Why I Will Never Hire An Art School Graduate

Why I Will Never Hire An Art School Graduate

Why is it so hard to hire someone to fill a creative position? At this point I'm afraid that art school might be making most graduates unemployable egomaniacs. I know this because I used to be one.  

I Wanted to Be a Graphic Designer

I always thought I was going to be a graphic designer. I went to a very expensive private college and I was one of the top performers in my design classes. My professors loved using my work as an example of the "right way" to design. While most students would work weeks on a single project, I could throw something together right before the class and get an "A" 95% of the time. If I wasn't the best in the whole department I would say I was at least in the top 5. My confidence grew to a ridiculous level. I couldn't wait to get out into the real world and make hundreds of thousands of dollars producing the next world class logo or advertising campaign. During my junior year I had basically decided that I already knew everything I needed to know about graphic design. The world needed my genius and I was ready to start making money. 

That summer I got an internship working for a large advertising agency in Florida. I was expecting to be included in the advertising campaign creative meetings but instead I was put on proofreading duty with another intern from a local community college. I quickly learned I was hardly qualified to proofread. My spirit was broken as I realized how little I actually knew. Not only did I not have a sufficient understanding of day to day design knowledge and software, I suddenly realized I was a terrible graphic designer. My community college attending colleague was infinitely more prepared for this job and far more talented as well. I compared my portfolio to hers and my projects suddenly looked like something a bored high school kid would create. Overnight I went from being endlessly impressed with my own work to feeling like a talentless hack. This caused me to change my entire life goal of becoming a graphic designer because I finally realized the truth. I wasn't any good at graphic design.
 

A Standard Degree vs A Creative One

If you go to school for math, science, history, or music, you can either do it or you can't. You either pass the test or you fail. There's no room for personal opinions. You can't become friends with the professor and get graded more easily. You can't convince yourself you're an incredible mathematician but then not solve the equations correctly. Your ego is checked on a daily basis. You couldn't possibly go to a reputable college for biology and come out with a 4.0 GPA and no understanding of your major. 
 
Creative/artistic fields are different. You can literally pay $150,000 to major in graphic design, acting, photography, painting, video, or music production, and come out of school being terrible at your craft. The ironic part is that a terrible graphic designer (like me) will leave school with a massive, debilitating ego while a genius math major will graduate as humble as the day he or she began with an eagerness to learn more. 
 
Everyone knows that 2+2=4. Your answer to this problem is either right or wrong.  But what about your photography or your acting? Is it good or bad? There isn't any kind of simple standard to base artistic work on. Grading or critiquing creative work is significantly based on opinions which in itself isn't a bad thing; it becomes a problem when you use this knowledge to lie to yourself. If I received a negative critique from a student on of my design projects I could easily tell myself that their opinion is wrong. 
 

Let the Market Judge Your Art

The market is the only place where art is honestly judged. Your professor might give you an A on a project but can you sell it? Will someone actually pay money for it? Your mom might think you have the world's most beautiful singing voice but will someone pay you to hear it? 
 
You may dislike Justin Beiber's music but his art sells. You might hate Terry Richardson's photography but he has created a product that the market will pay a premium for. What have you done? How many people do you have waiting in line to consume your next piece of art? When I was a graphic design student I had 2 fans; my professor and my parents, but for some reason I thought I was God's gift to the industry. My ego destroyed my chances at succeeding in the industry because I was unwilling to grow. 
 

My Best Employees Started Out Knowing the Least

This leads me back to the point of article; hiring creative professionals. Over the past 10 years I've worked with a huge number of photographers. The best employees/assistants I've worked with have always been the photographers who started working for me with a minimal amount of knowledge and experience. The key is to find someone with an outgoing personality, a strong work ethic, and an interest in learning new things but very little to no experience with photography. My best assistant ever fit this description perfectly. His name is Patrick Hall and he is now my business partner. 
 
