Should You Get a Masters in Design?

From time to time people ask for my advice on whether they should pursue a master’s degree in design, especially in interaction design. It’s a funny question for me because I never went to graduate school myself, and have relatively little experience with the graduate environment.

Two years ago I taught a semester at the brilliant Master’s Program in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts. The program is run by my close friend Liz Danzico, who has staffed it with amazing teachers who are also practicing professionals, and the first few classes of students (it’s only a few years old) have been full of smart, ambitious people. But I did a terrible job teaching the course, probably because, in all honesty, the academic environment is not a good fit for me. I prefer to be working, and I don’t much enjoy the classroom.


On-the-job Training

This is partly because, throughout my career, every job I’ve ever held has also been a tremendous learning experience. Whether this was a function of luck or attitude, work has always felt more immediate, tangible and fun to me than the abstraction of a classroom. Whether it was coping with new kinds of design challenges, adapting to new technologies, collaborating with (and sometimes managing) clients, or running a business, there was always something new to soak up. What’s more, those working environments allowed me to examine closely what motivates me, what I’m good at and what I’m bad at, all through real, live, consequential decision-making.

The kind of learning you do in these scenarios is a very different education from what you get in a master’s program, that’s for sure. For me, this path made the most sense because, not only was I learning, but I was also getting paid to figure out what I wanted to do, too. There was no diploma, but looking back I realize that, in a sense, my employers were essentially bankrolling an education for me.

Figuring It Out

So I’m surprised when I hear from designers who are considering graduate school as a method of working out what’s next for their career, or perhaps as a way to transition to something new. They may not know what kind of design they want to specialize in, whether to work in client services or to go in-house, whether to freelance or start a company. Or they may be looking to make the transition from print to digital, or from the Web to apps, or from visual design to strategy. Whatever it might be, I find it odd that they would look to graduate school as the right forum in which to resolve those questions.

For some people, that may be the right path, but it strikes me that it’s also an incredibly expensive form of career counseling. Graduate school is a great idea for many reasons, but ‘figuring things out’ seems like the least productive rationale of all. The bills for a good graduate school can be massive and crippling. Why take that on when you can get someone else to pay you to do the same thing?

(Before I come across as insensitive to the vagaries of the job market, I should say that I do realize that good design jobs are not easy to come by. On the other hand, good companies are constantly looking to hire designers. And if you don’t have the exact skill set to get a certain job you aspire to, taking a handful of much more affordable night classes in concert with devoting free time to self-directed practice and study is a much better, more effective approach to getting into the right job.)

I’m not saying that no one should get a master’s degree in design; far from it. Instead, what I mean is that one should really have the right motivation before entering a graduate program in design. Rather than hoping the academic environment will afford a miraculous, clarifying light on one’s career, I would advise anyone considering it to go in with a clearly identified purpose. If there is a specific, next step for you that you’ve identified, and if you’ve found the right graduate program to help you take that step, then that’s when I’d say graduate school makes sense. If you know what you want to do with your graduate degree — whether it’s to teach or to focus on a very particular kind of design or whatever — then that’s when you’re able to extract the most substantive, unique value from an expensive graduate education. If that’s not the case, then try to get someone else to pay you to figure it out instead.

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14 Comments

  1. I knew that I wanted to teach, so I went back to strengthen my theoretical knowledge, as well as delve into things like semiotics, HCI, and things I only touched on during my undergrad experience. After two years of diving into it, I feel pretty comfortable talking about it and can lecture to my students without sounding like I’m reading off a powerpoint slide.

    Experiencing the reality of paying off my loans now, but no regrets!

  2. Work experiences were considerably more formative than academic challenges for me as well. I venture that undergraduate degrees are even costlier forms of career counseling. Not to discount its worth, but too many in that environment mistake exploration for lack of direction. Having *any* plan is good advice always.

  3. I’ve researched the aforementioned SVA MFA in Interaction Design, and I’ve dreamed of enrolling for over 2 years. However, the program’s allure was stronger when I was fresh out of undergrad. Now that I’ve been part of the product design team for two startups, I’ve changed my opinion to better align with yours.

    I hope this doesn’t blacklist me for the MFA in IxD program (or any other), but I’ve long thought that you’re really paying for extended access to industry legends as opposed to paying for typical classes and assignments.

  4. These are the reasons to get an MFA in Design:

    - You want to teach at the university level full time. (Exception: really talented people, with a strong record of professional achievement and recognition [probably over 30 or 35 years of age] who taught design adjunct for a few or many years and transition into full time “tenure track” teaching.)

