Is university the only way to get into design?

Several factors might deter would be design students from university so we spoke to experts about how else they can break into the industry.

Earlier this month, Design Week reported on a proposal from the government to slash university arts funding by half.

The recommendation was the result of a consultation lead by the Office for Students (OfS) and education secretary Gavin Williamson. It was justified given that “high cost” subjects like art, design, music and drama are not aligned with the government’s “strategic priorities”.

For some, the news may cast another doubt over whether university is the right route to a career in design. Other question marks may include the increasingly prohibitive cost of study,  and the continued online learning approach as a result of the pandemic.

We also know that less people are taking up design courses – UCAS data from 2020 showed nearly 800 fewer students placed on design courses than the previous year.

There are however several non-university avenues, but how do these experiences compare?

“If you think you might be working as a designer three decades from now, get used to constant self-learning”

Those wanting to completely eschew university learning might choose to teach themselves. Self-taught designers are in good company – the likes of Wolff Olins co-founder Wally Olins, Unit Editions co-founder Adrian Shaughnessy and art director David Carson all achieved success without a formal design qualification.

It’s arguably easier than ever to teach yourself the necessary skills to be a designer – YouTube videos, how-to guides and unlimited other resources exist online to coach budding creatives through the Adobe Suite and more. Self-taught creative director and designer Karen Cheng has written an entire guide on the subject. (Yet some people will make the point that it takes more than technical skills to be a good designer).

This said, taking charge of your own learning is a good trait for any designer to have, according to Shaughnessy. He believes being a designer “means that you can never stop learning”.

“If we could transport a designer from 30 years ago to the present, what would they make of UX design, coding and the online world? They’d find it bewildering,” he says. “Well, 30 years from now, it will be the same [challenge]. If you think you might be working as a designer three decades from now, get used to a constant regime of self-learning.”

A good design education should give you a “period of experimentation and discovery”

However, Shaughnessy says he hopes people think twice before committing to the completely self-taught route. He says for a long time he thought he was a “smart cookie”, having avoided years of study and debt by not training formally. “It was only much later when I started to go into art schools to give talks that I realised what I’d missed,” he says.

For Shaughnessy, developing on his own as opposed to a university setting meant he’d become “a conventional client-pleasing designer”. “I’d missed that period of experimentation and discovery that a good design education should give you,” he says.

But a good design education doesn’t necessarily have to come from a traditional classroom. More practical learning, through the likes of mentorship and internships, is available and this has really taken off during the last 18 months. 

Meanwhile there are some established schemes that can help. D&AD Shift is a night school for “new creatives” – those over 18 without a background or formal training in art or design-adjacent topics. It offers mentorship from industry professionals over 12 weeks. Also platforms like Re-Create offer a directory of professionals across the design industry who are up for taking on a mentee.

“With the undivided attention of a teacher, you’re able to learn at a much faster pace”

For a more structured experience that exists outside of a university setting, short courses and online schools are helpful. There are a variety of options – the likes of FutureLearn offers courses from university partners and are often self-directed, while courses like those from Blue Sky Graphics offer one-to-one teaching.

Blue Sky Graphics’ individualised approach allows them to condense what could be a two year or more course into seven months, according to course co-ordinator Noah Wildman. “With the undivided attention of a teacher, you’re able to learn at a much faster pace,” he explains.

This is especially helpful for those without a background in design, Wildman says. Through a mix of one-to-one teaching and homework, where students are able to answer briefs and explore their creativity, he says the course aims to take beginner students to a proficiency level equivalent to that of a junior designer. Students are taught by practicing professionals, and the curriculum is structured around Adobe programmes.

He also says there is no typical age range for students – out of the schools 400 current students, the youngest is around 15 and the oldest in their seventies. Similarly, there’s no one background that students come from. “We have a lot of students who have gone to university for something completely different and now want to change industries,” he says. “And we also have a lot of students who wish to be able to apply more design thinking and techniques to their current job.”

Open access to design thinking

Encouraging people to use and recognise design thinking in their lives and work, even if they don’t have a background in it, is part of Cat Drew’s mission as chief design officer at the Design Council. She says not having a university education should not be a barrier to design.

“We know from our research that design skills make you £10 per hour more productive, and that 52% of people identify design skills as key to problem solving,” she says. Additionally, she says having open access to design training in businesses heightens appreciation for design, and the work that goes into it.

Drew says there are several avenues interested parties can explore. Courses from the likes of IDEO U, the Luma Institute and of course the Design Council all offer training in design thinking, which can then be applied to all manner of professions and industries.

“The world needs both the strategic and the technical to flourish”

Of course, these courses aren’t designed to necessarily produce technically proficient designers, Drew says. More so, they’re supposed to help people understand the strategy behind design work.

It is for this reason she says designers with a degree need not feel put out, having spent considerable time, money and effort studying their craft. “There’s of course going to be a lot of debate on the subject,” she says. “But ultimately the world needs both the strategic side of design and the technical side to flourish.”

As someone who didn’t go to university for design herself, Drew says “design thinkers” can be important parts of the buying, planning and researching process of many industries. “I think it’s important that everyone involved works together, with their different strengths, because we need it all.”

Hide Comments (4)Show Comments (4)
  • johnny grey May 23, 2021 at 3:02 pm

    You have left out the potential of apprenticeships. As co-chair of the The Kitchen Education Trust, I am currently helping develop a degree entitled ‘Home, kitchen, living spaces designer’. It is being piloted by the National Apprenticeship Board and we hope to launch it with up to four universities over the next few years. It should cost students below a £1000 per year.

  • Noel Douglas May 24, 2021 at 1:12 pm

    It’s a shame this article doesn’t defend arts education. All education is not merely job training, but about developing critical, problem solving citizens able to address the problems we face in our society. Arts education is under a sustained attack from the philistines in the Tory government (who all in the main have humanities degrees) what’s needed is from Design Week and the rest of the Design field is support for arts education and defending its value.
    Is that too much to ask?

  • andrew bainbridge May 24, 2021 at 4:15 pm

    One of the most important things that has been often overlooked and needs to take into account is the lecturers, the creative exercises a course of study sets and the type of design philosophy that a course is founded on. A well constructed course of study that is founded on basic design principles is key. Also design as a whole is all about people, the people you meet at uni, your peers, the lectures that influence your thinking and the connections that a course has built up over the years. All these things are part of the rich mix that you get from 3 or 4 years in a studio based discipline. Let’s not forget this

  • Janine Heinrichs July 29, 2022 at 12:10 pm

    I’m interested to see how education will unfold not only within the design industry but education as a whole. I think what this article might be missing is that boldness and sharing your work are huge determining factors to success (at least it was for me). It wasn’t the fact that had a degree or got a certification in design that led me to attract clients and opportunities that aligned with my style and interests. It was the fact I was able to overcome perfectionism and share my work and what I was learning with the world that led me to that. However, I do still think there is value in traditional education and other design programs. Just a few thoughts! Still trying to figure out where I land on this subject. Thought-provoking article nonetheless.

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