Art school graduates have been by far the worst, in fact, I don't know if I've ever allowed one to assist me more than once. They all seem to be little carbon copies of me my Junior year of college. The market hasn't broken them yet, but it will, it always does. They always seem to end up at Starbucks. 
 
I was talking with a buddy who runs a photo/video production company and has about 15 employees. He told me that he no longer hires educated/experienced creative employees because they are untrainable. They already think they know it all. Like me, he would rather train employees from scratch. 
 

Be Honest with Yourself So That You Can Grow

I write this not to put down college degrees in creative fields because I know many schools have great departments. This is a warning to you individually; watch your ego. If you think you are the next amazing photographer, video editor, or music producer then prove it to yourself and the world by putting your work up for sale, even if you are still in school. The market will determine your talent.  The faster you can be honest with yourself about your talent the faster you will become great (and employable) at what you do. If you work for someone else, act like it. Ask them to critique your work. Ask them what you could do better. Spend your off time working on personal projects and sharing them on the internet. The better you become as an artist and an employee, the more valuable you will become and the more money you will make. Doors will open up all around you and you will finally be able to decide what you want to do with your life. 
 
Or you could remain the same. Keep creating the same crappy work and telling yourself how amazing it is. Keep putting down other people who are actually trying new things online. Continue to make excuses about how the industry has changed and there are no more jobs. Keep spending your free time watching TV or partying instead of working on your growth. Next time I see you I'll take one of those Pumpkin Spice Lattes that everyone has been talking about. 
 
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49 Comments

Austin LaCroix's picture

This is one reason I take my current involvement in college education with a grain of salt. While, much like Lee's experience here, I am top film and photography student in my classes, I am also bolstered by my pursuits at more demanding real life work. I also share my work with professionals in my area for their criticism and have learned how very valuable their insight can be (and how a large ego can destroy your potential to expand).

Anonymous's picture

Loved the article. All my knowledge with photography comes from experience, and training from other well know photographers. I feel like the biggest thing that separates world class photographers from average photographers in work ethic.

Tony Roslund's picture

Best article I've read all year!

Robert Raymer's picture

Great article. I had always wanted to go to art school, but never actually had the money to do it. Now I am glad. I think that being self taught I value what I learned more and have a more honest opinion of my work, as well as a constant desire to learn and teach myself more, which would not have come from having answers and praise handed to me. Just about the only useful thing friends of mine that did go to art school had that I didn't was industry contacts that would allow them to get their collective feet into more doors INITIALLY (though it wouldn't necessarily keep them there). Knowing what I know now, if I had it to do all over again, I would still skip art school and teach myself, but I do think I would have tried to go to business school, as it seems that one can be an amazing photographer, but if (like me) you are not both good at and comfortable with the business aspect of being a photographer, you will struggle.

Ty June's picture

Thank you for this article. Right now I'm in a funk with my photography. Maybe my ego has taken a hit or I'm just frustrated by some people catching opportunities that I feel that I should have received. Although I am new to photography and learning my equipment (canon t3i with a canon 25-104 L lens), it is discouraging watching some people arrive at most Motorsport shoots with 5DMarkIII's and other expensive cameras. The one thing that I keep telling myself is to keep shooting and keep practicing. Hopefully that will make me a better photographer

Tony Carter's picture

yeah, it can be intimidating showing up at a pro event with other photographers and you have the smallest camera of the bunch lol, but hang in there Ty, you are there to get the shots that only YOU can get with your equipment. I've been at college basketball games where, because I had an 18-250 lens, I was able to quickly get alley-oop shots from under the basket while the newspaper photog next to me was stuck with his 300mm 2.8. Grow into your gear until that next shoot requires you to grow beyond it.

Anonymous's picture

When it comes to motorsports (or any sports for that matter) I've always found that if you get close to the action with a wide angle lens and pretty much ANY camera body your photos will look better than the guy shooting a $5k camera mated to a telescope from a hundred yards away.

