As I type this sentence, there are millions of nervous college freshmen getting settled into their dorm rooms. For some, the decision was as easy as a full-ride scholarship and for others it was as difficult as settling for the only school that would take them.
But here’s the silver lining: in the creative industry, most employers don’t care which school you graduate from. In our office, the range of educational backgrounds is diverse. There are those who graduated from an arts school or public college and others who either didn’t finish or attend college at all. Yet somehow, we all ended up at the same place.
Don’t get me wrong, I value my college education. I just believe that people stress so much over going to the right school that they assume it’s all they will need to succeed. Sure, it takes knowledge (education) to be successful, but you also need talent (the skills) to make the dream work. Think of it like a pair of scissors—they aren’t super effective without both blades. Sure, you could slice something with one blade, but it won’t be as precise. And it certainly won’t look like something you’d put on your fridge at the end of the day.
To be fair, I have college to thank for making me a well-rounded artist. I would have never taken a jewelry enameling or darkroom photography class if it weren’t for my Bachelors of Fine Arts degree. College has given me a great foundation to work from, and in some ways has prepared me for the workplace. If you think about it, your professor is very much your client. You have deadlines you have to meet for your assignments and certain parameters in which you have to design or create your project, much like you would with a paying client. A college education really just teaches you the basics of your craft while gaining a little bit of street cred. But your confidence comes with the actual doing. This is where I believe a college education isn’t enough. A degree doesn’t prepare you to work with a client, anticipate a client’s needs, or teach you personality. So here are the three things I learned in the workplace that I didn’t in college:
Pixel Perfect (not the 90’s Disney movie)
When you’re working for a living, breathing, paying client, it’s your job to do your research. You need to make sure that your design doesn’t already exist out in the world. It’s your responsibility to do market research, to create a brand strategy, and walk your client through the process. It’s your job to anticipate what your customer’s needs are and make sure they are satisfied with the final product. You want your client to be proud to present your work and their dream to the world. There’s more to it than simply creating a logo. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes and in-between work that you simply don’t learn sitting in the classroom. You learn it by doing.
One thing you can expect to find more of in the design community than a classroom is teamwork. You know what they say, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” In my experience, it was every man for himself in the classroom. At a creative agency, collaboration is key; any given project will pass through the hands of at least five to ten people before it’s finished.
Collaboration can be seen anywhere from brainstorming, concepting, proposals, designing, dev, managing projects, brand strategy, etc. Collaboration can be both relieving and challenging. It’s relieving in the sense that all the weight isn’t on just you, and challenging because you want to make sure you’re setting everyone else up for a win. This means taking the extra time to organize and label all of your layers, packaging all your files, uploading them so everyone has access, and providing documentation.
One of the main things that sets you apart in the job market is personality. You are your own brand. Regardless of where you work or what type of work you do, your employer wants to know that you, as a person, will represent their brand well. What do you bring to the table that is different from the other candidate applying for the job? What new perspectives and ideas do you have to offer the team that they may lack? Are you fun to be around? Do you have a way with words or are you full of charisma? Something has to set you apart as a person and as a designer, especially when you and the other candidates are equally qualified for a position.
What’s funny is that we spend so much money learning fundamentals of our profession in a classroom, but the wealth of information we learn on the job cannot be bought, it’s priceless. We spend so much time stressing out about going to the “right” college when what really matters is that we just get started.
I can’t tell you what’s best for you and your future. What I do know is that your professional aspirations don’t begin or end with a college diploma.