In defense of the ‘uneducated’ graphic designer

I was invited to the previous Coffee Room session which was held mid-October, last year.

The subject matter was: “Is formal education important, Is it still relevant?” and as one would expect, there were opposing views amongst the attendees.

Although there is a piece of paper somewhere in my drawer that states that “…this serves as proof that Mokokoma Mokhonoana has successfully completed a course in graphic design at…” which makes me one of the so-called qualified graphic designers, this writing is in defense of designers on the other side of a graphic design qualification.

I decided to study graphic design formally, then, because of the high value that I’ve placed on formal education.

I believe that qualifying as a graphic designer and then working in the real world sort of gave me a better perspective and understanding to fairly judge the importance and relevance of formal education, by looking at what the real world required of me against what formal education fed me.

The best thing to do before we go further into this would be to define education, which I’d simply define as, a process of equipping a leaner with a body of knowledge and/or skills. If you agree, then, formal education would be defined the same, except that you’d need to add who equips the learner with the knowledge, an institution.

Typically, an established professional graphic designer will tell you that the greatest part of their knowledge was acquired post-school.

For argument’s sake, let’s say an experienced graphic designer’s expertise is split into a 30/70 ratio, school and post-school, respectively.

The Irony and vagueness of Education

Now let’s base our focus on the thirty-percent, the process of being educated, since the skills, knowledge and experience that one acquires in the real world is not a privilege that’s only limited to the formally educated.

This thirty-percent is what makes the educated, the educated. Other than that, it’s either one has the expertise or not.

Now let’s bear in mind that, syllabuses differs from institution to institution and further more, learners are not required to get a hundred-percent to pass their studies, the thirty-percent of the expertise ratio.
In some institutions, a forty-percent is enough for a learner to pass. What about the other sixty-percent of theory and practicals that the leaner isn’t clued up on?

A leaner who obtained ninety-percent from an exam and the one who was only able to get forty-percent are equal according to the piece of paper offered by the institution. Are the two learners really equal, expertise-wise, while the other acquired more than double the marks of the other?

I think we are way too obsessed with where and how knowledge is acquired that we fail to concentrate on what’s really important, the knowledge. The skill is the differentiator between the skilled and the unskilled, not where the skills were obtained.
For one to be worthy of the label ‘educated’ does it really matter how the skills are acquired or do we label based on the presence or absence of such skills?

I asked a question using an analogy that went something like:

“Let’s take the phone on the table for example, has how so-and-so obtained the phone affect what the phone is or what it is capable of?”

“Does something become less of itself simply because it was acquired in another manner than the conventional?”

Let’s compare buying a kettle with getting education formally, and stealing with acquiring the expertise of a graphic designer outside an educational institution.
Does the manner in which one gets the kettle affect what the kettle is or what it can do?

While the credentials of the institution will put employers and clients at ease, recognizing (or deciding not to) an unschooled graphic designer will not affect what they know and can do.

Don’t get me wrong, not all informally educated graphic designers are good at what they do, but then again, not all formally educated are good at what they studied.

Truth be told, I’ve seen graphic designer whose work I admire though they make part of the uneducated clan. While on the other side, I know people with 4,5,6 years of studying graphic design under their belt failing to produce work that justifies their half-a-decade of being taught the discipline.

The Conclusion

Education is important, but it doesn’t guarantee greatness when coming to the creative industry. It can teach one the history of their craft, which is very important, it can also teach one the theories of the craft, white space, contrast, colour, typography etc. and even idea generating techniques but through my interactions with some creatives,
I came to the conclusion that conceptual thinkers, though in need of nurturing, are born not made.

I’d like to believe that I’m not that bad as a visual communicator and I wouldn’t for a second credit the institution that I studied at for my current capabilities as a visual communicator. In fact the few things I remember that I learned there was that photoshop is used to edit, correct and manipulate photographs, names of a few artists and art techniques like minimalism, modernism, pointillism and the likes — and that’s not because I have a very short memory span, there’s just nothing to remember.

The things that deserve credit for what I am today are: curiosity, constant learning, sleepless nights, deep love for the discipline, and the real world.

I think we are blinded by a tiny illusion, an eleven letter word sold by educational institutions, credibility.