Should I do a design degree?

Tools used by a design degree student
If you have creative flair, a design degree could lead to a career in which you can apply your artistic skills to a commercial environment. There are many disciplines to choose from, including graphic design, web design and product design.

Design degrees come in all shapes and sizes and can be applied to a range of media. Whether you want to produce graphics in print or create three-dimensional objects, there’s a design degree for you. Design degrees tend to have fewer lectures than other more academic degrees such as English, history and science; however, you’ll attend plenty of workshops and seminars, where you’ll be taught in small groups, discuss work and learn new skills, making for a much more practical and hands-on approach.

Design degree requirements

  • To gain entry onto most design degrees applicants will need a portfolio to demonstrate their creativity and the standard of their work. Portfolios need to show a range of work related to the chosen design degree.
  • Typical entry requirements for admission onto a design degree are in the range of BBC–ABB at A level, CCCCD–ABCCC for Scottish Highers or 96–120 UCAS points.
  • Some design degrees will also ask for an A level in art at grade B or above as well as a C at GCSE in English.

However, with so many variations of design degree available, the types of A levels required can differ greatly.

Should I do an art foundation course?

A good way to build up a portfolio after A levels is to complete a foundation diploma in art and design. These courses last one year and allow you to try out different areas of art and design before specialising in a discipline. These disciplines include:

  • fine art – including painting, performance and sculpture
  • 3D design – including interior design, architecture and product design
  • graphics and illustration – including animation and games art
  • fashion and textiles – including fashion design, make-up for stage and theatre, and costume.

Strong portfolios are practically a necessity to get onto a design degree, especially at top universities, so doing a foundation diploma in art and design is a great way to try out different mediums, find out where your interests lie and produce a developed range of work. It’s not essential to do one if you’re confident that your portfolio is already of a good standard. However, some top universities will expect you to have a foundation diploma (or equivalent) unless your portfolio is exceptionally good.

What types of design degrees are there?

The types of design degrees available vary greatly, with options to work in various media. If visual communication interests you, you could study for:

  • a graphic design degree
  • a design for publishing degree
  • an illustration degree.

If you'd like to create real, physical objects you could take:

  • a product design degree
  • a jewellery design degree
  • a fashion design degree.

Or you could take a more digital media-focused route and apply for:

  • a video game design degree
  • a web design degree
  • an interactive design degree.

If you prefer to work with spaces, you could consider:

  • an interior design degree
  • an exhibition design degree
  • a set design degree.

What will I study on a design degree?

The majority of your taught time will be spent learning different technical skills. Depending on the area of design you choose to study, this could range from practising technical drawing (on a product design degree) to learning to use different game development software (on a game design degree). The theory you’ll learn will also vary from degree to degree, but you’re likely to learn about historical and contemporary practices in your field, whether that’s learning about the development of printing methods or significant practitioners in furniture design.

The modules you’ll study will vary depending on the degree you choose. For example, on a graphic design degree, you’re likely to study:

  • typography
  • principles of visual communication
  • design for online and print
  • illustration
  • photography
  • basic moving image (including animation)
  • graphic design theory (the study of the cultural, historical and contemporary contexts of graphic design).

However, on a product design degree you’re likely to study:

  • design media (producing 2D and 3D drawings manually or with relevant software)
  • materials (and their applications, properties and limitations)
  • design communication theory
  • the manufacturing process.

Remember, even if two universities offer the same degree, such as web design, it is highly likely that the modules they teach will differ, so make sure you shop around to check if the courses you’re interested in match your needs and interests.

What teaching methods are used on design university courses?

Design courses tend to focus on equipping students with the practical skills required to work effectively in their chosen medium. To build these skills you’ll have more workshops and seminars than lectures, where tutors are more easily able to demonstrate different practices and methods used in design and help you to develop them.

In workshops you’ll receive tuition on different design methods and be able to practise these under the guidance of your tutor. Seminars are more focused on discussion and could take place in the form of ‘crit’ sessions where you can discuss each others’ work and its strengths and weaknesses. Not only does this help students to improve their work, it also prepares them for a career in their chosen design specialism, where critiquing is common.

