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Self-Taught vs Formal Education: How to Be a Successful Designer

Self-Taught vs Formal Education: How to Be a Successful Designer

Whether you flourish or flunk as a designer depends on your decisions and the opportunities you take in your career. 

One of those critical decisions is whether you’ll teach yourself everything you need to know about graphic design or let a college or university do it for you. 

Some thriving designers are self-taught, but some are just as successful in the field and have gone the traditional education route. 

Both types of designers will tell you that there are pros and cons to each path that you must consider before embarking on your graphic or web design journey. 

This article will discuss self-taught versus secondary education and how to be a successful designer with either choice. Let’s start with the pros and cons of being a self-taught designer. 

The Pros and Cons of Being Self-Taught

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There was a time when there weren’t any cheerleaders for self-education. Instead, we were told to complete high school, go to a good college, and get a great job with a reliable company we could retire at. 

Things have changed dramatically over the years. People are teaching themselves graphic design but also how to start a business, copywriting, painting, flipping houses, and a million other things that we could only learn in a classroom at one point. 

Although the internet made being self-taught much more manageable, there are still cons to this type of education. Here are two of them. 

If you aren’t self-motivated, your studies can drag out. 

Simply put, self-education requires self-motivation. You don’t have a professor keeping you in line with your assignments or have to worry about grades. You’re also not tied to a specific schedule and may not even have deadlines to keep. 

So, if you can’t motivate yourself to keep up with your studies and excel in whatever you’re learning, it will be challenging to take the self-taught route. 

No schedule or curriculum to adhere to. 

We’ll talk more about this below, but one reason people attend a college or university is how structured it is. Your classes are scheduled, and you have a curriculum you must adhere to complete your program and earn your degree. 

When you’re self-taught, you don’t necessarily have a structured schedule and an organised list of classes you must take to learn all you need to graduate. 

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Many people aren’t confident in their ability to map out what they want to learn and how they will learn it, so they don’t even bother with self-education. 

Let’s complete this list with a few pros of being a self-taught designer. 

Go at your own pace. 

When you’re teaching yourself, you can take your time and go at your own pace. 

There are loads of resources online, free courses, and easily accessible literature that you can use, sign up for, and find to make your self-taught design journey just as desirable and practical. 

Maintain a suitable work-life balance.

When you’re self-taught, you can also maintain a suitable work-life balance a lot easier. So many of us have to work jobs, maintain romantic relationships, are new parents or seasoned ones, and have other creative passions we pursue while expanding our design careers. 

This makes flexibility that much more critical. When you’re self-taught, you can design a schedule and only take on a workload that allows you to maintain a healthy work-life balance. 

Learn things you wouldn’t in a classroom. 

Unfortunately, you can’t learn everything there is to know about design through textbooks and modules. However, when you’re a self-taught designer, you can take your studies to the cracks, crevasses, and corners of graphic design and learn things that otherwise wouldn’t be available in a formal education classroom. 

Also, the design industry changes rapidly. You may be able to come across those changes and learn new techniques faster because you’re always on the hunt for what’s new and trending. Something a traditional student may not be accustomed to doing. 

Now, let’s talk about how to be successful as a self-taught designer. 

How to Be Successful as a Self-Taught Designer 

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The self-taught route presents its own set of unique challenges. Still, it’s possible to have tremendous success as a self-taught designer so long as you’re organised, determined, and dedicated to making the most out of your studies. 

Here’s how to approach self-education to ensure you have the best design career possible. 

Draft an education plan.

Your education plan doesn’t have to be super formal. Instead, identify what skill you want to grow and put together a step-by-step plan for how you’re going to master that skill. 

For example, are you going to take a free course from a graphic design expert? Will you compile a list of blog posts to read and match them with specific practice exercises? 

Whatever you decide to do, ensure you’ve chosen an area you’re interested in, identify what you want to learn, map out the steps to your desired outcome, and take those steps. 

Hold yourself accountable. 

If you aren’t at a place in your life where you hold yourself accountable and take ownership for everything you do or don’t do, self-education won’t be productive. Neither will a traditional education, for that matter. 

It would be best if you held yourself accountable. When you get your lessons done for the day, celebrate. If you don’t, be sure to adjust your plan for the next day and include what you couldn’t get done today in tomorrow’s schedule.  

Build a professional network.

Just because you’re self-taught doesn’t mean you have to do it all on your own. Take time to build a professional network that can help you develop your career over time. 

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Use social media to join graphic design groups and engage with other budding graphic designers. You can also follow your favourite and the most successful graphic designers out there on social media and learn from the content they’re putting out. 

Don’t forget to stay in touch with graphic designers you know personally and create an ongoing conversation with them throughout the years. 

Choose your platforms wisely.

When you’re self-taught, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by all of the information and content out there on graphic design. The best way to minimise the chances of becoming overwhelmed is to choose suitable platforms to learn on. 

For example, you can use Youtube to absorb tutorials and graphic design videos. You can use LinkedIn learning for free or affordable online courses

You could also take your time researching various websites and blogs dedicated to teaching graphic design principles and choose from those. 

