Design School Delirium

Mark Busse – No Comments

Over the years as a design director, design association executive, and design instructor, I’ve been asked by innumerable potential students about the merits or shortcomings of the various local design schools. It seemed time to put these thoughts down in writing once and for all, hopefully saving me some time in the future.

When considering design schools in BC, most think first of schools like Emily Carr, Capilano, and Kwantlen. But what about Langara, Vancouver Film School, Malispina (now called Vancouver Island University), The Art Institute of Vancouver, or Vancouver Community College? They may not be the first that come to mind, but each have design programs that may be well suited for you. Though perhaps not at the top of your Google searches, the students and faculty at these lesser-known schools can be as talented and passionate about design education as their counterparts in the bigger schools.

Design schools differ in size and location, embrace varying philosophies and program lengths, employ instructors of all kinds with various backgrounds and experience, and range from inexpensive to rather pricey. But which one is for you? Unfortunately, the answer is the all-to-common “it depends”.

“After finishing my undergraduate degree in Alberta, I was seeking a particular kind of intense, shorter design program with real-world emphasis to take me to that next level,” says VFS Digitial Design student Joshua Michie. “What I didn’t realize until I really investigated and spoke with recent graduates and industry professionals,” says Michie, “was the variance between the programs offered.”

There are currently six post-secondary institutions in BC that offer a Bachelors degree in the design field. They include Emily Carr University (Bachelor of Design in Communication Design), Kwantlen Polytechnic University (Bachelor of Applied Design in Graphic Design for Marketing), Thompson Rivers University (Bachelor of Design), Simon Fraser University (Bachelor of Interactive Arts and Technology), Vancouver Island University (Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design), and University of the Fraser Valley (Bachelor of Fine Arts, Extended Minor in Visual Arts).

Several other schools, such as Capilano University, Langara College, Malaspina College, The Art Institute of Vancouver, Vancouver Film School, among others, all offer diplomas in various design fields, with a few of them currently restructuring their programs to offer Bachelor degrees in the coming years.

Here are a few tips when considering which design school is best for you.

1. Do your homework. Determine which schools work closely with local industry and what efforts they make to get their graduates hired. Do they offer internships, co-ops, or job placement assistance? Do they invite industry advisors to engage with their program? Do they participate with local industry associations? Do they have any real evidence of their success, such as percentage of students who land positions after graduation? Considering the investment you are about to make, any school worth more attention will easily be able to answer yes to all of these questions. But your investigation should not end there. Ask to speak directly with one or two of their top faculty about the program—this could actually have positive results if you enroll at their school too as it says something about you, your process, and how serious you are about your education. Also, consult the Society of Graphic Designers’ website at, or contact your local chapter’s Education Chair for some perspective and advice.

2. Consider your goals and what you are willing to do to get there. It’s important to consider what your dream job is and work towards that. What credentials will you require to get your foot in the door? There are numerous end results of a design education, with better schools offering Certificates, Diplomas, Bachelor degrees and some Masters degrees (even beyond at some schools, but not in BC). Some schools offer an intense multi-disciplinary education into one or two years, others have programs spanning three years, while the Bachelor degree programs involve a four year commitment. The important thing is to consider where you are now (perhaps you already have an undergraduate degree and experience in the design field), where do you want to go (do you want to be an Art Director or a production designer?), and how much time and money can you commit to your education? It’s about fit for you, but do consider that there really is no substitute for a comprehensive education and a field as competitive as design has little room for short-cuts.

3. Seek out a balanced program. There are numerous choices for potential design students in BC, so one way to evaluate a program would be to look at the curriculum and consider how much hands-on studio time is involved. Criticism of some programs include too much theory versus practical, or too much emphasis on the electronic tools of the trade versus creativity, ideation, and the craft aspect (hand skills) of the trade. Some programs stress the importance of art and design history, and so they should, but you also want to find a school that embraces the cultural and technological changes that occur so rapidly these days and is committed to teaching current thinking and practical skills. What you’re looking for in a design program is a balance between these elements.

