Do You Need a Degree to Be a Graphic Designer?

I’ve been a freelance graphic designer since 2011 and in that time have worked for over 1,000 different clients to-date. My work has spanned a robust variety of clientele, ranging from smartphone accessory startups to intra-company hockey teams to branches of Fortune 500 companies and everything in-between.

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Despite the vast diverisity of people I’ve worked for, they all had one thing in common:

None of them cared about my education or academic credentials.

I haven’t so much as been asked about it even once. For all they know, I could be a high school dropout.

So, this begs the question: do you really need a degree to be a graphic designer? The answer to that question is: it depends.

Which path do you intend to take?

If you want to work for yourself as a freelancer, a college degree isn’t necessary.

As I explained in my freelancing guide, the majority of potential clients that may be interested in hiring you do not care about your accolades or academic credentials. They have a problem and they need someone to solve it. Can you demonstrate an ability to solve that problem? Yes, you can. You can do so with an impressive and diverse portfolio, a well-written proposal, a bit of sales savy, and a personal reference here or there will only help you. All of those things can be learned and accomplished on your own accord, and none of them requires a formal education.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, though. You still need an education. You need to educate yourself on the software, the principles of design, business, marketing, sales, bookeeping, client relations, and an entire host of other business-related concepts. All of these things can be self-taught or learned on the fly through experience, though. Would university courses be the ideal way to learn them? Sure, but it isn’t necessary.

The 9-5 route

If you aspire to be employed by an agency, a print shop, or any other kind of formal institution, you’ll most likely need a college degree. Your degree doesn’t guarantee you a job, nor does it even qualify you for a job. It simply qualifies your candidacy.

When a company is looking to fill a job vacancy, they usually receive more applications and resumes than they know what to do with. Requiring some kind of higher education is their way of thinning the herd by disqualifying applicants.

There are exceptions, however.

If you have a large body of relevant work experience (whether it be freelance or otherwise,) an impressive portfolio, or simply a good personal reference that can vouch for your proficiences, you may still be able to gain employment as a graphic designer without a degree.

I personally have been offered job positions from various agencies I’ve done freelance work for over the years, despite the fact that I do not have a formal education in anything graphic design related. My education background is in business. Graphic design is something I learned purely out of passion and genuine interest.

Ultimately, I’ve turned down every offer made, no matter how enticing it seemed. I didn’t pursue a career in design just so it could be another job to be enslaved by. I wanted the freedom, earnings potential and quality of life being self-employed offers.

What do you want?

What you want may differ from what I want. The stability, perks and benefits a traditional job offers may be more valuable to you than it is to me. In that case, pursuing a higher education is in your best interest.

If you’re more like me and have an entrepreneurial mindset, and wish to blaze the freelance trail, a higher education isn’t necessary. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll help, and you should certainly pursue it if you have the practical means to do so, but it isn’t necessary. Someone with passion, drive and a good work ethic will always be more successful than an apathetic scholar.

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Nick Saporito

Nick Saporito is a Philadelphia-based graphic designer who specializes in branding-specific design.

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