Next, let’s look at the pros and cons of getting a formal education. 

The Pros and Cons of Getting a Formal Education 

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Getting a formal design education is just as much of an opportunity to grow your graphic design skillset as self-education.

Formal education allows you the opportunity to choose a skill or skills you want to grow and find a program that mirrors those education goals, and with it comes an exact bill of what you’ll learn, whom you’ll learn it from, how you’ll learn it, and how long it will take. 

For instance, an aspiring designer may want to get better at producing designs for digital spaces. With this in mind, they explore getting a degree in digital media. 

A digital media degree can help them create stunning visual communication elements that move the hearts and minds of people in this new era of digital communication. 

Let’s look deeper into the pros and cons of getting a formal education.

There’s a significant financial obligation. 

It’s expensive to go to any college or university, but the cost of getting a design degree can be outrageous. The total price and associated fees will differ based on whether a public or private institution offers the degree. Your specific degree program also matters. 

But be ready to fork over upwards of $20,000 per year to partake in formal design education. 

You must adhere to a schedule and learning pace. 

When you decide to take the formal education route, you sign up for a specific class schedule. You also must adhere to the learning pace of your professors. 

Whatever the course syllabus says, you must do those things and complete them in the designated timeline to pass the class. 

If you aren’t fond of schedules and timelines, this may be not easy to get used to. 

Here are a few pros to finish this list off. 

You have a pre-built network. 

One of the best things about formal education is the network available to you. All college campuses and universities have a network that you can leverage to keep your skillset growing and your education focused. 

You can build relationships with fellow students and faculty that open up work opportunities and help you navigate the challenges of college life. You also have professors to guide you through your entire program, which is a massive plus for many. 

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Learn the basics and history of graphic design. 

Many self-taught graphic designers skip the basics and history of graphic design in their studies. And many professional recruiters and expert graphic designers in companies can tell. 

You want to know your way around typical graphic design software and various tools at your disposal, but knowing the basics and history are incredibly important to your success. 

Therefore, when you get a formal education in graphic design, you’ll be required to learn the history of graphic design and master basic graphic design skills and concepts. 

You can take advantage of campus resources. 

Campus resources can be fantastic for your career if you use them. But, unfortunately, so many students don’t tap into the power of their resources on campus, and they end up taking a longer route to success than necessary. 

Many campuses offer career resources like resume-building, cover letter help, and job search guidance. There are plenty of groups on campus catering to different interests where you can meet new people and network. 

In addition, you can take advantage of career-driven events and get-togethers on campus that can introduce you to suitable companies to work for after graduating or potential freelance clients. 

Also, once you graduate, you’re a part of the school’s alumni, which presents a whole other host of benefits.  

Just like up top, here is some guidance on being successful as a designer with traditional education. 

How to Be Successful as a Designer With a Formal Education 

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Many designers decide to take the traditional education route because they think it’s all laid out for them. And for the most part, it is. However, there are still steps you must take to get what you need from your traditional education to succeed in the real world of design. 

Here’s how to make the most out of your traditional education to boost your design career. 

Lean into your network.

It would be a shame if you didn’t take full advantage of the pre-built network we discussed above. But, unfortunately, you’ll miss out on opportunities to meet and develop lasting relationships with future graphic design pros. You’ll also miss chances to learn things you won’t find in the classroom. 

Leaning into your network can help you make the most of your formal education experience and ensure you have all the support you need to succeed. 

Develop relationships with your professors. 

Your relationships with your professors should be more profound than just saying “thank you” when they hand you your graded assignments. So instead, take time to get to know your professor. 

You don’t have to spend every day with them, but get comfortable enough to have a meeting with them to discuss feedback on your assignments or let them know when you’re having trouble keeping up. 

Show up and do your best work. 

Don’t allow your education to take a backseat to everything else in your life. Make it a clear priority. Show up and do your best work or scrap the idea of formal education altogether. You get what you put in. Remember that. 

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Set up opportunities for after you graduate.

Finally, use the network and campus resources we mentioned above to set up opportunities after you graduate. 

For example, go to your career services office and get help with your resume so that it’s ready to wow potential employers or freelance clients. 

They can show you how to create a tip-top resume that displays your education and achievements, self-taught or otherwise.


There is so much literature out there discussing the debate between whether self-taught and secondary education is better for designers. 

Unfortunately, this debate likely won’t ever settle on one or the other, leaving the decision in your competent hands. 

Whether self-education or secondary education is the right choice for you entirely depends on your career goals, your vision for growing your skillset, and the details of your personal life. 

Before making any permanent decisions:

  1. Take your time researching each option.
  2. Look into every detail of both journeys that could affect the way you and your family live.
  3. Choose the option that best suits your life’s vision and embark on that path with confidence and strategy. 
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Stuart Crawford

Stuart Crawford is an award-winning creative director and brand strategist with over 15 years of experience building memorable and influential brands. As Creative Director at Inkbot Design, a leading branding agency, Stuart oversees all creative projects and ensures each client receives a customised brand strategy and visual identity.

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