Almost every designer-to-be faces a crossroads: opt for formal education or go the self-educated path. Many turn to mature pros with questions about their choice, but the truth is that there are many different mindsets on this topic. Read on to discover what seasoned designers and typographers Jessica Hische, Ksenya Samarskaya and Nadine Chahine have to say about formal education, their paths to achieving it, its profits and drawbacks, and their advice on networking and free resources.
All answers are taken from Twitter Space, hosted by Readymag on November 22, 2022. Follow us on Twitter for more thoughtful conversations and inspiration.
Meet the speakers:
Jessica Hische—California-based lettering artist and author of bedtime books for kids and a book on typography for grown-ups. Jessica earned a formal design education: a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Tyler School of Art.
Ksenya Samarskaya—Design strategist, brand and type designer. Ksenya studied at the University of Oregon for a Bachelor of Science, then earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and finally polished off her formal education with a Master's at the same university.
Nadine Chahine—Lebanese type designer residing in London and 'I Love Typography' CEO. She earned her first degree in graphic design and then a master's in type design from the University of Reading. Her third degree was a Ph.D. from Leiden University in legibility research for Arabic. Finally, she nailed down a master’s in politics from Cambridge University.
Why choose formal education
Nadine Chahine: When I was studying graphic design in Lebanon, I stumbled into the world of type design and got a burning desire to explore it more profoundly, so I went to the University of Reading for a master's. Then the Ph.D. in Leiden came on my radar because my research in Reading made me want to go on with legibility research.
Jessica Hische: Initially, my goal was to move somewhere from my town in Pennsylvania. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to go to college because I didn't have any money saved, but my art teacher in high school really sold me to the admissions counselor of Tyler School of Art.
Ksenya Samarskaya: Going to an art school was a default move for me: you just go and apply. And among other academic areas, studying art seemed more interesting and challenging.
Can college be a shortcut to a profession
"As a person who went to and taught at various institutions, I believe the significance of formal education greatly varies on the school in terms of the environment, the focus, and the connection."—Ksenya Samarskaya
Nadine Chahine: Every time I was curious about a new design skill, my solution was to walk into it through an academic degree. It's a shortcut for me. Formal education requires extra time, energy and money, but it’s the way to engage with the topic with full attention.
Jessica Hische: Formal studies turned out great at plugging you into a way of working. They isolate you from everything else because focusing on the outside world while you're in college is extremely hard. I still sometimes think about returning to graduate school, not because I can't source something on my own, but because I can't make myself leave everything else behind without a really formal situation.
Ksenya Samarskaya: I don't think education is a shortcut to a career or that it was at any point. For me, my studies weren't more than an interesting detour. As a person who went to and taught at various institutions, I believe the significance of formal education greatly varies on the school in terms of the environment, the focus, and the connection. Schools are individual and unique ecosystems.
Are the best professional ties formed at institutions
"I realized that if you network everywhere you go and meet people who do exciting things and push themselves forward, you'll end up in a good place."—Jessica Hische
Nadine Chahine: Universities have always opened spaces and introduced me to people. It works like that: you meet people, and they invite you to speak at conferences. Then you go to those conferences and get invited to work. Reading graduates call it 'the Reading mafia' because they're everywhere. And the moment you say you went to Reading, you've got a stamp of quality.
If I were to help a graduate choose between formal and informal education in design, first, I would ask them to imagine their future after a few years in education and think about where they want to be. People in Lebanon, where I'm from, prefer to do a master's in Europe or the US so they can stay in those countries. Once you have the degree, you'll have connections. If you go to a foundry in the UK with a degree from the University of Reading, the employers will know that you're a good candidate. But if you go to them with a diploma from another country they barely know anything about, you're less likely to get hired. So if you're interested in settling in a specific environment, you need to find a university with connections to that environment.
