Do Art Schools Ultimately Fail Their Students?

I admit I loved being asked to speak at art schools throughout my career. It said that I was a professional with something worth saying. My comedic, entertaining style of speaking about the industry and how to prepare to enter the business put me in great demand and as many of my peers taught at area schools, I found myself speaking at every NYC area school each spring semester to graduating seniors.

Sometimes I would show samples of my work and speak about the battle to get them through committees or why they were turned down. I discussed interviewing, portfolios, finding work, contracts, selling and other professional practices students would need to survive and thrive in the creative industry. For my trouble, I usually was treated to lunch by my friends and stories of their students who had no chance to make it in the field.

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Those of us who know how difficult it can be to enter the field and slowly build our businesses have also learned by our own mistakes. My pride in speaking was that I was acting as a mentor, a teacher and I was saving students the pitfalls of the same mistakes. In turn, I was strengthening the industry by training the next generation not to be crushed by the usual advantage-taking questionable clients would heap upon them.

The young professionals, after I beat the use of contracts, negotiation and not doing free work into them, would help build the reputation that creatives were not idiotic ne’er-do-wells who wasted their public school days drawing in their notebooks but creative professionals and businesspeople who were problem-solvers for the graphic/branding needs of every business on Earth.

“It’s art work, not art play” I would insist to my audiences, who sat with blank stares of shock as they were all apparently unaware they were entering the world of business.

Are You Nervous About Being a Professional?


There were always two things I could count upon with each appearance; the first is that there would be one too many loudmouth, know-it-all students who would argue about what I was saying they could expect in the outside world. I would smile, actually wanting to just rip their heads off so they wouldn’t infect other students with their “prancing unicorns fart happiness rainbows and piss gold into your bank account” goofy fanaticism, and calmly explain why they were wrong and why they might want to consider what is being put forth by a working professional. The rolling of eyes and continued arguments were never quelled by their teachers, which was quite insulting, as I was a guest, taking my precious time to help these people.

“In my opinion, cranking out students with no professional training is a disservice to those students”

The second aggravation was the inevitable call from the teacher or dean of students because one or two (my record was four) students were in tears about no one ever telling them what was involved in making a living as a creative. My friends would invite me to speak because I “told it like it is.” Apparently most art schools didn’t care for students to hear that… at least not until their final semester check had cleared the bank.

In my opinion, cranking out students with no professional training is a disservice to those students and hurts the school’s alumni base of support. Some schools just don’t care. As a friend of mine recently observed, art schools crank out students as if they were illegal puppy-mills, breeding stocks of sick, inbred monsters who will bite the fingers off babies the first chance they get.

There’s a constant stream of young creatives posting links to their portfolios on LinkedIn groups, as well as other online design groups, asking for feedback. Dribbble fast became the go-to site of the “look at me and love me” crowd. But feedback isn’t really want they want. They want admiration and spit-swapping so they can think themselves in a warm shower.

I often make the mistake of offering gentle but firm observations on what I see as their weakness, usually to be called “patronizing,” a “jerk” or have suggestions for some sexual act involving my mother, farm animals or really sickening stuff. The question is; why aren’t they happy and secure with their portfolios and abilities when they graduate art school?

What is Your Education Lacking?

Businessman shows his frustration while working on his laptop.

The simple answer, unfortunately, is that most art schools don’t care enough to teach portfolio preparation, résumé writing and other senior-level skills to students. There is no course or at least no well-rounded course on professional practices. Tenured professors may not be working professionals and are out of touch with the current trends in the field. Most schools count on visiting professionals to teach some quick practical advice in an hour-long talk, here and there. My talks took at least three hours and it left too much out just to bring it down to that time span.

“we must keep growing our knowledge and skills with new technology, changing software and programming languages”

Unlike other professions taught at colleges and universities across the world, creatives can’t just graduate with a degree and a résumé and step into a job of their career choice. We must not only present a portfolio of professional-caliber work but more often than not, know how to run our own freelance businesses and, as I explain to glassy-eyed students, that means knowing marketing (which includes effective social media), sales and negotiation skills, accounting and sound people skills (which is strange to most introverted creative-types). On top of all of this, we must keep growing our knowledge and skills with new technology, changing software and programming languages.

How Do You Supplement Your Education?

Businessman With Creative Idea On Green Background

So why don’t art schools take steps to prepare students for their careers? Why aren’t type discipline courses a requirement? Why isn’t portfolio preparation a senior year-long requirement for every student? Because many art schools have fallen down on their responsibilities to provide students with the tools they need to succeed. Will they read articles like this and change their views on student needs? No.

That leaves us with the question of how dedicated students can prepare themselves for a successful career. If I had to do it over again without relying on countless mistakes as my real-world learning tool, these would be my actions:

  • Find a mentor or internship while still in school and keep my mouth shut and my eyes, ears and mind open to the lessons they have to offer.
  • Read the plethora of articles on the web about business, type, portfolios,etc. and consider all points of view.
  • Join a professional creative organization, be pleasant, make contacts and, once again, ask questions but keep your mind open to what is being imparted, which is the golden rule for beginners.
  • Understand that a creative career means you are always growing, always learning (usually through mistakes, which should be taken as lessons and not failures) and always reaching to take your talent to the next level.

Suggested reading your art school didn’t bother teaching you:

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