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. I am a beholder of an AAS Degree in Interior Design from a CIDA accredited institution; graduating in May 2009. I agree with Nathan Bush, regarding the high concentration of education one receives at a 2-year institution. I believe I received a well-rounded and comprehensive education in Interior Design at the institution I attended. I also agree with many others replying to this article, that there is no substitute for experience; in any industry for that matter. Passing the NCIDQ exams may be a long way off for me; but I do believe that the eligibility requirements are a neccessary part of becoming certified.

    Interior Design is a blend of artistic and technical skills. A lengthy education does not guarantee employment or even that you will be good at what you do. Many people believe they are "experts" because of the degree they obtain; without any regard to the real life experiences they will encounter while actually on the job.

    The A&D industry has historically been plagued with ebbs and flows; it is the nature of the trade. How do we make it easier for graduating students to find employment? I don't think we can. Like any creative field, your success is many times dependent on who you know.

    To be considered for employment in Interior Design, as it is with many other industries in today's competitive market, it seems you need a bachelor's degree to get in the door. I don't see the harm in that; I myself am back in school earning my bachelor's degree. But as an adult learner, I have chosen NOT to purue an expensive degree in Interior Design; I could not justify the cost; and I figure I already have an AAS Degree in the like. So I am earning a BA in Individualized Studies; where I can focus on Studio Arts and Foreign Language. Will a hiring manager see the validity in my BA degree, even though it is not in Interior Design? I certainly hope so.

    I also believe that design is in the process of making a long right turn – one that is showing how design impacts everyone's lives. The philanthropic efforts in design over the last 10 years have been growing exponentially. The economy may not be great right now, but people are always in need of help and assistance. Find ways to help others; you may be surprised where your design degree will take you!

  2. As the director of Interior Design Certificate Programs at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT., I have worked hard to create a 45 credit program for students who are working towards certification. These are adults interested in a career change to interior design and don't have the time or funds for a degree. I believe that with the right concentrated education and practical experience, one can pass the certification exams and the success of our students illustrates this.

  3. Nathan Bush says "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." He is actually correct. The NCIDQ exam was one of the most disappointing experiences of my Interior Design career. The exam is more interested in testing the examinee on legal "gotchas", using poorly written questions and answers to try to confuse you, and practicums with too much "stuff" in too little time to give proper thought than it is interested in testing the examinee on the concepts that measure whether you can master being a successful Interior Designer in all senses of profession. I came home asking my husband, an attorney, how he would respond to several of the questions. His response was that you should call your attorney. You may think I am speaking negatively concerning the NCIDQ exam because I had trouble with it. In fact I passed all three parts of the exam on my first try, but I do not feel this is an accomplishment for the reasons stated above. Actually, I found what I learned attaining my degree at the New York School of Design to be extremely valuable and has played an important part in my being a reputationally and financially successful Interior Designer today with the only shortcoming in the NYSID degree program not having enough emphasis on creating and managing a successful and profitable business. Fortunately, I learned these concepts in my first career. Every Interior Design colleague that I know has the same opinion regarding the NCIDQ exam, so I am wondering when the NCIDQ powers that be are going to wake up and smell the coffee before the Interior Design profession is totally decimated?

  4. Huh? I think, you're all right – and I think, you're all wrong……consider:
    I have almost 50 years experience in the world of design, architecture and graphics.
    Due to family financial plight, way back in about 1962, I could not go on to university…, I started to work as a junior draftsman at a small, but highly respected Toronto architectural firm. As I had taught myself architectural drafting, perspectives, they decided to take a chance on me – as a designGopher. Yes – I did some base drafting – but mostly ran the whiteprint machine, the Gestetner offset machine – assembled printed specs, ran errands – all the joe-jobs…..but, I also got to hang around the Design Studio… a shadow I watched and listened to the creative teams argue and debate the finer points of mass, purpose, design purity, etc. For close on to 2 years it was heavenly….I was, an apprentice. Gradually, I moved on to other firms – worked in construction, worked for engineering firms…..grew, developed, self-study and practise – night courses – all the while, slaving with a passion that never abated.

