headfirst into a design education but can’t necessarily spend 40+ hours per week in a classroom;
  • likes to learn on their own but also thrives when working on assignments with peers;
  • likes to learn in an intense, fast-paced environment (like an in-person bootcamp, an online bootcamp will push you to devote yourself to it entirely — expect to spend 40 hours a week learning, with a bit more flexibility around what time of day you’re learning).

How much will this option prepare you for the job market?:

  • Similar to an in-person bootcamp, an online bootcamp is another effective way to learn the skills you’ll need in a real job environment.
  • In an online environment, you’ll need to make a concerted effort to connect with the students in your class and to chat with them online every day. Because the curriculum in these programs is a bit more self-guided, you’ll need to set up recurring video chats with your classmates to get the most out of the program and to ensure you’re able to learn from each other.
  • And just like an in-person bootcamp, you’ll need to focus on continuing your education afterwards and building up personalized projects that match your interests and the type of job you want.

Structured Online Courses

For many people, a full-time design education might be too much, for a variety of reasons. Luckily, many design schools have built lighter-weight courses that allow you to learn design at your own pace and still get the benefit of periodic one-on-one feedback from mentors.

If you want to learn with a mentor, there are a few great options that pair curriculum with periodic mentorship sessions. Skillcrush is an awesome resource for anyone looking for a part-time education. It will hook you up with projects, periodic feedback sessions and frameworks to help you learn design and accomplish your goals. Thinkful has its own part-time design program for people looking to learn at their own pace.

On the other hand, if you prefer a totally self-paced course, with no mentorship, then services such as Treehouse have hundreds of courses covering every aspect of the design world, from design fundamentals to freelancing. These courses allow you to go through a preplanned “track” at your own pace, complete with projects, online communities of other students and great customer service. However, one-on-one mentorship is still crucial, regardless of which online platform you use. If you decide to learn via a service such as Treehouse, which doesn’t offer mentorship, then we’d suggest setting up periodic mentoring chats with outside services that let you schedule individual video chats with design mentors whenever you need some feedback or advice.

Upsides:

  • They’re affordable! These courses generally run between $20 to $300 per month.
  • Work at your own pace. These courses allow you to enjoy the benefits of a structured curriculum, while moving at your own pace and spending as much time as you need to master skills.
  • They’re flexible. While the basic curriculum is fixed for many of these part-time courses, you can easily supplement your education by taking as many different part-time courses as you want from other websites.

Downsides:

  • Mentorship is not a focus. Some of the pricier self-paced courses let you chat with a mentor periodically, but you won’t have as much constant access to teachers as you would in a bootcamp.
  • You won’t have classmates or peers to help you stay motivated and grow.
  • Job placement opportunities are not built in. If you go down this route, you’ll be on your own for finding a job. Luckily, there are many great job placement services for people trying to break into new industries.

Perfect for people who:

  • don’t like a traditional classroom setting;
  • prefer to move at their own pace and learn on their own;
  • want to keep their current job while learning to become a designer on the side;
  • don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to spend but still want a quality education!

How much will this option prepare you for the job market?:

  • Following a structured online course is a great way to learn design skills on your own. Because the courses are built on a curriculum that teaches you design in a logical order, you don’t have to worry about whether you’re learning things in the right order or missing any major concepts.
  • The most important thing to remember for this option is that the amount of work you do is completely up to you, which could be good or bad depending on how motivated you are! Taking a few online courses will definitely not be enough on its own to prepare you for a real job. You’ll need to create a strict schedule for yourself each day, in which you force yourself to watch the video course and then dive into projects that apply the skills you’ve learned that day in Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator. Making the most out of your mentoring sessions (if the platform you choose offers them) is also crucial. For each project you work on, write down detailed questions whenever you’re having trouble, and be sure to ask for detailed feedback on every iteration of your projects. The only way to improve is by practicing and iterating.
  • After completing a structured online course, you’ll need to continue working on projects every day. The benefit of an online course is that you’ll have more time to study specific things that interest you, whereas in a bootcamp or college you’d have a prescribed educational track. As you go through your program, note what types of design are most interesting to you. Afterwards, find similar videos and tutorials that dive into those skills, and start building up projects.
  • One of the most important things in your arsenal when applying for a job is your portfolio. Whether you’re trying to land a client as a freelancer or a regular job, you’ll need to have a focused portfolio of projects that showcase your general design skills, your process and thinking and, ideally, a specialty or hook that is unique to you. For this type of design education, you’ll need to go far beyond the generic projects assigned in these courses and develop projects that are specific to you!

