Is Art/Design School for me? Advice for prospective students

Posted on Dec 23, 2011 in Education, Mentorship, Strategy

A friend called me to ask about her daughter pursing a BFA in photography as a “major” change in her education. She’s unhappy with taking photojournalism at a liberal arts college and is “not a very good student”. Should she look into art school instead? she asks. I believe my answer to her is relevant to all art/design students, not only my friend looking into a photography career. Here’s 10 suggestions.

1. Sit down and map out a career path

Where do I want to be in 5yr, 10yr, 25yr? This will help you determine whether more education is needed and what kind. Do you need an experience that will grow you, mature you, teach you? Or do you need more technical skills and a few extracurricular enhancements? Perhaps you have the conceptual bit and technical skill but you need is more exposure and experience in different kinds of photography so that you can discover what you really like.

design magazines

Flckr: Jesper Egelund

2. Self-direction: the key to getting the most from your education

You need to experiment and test and discover what you’re interested in, curious about. This process is as much about the actual discipline you are studying as much as it is about learning to learn. That’s ideally what you should be really good at when you graduate. Because then, you can go off and do whatever you want. People pay beaucoup $$$ for conferences in the spirit of “life long learning” every year. Don’t wait until you’re “done with school and have more time”. You will never have more time than now. Be proactive, take advantage of the resources you have and be prepared to create your own experience. This is where access to resources is key: what does the library have? What kinds of reference material, industry surveys, current editorials can you get your hands on?

3. Art & Design School is not for “non-students”

It is not the end of tests, textbooks or papers. It’s just a different approach to education—education that has been designed for visual learners, visual thinkers and within a context of art & design. Unfortunately, many students arrive having been neglected throughout their elementary & secondary education in that they haven’t been taught to learn in a way that actually engages the way their brains works, stores and process information. They may not have had many positive interactions with educators and have been somewhat ostracized by their peers for wanting to ‘express’ themselves, seek ‘alternative’ ideas, music, fashions. “Don’t be so idealistic” “You’ll grow out of it” “There’s no money in art”. So, you can understand why they don’t have a lot of confidence in themselves as students and feel overwhelmed by the structure and workload. You will develop life skills like discipline, time management, reading, critical thinking, teamwork (group projects!), conflict resolution (group projects gone sour!), leadership (somebody has to take the fall). Make sure you’re reading to learn and grow.

4. Art (critically thinking) v. Design (client driven)

If you pursue a BFA, it will more strongly emphasize the art-making aspect. If you pursue a program within a BDes, it will allow you to focus on more commercial sectors. Art and design both demand an audience, a market, a customer. Ask yourself, “Do I want to part of the contemporary art scene? Do I want to run a business and focus on a certain commercial sector?” Either way you will have to be organized, professional, punctual and client-minded. We are all exploring and solving problems whether it’s for ourselves (through an art expression) or from a client (with more defined objectives and boundaries).

5. Who are the professionals you admire?

Where did they train? Did they do post-secondary school? What did they do after school? Studying the professionals in your field of interest can be both daunting and inspirational. Try not to compare yourself to them too much. Understand that there’s always more that meets the eye and that practice makes perfect. Even if you had the best training from the best mentors and schools doesn’t mean you’ll turn out to be a successful photographer (or whatever profession you are in). The reverse is also true.

6. Know what a school is known for

What facet of the business do you most enjoy? E.g. documentary, experimental, surrealist, fashion, sports, landscape, portrait? Every school has specialties and these are often determined by the professors, the affiliate partners and location. Also if particular influential photographer attended a certain school, they may set up programs or donate resources with a focus on their specialty.

7. How connected is the school to the industry?

Where do the faculty come from? Do they have full-time industry jobs? Do any of the faculty also sit on boards of industry associations? This might suggest they are willing to mentor.Does the school have a gallery? Does the college invite visiting fellows, researchers or speakers to speak on a regular basis? These are just a few that suggest you will get exposure to real world projects, mentorships from people who are interested in both education and industry and will potentially provide external partnerships and opportunities.  I was invited to take part in a mobile conference and research project by one of my professors after Year 1 and was ultimately accredited in her book! Through my school’s Speaker Series I learned about projects and people and companies (IDEO, Imaginary Forces) that have helped shape my ideas and aspirations. The Technical University of Eindhoven is very connected to Phillips as they share a homebase and many students get recruited straight out of school. Are the companies or people you’d like to work for connected with a certain school?

8. Compare curriculums and your excitement

Do you like the curriculum that they are offering? When you read the course catalogue are you hoping for a challenge or for more of what you already know? Comparing curriculums at several top universities will help you define what exactly you want from your education.

photo studio

Flickr: Tilly Dog Fauxtografix

9. Faculty/Staff: ratios and mission

What is the student:staff ratio. This will determine how closely staff will work, give feedback and mentor the students. It will also tell you if the school is more focused on the students or making money.  I had a fantastic Thesis advisor whose poor wife probably spent less time with him than his students. He would sit with us and discuss, brainstorm and map out our personal branding strategies and goals. Do they have a robust alumni support system? Is it important for you that they have internships, mentorship programs or affiliations with industry associations? These things will pay off after you graduate.

10. Pay attention to language

Does the tone of the school language talk more about you getting skills and a job or about you growing as a artist/designer? Be wary of sentences like these,

“The purpose of the —- degree program in — is to prepare students to successfully seek employment in the field of — in an entry-level position.”

Shame on you. Any school worth investing that much time and money in better be preparing you for life, not just your entry level, first job out of college. Here’s another less-desirable one:

“Upon completion of our program, graduates can expect to open their own photographic business or fill entry-level employment positions in the diverse and competitive marketplace of today’s professional imaging industry.”

How’s this for a welcome message:

“An estimated 300 million pictures are taken each day around the world, signaling the ubiquitous role of photography in our culture. But while almost anyone can take a photo, very few achieve great photography.

[Our department] helps photographers acquire the skills and creative fluency needed to create resonant visual documents, not just well crafted representations. Exceptional images can travel through space and time without losing their significance—whether they are displayed on a cellphone or on the side of a building.”

Do you see the difference? One promises a desk job while the second invites you into the larger social context to which the discipline sits and invites you into a long-term relationship with a craft, discipline and purpose. What is your priority? To find a passion or to just pay the bills?


Define a career path, establish your priorities and make the most of whatever you choose. You are only young once.