Design School Confidential

anonymous's picture

Hey Hey

I am a designer living in Washington DC whose job is driving him insane. I work for a giant engineering firm and people come to me with Powerpoint presentations they've tried to do themselves, and ask me to make a poster / brochure / display out of them. (Oh, the pain.)

But YOU can help!

I am looking for advice about the best (for me) graduate programs in graphic design in the U.S. or Canada. I have an undergrad degree in Advertising, but it was more of a business-focused program. So I'm looking for a school that has a practical, professional orientation, as opposed to one that stresses theory / research. Basically, I'd like to take this degree and go work for a design firm.

I have several years of design and production experience in in-house design departments at medium-sized companies, (as well as having done a bunch of freelance work) so I don't need to start from the beginning, with a Bachelor's design degree.

I am leaning towards Pratt.

Any thoughts / advice / resources? Feel free to plug your alma mater or diss other schools -- it's all good.

You rock,


Miss Tiffany's picture

Another thought. When I was looking for mysself, it was important for me that typography be important to the program. That they specifically talked about it. What is important to you? What about the faculty? That was also important to me.

You can also do searches for different schools at Peterson's

Diner's picture

Hey Troy,

I'll give a plug to the ole' Art Institute (I went to Ft. Lauderdale) but overall it's a good 2 year AS program and teaches you the basics and helps guide you towards areas that interest you most.

There is one in Pittsburg that may suit your fancy.

Stuart :D

trae's picture

Don't hate me for this, Stuart but...

I don't know about the Pittsburgh AI ... you should hear my former CD on that subject... we had a decent artist or two come out of the program but by and large ...

A lot of Photoshop, Illustrator and Freehand geniuses but very weak on basic skills -- poor type, little sense of spatial relations. I was instructed to fire the last one; she was a grad but didn't know how to use any of the layout programs ("Our instructors didn't focus on that," she said) and set an entire project in screen fonts, false bolds, false italics and didn't know why they defaulted when printed.

Out of the four or five grads that passed thru our shop, none had strong conceptual skills, most had difficulty working under deadline and none could work without continual direction.

In fact, my CD demanded that our recruitment
ads state "understanding of spatial relations a must." When asked, one candidate and AI grad said "yeah, I get along well with everybody."

They all had beautiful, beautiful books however.

I know somebody who went to RISD and would've killed to have been able to afford him. Also, have you considered some of those fabulous workshops? I'm always getting mailers for them; that's another thing I'd love to be able to afford.

tsprowl's picture

I'm confused. you want to study design and/or learn the tricks and your way about a puter? but yet you state the pain re:

"people come to me with Powerpoint presentations they've tried to do themselves, and ask me to make a poster / brochure / display out of them."

I don't think a few more letters tacked on the end of your name are gonna stop people from asking for design-rollouts from their ppts.

Have you considered Advertising/Design Management or Administration? If you've already been in-house and done design production then I don't think you need to learn the more of the techny software end. its only going to draw more requests for trade-show booths a-la-ppt-template#10-style

I don't see why you'd rule out having a good brain filled with theory (and alot of night-time reading) and aiming for the Art Directors position instead

Diner's picture

Hi Tracy,

I don't blame you at all. There is a large contingency of AI grads that do only as much to finish the program instead of taking it seriously and relating it to future career aspirations. I only felt professionally challenged by about 5% of my classmates and took school very seriously.

This perhaps is a good time to get back to Troy's original post and suggest that if you're going to take this effort seriously and make the most of a career in art and design, commit yourself to learning as much as you can, have an open mind, and take it seriously.

I can't express enough in today's economy after all the agencies and design firms had mass layoffs how many designers are out there looking to be hired. Many of them just aren't that hireable (see Tracy's post above) and the older set isn't retiring anytime soon. That is why you must take school seriously and befriend designers and teachers to learn all they can teach you about how it REALLY is, ask questions - you'll get answers!

I do have one warning for you though . . . The more you learn about design, the less likely you will be fixing Powerpoint files two years from now, and once you do learn design, it's very hard to revert back to seeing things without a critical eye.

Good Luck!
Stuart :D

trae's picture

hehheh! Death to PowerPoint!
Thanks for not taking offense!
Not to sidetrack from the original post again but , my conscience is pricking me ... to be perfectly fair, my experience with AI grads was two years ago and, shortly before our agency's demise, the school did contact us about how hires were working out and what we thought their program's strengths and weaknesses were. They did seem genuinely concerned about shortcomings.

I think some of the best learning of all comes from getting to sit next to wonderful designers. Spending hours observing as a piece goes from concept thru production, is utterly priceless.

what are the differences anyway? Do roles and functions vary from firm to firm? perhaps it would help to know what the differences are, art director, designer? production artist?

