Attending a high school with fewer than 300 students was an enjoyable, but rather insulated experience. Neckties and plaid skirts aside, it was a simple, small town environment that helped in building self-confidence, but lacked in providing the culture, artistic exposure or portfolio that would have benefitted my transition to college. Looking beyond graduation, I knew that I wanted to experience a larger city and attend college as a graphic design major. However, coming from a working family, and being offered few specifics from the school’s counselor, I lacked the insight to effectively choose a design program. To those individuals and families interested in design, but who, like myself 15-years-ago, may be unsure how to properly evaluate university design programs, this essay is meant as a guide.

It should be stated that the commitment to attend college can be life-altering. Pursuing a degree in graphic design comes with financial, career and academic implications that should be considered knowing the sacrifices, risks and benefits involved. As a professor, I am able to observe the impact college has on personal growth, increased knowledge, better problem-solving skills and social interactivity that not only helps educate students, but creates an environment that encourages well-roundedness.

If you are interested in graphic design, but are only familiar with the field and profession as a concept, it might be worthwhile to visit AIGA, the professional graphic design organization for information and articles, including, “What is graphic design?.” Additional comprehensive information can be found by reading either The Elements of Graphic Design by Alex W. White, or Graphic Design — Vision, Process, Product by Louis D. Ocepek. Both books offer an introductory and approachable overview of the profession, terminology and processes used in graphic design.

In assessing whether a design education might be a worthwhile pursuit, it is necessary to sincerely consider the following questions: Do you have a legitimate in interest in graphic design? Can you envision yourself as a designer for the next several years / decades? Do you have strong attention to detail? Do you enjoy school and learning, specifically art and design classes? Are you mature enough to offer and receive valid criticism? Are you willing and dedicated enough to learn a craft over a period of two to five years? Are you interested in working with clients and visually problem-solving for others? Are you able to work both independently and as a member of a team?

As a high school student or young adult, you may not be able to fully address each of these questions, but based on your responses, it should become evident whether the pursuit of a design degree is appropriate. If you concluded that college and graphic design are in your foreseeable future, there are three primary considerations that will aid in focusing your university search: philosophy, faculty and cost.

The first consideration should be a program’s philosophy. Almost every established university or design school will offer a written statement summarizing its overall approach to graphic design. It will typically consist of how the program defines graphic design, outline the curriculum structure or focus, and explain what students can expect if they enter into the program. Programs will often highlight any accreditations or professional affiliations within this statement, with the most common being NASAD (National Association of Schools of Art and Design) and AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts). Depending on the program, some will focus on technology and emerging media, others may discuss history and Modernism, several may center on professionalism and business, and even others could stress concept and design thinking. A well-thought-out and clearly defined philosophy can offer insight into a program’s focus, and can also give potential students a glimpse into what will be stressed during their education. Poorly written or weakly defined philosophies often lack specifics and can make it difficult to reach a knowledgeable decision.

The following is a sample philosophy from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. It offers a program overview, and also lists a variety of media and project types that a student will encounter there.

“Looks aren’t everything. As a designer, you need to know how to think through your ideas. We can give you an edge that will help your work stand out among the multitude of competing messages in our highly visual culture.

Our program will teach you about the thought process that goes into visual decision-making and how you can use artistic skills and technology to drive your message home. This program integrates image, type, color, sound, motion and interactivity.

Examples of projects include websites, posters, interactive DVD marketing tools, title sequences for movies, iPad applications and annual reports.
What Sets Us Apart?

Strong Media Skills
Design is changing quickly. Combined with strong design and research skills, our students develop the ability to use a variety of media in creating engaging communications. These include:
· motion media
· Title sequences for movies and television
· Interactive media for web and touch surfaces like smart phones and iPads
· Interface design for devices that include phones, computers and other digital devices

Experience Design
Our program was one of the first to include courses in “experience design,” which is designing experiences using motion media, interaction design and smart devices (phones and tablets) to create messages that link together a range of experiences. Courses in experience design prepare students for a future reality, where messages move, talk and ask the user to experience a unique exchange. View our gallery for examples of “experience design.”

Leadership in Design
The curriculum prepares students to be leaders in the design profession. By working as a team, students enhance their critical thinking while developing conceptual, media and visual skills. When our students graduate they are quickly propelled into leadership roles. Our students are highly sought after. In the last year alone, 60 companies and more than 100 people attended the department’s career event that connects students with internships and jobs.”

Philosophies should not be considered a “right or wrong” proposition, but they should get you excited about being part of a learning environment, and inform about a program’s focus. If the philosophy does neither of those things well, it may be beneficial to look elsewhere.

The second major consideration in evaluating a design program is faculty. I have the unique opportunity to see and hear first-hand how an instructor can either influence and inspire, or frustrate students. Evaluating faculty is the most subjective and difficult consideration, but it may be the most critical. The faculty will be primarily responsible for the skills you learn, approaches you take, styles you develop, and are key in determining the projects you produce — which will ultimately become the basis of a portfolio used for internships and professional job searches. If you are inadequately prepared, entering the professional ranks will be considerably more difficult.

