Bad Idea: Art School vs. No Art School

In this three part article, designers and siblings Matt and Nate Lu discuss with Spire and each other their sincere feelings on pursuing a career in design, sibling rivalry, and whether the benefits of art school are baloney or priceless and meant for the masses or just the few.


Bad Idea: Attend Art School?

Nate Lu has been a practicing designer for over 15 years in the industry. His journey has included stops at notable design agencies under many talented creative leaders and stints as an intern, designer, senior designer, art director and creative director, as well as a floor manager at IKEA. He has lead and founded a number of companies, both successfully and unsuccessfully. Somewhere along the way, Nate attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California for wayyyyy too long.

SPIRE: Why did you choose ArtCenter in the first place?

NL: I’d always known that I was “artistic” (I hate that label) growing up and so for me the only choice out of high school was art school. I wanted to be a professional creative, whatever that meant, so I applied to multiple art schools around the country. I’ve always been someone who likes a challenge and ironically, Art Center was the only school that didn’t offer me financial aid. So naturally, I accepted the challenge of being a broke and starving art student. D’oh!

SPIRE: In hindsight, would you have chosen another school or maybe not even attended a college to pursue your creative growth?

NL: No one has a crystal ball when they’re making life altering decisions, especially when you’re in your high school years. I do think when you’re that age there aren’t a lot of options in today’s preparatory institutions or at least it certainly felt that way. But in hindsight, I don’t think I was exposed to enough options – I’m sure my lack of maturity contributed to that perspective but at the same time, in most high schools, teachers and classes point right to college so you’re kinda programmed from the start to think like that.

I, like many high schoolers, was also fed the line that the pedigree of your schooling will determine your success. Colleges loved that line and they still use it today. The trouble with that is that I think it discounts a number of other factors. 

I regret not knowing that there were more options. I was pretty blessed to have some awesome mentors in my misspent youth from AIGA designers to DC Comic Artists, but I was so young that college looked like the only option if I wanted to become a creative. Today, I know that’s just not the only choice you have to make. There are so many alternative platforms and varying routes that we just have a myriad of pathways to success.

If today’s technology’s or alternative learning platforms like online tutorials and bootcamps existed back then, I would definitely have reconsidered looking at college as the only way to success in the creative field.

SPIRE: So for the time and finances you invested then, was it worth it?

NL: Yes and no. I want to answer that in an as unbiased way as possible, but I don’t think I could. I spent 7 of my years in art school. That’s a lot longer than most of my classmates and certainly not the norm- maybe for students that went the grad school route. I personally think I probably spent too much time learning and not enough time doing. Towards the latter part of school that wouldn’t be the case, but I was pretty naive in the earlier years of school. At the same time, there’re a lot of intangibles that go into a place like Art Center. Your community. The building of habits that you will spend subsequent years emulating or undoing. The formative experiences that will define your persona for the near future. Would I exchange who I am as a person today? Hell no and my time spent at Art Center has so much to do with that. Would I have like to get more out of my money and time for what I sacrificed? Hell yes and my time spent at Art Center has so much to do with that.

A lot of time, you’re paying for the company you keep. It goes mostly unspoken (most Art Schools tend to tout what their alumni went on to do) but I chose ArtCenter because I wanted to rub shoulders with the Mozarts in my field at the time. I do feel like I did. But I can also point to some classmates who made me question how they got in and personally I’ve seen great successes and honest failures graduate from my school. And to say that the Harvard’s of the world only produce qualified individuals would be bulls**t. However, let’s be honest, those Ivy League schools are built on the applicants already being damn good before they even enter the doors so Art Center was also flush with talent.

The same can be said of the faculty. I can count on one hand the designers who really impacted my career in the classroom. I can’t count the others that outnumber those four to five, only because they didn’t have enough impact for me to remember. I’m being brutally honest, but I feel like this is descriptive of so many college experiences, art school or regular. I wish there was a better filtering system so that I didn’t have to waste my time with the unqualified and uninspiring so that I could have spent more with those that still have a long lasting impact. And yes, it’s easy to do that in hindsight, but I think within one class, you know.

Also, God bless my parents for helping me out with my tuition! A lot of students don’t like to advertise but without the love and support of families and communities, many designers (including myself!) just wouldn’t exist. I’m still paying back my loans, and when I think of a lot of my classmates who didn’t have the same resources I did, it makes me appreciate it even more. I know horror stories of school costing 250K+ given supplies and what not. When you first encounter the number, it’s super scary. Especially when you consider your early day salaries in the field it doesn’t make sense. But gradually, it becomes less and less daunting. I definitely don’t think you need to spend as nearly as much as I did to do what I did though. As I mentioned before, many of today’s online resources and tools can honestly replace many of the classes that I took, and when you think about the return on investment many bootcamps offer, it just doesn’t add up to spend what I did.

SPIRE: Did it help with your career launch?