    Fast forward – 10 years, 20 years…..I became the first designer in eastern Canada to start to use AutoCAD (ver 1.4)…..started up my own one-man design firm. Grew it to 15 – won awards……undertook complex projects- and always delivered – on time, on budget.

    Bear in mind, I had NO formal education – I just absorbed – drank in design….lived it daily.

    Some years later, i was head-hunted by a prestigious US architectural firm to take on the position of Senior Designer for a massive Tier 1 airport renovation/expansion. Moved to Dallas in 2000- was back in the architectural mainstream. In 1980 I had qualified for ASID membership…..based on experience and portfolio review. Went on to serve two terms on the Chapter Board… about the same time was accepted as a Registered Graphic Designer – again, based on the credentials of accomplishment – the actuality of a portfolio of real live projects.

    I was invited to teach at the only FIDER-accredited design school in Montreal….I have spent 12 years of the last 20, teaching on a part-time basis…..I won the position as Sr Design manager – Fleet Design, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines…..spent 3 years in that capacity then moved on to Mariott Hotels International as Sr Design Manager. But, I had NO education – it was all based on MERIT…….

    I am in the twilight of my career now – still teaching…..AutoCAD for Interior Designers, Design Detailing and other interesting courses……at a degree-granting design school in Canada. Where by all rights, I shouldn't have even gained an interview – except, I can DO……and I can DELIVER.

    Lesson here? In my humble opinion, ALL design education should be re-jigged such that ALL design students participate in a work-study regimen – sponsored, endorsed and promoted by the design institution in partnership with local professional offices, manufacturers, suppliers and like institutions.

    As a hirer – of many architects, technicians and designers – over the last 20 years…..there are two – and ONLY two considerations I apply in a selection process…..1) can you show me how you can DO THE JOB, and 2) PERSONALITY.
    The first is so that, as a supervisor/manager, I can trust in one's abilities to execute good judgement based on experience, and the other is, simply that personality is the moral gateway to attainment of accomplishments.

    All the test in the world, do not demonstrate that you know HOW TO DO – at best, they will be indicators that sufficient you have invested sufficient effort and memorization, to be able to repeat, that which you have absorbed.

    I know this may be a maverick approach – but think about it…..if a design firm could have the services of junior/trainees, on a 12 rotational basis – and gladly pay hem for productivity – such a cash flow goes a long way towards minimizing debt accumulation, provides an employer with a KNOWN capability in terms of work output – and trains the aspiring designer, quite simply – how the real world of commerce and design actually function, and endure.


    Michael Moore ASID, RGD, DMI

  5. I am a graduate of an accredited interior design program. I think having a degree is very important. However, I have moved forward and am halfway through a graduate program in an entirely different (but complimentary) field, as interior design jobs simply do not pay enough to cover the cost of living, so having a backup plan was crucial for me! I can relate to the article from a financial standpoint, but I still think it's important to have a degree to learn the basics (nobody really wants to teach that, unless they're some tacky residential designer or dare I say, DECORATOR! I work in healthcare design, and I will agree that a 4-year college education mildly prepared me for the "real" world. It's a little discouraging when you are receptive to new information, learn quickly, and are working in a field that takes the safety/welfare of the general public into consideration….that's a lot of pressure, yet we don't get paid accordingly!

  6. I know that a lot of firms are requesting experience with their job applicants, however internships often qualify as "experience" – paid or not. When I was in school I worked full time as a bartender and had ongoing internships to bulk up my resume. I had 4 non-paid internships by the time graduation date came and I hardly even had to send out resumes because I had already networked so much through internships. I think formal education is a must in our local field.

  7. With the state of the economy today it is hard to get a job in almost any field, not just Design. We would be in a world of hurt if everyone just decided that since it was hard to get a job they weren't going to get a degree, that is rediculous. Degrees in Design give our profession credibility and it pains me to see people in our very field fighting this battle against us. It took over a year after I graduated to find a quality job in Design, so I understand the frustration, but I still value my education greatly. I have a great job now and I wouldn't have even been considered if I didn't have a degree. If you want to be a Decorator, fine, don't get an education, but if you want to be a Designer, it is essential.

