Is a Design Degree Really That Important Anymore?

Are design degree’s important anymore? I know it’s a bold question, calling into inquiry the very tradition of our higher education system; but given the circumstances today, is it time to change the path of education entirely? Let me start at the beginning…

Last week, I saw on the news that a recent study of high schoolers reported that 36 percent of students would be willing to postpone college, due to economic conditions and other related financial pressures (both their own and their parents’). Intrigued by this notion, I posted the info on Contract magazine’s Facebook page, wondering how such a delay in education could affect the A&D industry in the long run.

One responder to the question, Nathan Bush, a recent A&D graduate (May 2010) who is still looking for permanent design work, shed some interesting perspective on the job situation currently affecting A&D, and I just had to share:

Nbush Nathan Bush: (shown left, photo from Bush's Facebook profile page)… The ROI of a college degree doesn't make sense anymore. Once graduated, students are competing for unpaid internships, which cannot sustain life and therefore start working transient jobs. Less people need to go to college. This may mean the A&D community actually may be able to support the graduating population as less people hold degrees.

Contract Mag: But wouldn't degrees be needed to receive licensure and maintain quality of work, especially with so many new programs and technologies to learn? Would firms be willing to train and take on the role of "college instructor"?

Nathan Bush: Not always. When I think about what I learned from my time at two NCIDQ certified institutions, I know I could easily have learned the important life safety and sustainable material to pass the NCIDQ and LEED exams on my own. In fact, I am not prepared for them from my four years of class. Technologies can be learned from a two-year technical degree focusing on the multiple Autodesk programs that would be highly detailed and effective. Firms shouldn't assume the role of "college instructor," rather we should reform what is required for licensure, down from the four-year bachelor's degrees that are often very loose in instruction and extremely expensive when compared to short-term degrees with a higher concentration. The ROI of $50,000 to $60,000 of debt to the first five-plus years of non-payment, due to lack of just and profitable work, does not make much sense anymore. We should sustain education, just take control of its insane inflation.

Time to weigh in: What do you think about design education? Do current practices and concepts need to be redefined as our economy fluctuates and evolves?

Share your opinions by commenting below or by leaving us a post at our Facebook page.

–Stacy Straczynski


  1. 1. Regarding, "… we should reform what is required for licensure, down from the four-year bachelor's degrees…" Becoming NCIDQ certified doesn't necessarily require a 4-year education. There are several options which require as little as 2 years of education with a longer amount of work experience.

    2. Consider the competitiveness of the market, and the fact that the more experience, credentials, education, etc. you have, the better. It doesn't only show a certain level of knowledge, but it's evidence of work ethic, perseverance, and respect for the industry. Plus, I know of firms where they don't even think about hiring anyone without a Bachelor's degree.

  2. As a recent May graduate from a FIDER accredited Interior Design program, I would like to think that it means something. But as months drag on with no job offers despite desperate searching and applying I'm starting to wonder. All jobs ask for at LEAST 2-5 years of experience. How am I going to get that without being hired? I cant afford an un-paid internship with college debt looming over my head. I have to start paying it back in November. I'm concern that my degree might mean nothing.

  3. There are very few college graduates with any sort of degree getting jobs right now. Firms who do need someone have cut staff to the point that experience is a necessity, and there are plenty of experienced designers needing jobs. I do think that costs for a college education are getting way out of control and I see changes coming (Google "the college bubble"). More focused programs in a technical setting, or broader liberal arts programs which give students the training for autonomy and logical thought in any endeavor, may be our "blast from the past" – reinvented. Internships and paid apprenticeships (paid by student – not employer) worked for my Dad, the architect. No reason they can't work, again.

  4. Hate being a naysayer, but nothing prepared me for 'real' design like working with builders, and their custom homebuyers – good, old fashioned experience. When the economy tanked, I took advantage of the time to return to school as a full time student. Although learning the fundamentals is a great idea, I was very surprised at how naive some students were regarding real world expectations. I blame the proliferation of TV design shows in part. Very rarely do you have an unlimited budget. Very rarely do your clients go along with everything. Being an Interior Designer is MUCH more about managing subs than anything else….. In addition, design is a very emotional subject for many clients…a desire to impress friends, financial issues, marital problems, etc. For the many builders & contractors I have worked with over the years, it's ALWAYS about the most bang for the buck. On the other hand, some of the crappiest designers I know have the most degrees. And some of the best designers I know came from completely different fields. The two most successful designers I know in LA came from being a set designer, and from corporate IBM. You cannot teach a 'good eye'.