The bitch I've seen in today's economy is that many employers want somebody who can do it all, not just have great ideas and be able to articulate them to staff but more importantly execute them better than just that 50% I know it's cost me several jobs... admitting that I'm a concept person not a production person. I've heard being an idea person but will always get you hired but have yet to experience it.

Isaac's picture

i've heard (from very respectable sources) that north carolina state has a good program, but it may more theoretical than what troy needs. i've also heard the university of illinois at chicago is really good. there's a "portfolio school" in seattle that looks decent, but i can't remember the name. vcu seems to be fairly traditional. i would be afraid of being forced to be elliot earle, jr if i went to cranbrook. has anyone else noticed a certain sameness coming out of there?

tsprowl's picture

If your thinking of Canada - George Brown in Toronto has a good program linked with Concordia U. and resources up the yahoo, support from DX (Design Exchange) and RGD/GDC. I was very jealous of George Brown's program when I graduated. They do have a thesis/portfolio year - 4th that you could prolly jump right into. The courses look yummy. I plan to go back and take it during the evenings just for fun.

I went to Algonquin in Ottawa - same feeling as Stuart's- not many taking it seriously and unfortunately there's only a few good profs. There is a fast-track program though run by Janet Menger. 6 months. $6000 I think. She can make you think and teach you what you need. The 3 year program useto be top-rated here - but I donno...I had to do alot of my own research for various feilds of interest the profs had no idea about (and now they ask that I go back and talk to students, I really don't know THAT much, so I'd be worried about their cirriculum) strangely enough very few assignment pieces out of the 3 years made it into my portfolio.

Other then that - there's OCAD, in TO or the maritimes. But that's mainly theory.

tsprowl's picture

just had another thought. If you are considering Canada - make sure you contact the Registered Graphic Designer's Association in that province to make sure the school is recognized, and/or you can ask them which institution will be best for you. You can consult (The Society of...)

The Associations and Society grant the Accrediations up here - you'll have to take an exam with the board after your program. Canada's Designers are somewhat like Lawyers - half the time you have to be RGD to be hired, or use RFP lists. So once your in your also covered under NAFTA to swing into the States.

trae's picture

Troy, I'll annoyingly repeat myself again... if you've already got the skills and don't need to go back to square one, do a search for conferences and workshops... there's so many out there on such a wide variety of subjects, it may be cheaper,faster and more focused than going back to school...

Or audit or take individual courses tailored to your specific needs rather than getting locked into a program... I've gotta agree, it's not the letters tacked after your name but what you're bringing to the table. My degree was nothing but a foundation (major and minor both helped but have yet to justify their pricetag); I learned more by going to work than I ever did racking up national deficit-sized student loans.

Isaac's picture

right. experience is the best experience. but one of my instructors at school is a magazine design guru. he owns/publishes his own now, but they won't let him teach the magazine publishing course because he doesn't have a masters. the instructors that can teach it know basically jack about pub. design. my teacher was a writer. holy smaokes. so for those of you who want to teach...

Isaac's picture

i meant the teacher i had for the course, not the one who runs his own mag. reckon i need to take english again.

trae's picture

which sucks 'cause there's nothing scarier than an instructor who hasn't been out in the world in a long, long time or isn't living and breathing it right now. I'm not saying you can't learn something from everybody but, well you know...

Joe Pemberton's picture

If I read this right, I think Troy is asking for
a 'portfolio school' as opposed to a 'theory
school.' The former focuses on graduating
kids with a solid body of work, as opposed to
just good thinking. In my opinion, the 'portfolio'
schools that effectively teach theory have the
edge because they teach execution.
Execution is 50 percent of good design.

Then again, Sagmeister and Carson have
made healthy careers off of great ideas with
mediocre execution.

Re: Powerpoint. I think it's time the Acrobat
folks figured out how to kill PowerPoint. All
it would require is for Acrobat to read and
export PPT format. Bam! No more auto-
formatted MS crap.

anonymous's picture

Thanks for your feedback and thoughts. I love Tracy's story about spatial relationships -- "I get along with everybody!"
In regard to killing off Powerpoint, I will gladly supply the bullets.
Does anyone else want to rant / rave about their school?

Miss Tiffany's picture

One problem you are going to find, is that most post-graduate degrees are theory driven. The practical comes about as a result of your theoretical research.

Kind of generic, but you could try


Virginia Commonwealth
Academy of Art

So many choices. I'm interested in the PhD end of this question. What about the rest of you. I'd love to hear about schools based on their experience at the schools.

Troy, my personal (and biased) choice would be Reading, but that isn't in Canada or the U.S.

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