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With Labor Day weekend upon us and fall around the corner that back-to-school feeling is in the air. For prospective students, it may be a time when they are beginning to consider studying graphic design and graphic design schools or programs. Raising the question of exactly how to go about choosing the “right” school or program for you. In order to give a variety of perspectives on the topic we asked a panel of our experienced and talented writers and advisory board members two questions: 1. What factor do you think is most important in choosing a design school and why? and 2. What advice would you give potential graduating students who are interested in design school?

Specific answers differed but ten factors stood out across the board as important for decision making. In no particular order they were:

• Balance of conceptual vs. applied learning
• Career placement
• Curriculum
• Current with technology and industry trends
• Portfolio preparation
• Quality of graduates
• Quality of faculty
• Range of class offerings
• School culture/environment
• School reputation

The breadth of tips and advice offered here should give any one considering a design education a solid basis for making their choice.

Jo Gifford:

1. I would go for the placement of industry jobs after the course and the quality of lecturers and practical units on the program. My Uni didn’t have a trendy heritage but we all got jobs in the field immediately.

2. Research well, ask other students on a course you like how they feel about it, and consider doing a part time degree with junior design work alongside to benefit from hands on work experience as well as accompanying studies.

David Bricker:

1. Some schools are more career-oriented and others are more conceptual. A career-oriented school focuses on teaching you skills and placing you in an entry-level production job. A conceptual design school is more like a traditional University; it teaches design craft but focuses on academics, critical thinking, history and scholarship. The practical value of the conceptual school is not always as clear to see, but it’s worth considering.

2. Think about what you want to do. Design is not a field that requires a degree—you can learn the software on your own and get a job—but a design education will provide a much stronger foundation than mere software skills. If you want a production job, get some video tutorials and start working. If you want a career as a professional aesthetic decision maker where your work will move people, change fortunes and sidestep common clichés, consider design school—and consider it as independently as possible of any practical “investment scenario.”

Though I’m polarizing matters quite a bit (few schools are entirely either/or when it comes to career vs. conceptual), the career school gives you a steak when you graduate; the conceptual school gives you a hunting rifle. Though you can learn to be a capable designer without attending school, learning the craft well takes decades. If you’re dedicated to being a designer (as opposed to a production artist), take the route that will offer you the strongest foundation.

Simon Hartman:

1. Choosing a specific school is hard. I’d say it’s important to visit to get a good idea of what’s being done, and to see if the “vibe” suits you. A school is supposed to be this place in which the environment fosters learning. If you don’t like the environment or feel comfortable, you might have a harder time working and moving forward. Paying attention to the curriculum is also something one should do, make sure they teach you to use more than software tips and tricks (from design history to painting classes).

2. Choosing a design school is something that I personally did when entering high school. But I knew very much that design was what I was going to do, one way or another. It’s something I couldn’t live without. I’d advice to go to schools, meet students and profs, but also to go meet professionals. Do internships. Feel the reality of the world out there and be very aware that some schools won’t teach you about it.

Ilene Strizver:

1. Several, actually:
• the range of the class offerings, in addition to the basics, including typographic, portfolio review and preparation, etc.
• the experience and actual work experience of the instructors. If they are not working professionals, they will most likely be out of touch with what skills are needed to be successful in a work environment, not just design theory and principles, etc.
• the percentage of graduates who get jobs
• the reputation of the school in the industry
• the requirements to get in – can anyone get in, or do you need to show a portfolio? The former sets a pretty low bar for expectations, which might not bring out your best work

• learn the software programs relevant to your area of interest (InDesign, Illustrator, PhotoShop, After Effects, etc.) before you go to design school as most won’t teach you that, and your class work will be limited by your computer skills
• make sure the school is a good fit for your interests and will give you the skills relevant to today’s market

Jared Braverman:

1. The curriculum. The best design schools such as Parsons for example, only select the best applicants (looks good on a resume) and has a curriculum that teaches the skills most transferable and necessary to the chosen profession (as well as a general sampling of courses to make the students well rounded and help them decide on a career direction).

2. Do as much design as possible while in school. Design for a variety of different mediums: logos, brochures, advertising, packaging, illustration, websites, and business cards… Not only will this give students a good sampling for their portfolio and improve on their design skills, but also maybe give them a direction they want to pursue in their career (or maybe find out if design is really for them). While many designers look down on design contests, it gives new designers a chance to put their skills against other designers and possibly earn some money, all while building a portfolio – a great idea for students. If possible, get an internship – teaches great skills, looks great on paper, and sometimes opens doors for new designers.

Marc Scoleri:

1. There are several factors to consider when choosing a design school such as price, faculty, reputation and career services outcomes. But being a former Director of Career Services and Co-Founder of, I am all too familiar with the challenges of finding that first full-time job upon graduation. The graduates with the most impressive portfolios usually get the most offers upon completing their degree.

So it is extremely important to consider the overall quality of portfolios that are coming out of the portfolio preparation classes and the types of opportunities you will have to work on real-world projects in the classroom or during an internship. If you begin with the end in mind then you will realize that the one thing that will separate you from your peers is the quality of your portfolio. Therefore, the more opportunities you have to create quality portfolio pieces during your college career the better chance you will have at nabbing interviews upon graduation.

2. Visit several schools that have your desired major and ask a lot of questions. Here are some of the questions you should ask:

• Ask the admissions representative to meet the faculty that teaches the portfolio preparation classes and ask to see some of the previous graduates final portfolios. They should have examples on hand and if they don’t be weary of their program.
• Ask how the college prepares you for presenting your design work in a professional manner?
• Ask about the Career Services Department.
• Ask the college to provide you a list of companies that have hired their graduates? Would you want to work for any of the companies on the list?
• Does the curriculum enable you an opportunity to complete freelance projects during college or complete an internship that will provide you unique pieces of work to go in your portfolio? Hopefully yes!

