Is An Art Degree Worth It?

Arguing the worth of a degree should be reserved for those who hold that degree.

The cliche of the starving artist can come to life, if that artist does not know how to stay competitive and relevant in a constantly changing market.

Starving Artist Means The Artist Isn't Hungry Enough To Eat


I believe that receiving an art degree from an art school could be detrimental to the success of the individual. I attended Robert Morris (College because I'm old) University in Orland Park, Illinois. I have nothing bad to say about the great education most of my instructors provided me.

With a career driven curriculum, our philosophy drew heavily on results rather than means. My favorite instructor, Cher, took no excuses when it came to deadlines and the actual quality of the designs put forth. Sometimes I feel like I would have excelled further if I had not started directly after high school, as the late nights of being a young adult surely took focus away from education.


With a career driven curriculum, our philosophy drew heavily on results rather than means. My favorite instructor, Cher, took no excuses when it came to deadlines and the actual quality of the designs put forth. Sometimes I feel like I would have excelled further if I had not started directly after high school, as the late nights of being a young adult surely took focus away from education.

I remember many worried students would come into class when we were to present our projects, usually the 4th week I recall. Cher did not sugar coat her criticism of our work, and she did this for our own good.


I can remember countless examples of fellow students arriving with unfinished work or no work at all, and pull out every excuse imaginable to slide. I don't remember Cher letting anyone slide, another reason she's my favorite.

Many students pointed to the policies of Chicago's prestigious art school, because that university did not "fail" students who weren't "feeling it" that semester. Of course these students had to retake the course at some point, but they never received a failing grade.

I remember Cher one time stating "If you're not feeling it in the real world, the rent don't get paid", that has never left me.

Are You a Freelancer or a Company Man - Or Both?


I had the unfortunate pleasure of graduating college a few months before the 2008 economic crash.

I could write that this prevented me from getting a graphic design job, but that would be revisionist history softening the ugly truth. I didn't get a graphic design job immediately after graduating because I sabotaged my own success.

When the crash happened, I was luckily employed by D&H Distributing. D&H weathered and thrived through the following years of economic downturn while other companies shuddered their doors. While at D&H, I quickly rose through the ranks, ending up as LTL Department Supervisor. It wasn't a bad job, but it also wasn't my passion.


During my tenure at D&H, I became acquainted with a co-worker named Gary. Gary lived an amazing life that included benchmarks like hitching to California on his own at 16, seeing the Doors play live before they had a record deal, serving our country in Vietnam and becoming a very successful graphic designer, heading up KMart's art department before their downturn.

I would often speak to Gary about graphic design, reiterating my frustration that there were no "firms" hiring. Gary would tell me stories about projects he had done as a designer, and I finally asked him how he found so much work back then. "Well, most of it was freelance".

He might as well have kicked me in the jewels, my excuses were all invalid. On Gary's last day of work, he approached me at my desk. "This isn't a career, don't give up on your dreams." As much as I wanted to ignore the sting of those words, he was right regarding the dreams part.


"There's nothing worse than being good and the wrong thing." I don't remember where I heard this but I also lived this for nearly 8 years, at my own choosing.

Basically this story equates to: Are you a freelancer or a company man? I'm both.

Freelance Means More Than Your Degree


During and after my college studies, I worked freelance for several companies in many different areas. Before my methods became obsolete, I sold quite a few web sites. Once that dried up, I sat 2009-2011 out of graphic design, focusing my efforts on the world of logistics.

I had written off design, but there were still listings for my services on Yelp!, Google and other directories. One night, right before Thanksgiving, I received a call from an event promoter, in search of a flyer for his Black Wednesday event at a local bar. I wasn't sure what to say, because it was so unexpected, but I took the job and made him an amazing flyer. Still one of my favorites.


This call led to more freelance work for the same promoter, which reignited my passion for graphic design. I had also recently rekindled my love for professional wrestling, through attending local shows in my hometown. One thing I noticed about many of these shows were the horrible flyers many had.

I began posting about my services in local independent wrestling forums, and eventually came into contact with Santana Starks of AnarchyPro Wrestling. Starks and I formed a partnership that continues to this day, which allowed me to create dozens of freelance flyers, a graphic for the middle of the ring, an actual championship belt, and countless video projects.


Starks also gave me the reigns of the social media accounts, which helped me get into the realm of social media marketing. All of this freelance work soon equated to a very impressive (I think) portfolio. With that portfolio entow and eyes set on Phoenix, I told myself I would not work in the warehouse anymore.

It took me 2 weeks to find my current job as a social media marketing director. Those 2 weeks lasted forever, as I had not been unemployed since the age of 15

I think that freelance design makes up the meat and potatoes of any designer's portfolio. I recall a couple students who I attended college with that immediately landed great positions with in house art teams, and I also know of many who never worked in graphics again, sadly.

Graphic designers need to hustle for the freelance work if they ever want to go on to in house work. But, ironically, most in house teams require a degree and 3 to 5 years of in house experience. I luckily found a company willing to give me a shot based on years of freelance experience, and couldn't be happier.


I still do freelance projects on the side because I love being paid to design things. It's the equivalent to paying a kid to play baseball, and many of those kids grow up to do just that. I always designed things since childhood, so my dream has essentially come true.

Is An Art Degree Worth It?

You, as a graphic designer or artist, need to determine what your goals are in this industry before this can be answered.

Do you want to start your own company and essentially work in a freelance capacity? Then no, the art degree is not worth the time and money.

Do you want to work for an in house art department or marketing company? Then yes, that art degree will help this become a reality.

I don't regret going to school for what many consider to be a shitty degree. I learned how to succeed as a graphic designer the hard way, and am always open to helping the next generation to succeed without this missteps.

Let me know what your thoughts are at my Email and I will see how I can help you reach your dreams.

Kirk M. Collins

Corporate social media marketing director by day, social media marketing man by night. The one man gang of GrindDesign Social Media Marketing of Glendale, Arizona. Wrestling fan, toy collector, classic rock enthusiast.