Go to Industry Insider

Graphic Design:
Getting An Education

It's difficult for a student of design to know whether he's getting a good education. A recent grad with work experience under his belt shares his tips.

Other Topics:
Programming Basics
Airline Pilot
Computer Animation
Consulting Jobs Primer
Environmental Health
Getting Into Dell
Graphic Design
Legal Career
New Media
Software Development
TV Production
Back to Industry Insider

I wish to become a successful Graphic Designer. I do know that the field is extremely competitive, so I want to make sure I can be as  prepared as possible.

My problem is that I am currently going to a 2-year school. After attending my first month, I have come to find that it may be lacking. They have plenty of computers (my main interest in graphic design), but they have only one color printer, and one or two scanners. The school definitely misrepresented its design program. My high school had much more equipment available, and I feel as if I'm going backward in the learning process. They are teaching us PageMaker, even though I basically already know it. However, they aren't teaching us Quark Xpress, which I have no experience with, or Photoshop, which I know on an intermediate level. One dilemma that I can not change is that I do not have very good SAT scores.

What do you suggest I should do? What do I need to succeed, or even to get ahead of the crowd? Is this school inadequate?

Insider Advice from
Eric J. Szantai
Graphic Designer
Bristol-Myers Squibb Company

I graduated from a 2-year college in New Jersey, but I was lucky because the school had up-to-date equipment. I then went on to finish my 4-year degree in graphic design at Trenton State College. Since then, I've been working in design for about 8 years.

I strongly recommend that you find a school that has the right equipment, and enough of it so that all students have the access they need. If your projects are being delayed because there aren't enough printers, talk to the professor. You need to complain that the equipment is not sufficient. That's where you start.

Technology vs. Education
But bear in mind that the important knowledge you need to acquire won't come from printers, or from any other piece of hardware or software. What matters most is what you get out of the courses and the professors.

Before you pick a school (and later, the courses) research the professors. Find out what their work backgrounds are. What kind of skills and experience do they bring into the classroom? How broad and deep is their knowledge?

You see, that's what you're really paying for when you buy an education in design (or in any other field): the knowledge and expertise of your teachers. Don't settle for less than it will take to make you as expert as you can possibly be when you graduate.

Principles vs. Tools
The key to becoming a good graphic designer lies not in the equipment, but in studying design principles and in building a foundation of understanding of good design both past and present. Yes, you have to know your software, but ideas don't come from the computer. The computer is just a tool, whether you're using PageMaker or Quark XPress. Ideas grow out of your fundamental knowledge of design.

What I'm saying is this: Don't base your judgment about your education primarily on the quantity and quality of the equipment in the lab. If the classes are very informative and the professors are very experienced, you may get a lot out of your school. If they're not, then I would recommend changing schools. And make sure you research the next school before you sign up.

Capitalizing On Education
Going to a 2-year school is the right step, in my opinion, when you have bad SAT scores. It will help you build your basic knowledge and abilities, and it'll keep you on track until you can transfer to a 4-year school. Trenton State accepted many of my community college credits. If you do transfer, find out which and how many credits are transferable! It's not fun spending money and wasting time taking the same classes over again. Though, repetition does makes the knowledge sink in much deeper. :-)

Some very important pointers: make friends and get to know people in your design program. Learn from them. Study with the best designers you can, and work to be the best designer you can be. No matter how frustrating it might get at some points while you're in school, your dedication will pay off. In design, as in many other fields, what matters is how well you can do your job and who you know. So invest time in making contacts; keep track of phone numbers; and don't be afraid to ask questions I repeat: Don't be afraid to ask questions!

These are some of the professional publications you should be regularly reading and studying: Communication Arts, HOW, and PRINT.

Get To Work
When you've gotten your feet wet in some good courses, it's time to get an internship with a company where you can practice what you've learned, and where you can learn what it's like in the real design world. Don't worry about the low pay. The nest egg you're building is not the cash kind -- it's experience. I was lucky to find some part-time jobs during college and the knowledge, friends and contacts I made are priceless.

Final Notes
Now we can talk about the equipment and the software. In my current job, I use primarily these tools: Quark Press, Adobe Illustrator, and Photoshop. I also consider Freehand and PageMaker important, along with knowledge of one or more slide programs. Those are the important basics. But don't forget to look toward the future, too.

While I don't think the World Wide Web will put print design out to pasture any time soon, it's critical to learn to design for the Web. As job opportunities go, this domain is huge. Just bear in mind that design is design: no matter what the medium, the fundamental concepts are the same. If you don't "get it" in print, you're not going to "get it" working on the Web.

My final bits of advice: be different and let your work be different. Don't be offended by others' opinions -- learn from them. In the design field, you are constantly barraged by people's opinions. Learn to find what's good in a piece of work, and learn to compliment it. That's what engages you in discussions that will expand your own perception of the discipline of design.

If you have any other questions, please feel free to drop me a note.

Eric Szantai has worked as a graphic designer for over eight years, currently for a major pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. He also designed the cover of the first edition of Nick Corcodilos' book when it was called The New Interview Instruction Book.

NOTE: The advice provided above is an opinion, not a professional service. Ask The Headhunter and the author of the advice are not responsible for its accuracy, use or mis-use.


The contents of this site are Copyright (c) 1995-2015 North Bridge Group LLC.
All rights reserved. This material is for personal use only. Republication and redissemination, including posting to news groups, is expressly prohibited without prior written consent. Ask The Headhunter, Fearless Job Hunting, the ATH logo and other ATH titles are trademarks or registered trademarks of North Bridge Group LLC and Nick A. Corcodilos.

User agreement, legal information and disclaimer.

Visit the Ask The Headhunter Blog and sign up for your free subscription to the weekly Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

We welcome comments and
suggestions. Please email to
Ask The Headhunter.