How can you find the design program that’s right for you? There’s no easy answer to this question, but there’s bound to be more than one school that will suit your needs. To find them, you will need to ask many questions and to gather facts and impressions concerning curriculum, faculty, facilities, and student body. What you are ultimately searching for is a match beween your interests and abilities and the character and opportunitites provided by a particular school.
Begin by examining the subjects you will be studying–the curriculum. Review the entire curriculum of the graphic design program, course by course, including a short description of each course. What is the philosophy of the program? Does the curriculum support it? Do the philosophy and course offerings match your career intentions? What types of courses make up the major emphasis? Do the courses support the description of the major? Does the curriculum allow you a choice of electives? Can you have a minor or a double major if you choose? Who teaches the freshman courses: full-time faculty or graduate students? These freshman courses are among the most important ones you will take because they set the stage for your future development. They should be taught by the most qualified faculty. The curriculum is like a skeleton. In order to function, it should be more than a loose collection of unconnected bones, or unrelated courses.
Depending on the type of school you are looking at, you may need to ask some of the following questions as well: Do the four-year university or college programs have enough breadth and depth in their major (more than a couple of courses)? Do the art schools have a focused major with enough breadth and depth in studio courses? Do they have academics to support this focus? Do the four-year programs adequately prepare students for graduate study? Are foreign exchange programs available? Are internship programs available, either within the curriculum or as summer activities? Do the two-year programs have a focused development in marketable design-production specialties? Do they adequately prepare students to transfer to four-year institutions?
While courses, no matter how clearly they are presented, are difficult to evaluate, the credentials of the faculty are easier to review. What’s more, the composition of the faculty can give you confidence in the curriculum. If the curriculm is the skeleton of a program, the faculty is the heart–these people give life and vitality to the program. Even the best curriculum is little more than a structure representing what can be taught or learned. The faculty makes things happen.
To examine the credentials of the faculty, review the faculty listing found at the back of most college catalogs. It tells where faculty members were educated, how long they have been at this school, their academic rank, what courses they teach, and what research or professional areas interest them. Faculties need to refresh themselves, to bring in new members from different places, in order to avoid stagnation. Equally important is faculty activity outside the classroom. Research or professional design activity keeps the faculty members alert and questioning so they can bring new ideas to the classroom.
Also find out the balance between full-time and adjunct or part-time faculty. Full-time faculty provide continuity within the curriculum, while adjunct faculty provide specific expertise that may not be available from the regular faculty. How many graphic design faculty are there? It is difficult to have a vital curriculum with only one graphic design teacher because there is little diversity of ideas, philosophy, or skills for a student to tap into. What is the student-to-faculty ratio in the design program? Design education is highly interactive. Common sense as well as experience indicates that a high student-to-teacher ratio (more students per teacher) will be a handicap in a design program.
Find out if there is an advising system for the students, on that goes beyond guidance on what courses to take and also provides counseling on career opportunities. Is there a placement office on campus and a student advisory board to provide feedback to the school? Are there extracurricular activities such as speaker programs, design exhibitions, and student-run design associations? If possible, tour the school and talk informally with students and faculty. Visit a studio and observe. In brief, try to determine the quality of life at the school and within the program.
While you’re touring the school, find out about the facilities, or physical plant, as well as the atmosphere. Facilities are important; they support the mission of the faculty and the curriculm and contribute to the quality of life. For example, are there enough computer or darkroom facilities to support the instruction? Are they accessible beyond class time so that students can complete projects? Is the equipment maintained? Is there adequate studio space? Is there exhibition space for student work and is it used? Is the library well stocked with books and periodicals of interest to design students? Is there a museum? A stimulating environment can bring out the best in both students and faculty.
As the school to suggest a design alumni in your area that you can contact. Question the person about his or her experience at the school and about job experience afterward. To find out where other graduates are working, you might ask for a list of alumni and not what kinds of positions they hold relative to how long they have been out of school. Find out which alumni are touted by the school because of their success and why. Ask about employment potential in general and for what specific kinds of jobs.
If you have friends or relatives in graphic design or related disciplines, seek them out and ask them about schools and career options. If they cannot answer your questions, maybe they can direct you to someone who can. Look in your local libraries and bookstores for design periodicals so that you know what is currently going on in design. Stay in touch with your guidance counselors; information is constantly flowing into their offices, and contact with them keeps them aware of your interests.
Know the importance of the selection process, but don’t be intimidated by it. There are many kinds of schools and programs, and there is more than one situation right for you. Some schools are highly selective, but many lesser-known colleges offer a substantial and challenging undergraduate experience. Remember that you are evaluating them just as much as they are evaluating you. Be honest with yourself about your interests and abilities. Then gather both facts and subjective impressions of school quality and character. Be realistic about the match that’s best for you.
Graphic Design: A Career Guide and Education Directory
Edited by Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl
The American Institute of Graphic Arts