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This is an excerpt from a free chapter from Smashing Logo Design. You can read Part 1 here

Design Education

One of the biggest debates within the design industry surrounds whether it is essential to have an official education in design to become a successful designer. Although design does have its theories, I believe that talent is a natural gift that can’t be taught; it can be encouraged and honed, though.

Steve Douglas thinks that a formal education can help but does not necessarily guarantee a successful career:

“A design education is certainly helpful, as long as it’s a decent design education. I’ve interviewed college graduates for positions at my shop, and many don’t have the necessary skills to work in a fast-paced environment. It’s not their fault—when I do hire them, they learn pretty quickly “in the trenches.” When I was an art student, things like Illustrator and Photoshop were unheard of.  As far as my education goes, I attended illustration in college, but it was so long ago that any current skills—desktop software and what have you—are pretty well self-taught. That’s true today as well—the technology is advancing so fast that it’s difficult to keep courses current. Of course, there are the old standbys—life drawing, design, and color theory. Those remain valuable to any designer and an important part of any education.”

Glen Hobbs, who designs logos on a freelance basis in Colorado, understands that a design education can come in many forms and doesn’t always have to be undertaken at a recognized education facility:

“An “education” is essential, to be sure. But exactly what form that education comes in can vary, I think. Case in point: I have a degree in visual communications from a technical branch of a major university. The curriculum is developed and taught by industry professionals. It was a great foundation to get me in the door for an entry-level position oh so many years ago (where the learning really starts). My brother, however, also an accomplished designer, did not go to school for it. Rather, he worked under the tutelage of professionals who recognized his natural talents and gave him opportunity to grow those.”
“So where does that leave us? Well, I think that the most important thing for any designer is a thirst for knowledge. And not just about our chosen profession. The more we open ourselves up, the more we explore; the more we are aware of the world around us and how it works (or not), then the better we are at creating visual communication that is relevant in that world. A formal education in design is a solid beginning. I just think the key is to realize that formal education is just that—only the beginning.”

Kevin Burr recognizes that his design education experience has benefited him as a designer and helped him to pinpoint his preferred occupation:

“I received my bachelor’s degree in design communications upon graduating from Belmont University in 2004. For me, an education in design was essential. While at Belmont, Professor Dan Johnson noticed my love for logo and identity design. He saw my interest early on as a freshman and made it a focus most of my time at school. Upon graduating, it seemed natural to promote myself as a logo and identity designer.”
“The college experience gives you time to hone your skills and begin the process of creating a portfolio. Having the extra eyes on your work also allows you to learn how to accept criticism and gives your peers the opportunity to offer an outside opinion of your work. This is a huge part of developing your skills as a designer. Let’s face it—we all have big egos. It’s a good thing to have your ego beaten down every now and then. This helps you grow as a designer. Having a handful of professors at your fingertips to answer your questions doesn’t hurt either.”

Rather than just seek the opinion of designers who are already working professionally, I felt it was important to gain the thoughts of students hoping to secure design jobs in the future. I spoke to Stephanie Reeves, a final-year student at Birmingham City University studying visual communication. I asked her if she was worried about her prospects once she graduates:

“I don’t think worried is the word—more petrified. There is a lot of student work in magazines and on the Web that is beautiful, professional, and finished to such a standard that makes my head fall to the desk. There are always going to be people better than you, and I often feel that if I don’t get that all-important job straight after I finish my education, then that’s it, I’m a has-been. Also, at 23, I can sometimes think that I’ll be too old for that fashionable agency hiring fresh, young graduate blood.”
“Two words that are constantly pushed in front of most undergrads of any degree now are work experience. As good as your tutors are, their teachings are nothing compared to what you’ll learn in a professional environment. The long-term placements I’ve had with agencies and companies means that I already have a workplace history and a professional network. I’ve worked with the university magazine, in collaborative projects and exhibitions, and entered student awards, too. I’m hoping that so much involvement might give me an advantage over other graduates (and a real workplace has shown me that I’m still very young).”
“My visual communications course is very broad and the students in my class alone are so varied in the paths our work takes that lecturing us all about identity and branding in the same way would prove useless. In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing; it’s provided a “learn from each other” environment that has allowed us to work in our own ways, backed up all the way through with one-to-one tutorials from tutors. However, at the same time, I think it’s not left us with much technical background on the finer points of the “art of a logo,” for example.
“However much industry experience your tutor brings to the class, though, and however much confidence he or she gives you that your work is up to standard, you’ll never really have the confidence you get from a real client saying “yes” to their new identity. The course gave me the confidence to approach companies for work experience, and that work experience has given me the confidence to take on the freelance jobs I’m now getting.”

Nathan Sarlow, a freelance logo designer located in Detroit, Michigan, suggests that the education system could be altered to provide graduates with a greater understanding of the industry that they hope to inhibit in the future:

“It seems that the majority of people who graduate from design school come out with the same knowledge and a similar style. I personally feel that the education part of the design industry needs to be guided more by active designers and less by teachers (who used to be designers). This way, the students would be learning more about current “real world” design and not theoretical design that will only give them a false sense of their worth to the industry.”

My own design education is a little different, as I didn’t study a specific discipline of design, but it covered almost every aspect. This helped me to identify which area of design I wanted to focus on, but I think this broad scope hindered some people’s progress. Out of a class of 30, only 4 or 5 of the students went on to hold down an employed position within the industry.

What does the future hold for education in the field of logo design? We might see specialist courses that focus solely on the art of designing logos. We could even see branding and identity academies or colleges. Education can only be a good thing, but the fact remains that if you have artistic ability, you’ll have a great advantage over those who don’t who want to get into the industry.

The best form of education is working professionally in your field. You can read all the textbooks under the sun, but until it comes time to put what you know into practice, you won’t truly learn any of the tricks of the trade that matter. This applies to any industry, not just design. This is where I believe that designers without a formal education can really shine, because they have no predetermined opinions on how things should be done and can absorb real-world skills.

Keep learning

The great thing about design is that you will never stop learning. Art gives us the opportunity to explore new avenues of creativity with every new project that lands on our laps.

Mike Erickson recognizes that everyone, regardless of individual character and personality, has the capacity to continue learning throughout his or her design career:

I would say that I’m mostly a self-taught designer but I’ve always had a natural talent for art. I can remember being in art classes in college, and the instructor would ask me why as I was even in the class because he felt that the standard of the work I was producing was already beyond the teachings of the syllabus. But I was in the class because I feel that you can never stop learning—we learn something new every day, regardless of age or experience.

Kevin Burr believes that a mixture of both formal education and using his own initiative to learn new skills has helped him to forge a career in designing identities professionally:

In the grand scheme of things, if it weren’t for Belmont and my professor continually motivating me to follow my passion with logo and identity design, my own initiative to learn wouldn’t exist. It was there where I learned the fundamentals, which have helped pave the way to learning the intricate details of those fundamentals. I learned that I love logos and identity at school, and that’s more important to me than the daily learning I do now.”

I can honestly say that I have learned more about design and, in particular, logo design since I left university than I did during my time in school. That comes down to an awareness that in order to improve you can’t just sit and recite the things you already know. There will always be someone out there who is willing to push the boundaries of creativity, and you should be prepared to be that person.

In the next part we take a look at the rise of the web and it’s influences on the profession of logo design.

You can purchase Smashing Logo Design from Amazon, Barnes & Noble & Waterstones.



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