Open day season: choosing your design education wisely

Published:  August 14, 2015
Nicki Wragg

It’s that time of year again, the season of university open days and information evenings. There has been an explosion in design education options in Australian in the last decade. AGDA lists 74 colleges, institutes and universities across Australia offering a dizzying array of communication design programs – from basic certificates through to associate degrees, bachelor degrees, honours degrees, double degrees, graduate diplomas, masters degrees and doctoral studies.


All words by Nicki Wragg, Program director (design) at Swinburne Online and National board director of AGDA.

Feature image of Hogwarts by Christopher Ables. 

Some programs are offered on-campus, some blend on-campus and online delivery methods and some are fully online courses. In addition to AGDA’s listing, there is a plethora of short courses, one- or two-day workshops, design boot camps, folio preparation workshops and a range of detailed programs exploring specialised areas of design such as letterpress, screen printing, book binding and more.

Design in general, and communication design specifically, is burgeoning as a field and generating huge interest from students looking to realise their goal to be a designer. Communication design is an increasingly complex field, comprising people with very different ideas on the nature and purpose of design practice. It is to be expected that the focus and components of a communication design education will vary considerably from one education provider to another. Some programs are vocational – their primary focus being on skills development. Some programs emphasise creative expression and the development of a personal style. Some programs seek to prepare graduates for a strategic role in the design industry and in business. Some programs are well-established and draw on significant tradition and past students’ industry success. Some programs are more recently established in direct response to an evolving media scape and changing industry, championing an interdisciplinary approach where students examine the relationships between innovation, technology, human interaction and spatial design (digital or physical) in addition to various design disciplines. Choosing the right approach to design education is vital: matching a design program to your needs and expectations can be the difference between engaging meaningfully with design, and flunking out.

The following guide will help you prepare before an open day or information session, by outlining some key questions to ask of teaching staff that tap into the approach, culture and philosophy of a design school. Whether you intend to study for two, three or four years, studying is a big commitment and you need to know what you are signing up for.

Illustration by Shillington graduate Katie Rea, first published on the Shillington blog.

Illustration by Shillington graduate Katie Rea, first published on the Shillington blog.

Some questions to arm yourself with on open days or information evenings:

1. What is the difference between vocational education and a university design education? How do I choose between a diploma and a degree?

2. What is the focus of the school? Does it emphasise communication design or graphic design? Does it teach for different media types, both print and digital outcomes? Does the program combine art and design or does it focus on strategic and conceptual design? Is the stated focus backed up by the student work on display?

3. What units of study are on offer? Is there a possibility to undertake specialised areas of study? Are double degrees offered, such as design and business or design and marketing? Is an Honours year offered in which I can push my engagement in design further?

4. What are the studio contact hours? Are there places to ‘hang out’ and practise design when I am not in a formal studio class? What is the workload involved outside formal classes? Can I work when I am at design school? How much will it cost to produce folios for each unit? Do I need my own computer and communication design software? Do I need to start saving now?

5. Does the school have a vibrant student community? What sorts of extra curricular activities are on offer? Does the school support and encourage these design activities?

6. Are the staff designers? Does the school have good networks with the wider design community? Do the staff engage in leadership activities to promote design? Is the school connected to leading design studios nationally and internationally? Are there opportunities in the program to study overseas?

7. Are there meaningful avenues for students to connect with the design industry to foster future networks? Does the school encourage and support such interaction?

8. Does the course include industry placements? If so, is it an internship, a paid placement or work experience? How does the school manage these opportunities? Does the staff supervise industry placements? Do I receive credit at school for working in the industry

9. What is the expected standard of work? Can I just do design or are other academic and professional skills covered in the program, such as communication, research and interpersonal skills?

10. Do I have to do group work at design school? What is the point of group work at design school?

11. Will I get a job at the end of my study? Will I need to do more study? What jobs are available? Will I become a designer or something else? Does the university help me get a job?

To verify any of the answers to your questions, it’s important to look at the work on display and ask any further questions about it. Pay attention to how the staff speak about the work and see whether they are truly passionate about design, as this will feed into their teaching. Studying communication design is not for the fainthearted. It is a demanding profession dedicated to creating business and organisational advantage. It is a creative activity, but one where creative brilliance is enabled by systematic thinking and rigorous processes. At any design school, you will experience the highs and lows, the joys and frustrations of designing. The challenges will be easier to handle if you have done your research and chosen the design school that is the best fit for you and your design ambitions.

This article first appeared in the AGDA Presents section of the August/September desktop. 

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