  5. I personally had to open my own design firm offering freelance design to the small community I belong to, but really slow at this present time. Yes! indeed there's big companies hiring and need so much experience. Us that recently graduated are faced with great challenges…..Personally I am thinking to get a master's degree but not 100% sure, if this will open more doors. Thank you for bringing this issue up.

  6. Having the advantage of a long design career, based on both practical experience and lots of education, and having been an educator at a (now) CIDA accredited institution, I concurr that the current insistence on higher education as requisite for a preofessional design career is misguided. I see many educated candidates who couldn't design their way out of a paper bag. Being glued to a computer, and studying "evidence-based design" is not guarantee of creativity, nor a route to the breadth of practical knowledge which designers need to call upon daily.

  7. I graduated in December of 2009 with a bachelor’s degree from a CIDA accredited school. I have yet to find a position with a design firm, or for that matter even interview with one. With over 65k in school debt finding a paying position is critical. As I network, professionals tell me they are busy; however they are only hiring designers with 5-10 years experience and an NCIDQ certificate. Breaking into this industry is far more difficult and than expected, especially without the NCIDQ, however, I can't test until I have experience…can't get experience without the certificate. Where does that leave new graduates? I really feel I have a solid educational backing, it just doesn’t seem as though the degree means anything.

  8. I hear what everyone is saying. I came out of a great hands on trade school 30 years ago. I could not get a job in design. So I went to work for a paint company and begged to go out on commercial projects. It was some of the best training ever. Then I worked as an outside rep in hard window treatments and learned a great deal there. Next I worked for J C penneys custom Decorating, Fabulous training that I use to this day. After that 9 years in a middle to high end furniture store, I could not pay enough for that experience. In between I ran my own design business. Now I have taken and passed the NCIDQ exam, I am a Member of ASID, and can not get liscenced in my state but must pay for the organizations lobby efforts (which will make it impossible for me to be liscenced) or be kicked out. Things that make you go Hmmmmmmmmm. Even though I have successfully designed and sold over 10 million dollars worth of custom furniture, Custom drapes, wallpaper, carpet, accessories, and have designed commercial and residential spaces from the ground up, for over 25 years with proven field experience, My state does not feel my experience is equal to someone coming out of a two year progam. Go figure. So I guess passing the NCIDQ and the CQRID exams mean nothing either. I do feel your pain. All I can say is it would be nice if our National organizations looked at the big picture and saw who their long standing members are and worked to help , not hinder them.

  9. There are a lot of good comments about this situation. I have discussed this with my colleagues in ASID for many years now. I do not think this is a factor just of the current recession. I have been concerned for years that our profession is not set up with a workable career path for the young people we are educating.
    I do believe that Interior Design is about both technical skills and artistic ability which makes it harder to define what education/career path makes a good designer. However, in any profession (medical, legal, architectural) there are trained professionals who are not always good at their jobs. Yet I do think they should still be trained in their profession and we should not abandon that in Interior Design.
    In terms of Designers currently in the market place with many years of experience, current efforts to define the profession through legislative and other efforts are NOT an effort to discredit these individuals but to make a path for those who are just entering the field. There needs to be a base of knowledge defined to identify the profession. All the other professions have put this in place previously. I am sure there are many allied professionals in the medical field that through experience have as much, if not more, knowledge than many doctors. However, we don't say to medical students that you can skip school and just gain experience being an aide, then nurse, then become a doctor based solely on your experience. And I am sure that all professions have dealt with this transition that Interior Design is currently going through to define the profession. We just need to make sure that we continue to look at it from a long term perspective and what is best for the future. We must not move backwards just because of current economic forces. And I do see a big transition on the horizon of what it means to be an Interior Designer and how you get there.

