Celebrating years of inspiring online art/design education

How to Learn Art and Design: Comparing Online and Traditional Experiences

by Clara LaFrance | March 18, 2011

On the left, a traditional art classroom. On the right, a Sessions online classroom and work by student Sandra Ronda.

Welcome to the first post of a series in which I’ll discuss some of the ways learning art and design in an online program differs from learning in a traditional “on-ground” program. Every two weeks, I’ll introduce you to another important facet of how to learn art and design.

I am currently on the course production team at Sessions, and I received my Master of Fine Arts degree in graphic design from a traditional university, so I have quite a collection of insights on how to learn art and design. Throughout the series, I’ll share some tidbits that are unique to traditional programs, and some elements of Sessions College online degree and certificate programs that aren’t feasible in a traditional setting. No one path is the right way for everyone, of course. Learning art and design is a highly personal process!

In this series, I’ll draw from my own experiences as well as those from Sessions instructors, administrators, and students. Topics will include:

  • Time management and study skills
  • Critiques
  • Course assignments and workflow
  • Learning the fundamentals of art and design
  • Connecting with classmates
  • Portfolio creation and capstone projects

If there is anything you would like to see discussed as well, chime in! The comments section is below, and I’d love to hear from you.

Let’s take a brief look at these topics now, before going into detail later in this blog series.

Time management and study skills

Time management is an issue that comes up for nearly everyone, in all aspects of work, school, and home life. In a traditional program, the time balance can feel more like a time crunch: Create a project, make sure to leave enough time to print it nicely for class, cut along your bleed lines properly, mount it (did you buy spray mount before the store closed?), and then, finally, create a cover. Be careful with it on your way to class: Don’t let your work get rained on!

In an online program, the time is yours to organize, and the schedule is much more flexible. Read the lectures and exercises at a time that you have scheduled yourself around work and family commitments. Though you’ll still have important due dates, you won’t be attending live classes at a set time each week, and your coursework is submitted digitally. You won’t be printing or mounting your work, but you will be saving your digital files for upload, requiring a stable Internet connection and enough time to handle any issues that arise. An online program will offer much more flexibility in your schedule, but you are responsible for creating a schedule that works!


Once you complete your assignment (and it is printed and mounted, or saved and uploaded) your instructor will critique your work. In a traditional program, this step is immediate and nearly public. Each student hangs the assignment neatly and evenly on a wall and (anxiously) takes a turn to present the work and receive feedback from the instructor. Your peers are encouraged (if not required) to chime in with their own observations and critique. You aren’t off the hook once your turn is over; you may be called upon to critique your classmates’ work, so always pay attention and have a comment ready.

The critique in an online program can’t take place in a physical classroom, of course! Your instructor will receive your work and craft an in-depth write-up including observations, hints, and suggestions for moving your work forward. Your critique will be sent online so you can refer to it during your revision process and hold on to it for your next project. Handy! Online students also have the benefit of discussions within each lecture, and at Sessions, degree students also have group critiques via online discussion.

Course assignments and workflow

The projects and assignments in design programs are a combination of mock client projects and studies. You can’t just dive in to a client project without knowing the basics, now, can you?

Learning the fundamentals of art and design

Not every assignment will produce a portfolio-ready piece, but, for example, every color study you do brings you a step closer to internalizing color theory. You will be prepared and ready to choose a color palette for your Web site or poster. And earning how to kern letters in typography class may feel like a painstaking task, but just think! Your wordmarks and logos will always be perfectly kerned and never, ever look like they came directly from Microsoft Word. Whether you learn in a traditional program or an online one, mastering the fundamentals of design is always emphasized.

Image of color theory study

A color theory study by Sessions student Maya Wisher

Connecting with classmates

Interacting with your classmates is one way to mitigate the stresses of a rigorous art or design program. A traditional program offers a proximity and immediacy between classmates, often of similar backgrounds or experiences. An online classroom offers many different perspectives, with classmates around the country and world living very different lives. An online classroom offers a diversity and range of perspectives that won’t be found anywhere else.

Portfolio creation and capstone projects

Depending on the level of your program, your art and design education can culminate in a capstone project, and ultimately, a portfolio. A final capstone project in a traditional program or in a Sessions online degree program will synthesize the techniques you’ve learned with your unique worldview. One aspect of the final project is the creative process itself, starting a new technique, going down a creative path to find out it doesn’t lead where you expected, taking that information and starting a new path. That project can be just one component of a portfolio that showcases your skills and drive to potential clients or employers.

The creative process is exciting, but can be challenging, regardless of medium. Stay tuned for the next post in this series, where I will go in depth about time management, and how to learn art and design at your own pace, both in online and traditional programs.

Clara LaFrance
Course Producer, Sessions College

Visit sessions.edu to find out more about our range of online degree programs and online certificate programs.

Clara LaFrance is a freelance graphic designer when she is not pursuing her dreams as a circus teacher and performer. Clara has an M.F.A. in graphic design from Boston University.