How to select a design school

Beyond the array of degrees and institutions, schools vary in their thinking about what education is for, who should teach there, and how students can reach their academic goals. There's also difference between NASAD-accredited graphic design programs and those without accreditation. Once you’ve narrowed down what you’re looking for, how do you decide?

Start at the top. For each school you’re considering, read the mission statement and program description. While these may be aspirational, they represent what success looks like in these programs. Does it describe an environment and method of study that’s consistent with your own aspirations? Does their definition of design match yours? If there are claims about what you’ll learn or go on to do, are they factual (look for examples or success stories), or are they just feeding into what prospective students want to hear?

Read the curriculum. A curriculum is a series of courses that build upon each other towards mastery in a subject. While you may not understand all the terms, you should be able to infer the structure. Is there a clear core curriculum of required courses that are geared towards the discipline? How many liberal arts courses are required, and how do they relate to the core? Does the program emphasize something in particular, such as systems, personal voice, social justice, business, process, or portfolio preparation? While it might sound ideal to have a lot of course choices, you may not always get what you want, and too many options could also mean not graduating with the professional competencies that were promised.

Read course titles and descriptions. Do the courses sound current and relevant for the environment we live in today? Are you required to take, or would you have access to courses that cover design for a wide variety of media, including interactive media? Or will you be directed to specialize in a particular subdomain? Courses should span concept, methodology, and theory as well as technique, and beyond the first year, should provide opportunities to demonstrate independent thought and making that bring those things together.

If all of the courses lean towards how-to, or are all described as if they’re introductory courses, you won’t attain the same depth or mastery as your peers at other institutions. Look for opportunities to meaningfully apply learned technical skills by engaging critically with the world. The ability to ask the right questions and make connections between unrelated things will outlive any kind of technical knowledge.

Take a look at the faculty. Since most classes are small and critique-based, students work very closely with faculty in design school. Are most of the courses taught by part-time faculty, full-time faculty, or graduate students? How many faculty have MFA degrees? How many are actively practicing? Look for portfolios and profiles online. Is there a specific school of thought or approach? How current are they in their work and their thinking? Outdated critiques, even from great teachers, lead to work that can be out of touch with current design practice, while faculty new to teaching or to the discipline may have difficulty connecting. Working with a variety of faculty is often the best measure against both extremes.

Take a look at the students. What kind of work are the students making? Remember that what you’re seeing has been selected to promote the school. Does it demonstrate a high level of thinking? Current practice and theory? Impressive technique? A program’s values will be evident in the selection.

Visit the school. If it’s an online school, ask to observe a class. Can you picture yourself there for the long term? Is the mission communicated by the faculty the same as the one publicly posted?

If you can, talk to students. Is the school exceeding their expectations? Are they able to take the courses they want to take, and are they on track for graduation? It’s also important to know what life is like for them outside of school. Do they work? Do they have internships? How far do they live from campus? Do they spend time with other students, either in associations or just hanging out? Do faculty spend time with students outside of class? How many students are in each class? Do they interact with students from other programs? You can ask faculty or administrators many of the same questions, but students are more likely to respond with specifics and will know the ups and downs of their experience.

Consider the location. A school in a city means access to lectures, internships, and cultural experiences, but will also have less space to work, more sharing of resources, potentially long commutes, and other concerns and distractions. A school in a rural or suburban area won’t be able to offer the same spontaneous experiences, but will offer an abundance of time, space, and concentration, making it easier to focus on your work and connect with fellow students in a less anxious environment.

Size matters. Smaller programs will often have smaller class sizes with more personalized attention from faculty. Faculty at smaller schools tend to be generalists, since they teach a wide range of subject matter. The greater the number of students and faculty, the more graphic design courses can be offered, and the more it’s possible to offer specialized courses.

Think outside the program. What supports the program? Are there advisors? Is there a career office that seems to be knowledgeable about the field? The environment and facilities are important as well. Will you have access to what you need, both in terms of working equipment and space? Pay attention to what’s posted around the school. Are there advertisements for talks and exhibitions? If school is in session, are students around?

Talk to recent alumni. Schools are like rivers: they seem constant, and have great impact, but are constantly changing. A successful alumnus from a decade past is not a predictor for the quality or outcome of a particular program, especially given how much the professional landscape has shifted. Additionally, faculty, administrators, and current students at any school will always tell you that students do well after graduation, because for the most part, they only hear from the ones that do.

Contact recent alumni and ask what their classmates are doing, what kind of person would do well in the program, and advice they would give for someone going through the same program. Even better, ask them about their experience in applying to schools and why they chose to do what they did. They’ll also know of people who’ve graduated from other programs and will be in a position to make some intelligent comparisons. Of all of the people to speak with, recent alumni will give you the clearest indication of whether a program is for you, and even better, will give you the clearest roadmap of what life after school looks like.

Be realistic about your finances. You won’t know the true cost of any school until after you’ve applied. A school with a higher sticker price may be able to offer more scholarship money than one that initially seems cheaper. And a school that’s cheaper (such as a public institution) doesn’t necessarily offer a lesser experience, and may offer a program that’s better funded than a private school that relies on tuition and alumni donations. Finally, any money invested in school should lead to an educational experience that lasts, not just an immediate career outcome. Your last job is as important as your first.

Continue reading excerpts from The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication Design.

About the Author: Juliette Cezzar is a designer, writer, and Assistant Professor of Communication Design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, where she was the Director of the BFA Communication Design and BFA Design & Technology programs from 2011–2014. She served as President of the board of directors of AIGA/NY from 2014–2016. She is the co-author, with Sue Apfelbaum, of Designing the Editorial Experience, and the author of five other books, the latest of which is The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication Design.