Three or four decades ago, almost all graphic design was done by hand, in pencil and ink on paper and canvas. In today's digital world, the old techniques have moved aside to make room for cutting-edge computer hardware and software that offers a wealth of new creative tools and techniques.
Enrolling in a graphic design certification or degree program can give you an introduction to the world of digital design while also training you in the classical arts of drawing, visual composition, typography and more. Fewer than 900 new graphic design jobs are expected to hit the market each year between now and 2028, and knowing how to best make use of all the tools at your disposal can set you up to stand apart from the pack in the hiring process.
Whether you're looking to go into advertising, mass communications, Web design, game design or another field of the commercial graphic arts, there are graphic design degree programs that fit your career ambitions. Some top schools even offer hybrid and fully online graphic design programs, designed for students whose personal or professional responsibilities make it difficult to commit to a full-time, campus-based degree.
Both traditional and online graphic design programs are primarily aimed at undergraduate students, but graduate plans for advanced students can be found as well. Read on to learn about the best schools in the country for graphic design degrees and get some insight into the job market for graduates at each degree level.
Best Colleges for Graphic Design Degree Programs
We took a close look at National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data on hundreds of graphic design degree programs across the U.S. and scored them on affordability, flexibility, student success and other important metrics. Tap the Methodology button to see how we calculated the rankings, and continue reading below for our list of the best design schools in the U.S.
This member institution of the State University of New York system (SUNY) may not be on the radar of many potential graphic design students, but the numbers show that it might be one of the best schools for online graphic design programs in the country. SUNY New Paltz reported a 2018 distance education enrollment rate of 99.7 percent, the top such figure on our list and one of the five best nationwide.
Graphic design programs at SUNY New Paltz: The graphic design program at SUNY New Paltz treats the subject as a cross-disciplinary practice and often permits students to undertake projects in collaboration with other programs on campus. Online degrees at the associate and bachelor's levels are available through distance education portal Open SUNY.
The University of Florida is one of the largest institutions on our list, welcoming more than 52,000 students through its doors each semester, so students who enjoy the bustling activity of a busy campus might feel right at home here. Student success was one of the top metrics at this Gainesville school — no other institution on our list posted better rates of first-year student retention and on-time graduation.
Graphic design programs at UF: Students here have three levels of program to choose from. The bachelor's degree features seven separate emphases, including painting, drawing, printmaking and creative photography. The master's program can be taken on a 3-year or 2-year track, and an undergraduate certificate plan can help students in other disciplines pick up valuable graphic design skills.
New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology offers the most affordable graphic design programs of any school that made our top ten, reporting an average tuition and fees cost of less than $5,500 in 2018. It also sets aside our list's largest percentage of its annual budget for investment in academic support services, which include career counseling, instructional development and other parts of the infrastructure of academic life.
Graphic design programs at FIT: The undergraduate program here is offered as a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degree in graphic design and aims to provide a solid foundation in the basics of the discipline. Students who declare a graphic design major at FIT begin their subject-intensive study in their fifth semester of coursework.
Students at the University of Minnesota tend to stay in school and graduate at some of the highest rates in the country. This Minneapolis institution of around 50,000 students posted retention and graduation rates of 93 and 80 percent, respectively, that both placed in the 96th percentile nationwide. It also spent more than $11,000 per student to fund academic support services on campus.
Graphic design programs at U of M: Students hoping to enroll in the bachelor's degree program at U of M must complete five pre-graphic design foundation courses to qualify for the necessary portfolio review. Graduate programs here are offered in a multidisciplinary style and offer Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.) and Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) study plans.
Flexibility is a big part of the mission at Arizona State University. A wealth of online courses are available, for starters, and more than 46 percent of students here take at least some of their credits in the virtual classroom. Students who prefer the brick-and-mortar campus environment have flexibility options, as well, in the form of courses offered at night and on weekends.
Graphic design programs at ASU: Aspiring graphic designers at ASU can enroll in the Bachelor of Science in Design (B.S.D.) program, which includes an internship section as a required part of the curriculum. Graduates can choose between a Master of Science in Design (M.S.D.) and a Master of Visual Communication Design (M.V.C.D), and doctoral students have two available study tracks.
North Carolina State University is another fairly large school, reporting a total student body of more than 35,000 learners, and its record of student success is in line with some of the other big campuses mentioned on our list. Its 2018 graduation rate ranked in the top 25 nationwide, and just five other schools in the country posted a higher percentage of first-year student retention.
Graphic design programs at NCSU: Training in a wide variety of media, such as print, Web, mobile, virtual reality and augmented reality, is included in the undergraduate graphic design degree at NCSU. Advanced students in the Master of Graphic Design (M.G.D.) program study user experience, native design environments and the cultural contexts of design.
This longstanding Iowa institution stood tall in an important and often overlooked measure of college affordability. More than 84 percent of graduates from Iowa State University reported being able to pay off their student loans in three years or less after finishing their degree programs — the highest such number on our list and good for a spot in the 92nd percentile nationwide.