Other Unstructured Online Platforms

If you’re the type of person who has very specific goals and doesn’t want to waste any time learning unnecessary skills to achieve those goals, this could be the option for you. There are literally thousands of websites, resources and platforms online designed to empower the true self-learner, and they come in all forms. They’re also, for the most part, incredibly cheap (or free)! Note that most of the resources in this section focus on traditional lectures and videos, rather than mentor-led projects. If you go down this route, you’ll need to come up with your own projects and hold yourself accountable to keep practicing as you go!

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as Coursera have paved the way for affordable education online. These services take real university courses and rebuild them in an online environment. By taking these courses, you will be receiving almost the same education as people enrolled at universities.

Skillshare offers thousands of classes to learn design at your own pace
Skillshare offers thousands of classes to learn design at your own pace. (View large version)

Skillshare and Udemy are two of our favorite marketplaces for online courses. Anyone can create a course on these platforms, but their teams monitor submissions to ensure quality. You can also read reviews from thousands of students who have already taken these courses to ensure you’re making the right picks.

YouTube is perhaps the most extensive repository of design resources available anywhere, and it’s free. Check out this list for some suggestions on great design channels to follow. While YouTube has millions of videos on every aspect of the design world, it unfortunately doesn’t help you figure out which videos to watch and in what order. We’d suggest finding a great book about the fundamentals of design, and supplementing it with YouTube videos on specific topics whenever you want more in-depth explanation of a concept.

Finally, there are thousands of other resources to teach yourself design skills, from blogs to individual online learning websites to podcasts. If you’re a savvy Googler, the skills you can learn are limited only by your imagination. It can be hard to know which websites are reputable and which aren’t, so be sure to check out a website’s social pages to see what sort of community it has before diving too deep into it.

Upsides:

  • Because you’ll only be consuming content that relates to your specific goals, you can build any curriculum you want across any number of resources.
  • Most of these services are completely free, and even the paid ones (such as Skillshare) usually max out at around $10 per month.
  • They’re diverse. By leveraging resources across multiple websites, you can be sure you’ll be learning design thinking from people across a huge number of backgrounds and perspectives.

Downsides:

  • There is no personalization. Having an experienced designer to talk to while learning design skills is crucial. If you decide to go this self-guided route, we’d suggest chatting with a design mentor periodically to get feedback and direction.
  • You’ll get no job placement opportunities. But remember that there are thousands of job boards (such as AIGA’s) to get you started.
  • You’ll be given no direction. If you decide to learn by yourself, be sure to do a lot of online research to find out what skills you’ll need to learn to achieve your goals.

Perfect for people who:

  • want to learn design in a completely unstructured way and cheaply;
  • thrive when holding themselves accountable;
  • don’t want to quit their jobs or spend significant amounts of money to learn design.

