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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48 Comments

Frank I am glad that you said what you did in the way you did. I am currently starting my BFA with a hopes of finishing my MFA with an emphasis in photography and reading the title I had some initial doubts about continuing my degree. After I read the article I wanted to respond it in the similar manner that you did, but I don't think I could have said it any better! Reading your response only makes me want to continue my degree that much more, and look forward the the many other lessons I will learn that I would not and could not strictly as an intern. Thanks again for such a well thought out response!

Rex Romero's picture

This is the perfect response and actually is a better read. I wish I went to art school even though I'm a professional now. All the stuff you highlighted (and more) are the things I missed.

"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."

Tell that to bobby jindal

Hermawan Tjioe's picture

This is mandatory reading to ALL , not just those who major in creative fields.

Kudos to the one that proofread this ;)

Matthew Odom's picture

I got my Associates in Business Management many moons ago (Little did I know it would be a BIG HELP with running my business), self taught myself photography (While working on my Bachelor's), Now I want to get an MFA ( the catch is it's a STATE SCHOOL and a personal goal) I can't tell you how many people I know who went to the Art Institutes, Scad's, and the list goes on are catching hell in the pocketbook. A lot of really good photographers I know went the small state school route and are doing well for themselves. The other side of the coin is to get off your ass and network and network really hard. It's not who you know but WHO KNOWS YOU!!

Assist while working on the degree and don't become dependent while assisting. Step out and do your own thing as an artist!!!

Great read and nice talking points from all commentators.

David Vaughn's picture

Ha, I win. I got a University Studies degree, which is even more f*cking useless than a fine arts degree and has an even lower barrier to completion. Do I get to pass GO and collect $200, because I could really use it seeing as how my job at Burger King is making it a bit difficult to pay my bills. ;). lol

But honestly, given two similar portfolios with the only difference being that one is from a graphic design/art major and the other is from a "traditional" major, I would more likely choose the art major.

Yeah, not all art majors are competent, but when I worked for my university and dealt with many designers as we were looking for new interns, I found that art majors with great portfolio generally knew what they were doing.

However, those who also had great portfolios but were not well-versed in the artsy fartsy theory side of things (a la art major-specific classes) would often come in and would be more likely to say "Wait, what's a TIFF," or they would create these great designs that completely miss the mark.

This is pretty specific to graphic designers, but just because someone creates pretty logos does NOT mean they know what they're doing or why they're doing it, and I've found that non-art majors were more likely to disappoint when it comes to creating content that is in line with what we needed as an institution.

I had the opposite experience. I have been a graphic designer for 20 years and am not college educated. I did attend for a short while Pratt Art Institute. But I was encouraged to quit and pursue my career in the real world instead of struggling to see how I was going to pay for my next semester.

I made every effort count and earned every dollar. In time, I became a Senior AD in a large agency and was require to mentor interns as part of my yearly goals. I didn't have a choice on who was brought on board. It was a deal they had with a local art college. I found these college seniors lacking the basic fundaments of design. They really didn't know anything about the differences between RGB and CMYK or raster and vector. If they were studying visual arts, I would cut them some slack. But those were graphic art majors. No excuse.

I believe Art School has its place and provides an experience if you can afford it. I do believe its not capable of producing quality designers. Unless, those graduates were talented and capable from the beginning.

In the end. It's not my job to educate their graduates on the basics. That is why they paid 200K for their piece of paper.

David Vaughn's picture

But you're talking about a local art college.

In my situation, there was a larger variable, because I went to a public university. So I dealt with art students, but I also had a plethora of communications students apply as well.

I, as a photographer, had to very often explain to these communications majors why we can't use this graphic or how to use their program. They were used to making little graphics on their own time, but thrust into a professional environment, they sunk, especially when compared to graphic design majors of equal skill.

It had a lot to do with the fact that we have an amazing graphic design professor who knows his stuff, and actually cares enough to make sure his students know it too.

