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Getting Value From Online Graphic Design Courses

March 27, 2017 • By

As with anything else you do in life, even if you’re already extraordinarily rich, you should seek value when doing graphic design courses.  When you spend money on something that is inferior and bad value, you are simply encouraging substandard providers to continue ripping people off, wasting your money, and most likely wasting your time as well.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the different options available to help you achieve your desired outcome in the least time with the lowest cost.  Those criteria are important, because the value determination is decided by the following formula:

1. First, you need to establish clearly why you want to do the course of study

People undertake study for all kinds of reasons.  By knowing why your want to do this study, which is going to take up some of your time and may cost money (c+t), you can more easily determine the desirability of the outcome (d.o.), and all three of these are necessary in order to calculate the value (v).

Typical reasons why people want to study:

  • To learn new skills
  • To earn prestige
  • To assist in gaining employment
  • To improve prospects of promotion
  • For a sense of achievement
  • To eliminate boredom

These reasons can actually be categorized, as follows:

You may possibly have other reasons as well, but you should easily be able to work out whether the reasons are for yourself or for others.  These categories may seem confusing.  You may be thinking that gaining employment is something you do for yourself, as is getting a promotion and earning prestige.  That’s true, you do (sometimes) benefit from all those things, but that’s not the point.  What we’re actually talking about here is whose expectation is being fulfilled.

To frame it in simple terms, if your desired outcome is to gain employment, then you don’t actually care about the qualification itself, you are simply getting that in order to get what you really want (so it’s secondary to your real objective).  You’re getting the qualification because you believe the employer you want to work for expects you to have it.  The same goes for prestige.  In that case, your primary objective is to impress other people, and the qualification is simply a means to achieve that end.

When the only expectations you’re trying to meet are your own (gaining new skills, achieving something, and eliminating boredom), then the situation is entirely different.  In this case, you care more about what you’re studying and learning than the piece of paper you get at the end of it.

So, be honest with yourself when determining the reason for your decision to study, because that will help with the rest of the process.

2. Next determine what you can afford to invest in your education

The cost of study can vary enormously from $0 to over $100,000.  The primary determinants of cost are how, where, and what you study.  Since you’re reading this article, we can already be fairly sure that what you want to study is something related to graphic design, so that just leaves the how and where to be worked out.

With regard to the matter of where, it does make a difference.  For example, the National University of Singapore is ranked far above UC San Diego (by a full 15 places), but you can’t expect an employer in Frumpburg, Arizona to actually know such a thing unless you point it out.  Ironically the exact same situation may occur to job seekers in Singapore, where the Singaporean employer may incorrectly view the American degree as having a higher value than one earned locally.

This is why determining the reason for studying was so important.  If your reason is from the left column, the quality of education you’d receive in Singapore is considered by the experts to be better than what you’d receive in a very large number of American academic institutions.  However, if the reason was from the “For others” column, and you live in the United States, you may actually find that studying even in a low ranked American institution provides more value.

Next you’ll come to the challenge that if you decide to study online, while much has improved recently, there is still a stigma associated with it, as illustrated dramatically in Better Call Saul when Charles openly expresses his contempt to Jimmy when it is revealed that he earned his degree from the University of American Samoa (go Land Crabs!), even though Jimmy pointed out that the university was accredited.

The reality is that, assuming this was a real scenario, Jimmy’s entitlement to practice law would not be any less than that of Charles, even though Charles earned a degree from a prestigious American Ivy League university, and Jimmy studied by distance education by night while spending his days working in the mail room.  Both universities were accredited and all lawyers in New Mexico take the same bar exam.  Pass the bar, you’re a lawyer.  It’s supposed to be that easy.  And yet, there’s still an obvious stigma about distance education, and not just in TV land.

If your reason for studying was a left column reason, online study should definitely be your number one option.  It’s way more convenient and the quality of instruction isn’t any less.  It’s also often much more economical, and in some cases it’s even free (more about that later).