I recognize that evaluating a supposed expert in their field is an almost impossible task, but here are a few pointers. First, review their work. Most design professionals and educators will have a personal website, or work examples uploaded on the university’s department site. How can you tell if their work is any good? Go to a bookstore or library and review the current issues of Communication Arts, Print, HOW, IdN, Computer Arts, Eye and Creative Review — these magazines are respected in the field, and reflect the work of talented designers and contemporary trends. Professorial work is expected to be on par with that of these publications. Also, evaluate a professor’s style of work and educational background, and compare those to the styles and philosophies you are interested in pursuing. If your interests are in urban street writing and graffiti, then studying at a program in which the faculty are strict Modernists may not be the best fit.

Beyond evaluating the work, if you become serious about a program, I would make an effort to visit and speak with design faculty members. This is to hear them communicate their thoughts about the program, and to get a sense of their personalities. In addition to speaking with faculty, ask to speak with a Junior and Senior enrolled in the program. Students will likely be forthright in talking about their experiences within the program, and Admissions will usually go out their way to accommodate such a request. Having respect for the work and teachings of your professors, will help to make the university experience a positive one.

The final major consideration, and the elephant in most rooms, is cost. As an educator, I fully embrace the learning, development and experience that attending college offers. As an individual, I am appalled, saddened and frustrated by the current costs associated with higher education. I’m not in a position to comment on the efficiency of school budgets, but I will say that if rising higher education costs are not addressed soon, there may be serious long-term financial effects that could impact the ability of future generations to attend their college of choice.

Knowing the costs associated with attaining a degree are essential in making an informed decision. According to, these are the 2011–2012 averages for one-year’s tuition:

Public Two-Year In-State colleges: $2,963
Public Four-Year In-State universities: $8,244
Public Four-Year Out-Of-State universities: $20,770
Private Four-Year universities: $28,500

With additional costs needed for books and materials, room and board, transportation and personal expenses. According to The Fiscal Times, “The cost of college has tripled in the past 30 years: tuition is increasing at twice the rate of inflation, and room and board is growing 6.5 percent each year.”

Out of curiosity, I reviewed the Project on Student Debt, and the average debt held by graduating students (2010). As reference, a varied assortment of respected four-year universities and art & design schools from all across the United States have been highlighted — please note that not every school is required, or chooses publicly, to list its student debt numbers.

Cleveland Institute of Art: $55,231
California Institute of the Arts: $50,017
College for Creative Studies: $47,604
Minneapolis College of Art and Design: $46,293
School of the Art Institute of Chicago $39,306
Savannah College of Art and Design $39,066
Columbus College of Art & Design: $37,355
Temple University: $31,123
Virginia Commonwealth University: $25,151
California College of the Arts: $24,677
University of Texas at Austin: $24,667
Fashion Institute of Technology (NY): $24,143
North Carolina State University: $19,988
Otis College of Art and Design: $10,963
Cooper Union: $10,390
Yale University: $9,254

Although financial situations vary from student to student, the above data suggests that the average design scholar could graduate with approximately $30,000 in debt. That is no small burden to carry, which is why making the correct university decision is critical to both your professional and financial health. Personally, I am unconvinced that going into severe financial debt to attend a “name” school is worth it. If a respected school offers a generous financial or scholarship package, and meets all of your university criteria, then so be it. However, overextending yourself on the perceived benefits of a school’s name is a risky proposition.

There will be many additional factors that go into your college decision-making process, including location and its proximity to family and friends; school reputation; financial-aid; and acceptance. The choice is ultimately up to the family and individual, but integrating the three aforementioned considerations into the decision-making process may aid in securing a positive outcome, and a college degree.

I would like to address a few additional topics that may aid in your program selection.

Application: This is where I would spend considerable time, energy and resources. Commit to making your portfolio strong, refined and as diverse as possible. Take any writing or essay assignments very seriously, and provide well-thought-out and honest responses (don’t be afraid to express your passion). Make sure everything requested for a submission is complete. Apply to a variety of schools, including private, public and art / design. I realize the application process can be involved and costly, but with potential gains in financial aid and scholarships, application costs will most likely be absorbed by the financial packages gained. Also, you can’t get accepted into a school you never apply to—don’t assume rejection.

2-Year Community Colleges / Junior College: If you are unsure about college in general, or are financially unable or unwilling to spend four years at a university, this may be your best option. A few words of caution however—faculty at community colleges may not hold terminal degrees, or may not be as heavily scrutinized as a four-year university professor. There are great faculty members at all types of colleges, but the possibility of getting condensed or insufficient teaching may increase here. Also, if you plan to transfer to a four-year university, you will have experienced a different set expectations than those of your university counterparts. They are learning within a specific course sequence, and it is assumed you have gained the same knowledge base in every class you have received transfer credit for. I have seen students excel and fail going this route, with most results based on the maturity and talents of the individual.

Non-Traditional Adults: The primary make-up of university students are 18 to 24 year-olds, but it is becoming common to have full-time students in their 30s, 40s and 50s as well. The majority of non-traditional students that I have taught have been a benefit to my classes. Many non-traditional students are professionals that are looking to pursue a different career path. They often have the benefit of a healthy competitive nature to improve and learn, have highly developed communication skills, have a strong work ethic, and have a dedication for what they are doing. These students usually have a maturity and respect for the choice they have made, which infrequently exists in younger students. Adult students take their learning seriously because they can fully appreciate the time and financial commitment they have chosen to partake in.

Choosing a graphic design program can be an intimidating and overwhelming process, but with commitment, research and some good old-fashioned hard work, the payoff can result not only in a college degree, but a career as a design professional as well.

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