• Although no college can guarantee you a job when you graduate, you should be building your resume experience and portfolio as soon as you start college by getting involved in design clubs, organizations and interacting with the design industry right away. Does the college help you do this? If so, how? For example, some colleges will have student chapters of the AIGA on their campus. This is an excellent organization to get involved in as a design student.
• Lastly, are there opportunities for you to work on campus or volunteer as an ambassador or assistant for one of the departments? This is a great resume builder and can illustrate leadership skills on your resume.

Karl Heine:

1. Choosing the most qualified design school or program is a challenge for many graduating high school students and their parents. Many factors, including reputation, location and cost come into play. As well as whether it is a private or state college or university, I went through this process without any guidance many years ago. Based on what I know now, I would take a different approach — interview working graduates from my top 3 favorite schools and interview several design firms who have had success hiring graduates from the same schools.

The reason — practical and value based. The students would provide a candid evaluation on how they were prepared for the real world and the design firms would rate their hires on if they were properly trained. The X factors — choosing a school because your talents enabled you to apply for a Cooper Union application/test, if accepted — free 4-year tuition. Your high school’s art program awards a four year paid scholarship to a university of your choice. SAT scores and athletic ability rank you as highly desirable for scholarships and a model student to represent the school. With everything leading to the finish line — how does this all apply to what I am going to do with my education after graduation is the most important factor — anything you have a passion for!

2. I have had many conversations with the parents first and then their kids second. They know what I do for a living — place creative professionals. I am not selling one school — I can give a fair evaluation from all the schools I have personally visited, lectured at and placed emerging talent from. My advice — take tours, go to classes to observe when possible and interview working design professionals for real advise about the top schools on your list. With school not close by, review online or talk with students in their junior and senior years, who are not close friends, to get a true evaluation. If you are able to get a referral to a design firm or agency, ask them who would be their top 3 schools and why.

Freddy Taylor:

1. Course layout, teaching time, workshop access and space allocated to work.

2. Make sure that you research fully the course, its reputation, allowance for external speakers and find the location both inspiring and fully equipped.

Von Glitschka:

1. Are they known for graduating quality students? Let’s face it many are after those willing to write a check and thus they don’t care too much about quality and rarely vet those taking their program. Two good questions to ask a potential school are: “1. Who would you consider your top five alumni working now?” The proof of a school is how well they facilitate a designer. I know many who went to school with me and are doing nothing now. … And the second question is “2. Do they teach and encourage drawing?” Many design programs are too tool centric and have seemingly abandoned analog skills like drawing.

2. Can you draw or do you like to draw? If so great, keep doing it. If not you may limit your potential to execute certain type of projects. So if not, make it a routine creative habit and never stop. Are you a good thinker? Design is more than design it’s as Saul Bass said, “Thinking made visual.” Good solid concepts are created from a core of well-reasoned and informed thinking. Knowing the tools only means you can execute a bad idea well. You need both, strong well thought out ideas executed strongly.

Susie Hall:

1. Look for a school that actively teaches the newest technologies and integrates them with sound design principles. Many schools are either lacking new digital skills in their curriculum or have such a tech-heavy course setup that they’ve skipped the traditional foundation of design.

2. Check out your competition. Take a look at other designers you admire and find out where they attended. While you can’t “teach” raw talent, often great designers come out of great design schools, and it’s easy to find them on portfolio sites like Behance and see their work and education history on sites like LinkedIn. So do your research.

Rafiq Elmansy:

• If the school is accredited and its certification is acknowledged from the education system
• The provided courses and academic degree
• The school facilities and practice equipment

2. The design school will only help you in your career. Your skills, creativity and hard work are the main core to reach a higher level in your design career. School will help you to learn in an academic way, but you will still need to keep yourself updated with new technologies and continued learning. So, leaving school does not mean that you have learned every thing, as the school [only] gives you the strong base for your career.

Dailey Crafton:

1. I think the quality of the school’s graduates is the most important factor in choosing a school. A school can have the slickest labs, the best financial aid and be in the coolest cities, but if their grads aren’t doing well in the field, that’s very telling. Look at a schools grads and ask; are they proficient in the technology? are their conceptual and aesthetic sensibilities fine-tuned? are they doing well in the industry?

2. Check your motives. Why do you want to be a designer? is it to be cool? or to make a name? you may want to rethink it. But if you feel passionately about doing design. If you love graphic design and the kind of work you can produce, then go for it!

Readers interested in hard data may want to consult resources such as school rankings, which can be helpful as well. The top ten from U.S. News & World Report’s list of top ranked graduate schools for graphic design in 2012 are Rhode Island School of Design, Yale University, Maryland Institute College of Art, Carnegie Mellon University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Art Center College of Design, California Institute for the Arts, School of Visual Arts and New School—Parsons School of Design.

In the U.K. The Complete University Guide lists The University of Edinburgh, University College of London, University of Oxford, University of Reading, Brunel University, Lancaster University, Newcastle University, University of Kent, Heriot-Watt University and University of Leeds as top ten ranked for 2012.

Lastly, an important factor I would like to add is know yourself. What type of learning experience and environment do you excel in? What are you looking to get out of your education? Have you explored what type of graphic design work you’re interested in and what it entails? At the risk of over sharing, when I was evaluating potential schools I actually had a list of the top things that were important to me and did a pros and cons checklist that included financial considerations for every school I was looking at.

Comment below to let us know if this article was helpful to you or if you have something to add.