10 Feb / 10 Tips for the Degree-less Graphic Designer

“So… I didn’t go to art school, now what?”

Ah, the question I ask myself (almost desperately) these days, especially as I begin my internship search. While many companies are open-minded about the capabilities of a non-traditionally trained designer, some others prefer to stick to the relative safety of the Diploma or B.A.-holder – and with good reason. An art school education guarantees not only knowledge of industry-standard technical skills, but also 3 to 4 years of exploration, experimentation, and sound guidance. The graphic designer who graduates from art school is well-equipped to take on most jobs. So where does that leave people like me, a student enrolled in a regular college that focuses precious little on the visual arts? Don’t get me wrong: I love Northwestern University. The whole reason why I choose to spend three-quarters of the year in freezing Chicago over places that could have given me a more hands-on visual education (in sunnier weather, no less) is because NU is great. It amazes me every day how intelligent and motivated people around me are.

“At the same time, getting an education in visual art is really hard: The art department is small, and classes are more likely filled with last-quarter engineers wanting to expand their horizons than actual art majors. What’s a girl to do?”

At the same time, getting an education in visual art is really hard: The art department is small, and classes are more likely filled with last-quarter engineers wanting to expand their horizons than actual art majors. What’s a girl to do? I imagine that there are others out there who are roughly in the same situation. At 18, one scarcely knows what one truly wants out of life. And by the time one discovers they actually, really, do want to pursue a career in the visual arts, one discovers one is two years too late. One seems completely uncompetitive compared to one’s art-schooled peers. My mission is to contest that assumption. I believe that there are many things you can do to keep relevant with the design world even as you are more or less isolated from the vibrant center of it. Most of these things I have learned by trial and error. Some of these things have been told to me by people I respect and love (Especially my high school art teacher. Thank you, Mr. C.). All of these things have helped me cope with being a graphic designer in a decidedly un-graphic design-y world. And so, I present to you, Geneve’s…

10 tips for the degreeless designer


1. Have a portfolio. Keep updating it. The true test of a designer, art school or not, is in the portfolio. Keep it relevant, keep it filled with your best work. Most importantly, put it online.

2. Keep up-to-date with your software skills. If the industry is using Adobe CS6, use Adobe CS6. If you don’t have it, download a trial and see how it is different from your own version. Try not to be more than 2 versions behind – software technology improves at a mind-blowing pace nowadays. You don’t want to waste precious time coloring in flaws with a soft brush when the new version can do it for you in 3 seconds.

3. Feed yourself with design. Read blogs. Flip through periodicals and magazines. Collect bits of design you find on postcards, name cards, menus, books, and everywhere else. Keep them. You never know when you will need inspiration for a future project. Don’t let people call you a junkie! (As for me, I remain an avid fan of the first design blog I have ever followed, I subscribe to Computer Arts and IdN, and have a couple of issues of Monocle lying around. I also have more children’s picture books on my shelf than is generally acceptable for a 23 year old.)

4. Draw a lot. Draw every day. Or if you’re the mouse-drawing kind, use that. The point is to keep exercising the right half of your brain even as college pushes your left brain to the limits. The other point is to always remain at ease with translating an idea visually.

5. Keep learning new software. The future is in mobile design. One of my goals for the coming year is not only to learn motion graphics properly, but to learn the basic structure of app design as well. One day, unless you are really, really, good, designing static 2D stuff isn’t going to be enough. I keep telling myself that.

6. Integrate skills from what you do learn in school. As a Communications major, I don’t learn art. But I do learn how to communicate – which, if you think about it, is what art really strives to do. I learn about marketing and persuasion, perception and consumer psychology. All of these do have a great impact on the the bigger picture of graphic design. If you want to be a commercial artist, it is so important to understand exactly what your client is trying to do, especially if your client is a business. For example, knowing how to design a brand requires you to first have an appreciation for what a brand is, and how consumers are likely to perceive it.

7. Make friends. Network. Although I don’t study art at school, I am really lucky to have had a really solid core of artist friends from junior college (high school). Some of them are now photographers, some are graphic designers, some are architects, some are painters, and some, like me, are somewhere in between. We bounce ideas off each other, and get constructive criticism on what we’re working on. I sometimes get job referrals from them. We even put up an art show together two years ago. These people helped me shape my belief that art doesn’t always have to be intensely personal. It can be awesomely collaborative, as well.

8. Look for real clients. This is the one big advantage non-art school graphic designers have. We are in the real world – or as real as college gets, anyway. The point being, chances are, you wouldn’t hit another designer if you threw a pencil into the crowd. Use this advantage to seek out (the many) people who are always in search of graphic design skills. Posters for clubs, illustrations for a school magazine, logos for that new start-up your friends have been talking about… the opportunities are endless, and you’re likely to be in demand if only you look.

9. Design fake projects. Think of a project you would love to work on, then create a fake client and work on it. If your thing is weddings, then dream up the perfect wedding and design invitations for it. If you – like me – are a packaging diehard, then do that. If you like it, put it in your portfolio. You can take as much time as you want and you don’t have to answer to anyone except yourself.

10. Actually enjoy school. As they say, college is a period of exploration. Taking part in on-campus activities not only opens you up to groups of friends with the same interests, but also gives you more opportunities to do graphic design. The bulk of the work I do during the school year has always been for my a cappella group, Treblemakers. I’ve had the privilege of working on the funniest, coolest projects with them, including designing our very first recorded album.


One day, when I can afford it, I hope to actually go to art school – there’s always something more to learn. But for now, right here’s pretty sweet too.

  • krina

    i have read your tips.. i liked it ..

    • geneve

      Thank you, Krina! Hope you found them useful.

  • Sarthak

    Inspired for sure….

  • Abhishek Bhushan

    Useful tips !

  • Andy

    Story of my life! Thanks for putting it into words 😉

  • ibrahim

    I really like your blog. this article is very useful to all the designers.
    Thanks for sharing and keep updating

  • Damilola

    This is my true life story. Good to know I’m not alone. Thanks man

  • jay

    great tips for people like me


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