  10. It is certainly time to take a look at the ridiculous requirements to become certified, registered or whatever your state requires. ASID lobbying efforts have paid off in the past. While education is always important, in order for it to be effective in design it needs to be combined with practical experience and an innate talent. Unless you are working in a field that affects public safety or health such as hospitality or medical, most designers can be very effective with a little bit of education and a lot of experience. It is time to tier the requirements and allow anyone with an in interest and talent to practice in the design field..not the chosen few that ASID deems qualified. Again, education can never be a mistake but in the design field it is not going to guarantee great employment or a great result for the client.

  11. Well several of the posts have both the ASID policy and the ASID practice of when and if it supports legislation wrong. First ASID does not support anything that would remove current legal standing *IE what you call yourself nor what you currently do legally today. IE whats legal for you and anyone else. ALL ASID is looking towards is much of what is taught to designers in the technical side of the profession is still illegal to do. IE should a designer want to do more and they can't we want to make sure that there is no 'glass ceiling' in place. Optional always. This is where there is a personal decision to be made. If your given rights to actually impact the public there are standards and rules. If someone does not want to do it and take on that level then they don't have to. Our goal is to create options for designers by adding additional choices not to remove any.

    Bruce Goff, Chair of the ASID Legislative Council

  12. All interior design educations, certificates, and degrees are useless because many of sucessful interior designers do not have any of those. They become sucessful only because they know wealthy people and well connected.

  13. The Boston Society of Architects released a study saying that our unemployment rate for designers and architects here in Boston is 43%. There is no question our industry has been hit hard. I am a board member foe ASID New England, and we have been in active conversations with IIDA New England, our student members, and designers about how we can help, and what our ethic responsibility is as a professional organization geared to promote the profession faced with the current economy.

    My suggestion to everyone here would be to get involved, you are members of these organizations, and in my experience the people running them listen. You are paying dues for the experiences they craft for you, and you have a voice with them. I assure CJ Knapp, and alll of you, that in all of the national and local ASID meetings I have been to, the primary question has been: "How do we help members?", but these organizations cannot do it with leadership alone, we need members helping us too.

    In terms of the NCIDQ, I would just say that perhaps doing away with one of the few standards we have to establish ourselves as professionals is not the way to go. Amending, sure, of course. But discarding? I have worked too hard (in a state with no legislation laws) to not be differentiated in some way from hobbyists.

  14. I do believe a degree is still important in this economy. We have to look down the road a ways, go one day at a time, and plan for the future. I have been serving in the field of design since 1989, and I have a degree in Professional Interior Design. I have seen the ups and downs in the economy, but nothing like the present day in which we live. The new graduates do have a challenge. A designer, that did her internship with me, is now working with me, and because of this present economy she does have a secondary job, however, she chooses to get more & more experience of hands-on in the field, and the reality of the design world.

    So I encourage new graduates in the field of design, to get out there and be a part of perhaps small interior design businesses, therefore when the economy does have a break-through, the experience will be there. I believe the larger firms will appreciate the dilegence and persistence

  15. I personally understand the uphill challenge of graduating in this era and trying to enter the design field. I completed my Masters in Interior Design about a year ago and searched for work for quite some time. I live in a mid-sized midwestern city that has seen all of the lows that most large cities have seen with this recession. I'm still not anywhere close to where I would like to start professionally. But I immediately got involved with ASID and began keeping up-to-date with industry trends/info. I will say this from my experience: I firmly believe in a design degree. I think there should be more education on how to pursue a degree without going into debt, thereby giving the recent graduate more flexibility with career advancement and less stress on the pay. I believe the basis for the educational foundation of the design profession is in science, not art. I do have an art degree also. And while my "eye" and style instincts impact my work, I rely on my scientific understanding of how the built environment affects the humans that occupy it much more. This is why I believe a degree is still necessary. I respect the growth and change that is happening in my profession. I will be taking the NCIDQ in a year or so, when I'm eligible. I don't think I deserve some quicker or easier route to professionalism, even though I have my M.S.. I think you have to earn the right to practice as a professional. It seems like people have this entitlest attitude towards everything in life: houses, cars, clothes, pay and even degrees. I believe there is respect in gaining education AND experience and being able to earn the status of a professional.