In the early days of my senior year of high school, I had a decision to make: was I going to college?
See, I was pretty lucky: I'd been working as a graphic designer and dabbled in the ad industry for a few years already. I had some work experience, I had some art chops, and college was just going to be more time and money before I got my career off the ground.
I told my parents that. After they stopped laughing, they made me fill out an application and schedule a couple college tours.
They reminded me that, no matter how good I thought I was, there was someone better out there (one of the pieces of advice I've been spreading). And that in college, I'd be surrounded by them, which is how I'd learn.
I hadn't even finished my second year before I realized how right they were.
Today, I'm finding myself on the other side of that conversation. In the past week, I've had a few people ask me, "Is going to portfolio school worth it?"
You'd think my answer would be a clear "yes" after telling my own story. But actually, it's a lot muddier than that.
I spent eight years in college, coached students and athletes for 7 years, and taught advertising for 6. I've seen people with go through intense art programs and come out with multiple degrees. I've also seen people take some night classes and teach themselves while building a portfolio. And what I find these people have in common isn't their resume. It's their ambition and their talent.
People have some strong opinions about schools. I know of some creative directors that won't even look at a book unless it's from a specific portfolio school. Then, there are those, like Gary Vaynerchuk, who think that going to school for a creative or entrepreneurial degree is worthless. That you will learn more from doing than you ever could from being in a classroom.
So, when people ask me if portfolio school is worth it, my answer is: if you need it to get better, then it's worth it.
But that's not super helpful, is it? Well, maybe this will help you figure it out…
Did I Go To Portfolio School?
Now, full transparency: I didn't go to portfolio school. I went to California State University, Long Beach (Go Beach!) and completed their BFA in Graphic Design with a focus on Advertising. We built a portfolio, but that was only two years of my *cough*eight*cough* years there.
There are a bunch of portfolio schools out there. And I'm not going to name a single one. If you want to find one after you read this, Google is your friend.
So, I'll just give you my opinion about portfolio schools (and what I've heard the spoken and unspoken opinions are of most of the people in the industry), and you do with it what you may.
Does a Degree Matter for a Creative?
Let's get this out of the way really quick.
The only people who care about degrees for creatives are in HR. But, the truth is, they're usually the gatekeepers of applications that make it to the creative director.
Great creatives have two things in common: ambition and talent. Not a school or degree.
So, while a degree doesn't matter to creatives, it could make a difference in getting your portfolio to the creatives. But out of all the things that matter (portfolio, connections, degree), the degree is the least important.
Will Going to Portfolio School Get You a Job?
Nope. Well, not exactly, at least.
It's really about the connections the school can give you, not the school itself. If it gets you a job, it's in one of two ways: the school has connections or a creative director favors the school.
Some schools are good at staying connected with agencies. So, when those agencies have internship opportunities or junior positions open, they may reach out for recommendations. This is pretty common, but I'd guess that somewhere around 20% or less of the internships and junior positions out there would come from a "connection" the agency has with the school.
Even more rare is if the creative director favors the school. It may be their alma mater and they keep in touch with the talent stream. They may have friends that go there and keep an eye out for good students. Or maybe they just have had a lot of luck hiring people from that school and don't want to waste their time anymore. But, the wide majority of creative directors don't behave like executives looking for an ivy league school or reputable MBA for some other job.
See, what matters for a creative is pretty much one thing...
Will it Build Your Portfolio?
This is the real question you should ask yourself: do I need a portfolio school to build a killer portfolio?
And here's the definitive answer: maybe! (I know, I know.) But really, it's about whether the portfolio school you want to go to will help you with the things you need to make a strong portfolio:
Whether you're a designer, writer, or art director, there are executional skills you'll need to learn. Many portfolio schools will help you with this, so there's a plus. However, you could also learn from online tutorials, take some master classes, or work with a mentor to hone your craft. Doing it on your own is a whole lot harder, but it's not required to go to school for it.
This is probably where you get the most out of a portfolio school. Learning what makes an idea good and bad, and how to come up with your own good (and bad) ideas is pretty much the whole point of what these schools are for. It's really really really hard to get better at something like this without having someone else help you know what you're doing wrong. Ideation is the vaguest part of being a creative. You can't just look at an idea and duplicate it, like you could with a headline or design. You need to know how they got there, which is what school helps you do.
This is definitely something you can get outside of a portfolio school, but it requires a strong personal work ethic. School gives you a controlled, focused environment that pushes you to constantly create. With creativity, you need to get in the reps, getting in as many practice rounds as you possibly can, before you are able to consistently come up with good ideas. And there are lots of exercises you can do on your own (like Ad-a-Day), that you should do, even if you are going to portfolio school. You should never depend upon your classes to give you enough work to make your portfolio great.
This is the main thing all great creatives have in common: they have the drive to be great. They have the ambition to put in the extra work, whether that's in school or out of school.
This is something you'll never get from a portfolio school. Oh, you may get a portfolio that matches someone who has ambition, sure. And you may even get hired with it. But the first week on the job, you'll experience the shock of leaving a world where you're being guided and taught every step of the way, and entering one where those with self-motivation will thrive.
Can You Do It On Your Own?
Ambition, drive, self-motivation. These are what determine if you need portfolio school or not. You can do almost anything a school can, on your own, if you can figure it out. But it's a hell of a lot easier to pay a team of teachers to help you do it.
Whether you need to go to portfolio school or not is never a clear answer. But there's only one question a creative director cares about: do you have a good portfolio?
Will a school give it to you? Nope. Whether you're building it in a school or in your bedroom, you're the only one that will make it.