    - or you have an undergraduate degree in graphic design or a related area in design and would like to learn more about graphic design or a related field. Change graphic design to ID, arch, interactive, etc.

    - or you have an undergraduate degree in a distantly related area to design and would like to be a designer or teach. Areas such as photography (although photo is pretty close), painting and other fine art areas, printmaking, art history, computer interaction design (no art or design classes or few), American studies, journalism, editing, film, etc. Note though that to get accepted to most (decent) MFA programs, you need a portfolio. So you still have to have some designer in you or take classes which help you get into a program that will take you. Some MFA programs have catch up programs that take people who need basic undergrad courses. It adds one year to your MFA studies.

    - or you have extensive on the job experience as a designer or related area or working with designers and a career of 10 or more years. Your degree might be in who knows what. But you want a second career and decide to go back to school. You are an adult returning to get your graduate degree. You may need to take that extra pre-grad studies year to learn good typography, color, systems, thinking, etc.

    - or you are a designer with an undergrad degree. You have a great portfolio. Your typography is rock solid. If interactive, your digital media and web design is solid. You just want to learn more and be a “thinker” for a while and not focus on the business of it. You may have also been a stinky undergrad student but matured as a young adult and feel like you need to go back and really dig deep into what design is all about.

    Reasons *not* to get an MFA in Design:

    - You expect to be trained on computer programs and technical issues in design. Most MFA programs expect you to come in knowing what you need to know technically to achieve your goals and finish a graduate thesis project.

    - You expect to sit back and absorb information, just like you did in undergraduate school. Well, you will, particularly the first year. But unlike undergraduate studies, a graduate program is more about what *you* want, what you hope to achieve, not what the program wants to impart on your brain. It is all about your ideas.

    - You are in the final year of your undergraduate studies. You are not ready to leave school. You want to go strait to MFA. This will not work in most cases as any program worth applying for requires that you work as a designer for at least a few years so you are sure you want to be a designer. Programs that take you strait in are just going for your money or don’t have enough applicants because they are just not that good.
    (The exception is an undergrad applicant of exceptional talent who also worked as a designer while in school either in internships or at the job on or off campus and amassed a portfolio of professional and course projects to use for an MFA application. But in each class accepted at the schools worth going to, only one or two are these students. Really, the best. You will know it before you apply. If you are reading this, it is probably not you. The 3-5 graduate students I taught or knew who were this, went on to acclaimed success as designers or design educators.)

    - You studied fine art but realized that you just can’t be Warhol with your style of work. Poverty stinks and you need to make a living! Your college/mother/art teacher/dentist (incorrectly) said that you could teach design with your degree in acrylic landscape painting. Oh, you need an MFA, OK, you’ll get a quickie in design so you can teach. No. You need to get an undergrad in design or work as a designer with clients for a decade. Can you work with clients as a fine artist? Have you? Can you compromise and be flexible with the design solution? Nobody gives a crap that you are an arteest.

  5. I’m strongly considering graduate school for two reasons ultimately. One…I love to learn. I know that I can use the wealth of knowledge available on the web. And I know that experiences gained while working with clients, be they in-house clients or freelance, are priceless. But I’m a firm believer that you don’t know what you don’t know. School may be an expensive way to amass questions but I feel that thus far, its been well worth it. Two…My ultimate goal is to teach. I started the journey toward being a designer from zero with absolutely no idea what it would take or what I was getting myself into. I constantly encounter instructors that can’t necessarily speak what a student in my situation needs to thrive in a design setting. I’ve been lucky enough (so I’ve been told) to be able to grasp the fundamentals of design as well as the thought process needed to communicate visually and orally in way that makes my work useful. I will be able to speak to that student with no art or design background honestly because I am that student.

    I do agree that it is always best, if at all possible, to get someone else to pay for a graduate degree. These loans are no joke at all. The tools to be great are everywhere. One just needs to know how to unearth them. For some, grad school is a great spade useful for removing just the right amount of dirt from the gem that is to become a future ripe with doing what one loves.

  6. An MA in design should be about conceptually experimenting in an environment independent of economic considerations — to think about your field 5-10 years in advance. Clients won’t pay you for such things, unless you are highly talented and have quite a reputation. People need to be able to take risks and fail (badly) in order to really take things to the next level. In a freelance/business environment, this could be commercial suicide, so I think many people just won’t take the risk.

    So, only unless you:
    - already are a highly talented designer in your field
    - constantly figure things out on your own
    - never stop exploring unknown things
    ( – and have no interest in the academic world/teaching positions)

    do an MA and look for programs that encourage their students to experiment! It will benefit the entire profession by having more people that don’t think along obvious lines!