NL: Yes, I won’t deny that the name of my school gets your foot in a lot of doors, but today it’s also not enough. So much of our industry is built around the talent of the individuals. I think so many students attend college thinking that the institution will facilitate everything you need to transition to the working world. That’s about as true as saying high school preps you for college. It’s just not the case. So much is put on you. And ArtCenter, despite being a world-reknown art school, is not anymore immune to that as any other university. Ownership is a factor inside and outside of school – I had no less than three internships/mentorships before I graduated. However, only one of those was school arranged. But I did get a mentor who ended up offering me a job before I graduated. This is also not a guarantee or a norm. And even that mentorship was only for a select few at the school. There are many classmates who didn’t even get that opportunity. Some of the best mentoring I got was on the job through annoying questions and late hours with the designers at the places that I wrangled internships at. But most of those were through classmates at Art Center, so there’s that. But most of those classmates also found those internships on their own as well, so there’s that. Seeing a pattern?

SPIRE: How did attending an art school help with networking and continuing to open doors for your career?

NL: When I first graduated from ArtCenter, I bore a chip on my shoulder that made me judge people based on whether they went to ArtCenter of not. What a horrible, wrong wrong way of thinking – I honestly feel like I was a bit of an ass at my first job! If you’re reading this out there and you worked with me that first year, I am so so sorry!

The networking I will have to say has been pretty beneficial. But you have to be willing to network and work at being natural at it. I’ve seen through the lies and glad handing and it’s not the networking I’m talking about. I’m talking about honest-to-goodness real relationship building, not an agenda laden trip through a ballroom.

I’m currently at a place that I’m sure they chose me because of our relationships with the same designers out there, many of them Art Center. But also, many of them post-Art Center.

And you know, God really is the door opener. Without getting into too many longer anecdotes, I do what I do by the grace of God. I sincerely believe that He’ll unlock the door and ask us to simply push it open with his help. If you haven’t read John Kim’s testimony (link), you should- you’ll see what I mean.

SPIRE: Do you feel like ArtCenter helped you meet your goals?

NL: Honestly no, how could it have? I didn’t really understand my goals until years after I graduated. Did it give me enough tools and knowledge so that once I understood my goals I was ready? More so yes, but there was still a lot that I had to learn and many designers will agree, your education really begins after school ends. Did it help prepare me to have a learning attitude? I don’t know. You’re so drained after so many years of tutoring, you’re ready to just step away and just apply what you know. In someway, we might look to the NBA as a good example of where talent really becomes talent. A lot of people argue that college basketball isn’t that necessary to prepare talent for the real rigors of the league. Think about Lebron James or even Anthony Davis. Their best came from the willingness to jump right in and learn through experience. Are we that different as creatives?

Ultimately you can and will be successful if you own your art education, I don’t care where that comes from – school or not.

SPIRE: Was school instrumental in preparing you for the required knowledge base/vernacular/skill sets/rigor of the design field?

NL: I wouldn’t say instrumental. Art Center was maybe responsible for less than 25% of my applied knowledge base. Most of it I learned on the job. I met so many self-taught creatives through the years, I know that it really comes down to the person.

SPIRE: Do you feel like the creative environment you experienced at art school was instrumental for your career?

NL: This one’s easy. Absolutely. If I haven’t preached the virtues of career and learning ownership enough, I will add to it – we are byproducts of our surroundings. I was surrounded by driven, conceptual creatives. Good or bad, it’s just a rad place to be inspired by. If you’re not inspired, I don’t know what else it would take.

SPIRE: What was art school’s impact on your personal work/life balance and relationships?

NL: This one is tricky. I don’t know if the blame lies with Art Center as the preparatory institution. There are certainly bad habits that I’m still fighting because of that place. For instance, if I need to burn the midnight oil I can and I will. Is that a good thing? Probably not, but when every of your classmates talks about doing it and makes it a point of pride, yeah – that’s not healthy.

But hey, I even teach rigor to my students so that they can compete out there, so who am I to speak of it’s evils. 

That said, I think the problem lies more with our industry than maybe just school. The creative field is a beast of a field. It requires an attitude of continual learning and application. That time has to come from somewhere and often time at the expense of valuable relationships and memorable events. If there’s something that we need to change in our industry is how can we still push the envelope without risking our personal well-being. So many designers believe that if you’re not “pushing” all the time, you’re not really trying. That is a perception that we need to change. Our industry deals with a lot of excessive creative and maybe that’s a topic for another time, but it’s continually undervalued. Consider the time it takes to create a truly original logo. But the outcome is so simple that often times, it’s under appreciated. We really do write symphonies in our process, but the outcome often appears as a single note. It’s a majestic note, but we lose so much of the music beneath the surface.

I will say, Art Center and many art schools are not a breeding ground for the best relational habits. I think creatives are the best when we are surrounded and inspired by life, not just other designs and designers. Art school is sometimes a little too… artsy. Tunnel vision doesn’t allow for a lot of introspective and we need that to be a valuable life giving member of society.

One of my best accomplishments at Art Center had nothing to do with design. I put on a ping pong tournament. I still look back on that with so much love. If there’s one sport that creatives might excel at, take it be something as simple as a few circles and a couple of rectangles.

SPIRE: So, art school – good idea or bad idea?

NL: This is probably gonna be controversial, but If you’re gonna own it – I don’t think it matters. A good creative will find a way to learn, to apply his concepts, to seek out challenges and respond with vigor. Would I do it again? Yes, but not the same way. Would I try to go the non-school route. I’m as open to that challenge as well.

I think the real bad idea is to not have a learning attitude. And ironically, school’s not the only place to you need to go to find that.