Don't blame the degree for the terrible education is all I'm saying. Much of the time, it seems to be the quality of the program that makes the difference.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Lee, this was a great article that I almost didn't read because I was so put off by the title. May I suggest that you guys cool it with the "ultimate guides" and such, and concentrate on the quality of the piece -- and the quality has improved consistently recently, so show it off. There's a lot of good work here, but sometimes we have to wade past the titles (which reek of ego) and misspellings / grammatical errors to get to the meat of the piece. Please take this as coming from a good place of wanting to see f-stoppers' continued success :)

Justin Haugen's picture

I totally thought I was going to be a hot shot graphic designer and that I'd infiltrate the 18-35 male demographic with my design acumen and creative ideas. I'm glad it didn't take me long to realize how unpolished my work was compared to students who were just entering the design program at my local college.

No regrets whatsoever. Graphic design is a valuable foundation for photography and art directors love a photographer who considers type placement in their composition.

But...I can't help but think about 7 years of college and part time jobs and the Associates degree I have to show for it. Taking your lumps is painful lol.

Brandon Bandy's picture

The title, and overall tone of this article just kind of makes you seem like an asshole, and is really just discouraging to younger photographers like myself. The problem is that most universities accept way too many lame artists, and hire way too many lame professors.

It's a business like any other.They will accept exactly the number of students they have room for.

dale clark's picture

The points made in the article are relevant in many fields. I managed a large scale manufacturing facility for years before starting my full time photography business. Many high GPA, engineering and management graduates from well known programs were real world failures due to the same reasons mentioned in the article. However, I've seen a few managers with minimal education blow the doors off the high end graduates due to their work ethic and street smarts. At the end of the day, formally educated or not, it all comes down to each individual and their work ethic and passion to be successful.

Wow, your article was spot on!!! Not a photographer, but a motion designer and a few months ago hired another fellow motion designer right out of school. The guy felt like he knew everything, from the applications to designing. His work was good student work but by no means great. I felt I could mentor and guide him. I was wrong. He butted heads every chance that I critiqued his work. Any changes I had to his work, he'd get really defensive and argue with me. We eventually had a sit-down and I brought up my concerns on how he would not better himself if he continues to not accept any sort of constructive criticism. He replied back saying that he went to school and has learned what he needed to do the job correctly and didn't understand what was wrong with his work. I knew he wouldn't last with me or any other people in the company. After a week or so, we got rid of him. That had to be the worse hire I've ever come across. I still have the guy on my linkedin page. I noticed that he jumped around a couple agencies not even a month apart and recently going out on his own "freelancing". I guess he never learned.

There are a lot of freelancers at Starbucks :)

Julian Tryba's picture

This really resonated with me, the ego is one of the largest creative inhibitors

Tosh Cuellar's picture

Wonderful article, one of the best i've ever read on here. Obviously there is value in the education, but some of the most artistic and creative people i've ever met or worked with have been self taught, driven people.

Jaime Johnson's picture

This article sounds like you are just addressing bad students. I feel you took a generalized approach to insult the art school student. Yes, there is one person in every class that fits the stereotype you portrayed, but overall, I found this to be a poor representation of how a true art program prepares one for the real world. Instead of just graduating with a degree, my art program required real world application, submissions to art shows, and giving back to the community, in addition to being a willing learner. Art students are some of the hardest working students I know, but, I guess I have a graduate student perspective. As a freshman in college, I remember scenarios you address such as like throwing a project together, but sometimes that teaches you that you CAN overwork or overthink a piece. Keep it simple. I feel your experience is quite different from what mine is. I agree to disagree with your approach on sharing your viewpoints on this subject. Too judgmental, negative, and you could have mentioned some pros instead of saying all the cons. I would never hire you, either. Feels nice, huh?

*edit I just saw the comment above mine and am relieved I am not the only one who felt like unfollowing Fstoppers over this. Your reply to the above comment helps somewhat, but, usually the overly confident artists exist as one per class or so. Still feels offensive to see art programs attacked and disregarded in value on a site like this.