Adam T's picture

I saw things like this coming. This is why after my AS in 3d animation and VFX i went and studio toured and coffee ran for a while learning all I could. Now I've worked for agencies, studios, myself and I have a blast with my career.

Ralph Berrett's picture

This brings back memories. At a newspaper I worked at we had a joke about untraining college interns. When I went to college I ran headlong into the academic way of doing things vs real world of doing them. I was already working for newspapers before when I was in junior college by the time I hit my four year school I was full time photojournalist for a daily paper.

I remember more than once sitting class and biting my tongue because the practices being taught. What I think the big issue is that you have instructors who want teach idealistic way and who have not been working 5-10 plus years in their industries.

What schools tend to do well is give the basics and help build foundation. This is where internships come into being import just as you experienced real world vs academic.

Where I work now the media company requires some form of formal training with work experience because we dealt with to many self taught disasters. A good portfolio will get your foot in the door, but thats it. If the person is self taught they need a substantial work history,

I remember I had a new photographer straight out of college give me a lecture that I was doing things wrong according to what she was taught. I took her to cover her first fatal traffic accident and that tone changed. Latter she left journalism and decided to pursue a law career. ;)

Alex Cooke's picture

Lee, I was lucky to work in my primary creative field (music) for many years before I ever set foot in an academic institution for music and even at one of the top schools in the country, many of my peers sit on their hands with the expectant attitude that their degree will open doors for them, while a smaller contingent of us seek out as many outside opportunities as we can to bolster our practical experience and not succumb to being totally disconnected from how the real world operates. My point is that there does exist a group of people that have academic involvement, but are ever aware of the issues you speak of and work tirelessly to improve themselves on both sides of the coin. I think you hit the nail on the head in describing that type of personality that unfortunately pervades creative industries, but I don't think it's fair to generalize entire groups like that. In my time in the math department, I've met tremendous mathematicians whose ability was exceeded only by their ego and I've met terrible mathematicians who were equally egotistical and scarily apt at rationalizing why their lack of success was not due to a lack of ability or commitment. These Dunning-Kruger types of people and issues exist in all fields, creative or not. There is not a universal background or set of qualities that makes a person so arrogantly oblivious to their own lack of knowledge. Don't count people out based on their background without giving them a chance. People can surprise you.

Very true. My title is a bit extreme. Not everyone has the attitude I did and like me, it's possible to learn your lesson.

This article is well-written, seemingly well-lived, and profoundly inspiring. I was expecting to [from the title] read this and automatically counter every point made simply due to the catching headline; however, from the second sentence, I was hooked. My hope is that graduates, or simply the "unemployable egomaniacs", absorb the message of this piece, and allow themselves the chance to be affected by its "glimpse-in-the-life"-esque genius.

Do not allow what I said above to go to your head, Lee. Instead, thank you for this thoughtful divulgence.

I'm going to take your positive critique and enter the world of professional writing. Look out Stephen King ;)

Jon Clayton's picture

Good article, but I do think "all ego, no talent" people exist in all fields just as much as in art.

I think inflated ego is part of being young and fresh out of college. It's not necessarily a bad thing, if you can back it up with work ethic and talent it can be a recipe for success.

Those who become good at their craft learn the shortcomings of their formal education quickly and begin the lifelong process of absorbing professional know how while still having the "base" of the academic theory they were taught.

The creative industries do seem to have an over abundance of bullshitters though!

Definitely one of the best and one of the most honest articles I've seen in any creative blog in a long time! There is a fine line between confidence and ego, and although you can have both, you do have to keep the latter in check, too. There's a slippery slope between ego and delusional.

Hell, even just having "likes/favorites" on Facebook, Flickr, or 500px doesn't always mean you're great or have arrived. The market is the ultimate truth, for sure. Thanks Lee!

