Is Design School Worthwhile?

Like many self-taught web designers, I questioned the value of academia. Before enrolled into the master program in graphic design at the George Mason University School of Art, I wondered if the investment worthwhile. Would I get anything out of school or would I just waste my time? As I listened to a few web design podcasts that covered the same topic, I had more doubts. Many web designers left school because they found the programs weren’t up to speed with the industry. They weren’t taught responsive web design or the latest technologies.

Even though I was unsure about going back to school, I applied for an MA program away because the degree would allow me to teach and share my passion for web design. In spring of 2012, I was accepted into the program and decided to give it a try. After more than ten years, I was excited to be back to the classroom environment. For my first semester, I took a four-credit course on advanced typography and one-credit course on graduate design seminar.

As much as I love type, I struggled in advanced typography. I could hardly keep up with the professor’s expectation. Each class I had to bring in 20 to 30 pieces of work for critique. As a result, I just had to churn out work, but had no time to refine any of it. I made it through the class, but it was stressful. I didn’t learn much because the course felt like an acrobatic exercise than creative thinking. Once again, I wondered if the efforts and the investments worth it. I thought of dropping out, but decided to give it one more shot.

In the spring of 2013, I took a four-credit advanced web design and a one-credit seminar. I had been doing web design for the past ten years and my technological skills were fairly up to date; therefore, the web design course should be a piece of cake. I was wrong. I struggled even more. While the professor wanted me to do sketches on papers and mockups in Photoshop, I wanted to jump straight into the browser. Our approaches were totally different. Since I was the one being graded on, I needed to follow the professor’s approach.

While I was having a hard time with my advanced web design class, I had fun in the seminar class. For the entire semester the class focused on building a board game. I created a jazz trivia game. What I enjoyed so much about the class was that I was working something that interested me. Rather than just getting the assignment done, I put the effort into the work. At the same time, I got to know a classmate that changed my perspective on schooling. Even though the seminar was just a one-credit, he put 200% into his projects. He went the extra miles on everything he did and that inspired me.

In the fall of 2013, I took a four-credit course on brand identity design and a one-credit seminar. I did well on both because I turned the assignments into opportunities. Rather than just trying to fulfill the requirements, I selected the subjects that I was passionate about and that made the whole different. I put more thoughts into the contents and the design process.

It took me three semesters to realize that you get out of graduate school what you put in. The courses won’t prepare you for the newest trend in the industry, but they prepare you for critical thinking and problem solving. As a result, I learned to select classes that would broaden my horizon rather than classes that teach technical skills. Instead of choosing classes that I know I could breeze through, I would choose classes that would challenge me. In that regard, graduate school is worthwhile.