Is Art School Necessary for a Career in Graphic Design?

Joel Lee 14-07-2015

We live in a peculiar time. On the one hand, art and creativity are both seen as positive traits, particularly because they’re important for being a well-rounded person. On the other hand, someone who seeks an art degree is often viewed as a first-rate sucker.


Today, this dichotomy manifests in the form of a common question: If I want to pursue a career in digital arts 5 Online Sources For Digital Art Tutorials Every so often, I believe that everyone has some sort of creative urge. Whether it turns into a beautiful painting on canvas or simple bathroom graffiti, it's all driven by the same fire. Fortunately, with... Read More or graphic design How to Be a Profitable Online Graphic Designer If you're a graphic designer struggling to turn a profit, all is not lost. Here are some tips for getting your freelance career back on track. Read More , is it worth getting a degree? Can I get by without one? What exactly does the degree do, anyway?

There are expert artists and industry professionals on both sides of the argument, so there isn’t a correct answer — which is immensely frustrating if you’re trying to decide one way or the other, I know — but hopefully we can clear up some of the confusion for you.

Practical Benefits of an Art Degree

We go to school so we can “learn” — at least, that’s what most of us think. If higher education is simply about gaining knowledge and learning skills, then it would be nowhere near necessary. After all, we have libraries and workshops and online tutorials, don’t we?

This is the same reasoning that some use to discredit the importance of an art degree. Why pay $50,000 for instruction when you can learn the same stuff on your own for free? And I admit, it’s a tempting stance to take.

But the first real value in an art degree is a guided curriculum. It’s one thing to learn techniques piecemeal and to cobble all of that knowledge together on your own; it’s another thing to learn from those who have struggled before you and know the best path to take, from the fundamentals to the advanced.



Some people are naturally talented — there’s no doubt about that — but even they need proper instruction if they’re going to break through plateaus and maximize their potential. At the very least, the education will help expand the skills they already possess.

But more useful than that, at least in practical terms, is the ability to learn with others. It takes a few years to earn an art degree, and during that time you’ll be interacting with both instructors and fellow students.

The ability to work as a team is crucial for a graphic designer because you’re always going to be doing work for an employer (e.g. Disney) or a client (e.g. freelance). If you can’t communicate well, you won’t produce satisfactory work, and an art degree can help you develop those skills.



But it’s also an awesome opportunity to start building a network that may come in handy later, such as when finding work or looking for potential partners. The value of a business connection cannot be underestimated.

And ultimately, that’s why an art degree matters: for employment. It’s proof that you’ve been trained and educated in a complete, accredited curriculum. It shows that you have experience and that you performed well enough to earn that piece of paper.

If you’re going to be a graphic design freelancer How to Be a Profitable Online Graphic Designer If you're a graphic designer struggling to turn a profit, all is not lost. Here are some tips for getting your freelance career back on track. Read More , a degree makes you seem more experienced to potential clients and they’ll be more confident to hire you. If you’re going to work as part of a studio or company, a degree is often necessary even for entry-level positions.


And in both cases, the strength of your degree provides leverage for you to negotiate higher rates.

Why Art Degrees Are Overrated

It’s clear that art degrees aren’t completely worthless, but the real question is whether or not the benefits justify the costs of earning said degrees. For most, this is the real heart of the question, “Do I need an art degree?”

Let’s take a look at 2015 tuition costs for several art schools in America:

  • Yale University School of Art ($35,300)
  • School of the Art Institute of Chicago ($43,140)
  • California Institute of the Arts ($43,400)
  • Pratt Institute ($44,580)
  • Otis College of Art and Design ($41,854)

Without financial aid, that’s a lot of money to pay for an education. Most students will rely on loans to pay their way through, and that’s a dangerous amount of money to borrow. If you can’t leverage that money into a high-paying art career, you risk being buried in debt for the rest of your life How to Get Rich: The Fastest Way to Get Out of Debt Imagine being debt free. No overdrawn balances or unpaid bills. There is a foolproof way of getting yourself out of debt. It starts with a plan and some discipline. Let's visit the other ingredients. Read More .



There are other colleges that push tuition into the $50,000 to $60,000 range, but the problem is that the average income for a graphic designer in the United States (as of June 2015) is $30,000 without bonuses or overtime.