Michael Rapp's picture

Usually I don't go for rants, but exceptions are made when they're good ones.
Like this one!
Great read, Lee! (I always seem to confuse Lee Hall with Patrick Morris)

Artists are by definition supposed to be poor, so commercial validation seems to be left out in art schools.
Please, don't get me wrong, art schools are good and a sound education is vital.
However, there should be a post graduate course to the likes of "Art and commerce", "Selling your Art" or "Art for clients".
As the saying goes, The worm has to be tasty for the fish, not the fisher.
Just my $0,02

"Artists are by definition supposed to be poor"? That's a rather odd definition of an artist. An artist is poor for one of two reasons: he's a poor artist, or a poor businessman. In other words, he either produces something of little value or doesn't know how to sell it. Plenty of bad art has become financially lucrative and plenty of good art has languored in the slush pile.

Perhaps I misread your comment because you seem to validate that idea with your excellent suggestion about formal training in the business of art. Certainly there are a few artists that seem to luck into a sustainable career, but in my experience, without an equal focus in the business of art, you have little chance for success. On the other hand, when the business of art is taken seriously, I've seen even mediocre talent blossom into a career.

Michael Rapp's picture

There was in fact supposed to be a touch of cynicism in there; kind of a cliché.
The general critic approach to art is stripped of the premise that the artist had to make a buck to put bread on the table; so he might have had to change his original artist's vision in order to please clients or, worse, to escape scrutiny of mundane and clerical censorship.

Great article, having been a photographer for many years now I chose to go back to university and do a degree in business management which included marketing.

This taught e more about what clients want more than any art or photography course and improved my own photography business immensely.

I see young student photographers in concert pits coming up with all these crazy angles yet none have captured the true moment any PR or newspaper / magazine could ever use or want to use.

Anonymous's picture

Great article Lee.

Your article brings back memories of interviewing 7 BFA photography graduates for an assisting position. My experience was so disappointing that I ended up hiring a lady that simply enjoyed my photography style and wanted to learn how I light and shoot.

During the “art student” interview:
1) Two asked if I would supply them with a copy of Photoshop.
2) One asked if he would get to shoot or “do I just carry your gear?”
3) Only one person had a portfolio, that was printed at Kinkos on a cheap color printer. 8.5 x 11 copies not even mounted…stuffed in a manila folder.
4) Only one person owned a digital camera.
5) Two people asked what I shoot and only one had looked at my website.

Mind you, these people all graduated from a well known chain of art colleges.

It made me wonder what the photography instructor or photography program was actually teaching students for $65,000 and 2 years of school.

When I assisted in 1989, I was interviewed by the lead assistant or the photographer. They looked at my printed and mounted portfolio to judge my technical skills. They also wanted to know if I was skilled at loading Hasselblad and Mamiya medium format backs, 8x10 sheet film holders, and my experience with Speedotron and Profoto packs and heads.

In the end, I was hired by my enthusiasm to learn and “can do personality”.

My tip to students looking to assist. Leave your ego and “photo tips” at home and be prepared to do things the way your employer asks….you just may learn something and get paid at the same time :)

"...chain of art colleges"

There's the problem with the people you interviewed: Real colleges aren't chains.

Daniel Pryce's picture

This is my biggest fear once graduating from school. How do I present my portfolio now. Is it on a tablet, or do they want a printed portfolio? If printed how should it be presented? I think a lot of potential students should research the school they are going to, and more information should be out there. Do they want to create art and use photography as their medium? or do they want to gain strong technical and design skills?

Jaime Johnson's picture

Daniel, these are good questions for your photography instructor or mentor. However, I'd say that a printed portfolio is crucial. Many people can make great images, but the 2nd part to any photographer is making a good print. It never hurts to have it in all forms-on the web, tablet, and in printed form.

