Art Degree vs. Portfolio: What’s More Important?

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This article is part of our Video Game Job Hunt Guide. Read the full guide to learn how to write a strong resume, build a winning portfolio, ace your job interviews and more.

Graduation hat in a grassy field

Do you need the hat and tassel, or is talent enough?

Art student Jessica Parker wrote in to ask: “How important is a degree vs a portfolio when applying for an art position? I’ve heard very polarizing opinions on that front.”

I’ve heard this discussed many times between artists as they plan out their careers in the game industry. It’s important because school is time-intensive and expensive, so the idea that you could skip the education and get a job just by building a kick-ass portfolio is an attractive option.

But the answer is more complicated than it might appear. As it turns out, “degree vs. portfolio” is a trick question – with an even trickier answer.

Trick Question

If you’ve heard polarized opinions on the topic, it’s because it’s a false dichotomy. In reality it’s not an “either/or” situation.

One way to boil it down is this: Could you get a job with a great portfolio and no formal education? Most likely, yes. Could you get a job with a formal education and a weak portfolio? It would be extremely difficult.

But there are plenty of examples going both ways. Many artists in the game industry do not have formal educations, and they’re doing great. So if you have a friend who broke into the game industry without a degree, it’s tempting to think it could work for you.

And it might! But this is your career we’re talking about. It’s worth looking at the question more closely.

To School or Not To School

Here’s the bottom line: When it comes to getting a job as a game artist, having a formal education helps. A lot.

Why is that? It’s simple. When a hiring manager sees your art degree, she can make certain assumptions. She can assume that you have follow-through. That you’re serious about your career choice. That you can take direction and work in a collaborative environment. Also, that you speak the vocabulary of a professional artist and have stretched your skills in directions that you otherwise may not have tried. All of those things will affect your salary as an artist.

What does having an art degree not mean?

It does not mean that you’re talented.

The truth is that art schools, like most schools, are businesses. And it’s not good business to flunk out every student that isn’t particularly talented. So they’ll continue to take your tuition, in exchange for teaching you and pushing you and all the other things that schools do well. But they will not fire you for being mediocre.

The result? Every year, art schools graduate hundreds who just aren’t very good.

Portfolio Power

That’s where your portfolio comes in. An art director can look at your portfolio and get a sense of whether you’re talented, prolific and have the range they’re looking for. In other words, your portfolio tells them whether you’re one of the many lackluster art-school grads, or whether you’re a true-to-life rock star.

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As art director Randy Briley noted in an interview on portfolios: “Your portfolio is your gateway to success. The work itself is the most important part.” (Read Randy’s interview here.)

Best of Both Worlds

The best situation is when a candidate has an art degree AND a strong portfolio. Because each says different but interrelated things about you as a job candidate.

Just be careful not to end up with an expensive art degree, but a weak portfolio. The only gig that will get you is a full-time job as a starving artist.

Is Art School for You?

If you’re considering art school, it’s easy to get free information from classes and courses near you. Just type your zip and click “find a school.” You can pick from a list of schools that look interesting and they’ll send you details to help you decide.

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