Should Designers Get a Graduate Degree?

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July 28, 2010
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Should Designers Get a Graduate Degree?

If you’re a designer looking to go back to school, should you get a Master of Fine Arts degree? Traditionally, an MFA degree was something only obtained by a designer if s/he wanted to teach in a higher education setting. Most design firms and agencies did not and still do not require it as a necessity for employment. However, as author Dan Pink has famously stated, “the MFA is the new MBA” and the MFA is becoming increasingly important to many companies.

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A typical MFA program is a three-year, 60-credit degree, as compared to the 30-credit master's degree program in other disciplines. It is more of an equivalent to the Ph.D., and is considered a “terminal” degree in the art and design world, meaning that there is no higher degree. (There is a Ph.D. program in Art History and Art Education, however.)

To a hiring committee at a design firm that does brand identity or motion design work, one reason that MFA programs may not seem to make a person immediately more qualified is that the amount of commercial or client-driven work completed during an MFA program can be small or non-existent. In many MFA programs, while a good portion of the work may involve the typical design process that includes the computer, the work involves more personal expression and visualizations that directly draw on personal experience and storytelling. These programs also typically encourage or require exploration with new ideas, materials and techniques while requiring study of artists and trends in art and design history. Therefore, simply stated, the portfolio of a designer coming out of an MFA program might include paintings, lithographs, stop-motion videos and documentary photographs of installation pieces, instead of book covers, web sites or identity campaigns.


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The belief of Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, and others (especially those in the creative industry), is that as the much of the work traditionally carried out by the more left-brain-inclined, such as computer programmers or number-crunching MBAs, gets carried out by computers or low-wage workers in Asia, there will be many roles for right-brained creatives. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future.*

Of course, no advanced degree is a complete waste of time, as advanced degrees tend to open doors, help acquire wisdom and a unique body of work, as well as make professional connections.

Certainly, an MFA degree, which has undoubtedly included many teaching hours, is going to help someone who is interested in being a tenure-track or even an adjunct professor and is, in fact, required by most programs. But is it worth the expense and time for anyone else? It depends on your life goals and how passionate you want to be in something that interests you. If you plan to apply to or continue to work for a design firm, for instance, then a graduate degree in design isn’t going to give you much additional traction. If you plan to brand yourself as someone who can see things, even in a traditionally minded Fortune 500 business, in a different, clever and empathetic way, then an MFA might be the right direction for you.

*The Creativity Crisis

Tom Hapgood

Tom Hapgood

Tom Hapgood is a designer in Northwest Arkansas, USA, who teaches in the Visual Design area of the University of Arkansas. He teaches motion design, typography, web design and animation. Before moving to Arkansas he lived in Boston, Arizona, Germany and Italy.

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