I think this is an interesting generalization of art school. Being an art school graduate I am not sure I can completely agree. While I also experienced feeling high on my own horse when left school only to be knock of it as soon as I meet the "real world". It was not my first time being knock off my horse. That is what college was for. Now I did not have the privilege to a top art school or even a private school but when I showed up for my first photography class and hung a picture of a sunset and cherry blossom up, it was completely torn apart. Not because I didn't nail the focus, because I did. The lighting was technically correct and I even use the rule off thirds. But the photograph had zero purpose. For example there are a million picture of flowers and sunset but they have nothing offer other than an aesthetically pleasing look. A good photograph should uplift, educate, or question. As we look back in history (something that art school forces you to do) we look as great photographers Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Margeret Bourke White, or the many many others out there. There is purpose in their photos, weather it is asking if we should be help the poor or if children should be allow to work if factories. This concept of purpose is something that I would not have learn without college. I do see many photographers who are successful that lack this Idea and I wonder if they will stand the test of time or be washed out with the billions of images that make to the web every day.
Art school forces you to look at art history. This is important in so many ways. For example, It is a postmodern belief that everything that can be done has be done and we are just remixing. (http://www.ted.com/talks/kirby_ferguson_embrace_the_remix). It is important to know what you are remixing with. A great example of this is the post of fstoppers called “The Ultimate Guide Composition Part One”. Where is a better place to learn about art history and composition than in art school? Breaking each painting down to understand why it was successful and stood the test of time. Where would Photography be without Rembrandt?
College in itself teaches you how to live own your own. Balance your social life with your professional life. How to meet deadlines and give quality presentations. Not to mention how valuable a business class or two could be to you. In the words of Steve Jobs, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward.” It would be hard for me to believe that Chase Jarvis does not use all of knowledge of philosophy in his day to day work.
Art school forces you to shoot outside you comfort zone. You can’t stick to what you like/know/feel comfortable with. It forces you do things differently weather that is table top work, portraits, events, b&w studies, motion studies, or something else. Not every piece of work will be good and you will have to accept constructive criticism to move forward.
Lee Morris, you are right. You do not walk out of college with a fantastic portfolio and a broad knowledge of the world but nor should you. That is not what art school is about. It is about giving you tools to allow you to go out on your own and have an idea of what you want.
Perhaps it is not that you don’t like hiring art school graduates but the fact that you do not like hiring recent graduates because they are immature, and inexperienced. Give them time and they will either grow or move on.

Chris Knight's picture

This is a beautifully articulate response that mirrors my own experience on the topic. Very well said, Frank. (Also thanks for mentioning my article on composition!)

Thank you reading it! Your article on composition is one of my favorites!

I agree with you. My title was unfairly geared towards art schools when I really am attacking overly confident "artists" (which I believe art schools can help produce)

I really hope you reconsider changing the title of this article and amending the article to make that statement.

I just earned my MFA from a state university this past august, and I can certainly tell you this attitude you describe of art students is far from myself and most of my fellow students. I guess I was lucky growing up in a college town, knowing that a degree no way guarantees any sort of job. And as students those of us that do land jobs in our fields are very gracious for what we get.

I know my artwork isn't top par, but I am continuely working to improve and went to school to learn the basic tool set and history of my medium. Hence why I visited sites like fstoppers daily to stay up-to-date in the industry as well as be inspired by new techniques and other artists. But when I read a horribly overgeneralized opinionated article like this, makes me want to no longervisit and support Fstoppers anymore since they obviously don't want to support a graduate like me. Plus the fstoppers facebook group is becoming very immature and drama filled the past few months as well, and the website is starting to reflect that.

I'm on my 3rd month of unemployment and no healthcare, surviving off of freelance gigs while in the spare time filling out numerous applications and working on my demo reel. And an article like this from a site I did admire really hurts. I know this industry is tough, and I am looking for any entry level opportunity to take any gig, whether is contract, temporary, part-time or even glorious full time employment status. But an article like this promoting not to hire a person with education while grouping them under a false pretext is damaging. With that logic I could say all photographers are rapist because Terry Richardson is a photographer, when that's obviously not the case.

If this doesn't correct itself, I'll be taking fstoppers off my daily browse list and just continue to stick to PetaPixel, PDN and DPreview. I'm sad to do this considering I followed fstoppers the past 4 years, but I can no longer support a site that would hurt me as a graudate artist.

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