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How can you find the design program that's right for you?
There's no easy answer to this question, but there's bound to be
more than one school that will suit your needs. To find them, you
will need to ask many questions and to gather facts and impressions
concerning curriculum, faculty, facilities, and student body. What
you are ultimately searching for is a match between your interests
and abilities and the character and opportunities provided by a
Begin by examining the subjects you will be studying—the
curriculum. Review the entire curriculum of the graphic design
program, course by course, including a short description of each
course. What is the philosophy of the program? Does the curriculum
support it? Do the philosophy and course offerings match your
career intentions? What types of courses make up the major
emphasis? Do the courses support the description of the major? Does
the curriculum allow you a choice of electives? Can you have a
minor or a double major if you choose? Who teaches the freshman
courses: full-time faculty or graduate students? These freshman
courses are among the most important ones you will take because
they set the stage for your future development. They should be
taught by the most qualified faculty. The curriculum is like a
skeleton. In order to function, it should be more than a loose
collection of unconnected bones, or unrelated courses.
Depending on the type of school you are looking at, you may need
to ask some of the following questions as well: Do the four-year
university or college programs have enough breadth and depth in
their major (more than a couple of courses)? Do the art schools
have a focused major with enough breadth and depth in studio
courses? Do they have academics to support this focus? Do the
four-year programs adequately prepare students for graduate study?
Are foreign exchange programs available? Are internship programs
available, either within the curriculum or as summer activities? Do
the two-year programs have a focused development in marketable
design-production specialties? Do they adequately prepare students
to transfer to four-year institutions?
While courses, no matter how clearly they are presented, are
difficult to evaluate, the credentials of the faculty are easier to
review. What's more, the composition of the faculty can give you
confidence in the curriculum. If the curriculum is the skeleton of a
program, the faculty is the heart—these people give life and
vitality to the program. Even the best curriculum is little more
than a structure representing what can be taught or learned. The
faculty makes things happen.
To examine the credentials of the faculty, review the faculty
listing found at the back of most college catalogs. It tells where
faculty members were educated, how long they have been at this
school, their academic rank, what courses they teach, and what
research or professional areas interest them. Faculties need to
refresh themselves, to bring in new members from different places,
in order to avoid stagnation. Equally important is faculty activity
outside the classroom. Research or professional design activity
keeps the faculty members alert and questioning so they can bring
new ideas to the classroom.
Also find out the balance between full-time and adjunct or
part-time faculty. Full-time faculty provide continuity within the
curriculum, while adjunct faculty provide specific expertise that
may not be available from the regular faculty. How many graphic
design faculty are there? It is difficult to have a vital
curriculum with only one graphic design teacher because there is
little diversity of ideas, philosophy, or skills for a student to
tap into. What is the student-to-faculty ratio in the design
program? Design education is highly interactive. Common sense as
well as experience indicates that a high student-to-teacher ratio
(more students per teacher) will be a handicap in a design
Find out if there is an advising system for the students, on
that goes beyond guidance on what courses to take and also provides
counseling on career opportunities. Is there a placement office on
campus and a student advisory board to provide feedback to the
school? Are there extracurricular activities such as speaker
programs, design exhibitions, and student-run design associations?
If possible, tour the school and talk informally with students and
faculty. Visit a studio and observe. In brief, try to determine the
quality of life at the school and within the program.
While you're touring the school, find out about the facilities,
or physical plant, as well as the atmosphere. Facilities are
important; they support the mission of the faculty and the
curriculm and contribute to the quality of life. For example, are
there enough computer or darkroom facilities to support the
instruction? Are they accessible beyond class time so that students
can complete projects? Is the equipment maintained? Is there
adequate studio space? Is there exhibition space for student work
and is it used? Is the library well stocked with books and
periodicals of interest to design students? Is there a museum? A
stimulating environment can bring out the best in both students and
As the school to suggest a design alumni in your area that you
can contact. Question the person about his or her experience at the
school and about job experience afterward. To find out where other
graduates are working, you might ask for a list of alumni and not
what kinds of positions they hold relative to how long they have
been out of school. Find out which alumni are touted by the school
because of their success and why. Ask about employment potential in
general and for what specific kinds of jobs.
If you have friends or relatives in graphic design or related
disciplines, seek them out and ask them about schools and career
options. If they cannot answer your questions, maybe they can
direct you to someone who can. Look in your local libraries and
bookstores for design periodicals so that you know what is
currently going on in design. Stay in touch with your guidance
counselors; information is constantly flowing into their offices,
and contact with them keeps them aware of your interests.
Know the importance of the selection process, but don't be
intimidated by it. There are many kinds of schools and programs,
and there is more than one situation right for you. Some schools
are highly selective, but many lesser-known colleges offer a
substantial and challenging undergraduate experience. Remember that
you are evaluating them just as much as they are evaluating you. Be
honest with yourself about your interests and abilities. Then
gather both facts and subjective impressions of school quality and
character. Be realistic about the match that's best for you.
Graphic Design: A Career Guide and Education Directory
Edited by Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl
The American Institute of Graphic Arts
Designers need to master a wide variety of skills and concepts.
Section: Tools and Resources -
There are hundreds of design programs in the United States, and
their content and philosophies vary widely. This gives you a lot of
options, but is also means that identifying the particular programs
best suited to your needs and interests can be difficult.
Design education doesn't happen in the typical university
lecture hall or laboratory.
Through “INitiative,” a program created by AIGA and The Creative
Group (TCG) to support in-house designers, AIGA chapters host local in-house design events across the country.
Section: Tools and Resources -
Antionette Carroll of AIGA St. Louis, the chair of AIGA's Diversity and Inclusion task force, shares some background on the problem of diversity in design, why it matters, and what this program hopes to achieve.
Section: Tools and Resources -
Design for Good, K-12, advocacy, diversity, social responsibility
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