Online degrees in graphic design
There's been a certain amount of focus on design in industrial and commercial enterprises for decades now, but some analysts say it's never been more prominent than it is right now. According to correspondents in The New York Times' T Magazine, the combination of technology, community and economic flexibility has brought about a Golden Age of design in our current era.
To meet the growing demand for design-educated professionals on the modern market, institutions across the country have begun expanding access to their programs by offering online graphic design courses and degrees. Here's a quick table that shows how many degrees in the subject are being offered both on campus and online:
|Region||No. of schools offering graphic design degrees||No. of schools with at least one graphic design degree online|
|Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI)||115||5|
|Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO)||41||4|
|Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK)||63||1|
|Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD)||68||2|
|Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV)||142||6|
|Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI)||144||7|
|Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.)||89||4|
|New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME)||37||3|
|Total (all 50 states)||699||32|
Entry-level graphic design degrees
Whether you're looking for a long-term, four-year degree or just hoping to spend a few semesters covering the basics, campus-based and online graphic design degree programs at the undergraduate level have got you covered. Here are a few brief descriptions of the entry-level study plans available for graphic design students:
- Associate degrees - Depending on the demands of the job for which you're hoping to train, an associate degree in graphic design may be all it takes to get your foot in the door. Most associate degree programs require approximately four semesters of full-time study to complete, although certain institutions may allow dedicated students to complete their associate study in as few as 15 months. Most associate programs work to introduce students to concepts such as color theory, typography, layout design and digital imaging, with some schools also providing instruction in common graphic design software programs and other industry-standard tools.
- Bachelor's degrees - In more competitive job markets, a bachelor's degree in graphic design may be considered the entry-level standard for employment. Whether offered on campus or online, graphic design degrees are typically framed as Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degrees, although certain institutions may emphasize technological components of the discipline and package their degree as a Bachelor of Science (B.S) program. Degrees at the bachelor's level tend to drill somewhat deeper into the fundamentals taught in associate programs and also work to enrich your social and cultural perspective on design and its philosophies.
- Non-degree study - Students who have already completed their undergraduate study in a different discipline can add elemental graphic design skills to their professional approach by enrolling in formal training programs that don't lead to a degree. These plans can take just six months to complete and typically take a tight focus on directly career-relevant material such as electronic publishing, portfolio development and familiarity with Adobe Creative Suite design software in their online graphic design courses.
Earning a graphic design degree online may not be for everyone, but the flexibility of scheduling your time in online classes can be a great help to students who would otherwise have difficulty committing to a full-time education. Hybrid study plans may also be available, in which you can choose whether to complete certain portions of the curriculum either online or in a brick-and-mortar classroom.
Advanced-degree graphic design programs
If your intellectual hunger for the concepts and philosophies of graphic design extends further than the instruction that undergraduate programs can offer, graduate study in graphic design might be the next logical link in the chain. Not every school with a traditional or online graphic design degree at the undergraduate level offers an advanced study plan, but here are some details about what you can expect from those that do:
- Master's degree programs - Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) programs in graphic design aim to deepen understanding and expand students' scope of theory and practice to include international, multicultural and broad-spectrum professional contexts. Classroom time is typically split between practical studio work and lecture-based seminar sections, working to guide students toward the accumulation of a solid portfolio of work and preparing them to present a large research project or visual thesis exhibition at the end of their time in school.
- Doctorate programs - Post-graduate study plans that focus specifically on graphic design are highly uncommon in the U.S., but students who wish to take their design careers in a purely academic direction can find Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs that include in their foundations much of what can be learned in lower-order graphic design programs. Doctoral programs that approach design from an interdisciplinary perspective are out there for students fascinated by the visual and experiential side of design, and those who want to focus their energy on study interactive media and online culture can find digital media programs at the Ph.D. level.
- Graduate certificates - Post-baccalaureate certificates in graphic design can be a great option if you've completed some solid undergraduate or professional work in graphic design and you're looking to expand or diversify your portfolio and skillset. Graduate certificates can be earned at some graphic design schools online, and they often take around two semesters of dedicated study to complete.
For most schools that offer a master's or Ph.D. graphic design degree, online courses are a small part of the curriculum if offered at all. Graduate certificate plans do occasionally offer graphic design courses online, on weekends or in the evening, to help busy professionals accommodate the class schedule without taking too much focus away from work.
Q&A with experts
Zach Alam, CEO of logo design firm Everbranded
Why would you encourage someone to consider a degree in graphic design?
There's tons of potential in graphic design jobs. As we continue to turn from a verbal to a visual culture the demand for graphic designers continues to grow.
What level of education is typically necessary to start a career in the field?
Typically all you need is a 4-year degree. It gives you important knowledge of industry tools. If you're really good you can break into the field with an amazing design portfolio. The best major for someone who wants to get into something like logo design is without question a B.A. in graphic design.
Janice Omadeke, graphic design manager at a Fortune 500 accounting firm
What would have been helpful to know about the professional world of graphic design when you were looking into your own education?
While your classmates and professors understand your design choices, once in the real world, your clients are often times not designers. As such, they won't care about why you chose one color over another. They want to know what the benefit will be for their business and how this will help them reach their goals.
What are the most common educational paths for those interested in graphic design as a career?
Studying graphic design in undergrad. Getting a BFA in design so that you're not only sharpening your graphic design skills but your artistic eye through the art school general education requirements.
Are there other majors out there that can prepare students for graphic design careers?
I do recommend taking a few business courses. When working with business or being a part of a large corporation, it'll help you understand the dialogue taking place in meetings and show that you've earned your seat at the table vs. just taking orders.