Lectures will still play some part in your study, but there won’t be as many as you’d find on a more academic degree course, such as a humanities or science subject. These lectures might cover theoretical aspects of design, such as historical and contemporary practices, in order to give you a deeper understanding of your subject. Most design degrees also tend to put on lectures delivered by guest speakers working in the industry. These could be well known practitioners or former students and might cover topics such as their careers or insight into the industry.

As with all degree-level subjects, the majority of your learning is done independently. On a design degree most of this independent study will be practical. Tutors will usually teach a technique or method in a workshop, which you can practise under their supervision. You’ll then continue to develop the technique or apply it to another brief in your own time, which you can then discuss in your next seminar.

How many contact hours will I have on a design degree?

Contact hours range from six to ten hours per week, plus the time tutors set aside for drop-in tutorials. Drop-in tutorials give students and lecturers the opportunity to meet and discuss work on a one-to-one basis. The time allotted for these tutorials is around 15 minutes to half an hour per student per week, though they often need to be arranged in advance.

As design degrees are highly practical, it is expected that students undertake an additional two to three hours of individual study per one hour of taught study to develop the knowledge and skills covered in lectures, workshops and seminars. This means that students should be carrying out between 24 and 40 hours of taught and independent study combined each week.

Design careers

Design degrees provide students with a wide range of skills that are valued by employers in design and media. Whether you study game design or product design, you’ll find that a lot of the skills taught on your degree are highly transferable across different areas of design.

Mina Shah studied product design at the University of Lincoln but, soon after graduating, moved to graphic design.

‘I've always loved art and design; I wanted to go into graphic design initially but I knew how many people were going into it and I wanted to do something different. The degree developed my research and my presentation skills and I learned 3D modelling and gained some knowledge of production techniques. After university my mum asked me to do some branding work for her and I really enjoyed it so I decided to carry it on. Some of the skills, such as 3D modelling and presentation skills, were transferable, but I still had to learn a lot on the graphic side so I did several internships to get to the right level and took on some freelance work because nothing improves your skills set like getting lots of practice.’

A design degree could lead to a career in:

  • game design
  • furniture design
  • graphic design
  • interior design
  • set design
  • fashion design
  • web design.

Less obvious career options include:

  • marketing and branding
  • film and television production
  • advertising
  • image editing (in publishing)
  • art
  • animation.

Alternatives to a degree in design

If you’re considering a design degree but are more interested in one that allows for greater self-expression and experimentation, you may be interested in an art degree. Alternatively, if you think your interests are in broadcast media, you might consider:

  • film and television production
  • animation
  • audio and music technology.

If you’re more interested in the structural or industrial elements of design, you may be more suited to an engineering degree which, depending on your specialism, will give you more of a structural and mechanical understanding of objects.

Alternatively, if you have an interest in both aesthetics and structure, a degree in architecture may be a more relevant choice. Becoming an architect requires quite a bit more studying (around seven years in total, including an undergraduate degree, work placement and postgraduate degree) but will provide you with a sound knowledge of different materials, structure and design practice.

Skills you’ll gain on a design degree

Due to the technical nature of design degrees and the emphasis on working to briefs, students gain skills valued by employers both within the design industry and outside of it. Within design, skills such as illustration, the use of design and 3D modelling software, and other production techniques are fundamental to many jobs and stand you in good stead. Whether you want to apply for a job in the specialism you’ve studied or you’d like to try your hand at another design discipline, a lot of the skills are transferable.

If you decide to look for a job outside of design, the valuable skills you’ll have developed will include:

  • researching
  • problem solving
  • project management
  • presentation skills
  • working to a brief
  • creativity
  • communication
  • computer skills
  • critiquing (both providing and receiving criticism)
  • teamwork
  • emotional intelligence (the ability to empathise and understand how others are feeling).

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