A few years ago I was speaking at a well-known NYC design school about our profession. The audience was made up mostly of students about to graduate, as well as some faculty. The topic of my talk was the laughably broad “working in design.”
There was a Q&A after my talk; most of the questions focused on how to land a first gig, interview etiquette, portfolio prep, etc.
During the Q&A, one brave student said, “This is a pretty good school, but should I be worried that I didn’t attend a top-tier design school like RISD?” At first I was a little surprised; in my opinion, this was a good design school. Certainly better than the school I attended.
My response was fairly direct: “No, the school doesn’t matter much. Just focus on your portfolio. Make sure you have interesting, well-conceived and well-executed projects to share.”
Incredulous, the student pushed back: “But when you’re looking at a bunch of résumés, don’t you filter for the best schools?”
“No, I only look at the work. I don’t care what school someone attended.”
To my surprise, a faculty member stood and said, “I appreciate your response, but are you being 100% candid? I mean, surely the quality of the school counts for something when hiring?” Wow.
At first I was a little taken aback by his challenge, but then it struck me: I’d put the faculty and, in fact, the entire school on the spot: here they are, charging a lot of money for students to attend their design program, and here I am telling them the school doesn’t really matter. Ouch.
I wasn’t going to change my answer to placate this professor, but I did soften my response a bit: “Here’s the thing: when I’m hiring a designer, I look primarily at the portfolio. If it’s good, I’ll want to know more. If it’s not, I stop looking.”
The fuller truth is that I actually try to avoid looking at many details in a candidate’s application. I worry that things like name, education, work experience, etc. might trigger some unconscious bias on my part. Again, if the work’s solid, I want to get to know the candidate as a person, not as details on a CV, and that can only happen during an interview.
A brief note: I realize this flies in the face of many design leaders who aruge a portfolio should be rich in detail and depth. They want to see all the thinking that went into the work, all the nitty-gritty details. Not me. I’m looking at 20, 30 portfolios at a time. I want to see the best work, a brief backstory, and the outcome of each project. More than that is usually just window dressing. If a designer can’t convey their work in a concise, impactful way…well then, how good are they, really?
At TED, we instituted the practice of blind portfolio reviews. Our Tech Team Coordinator does a first pass of all applicants. Then she sends three of us—myself and two designers—a set of portfolio links to review. We look only at the work, nothing else; those applicants with the best portfolios are contacted to set up first round interviews.
In fact, I couldn’t tell you where any of the designers on my team attended school. I do know that at least one never attended a formal design program, and she’s terrific. Design, even in its most technical incarnations, isn’t brain surgery or rocket science. You can learn to be a great designer without attending a prestigious design school. Or any design school.
After the Q&A session, the incredulous faculty member approached me privately and said, “I’m sorry if I put you on the spot, but I confess I’m still not sold. You work for a well-known New York City agency. You really don’t care where someone went to school? How can that be?”
It was time to get real. “Look, if it mattered to me where someone went to school, I’d be a total hypocrite.” I told him that I attended a second-tier state school not known for its design program, and that I hadn’t even studied design myself, but Fine Art. I came to the profession through a very circuitous route, and it began with one Art Director who liked my work enough to give me a break and take me on.
I sort of owe my career to the fact that he considered my portfolio more important than the school I’d attended. This carries even more weight since he himself had attended what most would consider a very prestigious design program.
To the faculty member, I felt compelled to add one potentially placating detail: “Look, I’m just one guy. I know some hiring managers do care about that kind of thing. I’ve worked with them and I think they’re wrong. But I know many others who, like me, really only care about the work and not the school.”
In over two decades, I’ve seen great designers who had little if any pedigree in their education, and I’ve seen poor designers who came from some of the best design programs. And, of course, I’ve seen everything in between.
Many years ago, an ECD and I were interviewing a young design candidate with a really hot portfolio. At one point, the ECD looked at his résumé and said, “Oh, hey! You went to undergrad at the same school, and at the same time, I was in the graduate program there.” This, too, was a very prestigious design program.
Design candidate, shakily: “Uh-huh.”
ECD: “The odd thing is, I don’t remember you.”
There was a bit of back and forth which exposed holes in the candidate’s story, and finally the he admitted he hadn’t attended the very elite design program the ECD had. In fact, he confessed that he didn’t attend any design school at all, but figured we wouldn’t even interview him unless he said he did.
Both the ECD and I were speechless. I finally said, “So, how did you become a designer?”
He said that he was working at Kinko’s printing posters and flyers created by others, when it dawned on him that he could do this kind of work, too. He started studying design on his own: reading books, going to shows and meetups, networking with designers. He learned the tools of the trade, landed a few small projects, and worked on putting his portfolio together.
I said, “Well, that’s a much better story than the lie you told us.”
“Will you still consider me for the position,” he asked.
Of course we couldn’t; he’d lied on his résumé and during an interview. Still, I hope he got the message, removed the lie from his résumé, and landed a good design gig. I mean, he showed a tremendous amount of initiative, passion and talent. Frankly, working your way up from making copies at Kinko’s to being an agency designer is a pretty compelling narrative. I think it’s more persuasive than simply having the means to get into a hot design school.
I’d like to be clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with attending a design school with pedigree. In fact, it probably will fast-track your career growth. But it’s not the only way to land a gig and have a fruitful career. Not by a long-shot. And even if you did attend a great design program, a few years out and everyone is looking at your work experience, not your university.
If you’re a designer who didn’t attend a great design school, focus on your portfolio and your work experience. Don’t sweat your pedigree. And if you’re a designer who did go to a great design school, and you’re ever in a position to hire others, please don’t discriminate; it’s unfair to those who didn’t get the prestigious diploma, and you run the risk of overlooking candidates who are real gems.