I recently got the chance to attend a Designers Debate club put on by AIGANY at the Parsons New School for Design. For those who don’t know AIGA is the professional association for designers. They put on events for practicing designers, in addition to educating the public and students. This particular event was a part of a series where they choose a design related topic and set up groups to debate the pros and cons.

Motion to be Debated: Formal design education is necessary for practicing designers.

This was an interesting topic because I’ve often discussed it with clients and peers. Do you HAVE to have a formal education to be a designer? In a world where professional programs are just a torrent away, couldn’t anyone be a designer? Why is a degree even necessary? Isn’t it being elitist to think it’s a requirement? I think there’s some good arguments for either side, so let’s get into my take on the subject.

PRO: Why a formal design education is needed.

There were some arguments based solely around “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” I think that’s a poor excuse for continuing to do anything. As creative people in general, we should ALWAYS be questioning the status quo and trying to come up with better solutions. Design is problem solving. The better argument is that there’s a learning structure that has been honed over time for creative institutions. Being able to work with industry professionals, get feedback and have honest harsh critiques is a staple of creative education and can visibly improve a student’s skills and work.

This type of education helps form important critical thinking for a designer or creative professional. It doesn’t show you answers, it teaches you how to ask questions. Those are the types of questions that you’ll need to know for any professional career. It’s the type of thing that is incredibly difficult to be learned individually.

I’d also like to point out that being a designer is not just about having a copy of the Adobe Creative Suite. Just because I have a hammer doesn’t make me a carpenter. It’s about using your tools in a way that produces the best results for the project.

Now for the other side…

CON: Formal education is not needed.

There are some good arguments to be made here as well, but the first that came into my mind was: What kind of aspiring, self taught designers would we be missing out on if we somehow required an education? What about people from economically strapped areas? Just because you don’t go to school for something doesn’t mean you don’t have an aptitude and can’t contribute to the medium.

One of the debaters brought up that someone who has never gone to school won’t be saddled with the student loan debt and because they don’t have the financial burden, they can take on riskier and potentially more rewarding projects. There was also the argument that learning in a work environment is more valuable than learning in school. I would agree with that but how can you get employment without first having the portfolio that a formal education provides?

The case was also made about how there are online blogs, resources and forums where you can get feedback and discuss design, eliminating the need for school critiques. My problem with that argument is what is the quality of feedback from these people? Who are they and how do you know if you’re getting good advice?

My decision as a professional designer who has gone through school.

Many of these arguments centered around the fact that formal education is beneficial but the current form of higher education leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t disagree with that. The cost of education is a troubling factor for a lot of people. However, as it is now, I believe that the rewards of getting a professional creative education far outweigh the risks. I also believe that different people learn differently and the structured school environment is not the best for some. While I ultimately believe that an eduction will result in a better creativity, I think this debate underscores the importance of looking at how we educate people at all. Hopefully this can be debated again.

Thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment below if you feel strongly on one side or the other.