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Quick Tip: Evaluating a Graphic Design Curriculum

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Choosing the right university program for design school is not an easy decision. And once you're enrolled, you may have doubts as to the comprehensiveness of the training you'll receive, and whether those skills will lead to a job in the industry. Eric Greenfield recently sent in a letter to the editor asking some questions about his current courses, which I'll answer with examples from my own training. I'll also give a few tips and general guidelines for evaluating a university's design curriculum. Keep in mind this is a big subject, and we'll just touch on a few criteria to consider.

Eric's Letter


My name is Eric. I am big fan of Tuts+ and I love your websites. They have helped me learn to design and use Adobe alot.

After deciding to become a graphic designer, I wondered where to start. I am currently in queens college. Unfortunately, I slowly began to realize I wasn't learning what I applied for. Instead of teaching Graphic Design and the software required (Photoshop, Illustrator...) We spent so much time studying Art history and images and similar things. Photoshop is only an elective which comes around every few semesters. All we use is InDesign and the text tool. After looking at a seniors portfolio, I realized they don't teach proper graphic design. It is more traditional art made on a computer. We make black and white things on paper. Something one can do in Microsoft Word.

This confuses me? What exactly are they teaching? As a graphics designer, is this what you went through? Or am I in the wrong place? I understand the theory of art and typography are important, but learning how to use the software seems to be most important, yet they don't stress it here at college.

As an expert I would love your feedback, as I am not sure what to do about next semester, which is right around the bend.



Some Criteria for Evaluation

The reality is that a university's graphic design curriculum will vary greatly. It's worthwhile to research schools, find out what they offer, what kind of facilities do they have, visit them to get a feel for how they teach, and learn what balance they place on different aspects of their curriculum.

What emphasis do they place between teaching traditional design theory, historical grounding, current industry standard software and tools, project based learning and critique, fine art and drawing, as well as internship and job placement. Consider what balance they place between teaching theory and putting that theory into practice with hands-on projects. Ideally, these skills should lead you on the path to a career in the graphic arts.

My Experience

I personally went to a state school in Connecticut (CCSU), which placed a strong emphasis on a project by project based growth path. There was some focus on teaching software like Illustrator and Photoshop, but the majority of class time was spent critiquing our project work. We learned the design process of research to final solution with projects that emulated what we would do for clients, and we gained a solid footing in design theory and application, while learning to write and discuss design. A good grounding in art and design history is really helpful in seeing the larger picture as well, which we learned through supplemental classes.

To Answer Some Specific Questions

I understand how the early stages of studying graphic design can feel confusing, and it can be difficult to see how individual exercises and projects can build long term skills. Let's take a look at a couple specific questions Eric had here.

We make black and white things on paper. Something one can do in Microsoft Word. This confuses me? What exactly are they teaching? As a graphics designer, is this what you went through? Or am I in the wrong place?

It sounds like I completed design projects that closely mirror yours, the theme sounds similar, though without more information it's difficult to say for sure. One of my first projects was to create a poster design in black and white for a fictitious packaging conference. We spent one week in class using Illustrator, but the reality is that it was up to us to really learn the software on our own time. The university did have computers available to use in the lab. There was usually a grad student around to ask questions if we were stuck on something.

Before doing this project we went through a classic exercise where we drew triangles within thumbnail squares by hand. We were graded on our craft and ability to express emotion through the use of these basic shapes. So we learned to express feelings like calmness or anger just with the placement of triangles within drawn thumbnails. We then used these concepts and Illustrator to create posters in black and white.

Another level one project that was fun to do was to create a brand identity for a fictitious typography company. We spent quite a bit of time studying typography leading up to that project, including type theory and history, modern font usage, and more. The project did require us to use a limited two color palette and was executed on our own in Illustrator as well.

This first few design projects and lessons should teach you basic graphic design theory, while giving you experience with solving visual problems. There should be a good balance in the teaching approach between understanding theory and putting it into practice.

I understand the theory of art and typography are important, but learning how to use the software seems to be most important, yet they don't stress it here at college.

Ideally, the right design school offers an integrated curriculum, which should include software training. The most important thing to learn as a graphic designer though is how to solve visual problems. Of course, it's important to know how to use industry standard tools, like Photoshop and Illustrator as well. Keep in mind, that you will likely need to spend quite a bit of time studying on your own. Take advantage of resources like the hands on tutorials available here on Psdtuts+. I worked through numerous books, and did quite a few tutorials while in school to supplement my design education with software training on my own.

Certainly mastering your tools, which includes software is important, but it's only part of the process. Let's look at the case of a logo design. You should be able to draw a complete logo solution, go through multiple thumbnails or small sketches, then finalize the logo by hand. Once you have a good solution, then you go to the computer and finalize it. Software is a powerful tool in your arsenal, but your brain is your most important weapon. Every project you execute will build your design experience and growth your mental ability to solve design problems quickly.

Making the Most of Your Time in School

Getting accepted into a quality design program is important, but ultimately it's up to you to make the most of it. In general, be sure to really take advantage of your time in school. While improving your craft with software, don't neglect to take drawing classes and traditional illustration courses. Study marketing and business as well. Read as many books and magazines on design as you can get your hands on, while continually learning from material posted on the web.

While studying and absorbing all this material, learn to think for yourself and solve design problems on your own. If you're not fortunate enough to study graphic design at the university level, then it is possible to study on your own, here is a guide to get you started.

Your Experiences

We'd love to hear your experience with the graphic design curriculum offered at your university, and how you chose the right graphic design school for you. What are some of the things your school excels at? Where does your school lack? And how have you accommodated and adjusted to make the most of your time in school to grow as a designer? And for those of you going it without higher education, we'd love to hear from you too. How are you self directing your graphic design studies?

Questions for the Editor

If you have a question, feel free to write to our editorial team via our contact form. Be sure to choose Psdtuts+ under the [select department] drop down list so that your letter gets to our team. Keep in mind, we can't possibly answer everyone's questions on the site, but we will respond to those that would likely interest a good portion of the Psdtuts+ audience, or potentially spark debate.

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