Ask a Designer #15: Should I Get a Formal Design Qualification to Make a Career Change?

Published

November 1, 2021

Designer, speaker, and writer Charli Marie is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in design. This week, Charli guides a fashion designer through their options for forging a new path in graphic design.

Dear Charli, 

My background and college degree is in fashion design and I've worked in the industry for a few years. After ending up mostly in jobs that have very little to do with design (I worked as a garment tech) I left my job and moved to Asia to travel and work as an English teacher. Five months turned into three years which I loved but I still long for a career as a designer. I moved home and started the SuperHi Visual Design + Branding course which I really love and think I would love to pursue a career in branding design.

I feel like I would be lacking a very significant qualification if I didn't go back to college and study graphic design or something similar, but with my degree in fashion design I do think some aspects overlap (concept dev., colour, visual exploration, presentation, etc). I don't want to waste time doing something if it's not needed but also don't want to feel like a fraud. Also, if I was to go back to university, I would be hoping to study at a masters level. Do you think this will be difficult as my degree is in fashion design and not graphic design? 

Thanks,

Multifaceted Designer

Wow, Multifaceted Designer!

It sounds like you’ve had a really interesting career so far, and I have some good news for you: everything you’ve learned in your past experiences in fashion and teaching will come together to form who you are as a graphic designer. You’ll discover that you can apply a lot more of the skills you were using to the graphic design discipline than you might have initially thought.

Some more good news: you don’t need a qualification to be a graphic designer. What you need is knowledge and experience. Sure, studying for a formal qualification is one way to get this, but there are plenty of other ways too (like the SuperHi course you’re doing!).

Here’s how to decide if a formal education is right for you.

Why you should (or shouldn’t) get a design degree

A formal education might be right for you if:

  • You absolutely need the structure of a classroom environment to learn and stay disciplined

  • The company you specifically want to work at requires a degree (read some job descriptions, many will say they’ll accept people with a degree or equivalent experience – you could fall in the latter category)

  • You want to do it and you have the funds to spare

I wouldn’t recommend you invest in a formal education if:

  • It would put you into unmanageable debt

  • You love learning online and feel motivated to put in the work to practice your design skills on your own

  • The only reason you’re doing it is to overcome imposter syndrome…

Just as you get strong physically by putting in reps with weights, you become a strong graphic designer by completing design projects; putting in the design reps.

And to me it sounds like you need to put in more reps to overcome your imposter syndrome and gain confidence in yourself as a designer.

Studying for a formal qualification is one way to get experience, but even if you choose that option you’ll still need to put in the time and effort to complete projects on your own too. 

As someone who spent five years earning a Bachelor of Design (Hons) degree, I can tell you that the piece of paper did not stop me from feeling like a fraud in my first graphic designer role in the industry. I had good techniques and I knew the theory, but despite five years at university I still needed to put in more real-world reps to gain confidence as a designer. 

You can exercise your design muscles by creating solutions for practice briefs, completing that Visual Design + Branding course, or finding a friend (or local non-profit) that could do with a rebrand and take on the project pro-bono to get some low-pressure, real-world experience.

The more you design, the better you’ll get at not only bringing your ideas to life but developing your taste too. And the volume on that little voice telling you you’re a fraud will get quieter and quieter.

Transferring skills from your previous experience

Another thing I hope will help you to gain confidence as a designer is to realise just how valuable the skills you were using in your previous roles are to graphic design too.

Like you said yourself, your fashion design experience taught you about color and visual balance, as well as how to present your work so it shines. And though it might not have been the most creatively fulfilling job, your work as a garment tech will have taught you how to craft an efficient workflow, and about what it takes to bring art direction from others to life. As an English teacher you were using your communication skills to help your students understand complex concepts. You will have framed the lessons in a way that related to them, and that’s exactly what we do as designers when we use visual communication techniques to deliver a message to a viewer.

Every designer is different. Our past experience and our areas of interest come together with our technical design skills to form who we are as creative professionals.

Your fashion design and teaching experience make you unique as a graphic designer, just as my print design background and motion graphics studies make me unique as a web designer. 

When I was interviewing for a role to switch from print graphic design to web and digital design, I made sure to talk about projects where I’d arranged complex information and formed hierarchy through typography.

While my knowledge of picking the right paper weight and working with large-format print shops may not have been highly relevant to web-based work I’d be doing in the new role, I knew those fundamentals of typography and layout would not only translate but be a strength for me as a web designer.

You can do this with your fashion and teaching knowledge as you apply for design roles or pitch to clients; you can lean in to this experience and use it to become a better designer. Approach brand color palettes like you would choosing fabrics for a collection. Lay out your brand guidelines like you’re teaching a class, so that everything is clear and easy to follow. Connect the dots between your previous work and your design skills and demonstrate to your potential employer or client why they’re relevant. 

Making the career switch

Whether you decide to study for a graphic design degree or take the self-driven learning approach I want to wish you the very best with it. This choice is yours and yours alone, but I hope that my advice might give you some pointers on factors to consider in making the decision.

I want to encourage you to think of this career switch as simply turning down a different road in the middle of your journey rather than starting fresh with a brand new route.

\Your previous jobs, both in the creative skills you used and the experience you gained working as a professional, got you to this point and you’ll be bringing everything you learned in them to your work as a graphic designer.

Keep learning, keep designing, and enjoy your new career.

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Do you have a question for Charli about design or need some career advice? Tell us here for the chance to have it answered in this column!

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About the author

New Zealand born Charli is a designer, speaker, and writer based in Valencia, Spain. She's passionate about side projects and helps creatives improve their craft and process. By day Charli works as the Creative Director at ConvertKit, and on the side she creates weekly content on her YouTube channel, sharing insights into life as a professional designer alongside tutorials and advice on design tools and concepts.

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