Design school didn’t teach me how to design. Work did.

I can still pretty vividly remember when I started dabbling in design. Except, it wasn’t exactly design, and I wasn’t in design school. Because if I want to be honest with myself, I started designing when I was a kid.

Early life

My mother quit her job when my middle sister was born, and became a housewife so she could raise my sisters and eventually me “the right way”. Something can be said regarding our old-fashioned upbringing and how lucky we are that my father’s job was enough to support a family of five, but that’s neither here nor there… In short, we know, and we’re extremely thankful for it.

Anyway, she raised us almost single-handedly, due to my dad leaving for work at 7am and arriving back home at 7pm everyday. Granted, he got to work from home a little, like when he’d need to be away from the hubbub of the office to prepare for court. But all in all, I remember my dad as being either working or decompressing. Therefore, my mom was our educator, disciplinarian and entertainer at least 80% of the time. She helped us with our schoolwork while cooking (and made us straight A students), taught us to behave properly, and threw us headfirst into crafting projects with her.

I also discovered a nifty little program on our family computer called Paint.

And therein lie my first memories of “designing”: figuring out which colours look good together, aligning things so they look properly symmetrical, and more.

Teenage years

I can also remember pretty vividly my introduction to a more conventionally understood design world. I was in my last year of high school, absolutely terrified of the choices I had to make for my future. My college applications loomed and I had no fucking clue what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I’ve never been very good with making decisions that affect my life in grand ways. I become a statue. But when I saw that one of the nearest colleges, John Abbott College, offered a program called Publication Design & Hypermedia Technologies (now more aptly called Graphic and Web Design), I was hooked.

A few months before, my father had unearthed a CD-ROM containing Adobe Photoshop 5.0, which he’d gotten for free with another software he’d purchased years ago (for the life of me, I can’t remember what that software was). Photoshop 5.0 was already rather obsolete at that time (somewhere around 2003), but I’d become smitten with that piece of remarkably powerful software. I started producing collage project after collage project, with no end in sight.

adobe photoshop 5.0


Therefore, my college applications went that way, to John Abbott. They welcomed me with open arms. After all, my GPA was great. I was a bright student, a quick learner, and tended to learn on my own a lot. Search engines have never been my undoing. And so while at Abbott I went above and beyond the school work on my own little side projects. Interestingly, I skipped over a couple of Photoshop versions when I started attending Abbott: from the lowly 5.0 over to CS. But the learning curve when I got to CS wasn’t steep at all. It was familiar, with more goodies!

The workforce

After graduating, I attended university for another 3 years. Then I entered the workforce and found that you truly learn your craft when you work on real-life projects. Learning is important, but the largest part of learning is done through trial and error. This is why I don’t believe that design school is a requirement for doing well in design positions. No teacher can really teach you design. They can teach you how to design: the basics, the history, the styles… But design isn’t dependent on formulas or laws. In fact, I would highly recommend the movie Art School Confidential to understand what I’m getting at.


In school, the classroom is a laboratory of “freedom and expression” that in fact tends to turn to criticism of things that aren’t edgy or modern enough. We are pushed to explore styles that are not our own if we want the praise of our professor.

Granted, when working on client projects, the designer is asked to follow her client’s own styles and needs, but therein lies the difference. The designer is not trying to gain praise and grades. She is trying to find solutions to her client’s problems.

In school, design projects are self-indulgent. In contrast, when working, the designer is fulfilling someone else’s needs besides her own. It’s glorious. It’s self-effacing. It’s a bit freeing.

Moreover, while in school the software lessons are taught as follows: the teacher asks you to take out your tutorial book, and you all follow along with the teacher on the projector. It’s pretty dry, and it doesn’t allow for creativity and exploring other features by yourself. Thank goodness I already knew how to use design software before I started design school or I’d have been clueless. I would probably still be clueless.

Everything I learned after learning the basics, I learned on the job, doing real work for real clients demanding real complex solutions requiring some code or technique I did not know. At work, one is forced to actualize themselves constantly, and learning on the go is a de facto necessity.

In fact, a degree alone won’t get a designer a job. A diploma is extremely low on an employer’s list of requirements. Yes, many list a degree as a requirement, but it’s usually to eliminate those who are not confident in themselves. Talent, a kickass portfolio and confidence will triumph over a degree any day.

“When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world. Those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.”

Laszlo Bock
Google chairman – source