In short, it seems natural to me answering with a big NO. It is not necessary to have a traditional design education to become a professional designer. I have proof, not only in myself but many others.
In reality, the answer is not that simple and a little more nuanced.
In the beginning of my career I wanted to get a degree in design, I felt this is the only socially accepted way to make it as a designer. Social pressure does a fantastic job at making you follow well established patterns, right or wrong.
Fear & regret have always played a huge role in my path of becoming a designer. Should I have studied? Am I’m doing the right thing? Who is giving me the stamp of approval?
After I went on my own path, I answered some of these questions for myself.
When learning the hard skills, there is no difference between self taught and studying design. You have to be self taught in both scenarios. I consider those with a degree in design as much self taught as those who never studied.
The big difference is your personality & social environment, as they have a huge impact on you. Let me give you some examples:
1. University puts you in a group of 20–30 other students & like minded people. All are as lost, or as focused as you are. You share the good and the bad with everyone else. You’re never alone.
Being part of a group with the same interest makes you feel part of something bigger than yourself. It’s motivating.
2. Being self taught means you, alone in your room. There is no set agenda, no format, no other people. Unless you craft your own environment, it’s just you by yourself.
3. Studying introduces you to a great network of teachers & mentors from the beginning. These people will serve as role models and important first business connections. Or they piss you off so much that you will find energy & motivation in just proving them wrong. (by doing so, you learn and grow) This is ultimately what you pay for, unless you’re studying in Europe for free.
4. Being self taught is the opposite. While you have great freedom and no one telling you what do to, you also have to put yourself out there and make connections. Compared to your colleagues at university you start with little connections in the industry. Unless you start networking on the side, you will always be one step behind.
5. At university, you get introduced to a range of different topics, especially in your first year. This is fantastic, because it helps you to pick the things you like and ignore the ones you don’t. It’s a buffet of delicious food, all served up in front of you.
6. While being self taught, things are a little different. Theoretically, you have access to the same buffet, but you have to put it together yourself. No one tells you about the deep field of Typography, until you research it yourself and dive into it.
You see, the main differences between being self taught and studying are not so much in learning the hard skills. It’s more about what kind of person you are, and how well you respond to your social environment.
The social component of going to a university provides you with mentorship, emotional support and a little kick in the ass here when you need it. On the down side, you follow established patterns that might be destructive to your personality. University is a shoe that fits many, but might not fit you.
Being self taught gives you great freedom, the world as your oyster, you can do everything you want. But if you’re a hopeless introvert not knowing what exactly to do, you will end up sitting at home playing video games.
Some people need an agenda and a set format. Some only function by running free without a leash. The only way to find out is by trying one of the two ways first.
Thank you for reading! As always, I highly value your opinion onTwitter! So please share with me anything you like.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!