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.
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.