Types of graphic design careers
There's more to the career market for graphic design skills than just creating logos and choosing typefaces — graphic design can be used to start a career as a game designer, find a UX designer job or even be your own boss as a freelance illustrator. Here's a table of a few career titles that graphic design graduates might end up calling themselves once they land in the workforce:
|Occupation title||National mean annual salary
|Projected job growth
|Total U.S. employment
|Graphic designer||$50,670||1 percent||261,600||Bachelor's degree|
|Industrial designer||$67,030||3 percent||38,400||Bachelor's degree|
|Multimedia artist||$69,410||6 percent||64,400||Bachelor's degree|
|Web developer||$68,670||27 percent||148,500||Bachelor's degree|
|Art director||$97,850||2 percent||74,600||Bachelor's degree|
|Drafter||$53,450||-3 percent||204,400||Associate degree|
|Fine artist||$51,120||2 percent||50,300||High school diploma (bachelor's or master's degrees are common)|
Common misconceptions about graphic design degrees
Graphic design is an attractive career, and not everyone who has information on how to train for it is working from a complete set of knowledge. If you're looking into earning a graphic design degree online or on campus, make sure you're not approaching the process with any of these mistaken notions in mind:
Misconception: Graphic design degrees are unnecessary if you know how to draw/paint/use Photoshop/etc.
- Fact: It may be the case that some employers don't require their graphic designers to have a bachelor's degree, but those hiring for most salaried positions in the field prefer candidates who have proven their dedication to the discipline by completing a formal training program. A marketing degree or computer programming degree may be acceptable or even preferable to certain employers, however, provided you have portfolio work gained through a certificate program or private study.
Misconception: Online graphic design degrees are an easy way to get qualified for a job in the field.
- Fact: Attending graphic design schools online gives you extra flexibility with scheduling and may be somewhat less expensive than going the traditional route, but it's a common mistake for students to suppose that they're in for an easy time because they don't have to physically sit in a class. The truth is that online degrees take an extra measure of motivation to stay engaged; students who tend to slack off may want to avoid them.
Misconception: Degrees in graphic design can only get you one kind of job.
- Fact: Depending on where your other education or experience lies, you may end up doing design work in any one of a variety of industries. If you have physical therapy education or nursing training, you may be a prime design candidate in the health care industry, for example, and designers who also have early childhood education degrees may stand out to hiring managers at textbook companies, school district offices or educational tech startups.
How can I enroll in an online graphic design degree program?
If it seems like a graphic design degree might be for you, the first step to becoming an official graphic design student is to reach out to one or more programs and get more information about their specific requirements for enrollment and completion. Browse through our listings below, find a school that looks like it might work and get in touch to start training for the career you want.
- "A Golden Age of Design," T Magazine, The New York Times, Rob Walker, September 28, 2014, accessed January 26, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/22/t-magazine/design-golden-age.html
- College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed January 26, 2016, nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
- School pages, accessed January 26, 2016: Associates Degree in Graphic Design, Platt College, http://plattcollege.edu/areas-of-study/school-of-graphic-design/graphic-design/; Online Graphic Design - Associate Degree, Penn Foster College, http://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/web-and-graphic-design/graphic-design-associate-degree; Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design, Brooks Institute, https://www.brooks.edu/degree-programs/film-communication/bachelor-of-fine-arts-in-graphic-design/; Online Graphic Design Degree, Bachelor's Degree, Southern New Hampshire University, http://www.snhu.edu/online-degrees/bachelors/ba-in-graphic-design-and-media-arts; Graphic Design Bachelor of Science Degree (B.S.), Pennsylvania College of Technology, https://www.pct.edu/catalog/majors/BGD.shtml; Online Graphic Design and Digital Imaging Certificate, University of Massachusetts Lowell, https://continuinged.uml.edu/certificates/graphicdesign.cfm; Graphic Design Professional Certificate, Sessions College, http://www.sessions.edu/certificate-programs/graphic-design; Graphic Design Online Undergraduate Certificate, Penn Foster College, http://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/web-and-graphic-design/graphic-design-undergraduate-certificate.aspx; Graphic Design Graduate Program, Suffolk University, https://www.suffolk.edu/college/departments/15920.php; Graphic Design, Yale University School of Art, http://art.yale.edu/GraphicDesign; Graduate Graphic Design Curriculum, Otis College of Art and Design, http://www.otis.edu/graduate-graphic-design/curriculum; M.A. in Graphic Design, Savannah College of Art and Design, https://www.scad.edu/academics/programs/graphic-design/degrees/ma; M.F.A. in Graphic Design, Savannah College of Art and Design, https://www.scad.edu/academics/programs/graphic-design/degrees/mfa; PhD in Design, North Carolina State University, https://design.ncsu.edu/academics/phd-design; PhD in Digital Media, Georgia Institute of Technology, http://dm.lmc.gatech.edu/program/phd-program/; Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Graphic Design, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, http://mcad.edu/academic-programs/graphic-design-certificate; Requirements for the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Graphic Design, Maryland Institute College of Art, https://www.mica.edu/Programs_of_Study/Post-Baccalaureate_Certificate_in_Graphic_Design/Curriculum.html;
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed January 26, 2016: Graphic Designers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Arts-and-Design/Graphic-designers.htm; Industrial Designers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/industrial-designers.htm; Multimedia Artists and Animators, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/multimedia-artists-and-animators.htm; Web Developers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/web-developers.htm; Art Directors, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/art-directors.htm; Drafters, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/drafters.htm; Craft and Fine Artists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/craft-and-fine-artists.htm;
- May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed January 26, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
- College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed January 27, 2016, nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/