Do Web Designers Need a College Education?

I recently had a friend ask me a few things about web design – how I got into it, where I learned everything, whether I thought taking college courses were necessary or even helpful, etc. And those questions really got me thinking about how unique this field has become. Web design is an interesting field in that many of us do not have a college education and are essentially entirely self-taught, which begs the question: Do web designers need a college education to succeed?

I do have a bachelors in design, so it’s difficult, if not impossible for me to give an unbiased opinion, simply because I don’t know what it’s like to be in this field without a degree. However, while I do think it’s important for web designers to have a college degree, it’s probably not for the obvious reasons. To tackle this argument, I’m going to break it up into three areas which I feel are the core to my job as a web designer:

  1. Design
  2. Development
  3. Communication

Design

As a web designer, a huge part of my job is, of course, the design aspect. I would say that I actually learned the vast majority of my skills outside the classroom. I took a couple courses on how to use the various programs I use today, but for the most part, I learned them outside of school and either in my free time or, because my job is awesome, at work.

What I think was most beneficial that I took away from school was the basic eye for design. I learned color theory, general perception tendencies, best practice basics, etc. Learning this on your own, I would imagine, would be incredibly difficult if only for the simple fact that most of these concepts are learned over a long period of time with a lot of input from other people.

However, if you’re setting out to learn these things on your own, I think the best thing to do would be to constantly look at design and be very critical about why you like the site, what you think works, etc. and to read as much about design as you can. And these are things that will only be helpful in the long run, as that’s what I do to this day – constantly read as much as possible about the web in general to keep myself as relevant as possible. A good place to find a bunch of blogs you can use to do just that can be found in the welcome post of this web design & development blog.

Development

While this is the most technical side of the job, it is actually probably the easiest part, simply because there is a right and a wrong answer – it works or it doesn’t. The design aspect, in contradiction, is very subjective and can be perceived as working or not-working depending on the person you ask.

I took a single course on web development in my time in school and it provided a wonderful base onto which I was able to add with new skills and knowledge. However, there are dozens of sites that offer free tutorials for you to get that base on your own. You can see a handy list of those websites on a another on of my blog posts: Helpful Learning Tools.

Communication

When I talk about communication, I’m talking about it in a brought sense – both written and verbal. Whether it’s mentioned in the job description or not, effective communication skills are part of your job as a web designer. A big part of my job is to communicate with clients – to both explain my designs as well as bring in new clients, so effective communication skills are imperative for me to succeed. Additionally, in any office setting, communication skills are, simple put, necessary.

I think this is the biggest and most important skill I learned in school. Simply dealing with teachers, fellow students, friends, etc, is training I would think would be virtually impossible to get elsewhere (unless, of course, your job has allowed for a learning curve here). Communicating with teachers is a lot like communicating with either bosses or clients; your language needs to be precise and clear. Fellow students act as colleagues, forcing you to truly understand when “friend communication” (relaxed and less formal) is appropriate versus when a more formal and “teacher-like communication” is necessary.

Summary

In summary, I do think a college education is necessary, but not necessarily because it prepared me for my exact job, because it really didn’t. However, it provided me a solid base on which I could stand as I collected the skills necessary to succeed in this job on my own. And I think, generally, that’s exactly what college is supposed to do, is it not?