How much will this option prepare you for the job market?:

  • Among those who enroll in open online programs such as Coursera’s, up to 95% of students never finish the course! This is a shocking statistic, but it shows just how important accountability is when teaching yourself design on a totally unstructured and mentor-free platform. No one will keep you on track but yourself, so you’ll need to be extremely diligent about your education on a daily basis.
  • If you go down this route, draw a list of 30 to 50 courses and videos that seem the most interesting to you, or work with a design mentor to build up a curriculum that fits your goals. As you work through your courses, try to engage with other students who have taken these courses, either by commenting in the discussion section of the websites or by joining online communities such as Designers Guild. Try to find a few other aspiring designers at your skill level who you can chat with as you learn. Ask each other for feedback and critiques on your projects. Because these courses are entirely impersonal, finding someone to work through them with is one of the best ways to stay accountable and get ongoing feedback.
  • If you create a personalized project for yourself each time you start learning a new skill, you should be able to build a solid portfolio of projects over the course of several months. Try to think of real problems you’d like to solve, whether you’re creating a brand for a fictional company in an industry that interests you or redesigning the user experience for the app of a company you’d like to work for. Remember that having a strong list of projects is crucial for landing a job, and that quality is better than quantity.

The Self-Taught Route

Last but certainly not least, we want to cover perhaps the simplest way to learn design: by teaching yourself! This is similar to the unstructured online platforms discussed above, but many modern designers have never even taken an online course on Coursera or a similar service. In all honesty, all you really need to do is download Adobe Creative Cloud (and Sketch if you’re an aspiring product designer) and start playing around.

For this route, YouTube will be your best friend. The beauty of the entirely self-taught route is that you can truly design an education 100% tailor-made to you. Want to land a freelance gig as a logo designer in the next two months? Great! You can create a laser-focused YouTube playlist of logo design tutorials and concepts. There are literally millions of tutorial videos online describing how to do the most specific and niche tasks in design software, so the answers to your questions have most likely already been asked and answered. In some ways, you can think of YouTube as an automated teacher, because you can get an answer to any question you have within a few seconds.

For the self-taught route, focus on connecting with other aspiring designers and finding a mentor (as we mentioned in earlier sections), because ongoing feedback is one of the best ways to ensure that you can turn basic skills into deep expertise. If you’re able to find like-minded designers and are committed to learning skills by yourself, you can go as quickly as you’d like. Being scrappy and resourceful is a skill that many employers will love, and if you’re able to show them that you went down a self-taught route because you know what you wanted to achieve and knew you could get there more efficiently by designing your own education, you’ll be in great shape!

Learning design completely on your own is becoming increasingly popular and feasible thanks to platforms such as YouTube
Learning design completely on your own is becoming increasingly popular and feasible thanks to platforms such as YouTube. (View large version)

Conclusion

Having reviewed the different ways to become a designer in the modern world, you might still be wondering which option objectively gives you the best chance of landing a job in the design industry. The answer totally depends on your timeframe, budget and learning style. If budget and time are no matter, then attending a two- to four-year full-time program at a design university is an incredible way to build a deep set of design skills that will increase your chances of launching your career. Spending several years learning something every day is undeniably the most effective way to become an expert in something.

On the other hand, most people don’t have the luxury of going back to school for several years, in which case we’d recommend finding a bootcamp (either in-person or online) that fits your schedule. Spending three months fully immersed in design and being accountable to a teacher and other students for assignments and projects is the second best way to develop design skills quickly. However, after finishing the bootcamp, you’ll have to continue investing yourself in design. Employers are sometimes skeptical that a bootcamp can give aspiring designers a strong enough foundation to be an effective designer in an actual job setting, so you’ll need to prove your passion and work hard to stand above the competition once the bootcamp wraps up.

Spend several hours every day learning new skills, reading books and working on projects directly related to the kind of job and industry you want to work in. Outside of a traditional college, learning from a teacher for several months in a bootcamp and then continuing your education on your own (with the periodic help of a mentor, if possible) and never slowing down is the best way to demonstrate to employers that you’re a serious candidate who’s ready to invest everything in your new career.

So, now that you have a good idea of the types of design education at your fingertips, get out there and find the perfect one for you! If you set your mind to it and immerse yourself fully in the creative world, you’ll be able to learn the skills necessary to build a career in design, no matter which educational route you go down. And look out for an upcoming article on how to find a mentor to help you progress as a new designer, regardless of which educational route you choose.

Smashing Editorial (ah, yk, al, il)

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