Self-taught vs studying design


Rogan Jansen | Co-founder | Creative Director | DashDigital | mail me |

Whether you succeed or fail in the world of design has little to do with whether you went to university, college or neither. It has to do with you, the person behind the design and the decisions you make on your journey to success.

Being a great designer is all about the individual, their work ethic, the portfolio they build and very importantly, their love for design.

Going the self-taught route

I always appreciate self-taught designers. They generally demonstrate a keen interest, a proactive nature and strong self-discipline. I find that self-taught designers embody many of the values I appreciate, which align well with our values too.

Our podcast series, ‘Behind the Design’ gave us the opportunity to converse with creatives from around the globe. Interestingly, a considerable number of these designers are self-taught, having risen to hold amazing positions in great agencies. This trend is increasingly prevalent today, owing hugely to the wealth of resources available online. There was, however, a time when there wasn’t very high esteem held for those who wanted to take a route of self-education.

As with other industries, designers were expected to finish high school, go to college or university and get a good, stable job at a reliable agency and eventually retire after a long career. But things have changed dramatically over the years, with people choosing to self-teach themselves just about everything, with design high on the list of disciplines.

The internet has democratised learning in an incredible way, providing an equal opportunity for aspiring designers to educate themselves without the need for a traditional college or university education. And what’s even better is that you can pretty much find anything online when it comes to design. It’s a firm fact that a lot of design can be learned through observation achieved via tutorials and mastered with a lot of practice. However, I am a huge believer in not going at it completely alone.

Finding another designer or mentor who can provide valuable critique on your designs and process is a great way to elevate your skills – the design community can be extremely helpful and powerful if one taps into it.

Choosing to study design

It is true that some thriving designers are self-taught, but countless people are just as successful in the world of design having gone the traditional education route.

Again, it has to do with the individual. Some people require guidance, assistance and nurturing as they learn, while others might be more self-starters who thrive in their own environment, learning in their own ways. For those who enjoy structure and prefer learning in a more social setting, a college or university is a great fit.

I attended a college that instilled a culture of seeing our education as a career, so attendance at classes was like showing up to a job. There were also repercussions for those who missed too many classes per term, and its approaches like these that serve as a great stepping stone for students to understand responsibility and being accountable, not just to themselves but also to their fellow students.

What also sets college or university education apart from self-learning is the tendency to teach design more holistically. In some design courses, students don’t touch a computer for the first year. They learn typography, layout and design principles through exercises without the help of any digital tools. This provides a solid foundation for the lessons that come after, and this can be tough to mirror through self-learning.

Although my college experience was immeasurably valuable and I’m glad I chose that route, a significant portion of what I learned came after. Being thrown into the deep end and learning as I went is a big part of the designer I am today. I believe a substantial part of my growth happened once I entered the working environment.

The differences

A question that always comes up when self-taught and traditionally educated designers are discussed is whether one can notice any obvious differences in their work.

Again, it varies greatly depending on the individual. While self-taught designers often possess a profound understanding of tools, I occasionally notice disparities in foundational aspects such as design principles or typography. However, this discrepancy is highly individualistic.

Having an eye for design and mastering the tools to craft compelling creations is significant, yet I firmly believe that grasping the fundamentals of layout, typography and design principles is essential for a designer. Fortunately, these resources are readily available online through short courses and the like.

Thankfully for those in the design space, it’s not lawyers or doctors that need hiring. We’re in the creative space, and it’s a field that anyone can enter via a variety of ways. My advice to aspiring designers is to determine for yourself what suits you best, what you’re looking to achieve, and weigh up both the self-taught and traditional education options. There are many pros and cons to each journey, but only the individual will know what suits them best.



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