Who needs school anyway?

A friend of mine recently asked me my opinion on a part-time Games Design course he was interested in enrolling on. At first glance it looked like a great option for something to do on the side in order to branch out from his current profession, in which he’s getting a bit bored, but the more I considered it, the less of a great deal it seemed.

It is expensive. Not as much as a standard undergraduate degree, but enough to cripple his disposable income. It takes three years, meaning once he completes the course he will be considerably older than the competition evacuating standard University. And the qualification he will receive is a barely recognised diploma. In my opinion it’s a gamble at best.

This got me thinking about a topic I’ve battled with for years, one with no right or wrong answer.

How relevant is a traditional degree in digital design today?

The state of the digital design degree

Our industry moves fast. Real fast. So much so that those working within it on a daily basis struggle to keep up. How on Earth can students, juggling the many dishes of the menu, possibly hope to remain afloat? And more importantly, how can tutors maintain an up-to-date curriculum, whilst balancing planning, teaching, marking, and dealing with the top-heavy bureaucracy that plagues many educational institutions?

The short and simple answer is—they can't.

The Digital sphere, whether we're dealing with web and app design and development, marketing, brand management, digital planning, animation, games design, or anything in between and beyond, balloons at an exponential rate. And it's quite unique, the way in which people of all ages and backgrounds find themselves stumbling into this ephemeral landscape. However many don't stumble—they're searching. And many are paying quite dearly for the privilege of this search.

In order to try and guide the search, Universities tend to offer courses that tick all the boxes, covering as many areas as possible in order to help students decide which avenue they’d prefer to explore further. The benefits of this taster menu are innumerable, to both students and potential employers. But one of the resounding negatives is the side effect of becoming a 'jack of all trades, master of none'. And the creators and curators of these courses must cast their net of knowledge so wide that it’s a relentlessly exhaustive battle to maintain a semblance of relevance to the real world, whilst keeping the exam board happy and next year's application rates high.

Interestingly enough, University application levels in the UK are hitting record highs, yet at Salford University, for example, whilst traditional graphic design course applications swell, their flagship Design for Digital Media course was discontinued this year.

Is it surprising? Graphic design has a grounding that moves at a more relaxed place, meaning what you learn over the duration of the course will still be relevant when you finish it. The same cannot be said for digital design.

From my experience in Manchester, I’ve seen undergraduate degree courses in brick-and-mortar universities improve gradually; typically from the bottom up, driven out of desperation and passion by the tutors and students. But in terms of the topics been taught, and the way they are being taught, I’m wondering if it’s realistically possible that they will ever catch up. There is simply too much bureaucratic pressure from above and these institutions are too large to move fast enough. I admire their tutors’ perseverance in fighting to keep alive courses in an environment that unfortunately betrays an underlying stagnation, but I fear this may not be sustainable moving forward.

Why don’t you just teach yourself?

If you’re self-taught and successful in this world, then good for you. Many ridiculously talented designers I know just soaked up all their talent like osmosis. And probably with a sprinkle of hard work.

Unlike many other disciplines, the nature of web design has always allowed it to be taught relatively easyily through the means of example. And because the primary medium of web designers is the Internet, it’s only natural that that’s where we’re going to pass on the knowledge of our world.

Books are great, but slow. And rapidly outdated unless discussing the more fundamental underlying principles of design. So we turn to blogs and tutorial sites. We can analyse the code behind animations and layouts we admire. One can barely find space in their calendar for all the conferences and meetups and ‘show and tell’ evenings. My girlfriend jokes that she’s never known an industry that loves to talk so much about itself. Well, she’s right.

Beyond websites like Code Academy, Treehouse, Pluralsight, NetTuts etc, there are even more structured online courses like those offered by Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, edX etc. These are resources that will teach you how to code and design, and how to combine the two, not forgetting how to deal with clients, write business plans, manage people, test and sell your product, SEO your site and then use adwords to market it.

For free (or near enough!).

So why on Earth would anyone go to school?

Back to School

Self-tuition doesn’t work for everyone, just as many struggle with institutionalised learning. A lot of people I’ve spoken to over the years about their experience at University describe the lifestyle. The friends they made. The partying, the experimentation, the life lessons learned. Well, thanks to the Torys raising the cap on fees in 2012, those life lessons are now coming at a considerably higher cost.

