Updated: May 3
So, I’ve heard this question come up a lot lately. Some bloggers have addressed it and, and it’s something I’ve been wondering about as well.
And as I move into another Fall semester at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, the question lingers in the back of my mind. “Is design school still relevant?”
I never would have thought I’d be asking such a question, but in the age of Skillshare, YouTube Academy and niche online courses and schools (including my own), it’s worth asking the question, from both the perspective of the student and the school.
As a student, considering the cost of colleges and universities, you want to make sure that taking on a heap of student loan debt is worth it. And considering most programs are at least 2-4 years to receive an associate’s or bachelor’s degree (unless you can find a 1 year program like the one at FIT) , you also want to consider the cost of your time. (This is particularly relevant for those who are headed back to school to switch careers or may have been in school and suddenly decided to switch majors.) Time is always your biggest cost because it’s not something you can ever recoup once it’s gone. And if this is your second career, do you really want (and do you truly have the time) to devote 1-4 years of your life to school?
This is when an online class can be extremely advantageous and efficient. Not only can you attend from a convenient location, but if it’s a pre-recorded class, you can attend at a convenient time. And many online classes being offered by private companies consolidate your learning into several hours or several classes instead of a semester which usually lasts several months.
But as much as I’m a proponent of online classes, I do still believe there’s validity to attending a formal fashion college or university. For starters, you usually have greater access to resources. Things like WGSN, industrial machines, 3D printing labs, free workshops, and a wealth of knowledge from professors who have worked in a variety of areas and are itching to share what they know are just a few of the resources I have access to through FIT (that I definitely do not have, yet;) through my own company, 383 Design Studio.
An apparel design curriculum is also meant to give you a foundation to build upon. At the time, I thought to myself, “Why am I sitting in this chemistry class?” But that was the foundation and setup for my Textile Science classes. You’re not necessarily getting that with a niche online class. It’s designed to teach very targeted information, specific to a particular industry and task. That also means you don’t get to learn some of the nuances and tasks that are related but fall just outside of the scope of that class.
And can we talk about sewing and patternmaking classes? Do I think my Fashion Flat Sketching classes are essential and on the list of “MUST KNOW” to work in fashion? ABSOLUTELY! But a part of knowing how to draw a flat sketch, and more importantly, how to create a tech pack, is understanding construction. If you are unfamiliar with how to sew a garment, it will be very challenging to create a tech pack or even to explain to a seamstress how you want them to make a sample.
Then, there’s the social aspect, particularly if you’re college age. There is something to be said for socializing (IRL) with others. It helps build community, social skills and understanding. Don’t get me wrong! It’s amazing that we can communicate and regularly ‘socialize’ with people online from all over the world, but being able to (respectfully) touch someone, shake their hand, look them in the eye and see facial expressions. It’s just different and rewarding on many levels.
So, do I think design school is still relevant? Yes! However, I also believe that schools have a ways to go to convince the currents students of YouTube and Skillshare or those with little time or money to continue to believe in their relevance.
So what can schools do to stay relevant? One of the key things they need to introduce is more practical and pertinent courses or information within existing courses that’s more pertinent to what’s expected in the industry today. Students want to know that what they’re being taught is related to tasks they’ll eventually perform when they begin working. And why wouldn’t we do this anyway? College should prep you for heading into ‘the real world’. Even if it’s laying the foundation (like my Chemistry class), how can you more clearly connect the dots to the final task so that your students can see the connection and come along with you on that journey.
One other important thing I would love to see is not just more online classes but also more blended class options: classes where you hold part of the class online and part of the class face to face. I recently taught a class like this at FIT, and I thought it was the best of both worlds. You have the convenience and flexibility of some of your classes being online but then you’re also able to have the community and social aspect. Plus, sometimes you just want to ask your questions in person!
The prestige of saying you’ve been accepted or you're going to a particular school is not what it once was, and schools can no longer rely on this to get students to attend. But the benefits are still there! And with a few updates and understanding that colleges and universities have to take a more modern approach to learning, I think they can still convince a modern day student that attending a design school is still worth it.
Mikelle Drew is a teacher and fashion designer working in the fashion industry for over 20 years using Adobe software and teaching Adobe for fashion design for over 10 years. Check out her digital fashion tips and tutorials here at the 383Degrees blog, on her YouTube Channel, or try one of her group classes.