In the world of design, the portfolio is paramount, often more central than one's credentials or awards. As a designer myself, I'm more concerned with the work someone has done and is capable of. Some designers I know have found great success without a master's degree, and others with master's degrees still struggle. The reverse is true as well, of course.
I recently stumbled on a blog post from Annie Murphy Paul asking if apprenticeships might be an alternative to college. Here's what Robert Lerman, a professor at American University, had to say:
An apprenticeship is a structured program of work-based learning and classroom-based instruction that leads to certification in an occupation, and it involves a high level of skill demands and it covers many occupations, depending on the country. In our country, we focus more on the skilled trades in construction and in manufacturing, but it can work in many other fields.
Could that include design? With rising tuition rates, the idea of going to college can be daunting. Some professions, like medicine and law, require strong credentials. But others, like design, are more about the portfolio. Are there other ways to develop that portfolio?
The tech world might reveal some examples. A recent New York Times piece looked at one young man, Benjamin Goering, who joined a company without a college degree:
So in the spring of 2010, Mr. Goering took the same leap as Mr. Zuckerberg: he dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco to make his mark. He got a job as a software engineer at a social-software company, Livefyre, run by a college dropout, where the chief technology officer at the time and a lead engineer were also dropouts. None were sheepish about their lack of a diploma. Rather, they were proud of their real-life lessons on the job.
But not everyone is able to just take the leap. We all need training, especially when it comes to the complex ins and outs of design. Should we be seeing more apprenticeships? Should design studios consider offering them? I can imagine they'd be distinct from internships; the connotation of an apprenticeship suggests learning on the job, and not just serving coffee between college classes.
Lerman might agree. Here's what he said in the above-mentioned blog post: "Shouldn't we have space for people who like to learn by doing, who like to combine classroom activity with real employability at the workplace and skill development at the workplace? I think we need both."
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3-5+ years at uni just doing work that doesn't matter other than your degree is pretty rubbish. I loved in my signage apprenticeship, I was out there working, making things that mattered to someone, meeting people (I recall Rupert Murdoch at the Newscorp AGM display we did), seeing how things actually work in the real world.
Also in tech industries, university is often behind. To make a course about something the tech needs to be standard first, but that's a year behind industry. I remember every computer course I did at Uni, you could do the whole semester's tasks in a weekend because it was like following a book tutorial. At university you rarely get to a mastery level of the tools because you're just not getting the hours behind the pen, app or machine that you do as a worker. If you gave me the choice of hiring an finished 3rd year apprentice and a Uni student, apprentice any day.
We only hire students for internships for several reasons. The first is that it keeps internships as something that only students can do - our standards for hiring an intern are lower than for a full time hire. Another reason is that it is awkward to not hire the intern at the end of the internship. Also, it doesn't look good on a resume for the designer in question - I know when we see an after graduation internship, we wonder why they weren't hired.
We almost always hire juniors with little (an internship) to no experience.
Thankfully, one awesome design firm hired me as an intern post-grad and has hired grads before me as well. They understand we need the experience and learning that can only come from working on projects alongside the juniors and seniors. How else are we to learn or build up a resume? Kudos to them!
As it is, junior designer positions are scarce (try Coroflot and see what I mean). Even more depressing is that junior positions, when available, sometimes require 2 or 3 years experience... which means we need 3 or 4 internships under our belts before possibly being considered for a junior position.
If any design depts are reading these comments, I hope they take a chance on graduates with less experience (as long as they are somewhat talented & have potential), as we are just as eager to learn post grad as we were as students. I have no problem working my way up the totem pole as do many other grads, but give us a chance please.
One possible way to help with it would be to remove the requirement to be currently enrolled in school to apply for internships. What happens if you're self taught or still growing after school? You're out of luck unfortunately. While all companies/firms don't have this requirement, most do, which is ridiculous because why would it matter if they're in school or not? For companies that are so focused on thinking "new/outside the box/innovative/etc.", they sure are narrow minded when it comes to who they want to intern.
Design placements seem to be even more scarce too.
With the benefit of hindsight, I'd have dropped out of school at 16 and tried to get a foot in the door of design at the bottom and work up. By 21 i'd have more experience and contacts than the most 21 year old graduates, and none of the debt.
At the end of the day, the real education begins AFTER you graduate.
That is what junior roles are for in the real world. If somebody expects a newly minted designer to be "productive" in the first year of life after graduation they are deceiving themselves, or worse are damaging a potentially good designer.
I have hired a recent graduate of a good ID program to work with me on mobile experience design. This person could not be hired at a discount rate, but the corporate environment supports a certain amount of non-productivity. It will take six months before she is near full productivity.
this is another generation of kids that don't make as much money as their parents, there are more designers than ever from more design programs than ever, that pay more for their design degrees than ever, and generally make less money.
I recommend apprenticeships- i recommend college for the rich, or for a degree that will make you real money, or if you are one of those lifetime academics addicted to the classroom. You dont need to go into great debt to do what you really love, unless what you really love is some sort of gratification from others. Then you may need all the degrees and recognition.