205-223-4415 shawn@shawnwright.net

I see this question pop up from time to time on social media, and I thought I would weigh in on the question.

TLDR: No, you don’t need a degree. But…

There are a lot of jobs that require a degree of some kind, maybe even an advanced degree. A physician is the most obvious. I will not seek out the medical opinion of someone who is not trained and completed their studies to cure my ills.

People on social media say college is a waste of time, and you can get a good job learning a trade. That may be true, but in each of those trades, you are required to have some training and be able to perform some skills assessment. No, it’s not college, but it does take time and money to complete.

And then there is graphic design. Does it need a degree? Not at all.

Before we move on, you need to realize now that just learning software does not make you a skilled graphic designer. You need to learn the essentials of visual design and theory and learn about the five basic principles of graphic design. You probably want to look forward and learn about trends, but you need to look back and learn about the history of design and the works of legendary designers. 

Next, you will need to learn all you can about typography. Spacing, kerning, and the different type styles and what works well together. And we can’t forget to learn about the fundamentals of color. There is much more than this, but this will give you an idea of what you really need to know if you want to become a graphic designer. 

While graphic design also requires a lot of natural talent, the rest is learning the skills to do your job—skills such as becoming proficient using Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop. Yes, there are alternatives, but these are some of the most used. If you want to design websites, let’s throw in some HTML, CSS, and a working knowledge of content management systems such as WordPress. If you’re going to animate, it may be Adobe After Effects. The list goes on and on.

You can find excellent training for these programs online at Skillshare.com, Udemy.com, Domestika.com, and LinkedIn Learning. You can also find quick tips on social media. I am angered daily by tips from graphic designers on TikTok and Instagram, showing me how to do things in a few steps that I learned the hard way. I have an unbelievable amount of links to these giants of instruction.

Let’s say that you have decided to become a graphic designer, but you do not want to go to college or can’t afford to go to college. Here is the absolute minimum you need to do to learn the skills of graphic design.

  1. Learn the programs you need to use. If you lean towards print design, become proficient in using the big three. Adobe InDesign for page layout, Adobe Illustrator for vector drawing such as logos, and Adobe Photoshop for photo manipulation. You have to get a monthly subscription to use these programs, and there is no way around it. It’s painful, but it’s part of the business. 

1.a. You may think, “I will just buy Affinity Designer for a one-time purchase.” True, but if you plan to work and share files with other designers, printers, or within an ad agency, they will probably be using Adobe Creative Suite, and you will want to and need to be compatible with them.

  1. Create a portfolio. There is nothing wrong with creating fake projects to show off your skills. It’s what graduates from art programs are showing. You can also do it, and I encourage you to. Create a logo and brand standard for a fake company or a real company that needs a makeover. Design a cover and a few spreads for a magazine or corporate brochure. Packaging designs for a local brewery or restaurant would be fun to create. Create something that interests you and have fun with it.

  2. Publish your portfolio somewhere. You could create a website and post your projects there, but I recommend a couple of other platforms. Dribbble.com calls itself “the leading destination to find & showcase creative work and home to the world’s best design professionals.” Behance.net is part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud and is a great place to post your work. When you reach out to ad agencies or in-house design firms, the link to your portfolio is what you will be sending them. 

  3. Your potential employer or client will be much more interested in the quality of your portfolio and the skills you have than any degree. You may never be asked what school you graduated from or even if you went to school.

But here is where the degree pays off. 

First off, you will learn the basics of graphic design at design school. All those theories I mentioned above.

Have you ever heard of the 10,000 hours rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell? The rule says it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills and materials. For instance, the Beatles didn’t just show up in America in 1964 as a brand new band relying on raw talent. They had spent many hours playing and practicing in Liverpool and Hamburg, developing their skills and writing music. People will argue about this 10,000 number all day, but it all boils down to this. You have to practice to be good at what you do. 

As the joke goes, a man saw a musician getting out of a cab in New York City, and he asked him, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The musician replies, “practice, practice, practice.”

To be good at graphic design, you must put in the hours and practice. And as a new graphic designer, you will be competing for jobs and clients with graduates who have practiced a lot over the past four years. They have learned the basics of art, studied art history, practiced their skills, and have a portfolio of work to show. And they have endured what I believe is the most essential part of art education, the critique. They have had to promote and defend their work to fellow students and professors. I can’t explain how helpful that was when I had to present my work to a client. 

I am not here to promote going to a four-year university or even a two-year school for a graphic design degree. If you want to boot-strap your graphic design education, you need to put in the time and practice your skills. And if you are starting out, you will probably do that on personal projects, not paid work. 

Before I finish this article, I need to mention your first job or two. You will not be a fully-formed graphic designer when you get that first job. A lot of what will get you there is on-the-job training. Learn from those around you. You may be working on the worst projects, and you may be a better designer than your superior, but you have to pay your dues, learn the business and keep learning every day. 

I have been a designer for 37 years, and this week alone, I have watched some skillshare.com classes, received two books on letter design and received my latest issue of Communications Arts and Uppercase magazines. I continue to learn and practice my craft every day. You should be doing it as well.

Now get out there, learn your skills and be a great graphic designer!



Photo by Mourizal Zativa on Unsplash



Shawn Wright
Shawn Wright is a graphic designer and podcaster living in Birmingham, Alabama. You can find his design work at shawnwright.net. You can find his podcasts, Alabama Short Stories at alabamashortstories.com and the Shades Cahaba Oral History Project podcast at shadescahabahistory.com. His designs are for sale at TeePublic.com, Redbubble.com and Society6.com.
Shawn Wright
Shawn Wright

Latest posts by Shawn Wright (see all)