Jessica Hische: My school was in the suburbs of Philadelphia. For sure, I met amazing people in college, and I still stay in touch with them, but at the time, we felt disconnected from the New York design scene or any sort of national design scene. Later I realized that if you network everywhere you go and meet people who do exciting things and push themselves forward, you'll end up in a good place.
Ksenya Samarskaya: Bloated, overpriced universities aren't necessarily the best places to get people-related skills: working with others, networking and asking the right questions. Even though I had fun and received an excellent education, I formed zero connections there.
Can a university give something above academic knowledge
"There are no excuses in professional life: you either bring it or you don't. And that approach contrasts with what many other design classrooms take."—Ksenya Samarskaya
Jessica Hische: I knew what I wanted to do early on, but my college forced me not to dive into it immediately. There, the first year was entirely devoted to fundamental things, and all the students worked in the same classes together. The electives and experimental disciplines started only in the sophomore year. This trick was clearly beneficial: I experimented with things I probably would have totally bypassed, and those practices became a rich part of my experience. The lesson I got was: "Even if you have a specific thing you want to do, always dip your toes in other disciplines to see either how that interacts with the major you're in, or how it opens your mind in different ways."
Nadine Chahine: Sometimes, you'll learn more from your classmates than from teachers. Sitting next to someone while tackling the same problem shows you there are many different solutions to one puzzle. One of the teachers at Reading told us something I'll always remember: "When you're in a class, you don't just learn your own tricks. You learn the tricks of everybody else who works with you in a class." There's a collective aspect of being in the same boiling pot and trying to make it out alive. Learning somebody else's approaches and seeing their viewpoints stretches your vision and shows you how little you know. If you get a degree and develop an I-know-everything mindset, your degree has failed you. But if you come out of your degree realizing that now you know a little bit but there's a lot more out there, they've done the right thing.
Ksenya Samarskaya: It's not the university, but the gallery art, tech, innovation, and installations I was heavily engaged in during my undergraduate studies that taught me important lessons. They showed me there are no excuses in professional life: you either bring it or you don't. And that approach contrasts with many other design classrooms take. In real life, there are no partial credits, no 'whatever'.
Is the game worth the price
"Since you've invested, you're more likely to follow your studies through compared to if there's no financial tie."—Jessica Hische
Jessica Hische: Money can be a real motivator when choosing to invest in yourself by paying for a course, even if it's just a single class. Even though my college education was relatively cheap, I would sit at a seminar class in the morning rather than lie in bed. I kept thinking that if I didn't go to a class, I was throwing away $400. Since you've invested, you're more likely to follow your studies through compared to if there's no financial tie. But I wouldn't advise people to go into huge debt to get a design education. If you want to make connections, move to a place with a great design scene, and if you want a formal education environment, find a good smaller school with great teachers. There, you can pay less for your education but still get strong skills.
Ksenya Samarskaya: Right now, all you need is an internet connection and a social media account, and you'll access bigger networks and spaces of information that a university can give you. This is the era of information overabundance, with so many talks, videos, research and tutorials at our fingertips.
Not by formal education alone
"The main trick is to be good at searching—then it's really easy to find all the stuff you might need."—Jessica Hische
Jessica Hische: Skillshare is great for self-education, as it's cheap. You pay a subscription fee and get access to unlimited classes rather than doing something you have to commit to for money. When you're still in a trying-to-figure-it-out zone and looking for specific tutorials, it's nice not to invest too much money. YouTube is also amazing, but there's so much educational content there that you have to be like a Google sniper. The main trick is to be good at searching—then it's really easy to find all the stuff you might need.
Nadine Chahine: We at the 'I Love Typography' have the Academy teach type design online in different languages. The whole point of the Academy is to break barriers: you don't need to leave your country to study design. Also, you don't need to speak English to learn. If you don't want to take courses, there are other ways to get knowledge for free. Search for the top conferences in your field online: they usually upload videos for general access. Also, you can volunteer at a conference, meet people there and listen to some of their public talks.
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