  7. JC, Jana, and Stephan, all have good points (ie: know your goals, love to learn, and experiment!). As someone who’s currently taking a year off from my MFA design program, I can relate to these questions.

    What hasn’t been mentioned is the interaction with classmates and other students of the school. These are factors which will shape your education as much as your professors. The drive of our peers is very influential (almost at a subliminal level). Look at who is currently enrolled in your schools of choice and why they are there.

    Side-note: Why hasn’t someone tried to open source their graduate education? Where is our “Blueprint for Counter Education”? (great book, look it up)

  8. Good companies might always be looking to hire designers, but that doesn’t mean you get the job.

    And while I fantasize about offering myself up as an unpaid intern just to get my foot in the door of some great design firm, I have to pay my rent.

    I don’t have a design education: I was almost done with my degree in computer programming when I discovered my love for graphic design. But my college didn’t offer much: I took the few courses that taught the software–but there was no theory, no typography, no design history–and only minimal critique. My professors advised me to forgo even the fine arts classes (probably the wrong advice), and just get out into the world and work. Build a portfolio. So that’s what I did, and I’ve survived thus far on my design instinct, and whatever I taught myself.

    But after 10 years, even with satisfied clients, I think my situation sucks: I feel extremely lacking. And no matter how much I read, or listen to lectures or try to educate myself, I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere. I’ve been dreaming about going to SVA Designer as Author (which I really don’t have the money for), mostly because I want to have the guidance of the assignments and the feedback of the professors. I feel like without that, everything I do is just in a vacuum. Is this not enough of a reason?

    What do you think my best course of action is?

  9. Yael,
    One of the missing components in your description is being involved with an engaged community. This is easily found within a graduate program, but it isn’t the cheapest path. It doesn’t cost much to try and wrangle a group of people together for serious critique and discussion. Perhaps asking someone to mentor you is also an option. Overall, I’d suggest investigating what it is you actually want to learn and how it will affect your future. From their you can make a plan of action and start to achieve your goals.

    Best of luck!

  10. I got an MFA at SVA one year ago and I’m still torn on this subject. I can directly see the cause and effect of grad school — because I did a certain semester-long project and won a TDC award, the TDC director gave me a coveted internship at his firm, and because I had that internship, I now work at the best design firm in my region. And yet I’m saddled in debt and could never pay it off at my current salary if I wasn’t married. (As it is, it will take 3 years of my full salary to do so).

    If I didn’t have the double income that marriage grants me, I might have said it’s not worth it. But then I’d probably still be a bored project manager at a sub-par web design firm.

    (Fyi, I couldn’t become a designer at said firm because they outsourced their designers from Manila. I also had no design experience because I was a fine art and english major in undergrad. I took night classes to build a portfolio to apply to SVA. It’s hard to say what would have become of me if I didn’t go to grad school)…

  11. JL, can I ask: what night classes did you take and where? Maybe that’s where I should start.

    Your situation is exactly what I think about, what I want, and what I’m afraid of. After all is said and done, though, don’t you think the debt is worth it? It was essentially an investment in your life, and it sounds like it’s paying off already.

  12. My experience with grad classes has been very limited and in HCI vs. design. However, most of the ones I’ve taken so far have involved real work for real clients. I have friends taking grad classes in other programs and they’ve said the same… the projects they work on are for local startups, nonprofit organizations, etc. vs. a theoretical assignment that’ll be useless in the future. (I’m a student at the University of Washington, fwiw.)

    I absolutely agree that working on real projects is more interesting and fulfilling. However, if you’re an entry level person, it’s more difficult to carefully pick your coworkers / work environment, especially in this economy. Not all employers encourage learning and growth or give the kind of tasks and responsibility that generate it. I had jobs where I was actively discouraged from teaching myself things, discouraged from working on projects that went outside “my role”, etc. Sure, you can just teach yourself from websites and books… but if you’re spending 40+ hours in a job where you aren’t being challenged and haven’t had any luck getting a better job, that cuts into the amount of time / energy you have to learn.

    Many talented people are awful at getting jobs. If you’re an introvert, don’t have many friends, hate networking events, don’t use social networking sites or linkedin, don’t promote yourself online, etc… you’ll probably have a rough time. So they may have the design skills to rock it, but not the other skills that school can sometimes help teach.

  13. I am self taught designer having 4 years of experience in the industry. As the designing is subject of research & trial, the basics must be clear in mind. I have seen a lot of designers, they don’t have the idea about shape basics, color basic etc. Sometimes people understand that operating photoshop or any design application means working on design. So in my opinion Having a Master or Bachelor Degree is good for career because students can be clear on basics on study time and can do practice in a right way.