Graphic design programs at ISU: Graduate students have two different programs to choose from at this Ames institution. The M.F.A. in graphic design is considered a terminal degree in the field and includes a thesis defense in its final year, and the M.A. in experiential graphic design is designed to teach advanced, tech-focused skills to students with undergraduate design degrees.
The flagship location of the University of Illinois system invests more than $9,400 per student to establish and improve academic support services, the second-highest number on our list. It's also home to an impressive record of innovation and scholarship that includes the invention of the graphical web browser and nearly 30 Pulitzer Prizes won by faculty and alumni.
Graphic design programs at Illinois: The B.F.A. in graphic design here includes training in graphic design fundamentals like typography, critical thinking and image creation as well as the history, theory, research methods and social responsibilities of the design field. The M.F.A. program has an interdisciplinary focus and aims to prepare students equally for careers in professional design practice and academia.
The Pomona outpost of California State Polytechnic University, better known as Cal Poly, is another of the more affordable graphic design schools to make our list. In-state students at the Los Angeles-area institution paid a little more than $7,300 for a full year of instruction, and close to 82 percent of alumni reported being able to pay down their loan balances within three years of graduating.
Graphic design programs at Cal Poly Pomona: The lone graphic design program at Cal Poly Pomona is a B.F.A. in visual communication design that has earned accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). The 120-credit study plan includes courses in drawing, 3D design, digital photography, visual thinking and professional practices in visual communication design.
Here's a fact that may surprise you: Southern New Hampshire University is far and away the largest school by enrollment in our top ten. More than 100,000 students enrolled here in 2018, but most of them don't have to worry about elbow room on campus. SNHU is committed to offering online courses and programs, and nearly 93 percent of its student body earns at least some course credit online.
Graphic design programs at SNHU: The study plans are slightly different for the campus-based and online graphic design programs at SNHU. Available concentrations in the online program include 3D modeling and animation, while campus-based students can specialize their study in information technology, advertising or video production. The campus-based program also features internship opportunities.
Graphic Design Programs and Common Career Paths
Graphic design degrees can vary in their specific structure, but most include a mix of courses that broadly cover the basics of the design discipline. If you're considering a career in graphic design, check out this quick rundown of each degree level and some sample careers that might be available once you graduate:
Associate-level graphic design degree programs typically take two years to complete and tend to place their focus on the fundamentals of design. Learning outcomes for these two-year programs include the tools and technology of modern design, effective strategies for project research and techniques for communicating creatively.
Bachelor's degrees in graphic design usually include more study of theory than their two-year counterparts, including deep analysis of design principles and training in critical thinking for visual communicators. Some four-year programs also include an internship with an ad agency, multimedia company, design studio, publisher or corporate design department.
There are two common types of master's degree in graphic design. Master of Arts (M.A.) programs in graphic design are typically designed for students who want to learn advanced theory and concepts in the field and gain some skills in project management, while Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) programs are geared toward students who want to build an advanced portfolio through graduate-level studio work.
Students in Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and Doctor of Design (D.Des.) programs tend not to spend much time in the studio. Programs at this level tend to focus on research, case study analysis, interdisciplinary study and leadership in design practice. Students typically must prepare an extensive dissertation and defend it before a faculty board before being cleared to graduate.
Those with experience as a graphic designer may also find they have a foot in the door to working in UX design, of which graphic design is one element. Learn more about how to become a UX designer.
Graphic Design Program Accreditation
For a school to earn accreditation, its instructional methods and content must undergo an independent peer review process and be determined to meet or exceed a nationally accepted standard of quality. If you want the credits you earn to hold value with employers and college admissions officers, make sure the school you attend is accredited.
Graphic design schools as a whole are accredited by regional bodies at the institutional level, and individual graphic design program accreditation is awarded by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). If your school offers both types of accreditation, you can be confident that you're getting a graphic design education suitable for professionals and scholars alike.
Career Outlook for Graphic Design Majors
Prospective jobs for graduates of graphic design degree programs offer more variety than it might seem at first. Here's a quick rundown of the employment outlook for various positions that might be available to graphic design graduates.
PROJECTED JOB GROWTH(%)
|Special Effects Artists and Animators||$84,780||29,340||4.2%|
Financial Aid and Scholarships in Graphic Design
Financial aid can be a big help to graphic design students, particularly those paying their own way through school. Some scholarships are demographically restricted, while others prefer a specific discipline. Here are a few aid programs that might work for you.
To be included in these rankings, all schools must meet the following initial criteria for the specific subject being ranked.
- Offer an undergraduate degree (either associate or bachelor's) in that subject.
- Have awarded at least one degree or certificate in that subject in the most recent year of IPEDS data available.
Based on those criteria, we ranked all 2-year and 4-year schools in IPEDS that reported data for all of the following points. Ratings are calculated on a 10-point scale:
- In-state undergraduate tuition & fees
- Median debt
- 3 year loan repayment rate
- Graduation rate
- Retention rate
- Institutional spending
- Instructional and academic support expenses per full-time enrolled student
- Instructional and academic support spending as a percentage of all expenses
- Percent of students enrolled in DE
- Evening and weekend programs
- Academic and career counseling
- Total number of degrees conferred for particular CIP codes