Other colleges can charge exorbitant tuitions for engineers and actuaries because those professions make enough income to make their degrees worth it. Paying off art school debt, on the other hand, will be nothing but a huge long-term burden for you.

Faced with this knowledge, the smartest artists end up pursuing a career in an unrelated field and practicing art in their free time. Others decide that the education provided by art school isn’t worth the tuition and resolve to forge a career from scratch — and some of them even succeed.

For example, self-employed photography can be lucrative 5 Most Lucrative Careers for a Budding Photographer Want to make money with photography? There are a lot of potential career paths before you. Here are a few considerations to help you make the right choice. Read More and many photographers make a living without a degree in photography. The same can be true for graphic designers and other digital artists, but the foregoing of degrees is replaced by the necessity of a top-notch online portfolio How to Find a Creative Job by Showing Off Your Work Online Showcasing your best work via popular online communities can land you the dream job you've always wanted. Read More .


So yes, you can get by without an art degree but only if you have an impressive portfolio. Not just good, not just great, but impressive. Depending on your own aptitude, building said portfolio might even cost you more time and money than earning a degree, but that’s your risk to take.

One final caveat: if you ever want to teach art in a professional capacity, you’ll need a degree (unless you become particularly famous). A Bachelor’s degree is typical for grade school to high school, but a Master’s degree is required for colleges and universities.

How to Get an Art Education Online

So where do you stand? If you think an art degree is the right decision for you, then embrace it and make the most of it. Find a good school, sink in as much effort as you can, and don’t let it go to waste once you have graduated.

But for those of you who think the degree may be a mistake, here’s some good news: there are plenty of awesome resources on the Web for learning and practicing art. Many of these resources are free, but even the paid ones are drastically more affordable than enrolling in school.

For starters, we recommend these courses for digital artists Learn Digital Art from Scratch With These 22 Lynda Courses With hundreds of online courses to choose from, is the fastest way to mastery of digital art. Here are a few courses to get you started. Read More . Lynda subscriptions start at $25 per month, but one subscription is all you need to unlock thousands of courses across hundreds of topics. The courses are effective, so the price is well worth it.


If you aren’t ready to invest money just yet, you can start with these free Adobe Illustrator lectures Teach Yourself Adobe Illustrator for Free Adobe Illustrator has long been the illustration tool of choice for graphic artists. Ready to bring your designs to life? Here's how you can learn Adobe Illustrator for free. Read More (which is foundational for graphic design) along with these free Adobe Photoshop lectures Photoshop for Photographers: 8 Free Lectures to Get You Started If you're a photographer, your education doesn't stop at the camera. You need to post-process if you want the best possible results. Here are eight free lectures to get you started. Read More (which are mainly for photographers, but the skills do transfer over).

Looking to build up some experience? Consider participating in these crowdsourced design contests 3 Sites to Make Money With Crowdsourcing Design Contests Read More . If you do well, you can even make some money!

And if you get through it all and decide that maybe you’d be more interested in a non-arts career after all, here’s how you can switch over to a great tech career How To Turn A Liberal Arts Degree Into A Great Tech Career If you're interested in technology, a Liberal Arts degree can be a great thing to have. The trick is to play to your strengths, minimize your weaknesses, and realize you are capable of contributing. Read More .

Do you have a degree in art? Share your thoughts and advice with us! If you’re thinking about a career in art, post any questions or reservations you have below.

Image Credits: Creative Paths Via Shutterstock, Male Art Student Via Shutterstock, Design Team Around Table Via Shutterstock, Tuition Costs Via Shutterstock, Female Graphic Designer Via Shutterstock

Related topics: Careers, Digital Art, Graphic Design.

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  1. Anonymous
    July 18, 2015 at 7:15 pm

    A degree has become devalued and there are alternatives such as modern apprenticeships and on the job training, but it certainly is almost the minimum education requirement for many jobs in the current age with high youth unemployment, and certainly not the guarantee of a position it once was with many new graduates struggling to gain employment.

    • Joel Lee
      July 20, 2015 at 4:02 pm

      True, and it's even more true in the art field. The supply of artists is so vast that the distinguishing factor is more about your portfolio than your degree.