4. Look at the results yourself. Perhaps the best evidence of a school’s success and suitability is to evaluate their graduates yourself. Treat it like a design project and evaluate the competitive landscape among the graduates of various programs. Look at designers’ websites, portfolios, employers, and see if you can identify any trends among your findings. Which schools produce the students winning the most design competitions, such as GDC’s Salazar, Rock, or Graphex Awards? But don’t stop there, identify a couple Art/Creative Directors you admire or design firms you respect (or would like to work for) and pick their brains and ask them where they have hired their best young designers recently. The bonus is that once you make that connection you are on their radar, and that’s powerful fuel for a new graduate shopping a shiny new portfolio around looking for work.

5. You get what you pay for. Obviously a key consideration when choosing a design school is cost. We’re all restricted by the budgets available to us and often public schools are more affordable compared to private schools. More expensive design programs in BC—intensive year-long programs can be as much as $30,000—include some outstanding programs, opportunities and extras (some schools even provide laptops loaded with software when you enroll). Each school has different facilities and you should investigate what they offer, where they’re located, and what tools you get access to. But remember also that there is more to any particular program than can be reflected by tuition costs, so consider all the other factors above and make your choice knowing you did your homework and understanding what you’ll get in return for your investment.

6. Evaluate the vibe. One important aspect of choosing a design program often missed is the culture or “vibe” of the school. Get into their space. Walk the halls, listen to the students talking, check out a grad show. A huge part of your educational experience will be the feeling that the school, program, students—even the space itself—is a good fit for you. Do you sense creativity and passion? Do the students and faculty seem enthusiastic about learning, debating, and exploring design and visual communications? Will you feel excited about going to school each morning? If the answer isn’t yes to those questions, think again.

7. Be ready to fill in the blanks. Obviously choosing a good design school is an important step in your education and career, but remember too that many remarkable designers have emerged from lesser-known design programs. While not an ideal situation, young design students sometimes find themselves enrolled in shorter programs only to realize they are missing key components of their education. The reality is that a designer never really stops learning and the good ones always overcome by filling in the blanks themselves. In many ways, your design education begins the day you leave school and start working as a design apprentice.

“This is an industry filled with people that are working their dream job, making it an incredibly competitive industry to break into,” explains Joshua Michie, “I chose VFS because that gave me access to an international network that was connected to some of the biggest players in the industry.”

In the end, the most important thing for someone considering a career in the design field is to pick a school you’ll be happy with. So, with that in mind, spend the time to do due diligence as you examine your options thoroughly. Be relentless in your investigation of each school. Interview the school as much as they might interview you—but remember that they want you to choose them, so take their answers with a grain of salt and look for real evidence that they provide what you’re looking for. Many of the better design schools maintain blogs, student forums, portfolio and grad show pages, social media pages on YouTube, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter. Check them all out with a keen eye for clues that this is the place you want to be associated with. Seek out the information you need to validate them as your top choice, and then prepare yourself—be it a one year or four year program—there is hard work ahead.

Graphic Design Degree Programs in BC (these are changing, so if you know of updates to this list, please add send them to me or post them in the comments below):

Emily Carr University
Bachelor of Design in Communication Design
Bachelor of Design in Industrial Design (includes courses on sustainable design)

Kwantlen Polytechnic University
Bachelor of Design in Graphic Design in Marketing

Simon Fraser University
Bachelor of Interactive Arts and Technology

Thompson Rivers University
Bachelor of Design

University of the Fraser Valley
Bachelor of Fine Arts. Extended Minor in Visual Arts

Vancouver Island University
Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design


Arbutus College, Vancouver
The Art Institute of Vancouver
Canadian Community College, Abbotsford
Capilano University, Vancouver
Centre for Arts and Technology, Kelowna
College of New Caledonia,
Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo
North Island College, Courtenay
Oxford College, Vancouver
Pacific Audio Visual Institute, Vancouver
Pacific Design Academy, Victoria
PCT, Kamloops
Prince George, Prince George
Pro-soft Training Institute, Surrey
Royal Oak College of Design, Vancouver
Selkirk College, Castlegar
Surrey College, Surrey
Thompson Rivers University, Burnaby
Trend College, Kelowna
University Canada West, Victoria
University of British Columbia, Vancouver
VanArts, Vancouver
Vancouver Career College, Vancouver
Vancouver Film School, Vancouver


BCIT/Emily Carr Joint Certificate, Burnaby
Lasalle College International, Vancouver
Northern Lights College, Chetwynd
Vancouver Community College, Vancouver