But there’s more to it than that. Besides the qualification and the thrilling opportunity to wear a mortarboard when you graduate, there are a lot of benefits that a physical degree course offers. Such as peer feedback and collaboration, tutor support, a structured curriculum, exams as a method of assessing progress (yes, believe it or not these do help some people), and even just the knowledge that you need to get your arse out of bed in the morning and get to school because every day is costing you a chunk of your future salary.

Of course, these different approaches to learning are not mutually exclusive. By combining the two we can push for a much higher overall standard.

A two-way street

But why do we want better students coming out of digital courses—surely that means more competition for the rest of us? Well, because the more skilled and commercially aware those within our industry are, the better the work we all create. And as that standard rises a higher valuation and respect is bestowed upon what we do, not just as individuals, but as a whole.

That's where the industry needs to step in and help. If we want the outpouring of fresh-eyed graduates from undergraduate and other higher education courses to be the best they can be, we can't sit back and expect the bloated cocoons of current schooling establishments to handle that mammoth task by themselves.

Agencies can do this by going into schools to talk to students, critique their work, offer internships and the option to come into the office and shadow. Tutors can do this by getting in touch with industry specialists for advice on how to guide their curriculum and keep up-to-date with the latest industry movements. And students must realise that within the boundaries of life at school, they will only advance so far. You need to seek external points of reference and inspiration, absorb as much as possible and don’t take everything you’re taught for gospel. Because the gospels were written nearly as long ago as some of these syllabuses. And practice, practice, practice. Create fake briefs or do small jobs for friends and family, in order to make mistakes that you can learn from. Because by relying solely on your formal education, you’re relying on the same lessons taught to hundreds of other students. And therefore what else will you have to distance you from the rest?

The upcoming Manchester Digital Skills Festival is a great example of how these three different entities can be bridged. In Manchester Digital’s own words:

The skills festival is a 4 day event that will highlight, address and discuss the issues facing the sector as well as tackling them on a practical level by offering tours of local digital businesses, a recruitment fair and the chance to give local school children some hands on practical experience of digital.  It is also a great chance to showcase the amazing digital businesses we have in the North West and show students that there are wonderful digital career opportunities on their doorstep.


The perception of untrained designers

As I’ve discussed above, both styles of learning have their merits and pitfalls. But another question I’ve been recently pondering is how we are judged and perceived by our achievements. Not just individually, but the industry as a whole.

Designers are not, and never will be, afforded the same level of respect as doctors or scientists. And I’m totally cool with that, because contrary to what some may think, we are not exactly saving people’s lives (unless you designed the seat belt perhaps). But the running joke of ‘my nephew’s got Photoshop, he can design me a logo for free’ must surely be based in some reality? Does the fact that you don’t need to be in any way qualified or institutionally governed to become a designer impact the respectability placed upon our profession?

You may argue that you don’t need to be qualified to become a builder. Yet when Gavin, who’s been working on your new roof for the past 12 weeks, explains that he’ll need another £500 to ‘repair the flashing on the drain after replacing the rotted gable bargeboard’, you probably wouldn’t question it. Because whether or not that made any sense (builders of the world please feel free to correct me in the comments), you trust your builder. Because he’s a pro. Because that’s why you hired him in the first place.

Yet as designers we are still constantly battling for that trust. And with my obvious bias against learning design in school, I also wonder whether we will only further this battle by driving the industry away from formal education. Or are we actually entering a new era of understanding, of how we learn, and how people’s abilities are judged? With the rise of Internet learning and Silicon Valley success stories, is the necessity of a formal education to be taken seriously in our profession diminishing?

Ultimately, it’s up to you

Personally I don’t feel Universities are earning their relevance in our industry any more. In fact I don’t think they ever did. And I believe that if you want to design or build websites and mobile apps you can do worse than opening a book and trawling through Smashing Magazine.

However, such a lack of direction can leave many people floundering, and I’d rather you didn’t do that because it should be reserved solely to the fish world (I'm so, so sorry). If you need structure, if you need the discipline and support to get your arse into a classroom every day and learn, and you’re willing to dump yourself in £30k of debt for the privilege, then be my guest. The only thing I ask is that you don’t feel this will entitle you to walk into a role in the industry. Your chances of securing a job in digital are dictated not by the letters after your name, but by what you can do, and your ability to demonstrate that.