Is University the Best Path to take into the Web Design Industry?
There are convincing arguments both for and against taking the University route into this particular industry, many of which we will be dissecting in this article, resulting in what will hopefully be a definitive conclusion.
Only it’s not that simple. Whilst I will do my very best to take everything into consideration to form a reasoned and rational outcome, the fact is everybody is different and the best route for one may not necessarily be the best route for another.
However, if you’re a budding young Web Designer approaching the end of your school days, I’m confident that by the end of this article you will have a much better idea of what is the best path for you to proceed upon.
After graduating from a 3 year degree last month, I think I’m in a fairly decent position to try to offer an answer to the question this article proposes.
When the time came for me to make a decision, I had just always really had it in my head that I would be going to University, without giving it much thought at all – a bit silly really. With an already keen interest in Web Design I sought the relevant courses and hey presto! The next 3 years of my life were sorted.
Now with the benefit of hindsight and perspective, I have really been able to analyse whether there may have been a better path for me..
What could you learn at Uni?
My course was BA (Hons) Multimedia – so a mix of disciplines initially but with an option to study Web Design specifically for the latter two years.
Everything I knew prior to University about Web Design was self-taught. Whilst I’d done alright for myself with that approach thus far, I always felt like I may have been cutting the wrong corners resulting in a less polished and ultimately less knowledgeable practitioner.
So I eagerly anticipated my first taste of Web Design in formal education and what did I get? Tables. It was 2009 – many years after I realised the evils of table-based layouts, and we were being shown how to utilise them to create a basic web page.
Fantastic. Money well spent.
I soon realised that there was nothing the course could teach me that I couldn’t learn with the aid of Google, relevant Blog subscriptions and the cost of a few good books. I understand that not all courses are the same and some will have a much higher standard of teaching material, but I stand by my previous comment. Particularly in our industry, the Internet has everything you need to know – and it won’t charge you over £3000 (or £9000 now) per year for the privilege.
I trust I’ve put you all off the University route at this point? Time to balance things out a bit.
Everyone still has something to learn
In my 2nd year, things got a bit meatier with bigger and better briefs to chew on along with the encouragement of Web standards from the course tutors. Finally we were getting some material that I hadn’t dabbled in yet in the form of PHP and MySQL development.
We partook in PHP seminars which lead to me actually learning something new within the walls of the University. Whilst this newly acquired knowledge was nothing substantial and I still looked up to Google as my main educator, it did provide me with guidance and the briefs we were set pushed me into actually teaching myself what I needed to know about development.
So even though Google was still my main source of knowledge, my course indirectly educated me by providing me with the briefs and the motivation to learn what was required.
And I have since grown rather fond of PHP and hope to expand my knowledge in this field; the foundations of which were built thanks to my course.
Now you’re starting to think University might be worth it after all? Better think of some more cons!
They’ve got it all wrong from the off
University courses are obviously very structured, well put together and meticulously planned – and in plenty of time too! They’re very set in stone; very static. Now we all know that the Web Design industry is anything but static; it’s a fast-moving, ever-improving field of constantly revised practices and software. The two hardly go hand in hand do they?
Having said that, towards the end of my 3 years my tutors were making a noticeable effort to give the briefs more relevance and substance in today’s industry. They were actively encouraging the use of HTML5 and CSS3 and pushing us into creating responsive websites or separate mobile versions.
This is the direction University Web Design courses need to take if they are to justify their existence and the thousands of pounds people are paying to enrol on them. They need to be more flexible and willing to adapt to the way the industry changes over time.
We’ve gone a bit gloomy again… more positives!
The social aspect
I am extremely passionate about what I do for a living, I love the Web Design industry and I love working in it. However, I’m a huge believer in working to live, not living to work and we have to remember that there is more to life than our career aspirations.
University is obviously a means to helping us achieve our career ambitions, but there is another benefit to being a student – the social life.
If you play your cards right you can come out of University with a worthwhile qualification in your industry as well as a wealth of new friends and experiences that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
I’d imagine this aspect will be the clincher for most people and I wouldn’t blame you if it is! I’ve had many nights in the past 3 years which only vaguely feature in the memory banks thanks to the consumption of certain beverages – but I wouldn’t swap them for the world.
So what do I think?
Up to now I’ve been objective; I’ve presented both sides of the coin as I see them as the argument has swayed back and forth. So now it’s time for my actual opinion, bearing in mind that I have been through University and come out the other end with a First Class degree (I had to throw that in at some point!).
Well, despite coming out with a very worthwhile qualification, I can’t see past the sheer availability of Web related information on the Internet and on the book shelves. Such availability of material, the majority of which is of a far higher standard than is taught in the lecture theatres, lead me to think that there is no way you can justify racking up £20k worth of debts (it will be over £30k from this year).
I’m an extremely driven and motivated person and I like to make sure I stay within reach of the industry’s elite. I can’t help but feel that I would have progressed further in the industry and acquired a broader, more relevant skill-set if I had set my own goals to achieve and identified my own material to consume, rather than allowing a dated University course to do it for me.
I hope you’ve taken in this whole article – I’m not saying don’t go to University. I’m saying that for me in particular, I may have benefited greater by continuing the self-taught approach and getting into the professional industry at an earlier stage.
What should you do now?
Going to Uni
If you want to go to University, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into.
- Analyse the courses you’re applying for
- Ensure they’re not teaching outdated material
- Ensure the material isn’t stuff that you already know
- If you go for course interviews, don’t be afraid to ask questions
Remember, it’s far more important that you think the course is right for you than vice versa.
If you think you’ll be more suited to the less expensive, self-taught approach, organise yourself now.
- Set out a list of areas you want to explore
- Set some goals to achieve, short term and long term
- Read relevant blog posts (try to do this daily)
- Get on Twitter and follow the relevant people
- Get on Amazon and buy a selection of relevant books
The one thing you will miss by taking this route instead of University is the guidance. You will have to be self-driven and ensure you maintain your motivation to learn new things by your own accord, without someone telling you what you need to do.
Why do you need a degree?
Well, you don’t. The design industry is very different to most other areas of the working world, as most businesses rely on merit – your experience and your qualifications – it’s all they’ve got to go on.
Whereas, we in the design world have physical representations of what we can do, what skills we posses and how we can utilise them. When employers have work examples like this to examine, the value of any qualifications decreases dramatically as they will almost always play second fiddle to your portfolio. And rightly so.
However, the design industry is also really competitive and the top positions can receive hundreds of applicants. When you’re up against those kind of numbers, the final few candidates up for consideration will be very closely matched and if one of those has a First Class Honours degree as the cherry to their portfolio cake, they’re always going to have the edge over the one’s without that qualification.
A degree is far from the be-all and end-all of the Web Design industry – but it can be the crucial clincher.
Do you agree with my take on Web Design at University? Or do you strongly disagree? I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments section below!
About Stephen Greig
Stephen Greig is a 25 year old Freelance Web Designer/Front-end guy, currently living in Nottingham, UK. Stephen is also the creator of messivsronaldo.net and author of CSS3 Pushing the Limits, a book on advanced CSS3. You should follow him on Twitter where he talks about the web, sports, music and swears a lot. Stephen's also on Google+ if that's more your bag.