If your reason was a right column reason, then it could be a bit more complicated.  Generally speaking, your certificate, diploma, or degree isn’t supposed to look any different whether you complete your course by distance education or not, but in practice it sometimes does.  Most of the time it doesn’t.  The second thing is the name of the provider.  Stanford University makes a bit more of an impression than Uncle Roy’s School of Visual Design & Horse Dentistry.  In the US, Canada, and Australia, it can also add some value if your education provider includes the name of a state or province in their institutional name.  Private schools and colleges, other than Ivy League ones, are the most likely to earn looks of derision.

All that having been said, and prestige aside, no course of education will drain your bank balance faster than  attending an on-campus course at an American Ivy League university.  Community colleges and small private colleges or training centers are massively more affordable, and as long as they’re accredited, you’ll still get the same string of letters after your name.  If you’re a left column person, accreditation may not even be that big of a deal, since your main interest is in what you learn, not what you get.

Some unaccredited training providers or certification issuers are respected equally and sometimes even more than an equivalent accredited degree providing institution.  Fortunately in graphic design, your portfolio is usually of more interest to anyone than where you studied.

3. Determine how much time you can invest in training

Need a job next month?  Starting a four year degree probably won’t help a lot (it may help a bit though).  Short term certifications are important if you need quick results to achieve an objective that isn’t directly related to the training.

Otherwise it comes down to how it impacts on your life and work.  If you’re already busy, then adding study on top will certainly be difficult, but many people do manage to get by.  My own experience suggests that it’s very difficult, but it depends on the courses you take.

Also this has to be said: if you can afford to take more time, do it.  The longer you take to finish the training, the less pressure you’ll feel.  Stress can really block your creativity, and in a field where more of your assessment is likely to be on what you produce than academic examination, you don’t want to be blocked.

4. For left column students, free courses and tutorials are usually the best choice

Many free courses are as good as paid ones and some are even better.  Also you can find cheap courses at places like Udemy, and these are sometimes much more productive and less time-wasting than formal academic courses.  If the main value is on what you learn and not what you earn, then go right ahead and do the cheap or free courses, gain the skills, and get on with doing what you love.

5. Convert what you learned in the free or cheap courses into actual college credit

If you pay attention during your training and actually do learn something, you can convert your knowledge and skills into college credit via two pathways.

The first, which is less costly, is to achieve credit by examination.  For this you pay a small fee and go sit an exam. Pass the exam and you get the credits.  Some universities will even let you earn your entire degree this way.

The second way to earn credit is by portfolio assessment, but this is usually very expensive, and unlike if you pass an exam, they’re not obligated to award you any credit if in their opinion your work isn’t worthy of being awarded credit.

6. For right column students, formal academic courses are more suitable

If you’re into acquiring fancy degrees and transcripts without caring whether you actually learn anything of value, formal courses of education provide what you’re in need of.  For you, earning that piece of paper (or at least getting it) is more important than the education itself.  Now what you will most likely want to do is get that qualification as quickly as possible.

Let’s start with the situation where the qualification you’re pursuing is an actual college or university level qualification.  If you’re still in high school, and you’re smart enough, you can enroll in community college classes and start earning college credits before you graduate from high school.  This is an excellent way to fast track, and a path that’s often overlooked, usually because students don’t know it’s possible.

Next up, if you have already graduated from high school, you can earn credits by examination and by portfolio assessment (see point 5, above), you don’t have to do every class in the program.

7. For graphic design jobs, a college diploma is often enough

While in most professions a full Bachelors or Masters degree is desirable, graphic designers won’t normally have trouble getting hired with a lot less, especially if they have a strong portfolio or good samples to show. The diploma is just to satisfy the HR department in a big corporation that they’re hiring an “expert” who is not a total slacker.  If you want to be even more lazy, some colleges offer an Associate Diploma, which you can get in just one year.  Now imagine if you earned that Assoc. Dip. with most of your credits earned by examination.  Quite often it’s all you need to satisfy the the HR admin that you’re a serious applicant, and from that point, your portfolio does the rest of the talking.

8. You don’t necessarily even need any diplomas or certificates

If you know you’re a great designer and you don’t think you need any training to prove it, you can bypass the whole song and dance routine simply by joining a professional association.  It’s not guaranteed to work in terms of getting you past HR manager scrutiny, but it often does.

What it means is that you can list on your CV something like:

Member of the American Institute of Graphic Arts

Then it is sometimes simply assumed you did much more to qualify for that status than paying $150 to the AIGA.  There are many similar organizations all around the world.  It works because HR managers are often members of Management organizations where you normally do actually have to qualify to be a member, so they just assume that anyone who is a member of a professional organization had to work as hard as they did… if you’re lucky!

9. Just because I told you how to take short cuts doesn’t necessarily mean I think you should

Being an artist and being a designer are not exactly the same thing, although many people think that they are.  To truly be a designer, you really need to be as much of an engineer as you are an artist.  Most people don’t have what it takes to be an engineer without at least a little bit of real education.

Being a great graphic designer means not only knowing how to apply a particular illustration technique, but also why and when to apply it.  These are things you normally only learn over time by studying quite a lot of theory, including psychology, color theory, and sometimes even physics.  On top of that, depending on your specialty, you will probably also want to do all kinds of technology classes and learn how to use the advanced tools of the trade.  Taking shortcuts means you can miss a lot of that, and ultimately perhaps never reach your full potential as  designer.

10. Free short courses that are worth investigating

Remember at the start of the article when I showed you that equation?  You know, the one about value equals cost and time divided by the desirability of the outcome?   Well, if you can make cost equal zero and time be as short as possible, while the desirability of the outcome is still relatively high, then that must equal great value.  Here’s a round up of a few free short courses that you could consider:

  • Alison – Visual & Graphic Design Course.  It is a 3 hour course (study at your own pace) with an assessment at the end and the chance to obtain a non-accredited certificate.  The course covers an excellent selection of foundation skills required for competency in graphic design. If you want to, you can complete an entire (non-accredited) diploma course and purchase a fancy looking diploma to hang on your wall.
  • Udacity – Intro to the Design of Everyday Things. This one takes 2 weeks to complete, but it’s an in-depth introductory course taught by design professionals which will equip you with the principles of design.
  • Coursera – Introduction to Typography.  Taught by Anther Kiley on behalf of the California Institute of the Arts, this 4 week Coursera course will give you a really detailed understanding of fonts and the science of typography.  Yep, you’re investing a whole month to just learn about type, but you’ll be amazed at just how much you can actually learn about that topic, and how useful it will be to you as a designer.
  • Coursera – User Research & Design. It would be nice if this course actually taught you how to design a user, but unfortunately the title is just poor semantics.  The course has a large number of instructors from the University of Minnesota, and while it’s primarily geared toward web designers and software UI designers, it will give you insight into how audiences respond to designs and how they think about the elements of a design.  Like most Coursera courses, this one also requires an investment of 4 weeks, but it’s free.
  • Coursera – Graphic Design.  The no-nonsense title of this course lets you know what you’re getting into right from the start.  It’s taught by David Underwood from the University of Colorado Boulder. The course really hits its stride during the 2nd and 3rd weeks, where you’ll learn a lot of important techniques and theories.
  • edX – Natural History Illustration. This one is a little different.  The provider is the University of Newcastle (in Australia).  While it’s not really aimed at beginners or at all suitable for them, if you can already draw then this course will teach you some of the high level techniques used in sketching the natural world.  Although it’s not specifically about graphic design, the skills and knowledge are transferable.  Learn to draw and color a butterfly perfectly, and you’ll be able to create all kinds of other things using the same skill set. 

Additionally you will find plenty of sites online (such as the one you’re reading now) that offer free tutorials on all things design related.  You may have to wade through quite a lot of low quality tutorials before you discover any real gold, but that’s the tradeoff you have to make when you are getting something for free.