  8. I’m having a hard time even knowing where to start in responding to some of the things said here. I’m going to speak from personal experience because there’s no other way I can speak in definitive terms otherwise…

    I know how disappointing it can be – your professors make you feel incredibly confident, you are so proud of your education, you know you are a great catch to any employer, you leave graduation feeling so confident about your future. Then, you move back in with your parents and no employer even wants to meet with you. You start to wonder why you even bothered with all the hard work, time, and money that went into your college education.

    I graduated with a 4-year BS degree in Interior Design in the spring of 2008. Living in a small town in southern West Virginia, I didn’t have my pick of design jobs, or any pick at all, when I returned home after graduation. I didn’t have the funds to move somewhere better to look for work, and I didn’t have any design experience or internships under my belt. For two long, painstaking years, I hunted for a “satisfying” position with a design firm. During my search, I worked at two different jobs – at a decorator’s store and as a kitchen and bath designer at a custom cabinet shop. I hated every minute of both of those jobs, but I never would’ve been hired at either place without my design education background. I drew a paycheck, built up my resume, and, as a result, was hired at the job I have now, which I love. People my age seem to forget that no reward comes without first paying out the dues.
    Yes, there are some things I learned on the job in the past that have helped me in my current position but, I cannot stress to you enough, how valuable my college education was.

    I, now, work for a company that has around 25 designers, all degreed. I would not have even been interviewed if I did not have a college degree. Everyone at my office is busy; projects run with heavy deadlines. No one here has the time or the desire to “hold my hand” and give me on-the-job training. And, no one is going to sit and go over and over my drawings for errors. They expect me to get it right the first time or, at the most, the second time. Not to say there aren’t bright go-getters that make exceptions to these general standards, but just think of the years of mistakes and legal and safety issues a design company would have to endure from someone who did not have knowledge of this industry when starting out.

    Just in my graduating class alone, two people work for the federal government, one manages a furniture store, one is a lighting designer, two are systems designers, at least two are residential designers, and the list goes on. Our industry is divided into so many specialties – HOW can a 4-year institution prepare ALL students for ALL areas of the industry? It’s literally impossible. A university can give you basic knowledge and skills, send you on your way, and wish you the best. You cannot ask more than that from them. Someone tell me any, ANY industry in which students learn everything there is to possibly learn in their career in the four +/- years they spend in college. Doctors and pharmacists, for example, go through at least a year of training but only after several years of education. Demanding any less of Interior Design demeans and discredits the entire industry and everyone who has and continues working hard to validate the profession.

    Aside from the degree, your classmates and your professors can become valuable assets to you in your job hunt. This past summer, I was floored when I was offered, not one, but two positions with Interior Design companies. One of them came to me from a former Interior Design classmate, and the other came to me from a professor – two contacts I never would’ve known if I had not gone to college. Not to mention, oftentimes, employers will be willing to take a chance on hiring someone if they come from a familiar and/or respected educational institution, as was also true in my case. In addition, the responsibility, structure, and perseverance the college experience creates in an individual are qualities employers find appealing. They can trust that you are not fickle and flighty and that you will work hard at your job. In summary, it’s a waterfall effect, STARTING with your college education.

    Finally, Courtney makes a valid point. This industry is not just about paint colors and fabric selections. Leave that to the un-degreed with the “creative flair.” I know, for a fact as a person who worked for one that had 10 years experience, that a decorator could not perform my job, and it would take a great deal of one-on-one training to make that happen. This is training most companies don’t have the time, money, and infrastructure to offer.

    Be proud of your decision to go to college! Whether or not you see the results immediately, pursue education, pursue whatever work experience you can get, and pursue professional memberships, certificates and accreditation (IIDA, ASID, NCIDQ, LEED). This industry, this world, is more cutthroat than ever and it is critical that young people do whatever it takes to network and stick out to potential employers!

  9. Nowadays, in the interior design business, not so many famous interior designers holding a college degree related to interior design. If you have wealthy parents and have lots of connections or if you are a businessman who is "business savvy", or you are a straight man but dresses chic and pretend to be a gay man, then you are more likely to be a sucessful (rich) interior designer than a person who owns an interior design degree with a NCIDQ or LEED certificate. You do not need to know anything about interior design, just simply hire those who know the design and design things for you, and you will claim all the credits. That is how many interior designers run their businesses, exploiting other people's creativities for their own personal gains.