These days, more and more students are becoming attracted to the idea of a career that will allow them to work more creatively, perhaps even more independently than previous generations. As such, many have become interested in the field of design, which is especially well suited to artistic minded individuals. Many areas of design are projected to be in higher demand in the coming years. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the field of graphic design will experience 13 percent increase in growth between 2008 and 2018, while interior design is expected to increase by 19 percent during that time.

Although these careers seem to be trending upward, some students, particularly those getting an online education, do not have access to the formal training programs that have been traditionally recommended for those pursuing this field. However, especially in today’s information age, this does not need to be a barrier to a successful design career. Hard working, dedicated students will find that not only can self-directed training be as effective as a degree program, but also in some cases it may even be a better fit.

One excellent way to replace or supplement a degree program in design is to find a mentor already in the field who will allow the student to work alongside them and learn from experience. Mentors have been shown to enhance career development, likely by building confidence and facilitating valuable networking in the field. Many students find that this kind of one on one relationship, with personalized learning and advice, allows them to grow much more quickly and develop much deeper understanding of the material they are covering.

However, finding a mentor is sometimes more difficult than anticipated. Some students are able to use connections through family and friends to find a suitable person, but others have to search harder for the right fit. One strategy is to search for a “dream job,” then request a meeting with the person who already has it. Conducting an informational interview can be an excellent way to get some face-to-face time, and a mentorship can easily blossom from that interaction.

While the personal apprenticeship that mentoring provides is exactly what some aspiring designers are looking for, others prefer to strike out on their own. These people perhaps find it simpler to develop and grow without the personal style of another interfering. However, even they will likely find that some sort of feedback is helpful as they are learning. One thoroughly modern approach to this is to use the Internet as a stage, inviting constructive criticism from any who have input.

Many aspiring designers have set up their own blogs, cataloging their projects and their growth, and using social media to harness the knowledge of others. For some, these personal blogs have evolved into actual full-time design careers. For example, interior designers Jon and Sherry Petersik had no formal training when they bought their first house in 2006 and started the blog Young House Love, documenting their decorating and renovations. Now they have enough of a following to have quit their “day jobs,” and have even appeared in magazines and on television. With a persevering will and an excitement about learning, the Petersiks created their design careers completely on their own.

Of course, not every new blogger will make it “big” simply through their site, but even a small circle of readers can be helpful for training purposes. Use a blog to create a personal focus and showcase work. Invite comments and take all advice seriously, allowing the experience of others to promote growth. Read other design blogs for ideas, and comment to create relationships with those who are available for support. Blogging can be a fun, but also very powerful, tool for learning.

Learning and growth are not the only important aspects of training in design. Students following a traditional degree program are almost always evaluated somehow, and usually are also compared to their peers through designations onto the honor roll or dean’s list, or distinctions such as valedictorian or magna cum laude. While it may not be an intuitive benefit, this type of objective comparative assessment can be invaluable, but may be difficult for an informal student to achieve.

Fortunately, there is a way for non-degree students to find out how they measure up to their peers, by entering competitions. Many localities, universities and professional associations hold design competitions. AIGA, the professional association for design, holds many different types of competitions throughout the country. On topics that vary from book covers to logistical problems, participants are able to submit work and not only receive feedback, but see how they’re doing compared to others.

For everything from graphic design to fashion design, students who are driven to learn and to succeed will find that their future has no boundaries. Traditional degree programs will always have their place, but for those who cannot or do not wish to enroll in them, old fashioned hard work along with modern technology will allow them to become trained just as well and sometimes even more fully than those in a formal program. Sometimes a creative career requires a creative way of learning.

[Photo credit: art_star on Flickr]