Formal Degrees vs. Natural Talent: What does it take to have a successful career in design?
I find it pretty fascinating that people are still so polarized on their belief that natural skill is, or is not, required to have a successful career in design.
So let’s discuss. I’ve met designers who are insanely talented who haven’t had any formal training at all, and I’ve met others who are insanely talented who worked their tails off to get here they are. Is formal training required to be successful? No. Is natural skill required to be successful? Not to the extent that some people feel.
I received some absolutely amazing parenting advice when my daughter was young. She is exceptionally gifted at math. She discovered a mathematical algorithm without being taught about it when she was in 3rd grade. I chatted with the head of the learning enrichment program at her school, and she mentioned that kids who have natural skill in music, art, or academics, are often told that they’re naturally talented so often that they stop pushing themselves to grow their skillsets. Then when they encounter people more skilled than they are as they get older, they get discouraged and they quit since their natural skills don’t measure up.
She mentioned that to combat this, it’s important to explain to kids, both kids with natural talent, and kids without, that natural talent is a fantastic thing to have, but that hard work by a person without it can often help them catch up or surpass the person with natural skills. I thought this was an incredibly powerful explanation of why people in general, not just kids, should focus on becoming life long learners.
In the design field specifically, technology is shifting so rapidly that we need to stay on top of our game. Having a strong foundation in design theory and methodology is powerful, and if you haven’t had the opportunity to acquire it in a formal setting I strongly advise learning it on your own time, either through books, online tutorials, or from peers willing to share that knowledge through speaking gigs or presentation at user groups. As designers, we can never know everything there is to know about design. We can specialize in a specific area, but there is always more to learn, ways to grow, and most importantly, knowledge to share.
If you’ve got a formal background, please consider sharing your knowledge with the community. I have exactly zero formal design training. I have a degree in Education and another in Psychology. I’ve learned so much from peers through trainings, articles, books, video tutorials and conference speakers. I’ve also learned tons from folks without formal training who have launched their careers in a baptism by fire manner.
I was recently chatting with a designer who has a degree in criminal justice and another with a degree in electrical engineering. How did those of us with random degrees end up where we are career wise? We fell in love with design and put in the time an energy to hone our skills and knowledge through non traditional means. We took jobs that paid the bills, and spent our free time soaking in as much knowledge as possible. People with formal degrees spend their time soaking in as much new knowledge as possible as well, because there is always something new to learn.
Designers with formal degrees often blow my mind with their foundation knowledge. Many of those folks also have tons of natural talent, but I’ve chatted with quite a few who have readily admitted that their level of natural talent was low when they started, and it took tons of hard work and time investment, and repetition to get to where they are now.
The common denominator between those with formal training and those without is that they all love what they do. It’s really rare to find a designer who hates what they do for a living. When a person burns out, they typically bounce out of the industry, but people bouncing is extremely uncommon.
Designers sometimes have to take on jobs they don’t love to get to a point they can design full time, but they don’t give up on that dream just because the going gets tough. They power through and do what needs to be done to get into the career path they’re passionate about. I’ve met designers working 3 jobs to pay the bills while they flesh out their portfolios and skillsets.
Is design an easy field to break into right now? No. Is it worth the hard work and time investment if it’s what you’re passionate about? Absolutely. Don’t feel that a lack of formal degree will keep you from landing a job. And don’t feel that lack of natural talent will keep you from become skilled in the field.
If design is your passion, you can make a career in it happen. Just keep pushing, learning and growing. Attend local meetups and conferences, check out online videos and courses (InVision has some incredible free resources if you need a place to start), ask questions, ask for feedback and ABSORB the feedback.
Sometimes people give terrible advice, other times they give great advice that can change the entire trajectory of your career. Regardless of whether it’s good or bad, truly listen when advice and feedback is offered. Absorb and learn from the good and ignore the bad like you would any other advice, but don’t get defensive or snap back when it’s offered. Listen, filter, and then apply the solid knowledge and feedback that’s shared with you.
So is natural talent necessary to have a successful career in design? No it’s not. Is a formal design education required to have a successful career in design? No it’s not. Work hard and push forward regardless of your background if design is what you’re truly passionate about. At the end of the day the only person who can block your design career path is you.