The $10,000 Design Degree

How to build a design portfolio without breaking the bank.

The $10,000 Design Degree

Design is the industry for people who want to remake the world, so rethinking your education could be a natural way in.


Don’t believe me? Ask a successful designer, Karen Cheng.

“I wanted to change careers and become a designer, but I didn’t have four years and $100,000 to go back to school. So I decided to teach myself. At first, I had a lot of doubts about whether someone could teach themselves well enough to get a job.

If you’re wondering the same, the answer is yes.

I hacked together my own design education in six months while working a full-time job. I didn’t think I was ready but started applying for jobs anyway –and got a job at a great startup, Exec.”

Design fields are emergent and diverse–there’s user experience, product design, interaction design, graphic design, industrial design, to name a few–but they share a respect for process and practice, which makes them more than usually open to the new modes of learning. shows pay rising slightly faster than the national average for art and design-related professions over the past few quarters.

While there are some excellent, highly innovative design schools out there, it’s equally possible to enter the profession with nothing more than a killer portfolio or a Kickstarter project. But how to build that portfolio?


As with the field of technology, the path toward the $10K design degree includes online resources, but also immersive, workshop-style experiences. “Pop-up” experiences teach the nuts and bolts of design thinking by putting participants through the design process, starting with problem identification (aka user anthropology) followed by brainstorming, designing, and testing solutions. And designers,
unique among the professions I studied for this feature, really like learning from books. Maybe it’s their love of typography or all things retro.

The Craigslist of online learning is probably, and it started as a resource for designers. Lynda Weinman was a professor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena when she published one of the first textbooks ever written on web design. She started in 1995 as “my own little sandbox,” she says, a place to put video lessons online for her students.

Almost 20 years later offers a library of over 2,000 video lessons on creative disciplines, business, and technology, ranging from highly produced hour-long documentaries to five-minute tutorials. Two million people pay $25 a month, a price that’s never increased, for access to the videos.

advertisement has no tests, no social platform, no certifications. Weinman, who attended the experimental Evergreen State College, believes in the content-only approach. “I believe that people are adults and can decide for themselves whether the training is valuable,” she says. Another indicator of value is the number of companies (like Amazon and Google), institutions (like the New York Public Library), and even universities (like Yale) that pay for sitewide licenses for access to the resources.

Benefits: Learn from some of the best in the industry; topics constantly updated.
Drawbacks: No degrees, no accountability, no social features.
Cost: $25 per month.

Industry-specific learning resources, which are often (not always) focused on web design, include Design Shack, DesignBoost. Hack Design and Designlab are both email-based courses based on challenges for you to complete.


A key part of qualifying yourself in any profession, but particularly design, is joining a network that allows you to show work, offer and receive feedback, and find new clients. Behance, founded by Scott Belsky (and now owned by Adobe), is one of the more established sites in this area. Dribbble and Cargo Collective are two more. Juiiicy is an invite-only design community for referrals and recommendations. 99Designs is an open marketplace that allows anyone to bid on design jobs–one way to actually get paid while you learn.

Offline and Pop-up

Austin Center for Design
Jon Kolko is a former principal at Frog Design and has taught at Savannah College of Art and Design. In the quest to reinvent education he wears two hats: one as a vice president of product, innovation, and design at, a portfolio site for students, and the other as the founder and director since 2010 of the Austin Center for Design, a tiny, bootstrapped, Minimal Viable Product version of an elite graduate program in design, minus the formal accreditation. “I’m trying to drive a sense of autonomy, visual thinking and trust of process,” he says. “If a student is empowered to go achieve their dream, we’ve done our job.”

AC4D currently has nine students and eight faculty members. They charge $12,000 for an intensive one-year program in “Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship,” which charges career changers with identifying what Kolko calls “wicked problems“– problems that are really worth solving. Kolko claims his program, which combines studio and seminar work and has every student start a company by graduation, is optimized to create the elusive “design unicorn”–someone with the skills in everything from UI to UX to ideation and creative problem solving. The curriculum may change week to week, based on the student’s input. “You’re not going to get spoon-fed anything. It’s probably one of the most challenging experiences these kids have had in their entire lives.”


While his graduates have been hired by companies like Adaptive Path, Frog, and PayPal, he seems proudest of those who are bootstrapping their own mission-driven startups. A few are following Kolko into the alt-education space, like GirlsGuild, which sets up teen girls with hands-on apprenticeships, and HourSchool, a platform for bite-size, in-person classes.

Benefits: Learn in small groups from passionate teachers with a holistic vision of design.
Drawbacks: Comparatively a lot of money and time for a tiny, unproven model with no accreditation.
Costs: $12,000 a year–which is breaking our $10,000 rule but still affordable.

Project Breaker, run by former TED fellow Juliette LaMontagne. Stanford’s open-enrollment, non-accredited, “design thinking boot camp” costs exactly $10,000 and runs four times a year.


Shoot The Moon
Instead of becoming a RISD or D-school alumnus, you could start your career off right as a reality-TV alum, learning at the feet of former Parsons The New School for Design chief Tim Gunn. On September 25 there’s an open casting call for the 12th season of Project Runway in New York City. Hopefuls must be 21 years of age and must show up with at least five pieces they designed and sewed themselves–no bridal or costumes–plus a portfolio.

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[Image: Flickr user Tim Snell]

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation