Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist – Pablo Picasso
As a designer and creative director, my job is to make things look good while communicating a specific message or idea. Trust me, it’s not as easy as pairing a sleek font with a couple of pleasing colors and shapes. Even a design with the most visually appealing elements can fail because truly effective design amounts to more than the sum of its parts.
With today’s software and Internet tutorials, anyone can learn the tools and tricks to call themselves a designer, but real design goes beyond manipulating text and images in Photoshop. Like a good clear-drying glue, what holds quality design together is often invisible in the final product — and things fall apart if it’s missing. That “invisible” part is design theory; a discipline primarily acquired through a formal design education. That education helps a student far beyond their portfolio, which merely shows off typography and computer skills. A formal design education provides a theoretical foundation, proper research skills, and tested marketing strategies that can turn a tech-savvy photoshopper into a bonafide creative strategist.
Is a formal design education worth the expense?
Last month in New York, the Designer’s Debate Club considered whether designers need a formal education. The detractors, citing the expense of school, argued that aspiring designers can learn on the Internet. The proponents, however, countered that design school provides intangible benefits that the Internet can’t: critical thinking skills, a collaborative learning community, and experience with the entire design process.
My professional opinion? I can’t imagine having come this far in my career without the foundation of a formal design education.
Sure it was expensive, but knowing design theory enables me to create with authority — and that’s worth every dollar. The fact that I have in-depth knowledge of my craft, not just certain aesthetic principles, allows me to showcase the significance in my work. And that’s what professional design is all about: communication and meaning.
In addition, the camaraderie and support of an educational environment can’t fully be duplicated in independent study or a commercial environment. A formal design education allowed me to collaborate with my peers and share ideas, while also working closely with teachers (all of whom were working professionals) who provided helpful criticism and fresh points of view. Most importantly, I was challenged to look deeply into myself and the discipline of design, while striving to keep up with the excellent work around me.
Then there’s the issue of what companies look for when hiring a designer.
Many national brands are hiring big-name celebrities to lead their company’s creative direction. Justin Timberlake for Bud Light, Alicia Keys for Blackberry, Lady Gaga for Polaroid — pairings all met by raised eyebrows. While no one doubts their creativity, do these celebrities have what it takes to direct the look and feel of an entire brand? Ideas, maybe, but they’re missing key insights.
To create a truly powerful brand, you need a holistic view of the entire design process. Today, professional design is a intricate field where talent, art, and science intersect. To understand the complexities of how these factors interact usually requires intensive education under the close watch of mentors. Simply put, design school teaches the theories of why a design works or doesn’t, and how to fix it. Only an educated, experienced designer can evaluate a design to spot the errors and anticipate potential problems.
It’s true, no school can teach creativity and ingenuity, but they can teach the skills to overcome the inevitable creative roadblocks. To create groundbreaking work, a designer must have a sense for what came before. Formal education provides the solid foundation that designers build upon. And if they choose, they can use that knowledge to tear that foundation completely apart.
Finally, for those worried that a traditional education will stifle creativity, digital design pioneer April Greiman described the ideal education as “one that integrates the mind and the body. One that fosters true fascination with process and exploration, both external and internal. One that avoids imitation and encourages individual creativity and self-discovery.”
Creativity is vital, but it’s just a start.
Anthony Wiktor is the Creative Director and Principal of the award-winning strategic design agency STARMEN, based in Hollywood, Calif. He has received degrees in design from Columbia College Chicago and Woodbury University, and was recently featured as an Industry Expert in Web Designer Magazine’s Hot 100 issue. Connect with Anthony @creativeanthony or via his LinkedIn profile.