Graphic Design & Degree Programs
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The old pen-and-paper graphic design approach seems to be less common in today's digital world. However, it does still exist, but digital design tools and user-friendly Web markup languages have brought a new, high-tech approach to the discipline.
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 programs that fit your career ambitions. Some of the best schools and colleges for graphic design even offer hybrid and fully online degree plans, for students whose personal or professional responsibilities make it difficult to commit to a full-time, campus-based program.
Most traditional and online graphic design degree programs are earned at the associate or bachelor's level, with the bachelor's degree being the most popular and most widely applicable of the two. Graduate degrees in graphic design may be available as well, at certain institutions.
Best Colleges for Graphic Design Degree Programs
We took a close look at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data on hundreds of graphic design degree programs across the U.S. and scored them in eight specific statistical categories. Click the button to see how we calculated the rankings and continue reading below for our list of the best schools and colleges for graphic design degrees.
This private college in Connecticut, established in 1946, took home the No. 1 overall ranking by earning top marks in multiple categories of our analysis. Paier College of Art posted the No. 2 graduation rate among schools in our top ten and awarded a higher percentage of graphic design degrees than all but five other colleges we surveyed nationwide.
Some credit for that high graduation rate may be owed to the student-faculty ratio at Paier, which the NCES calculated as 4:1 in 2015. Having just four students per faculty member can allow for an environment where one-on-one instruction and informal mentorships are much more common than at a national university with a ratio closer to the national average of 16:1.
The Fashion Institute of Technology charged students an average of $7,200 for the 2015-16 academic year, a low enough amount to land it at No. 2 for affordability among schools on our list. Just two other schools in our top ten graphic design degree programs had a higher graduation rate than this New York City institution.
FIT was also the largest and most selective school that made our top ten, awarding more than 3,600 degrees to graduating seniors in 2015 and posting an admission rate of 41 percent the same year. Campus-based measures such as alternative tuition plans and weekend and evening courses were available as well, for students who need some flexibility in their educations.
The main Southwest University of Visual Arts campus, located in Tucson, Arizona, recorded a 2015 graduation rate high enough to not only take the No. 1 spot among institutions that made our list but also land a spot in the top 15 among the hundreds of graphic design colleges we looked at in this study.
The student-faculty ratio of 7:1 at SUVA suggests that students should have ample opportunity for personalized instruction and advice from faculty members. Degrees in animation, illustration and advertising and marketing are also available here, allowing graphic design students to network and brainstorm with a diverse group of classmates in related programs.
Independence University is a for-profit college that's offered online learning and other forms of distance education courses for nearly four decades. Although the school is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, 100 percent of students reported taking some, most or all of their coursework online during the 2015-16 academic year.
Just three other schools that made our list had a higher percentage of graphic design students in their 2015 graduating class than IU. Students can take advantage of academic and career counseling throughout their degree program, and placement services are available once you finish your degree. The only graphic design degree programs available at IU are fully online -- no brick-and-mortar program exists.
The graphic design degree programs at the University of Wisconsin-Stout contain some in-person course requirements, but partially online degrees for graphic design students should be easy to put together. This Menomonie, Wisconsin, institution reported the highest 2015 distance education enrollment percentage of any brick-and-mortar school that made our list. The graphic design program is offered as a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degree.
Tuition and fees costs were affordable here, as well. Just two other schools in our top ten featured a lower average expense for tuition. UW-Stout also placed at No. 4 among schools on our list for the percentage of its annual spending that is reinvested into course development and other instructional expenses.
As a member of the national Art Institutes network of design colleges, the Illinois Institute of Art - Schaumburg gives students access to a vast resource of like-minded creative people. Graphic design students here also study Web design and can shift their studies to specialize in it if they choose; allowing students to prepare to work within either discipline or offer a wide array of services as a multitalented freelance designer.
If you're looking into online degrees for graphic design students, this northern Illinois institution may be able to provide an online or blended program that fits with your schedule. The Institute also hit all four of our flexibility metrics, including weekend/evening courses and placement services for alumni.
A second location of the Art Institutes network shows up at No. 7, this time on the West Coast. The Art Institute of California - San Diego operates as a campus of Argosy University, a for-profit college with multiple U.S. locations and an online division, and is the fifth-largest school that made our list.
Just two other schools in our top ten reported a higher percentage of students taking online classes than this southern California school, where nearly 40 percent of students were enrolled in at least one distance education course in 2015. Web and digital design are significant parts of the graphic design curriculum here as well.
Founded in 2002, Digital Media Arts College places no small amount of emphasis on graphic design among its degree programs. The Florida school offers just two bachelor's-level study plans -- B.F.A. programs in graphic design and computer animation -- and is one of the few colleges in the U.S. where students can go on to earn a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degree in graphic design.
The average tuition and fees cost at DMAC ranked No. 4 among schools that made our list, and its student-faculty ratio of 13:1 means that direct consultations with faculty are likely to be available when you need them. No fully online graphic design degrees are available, but certain individual graphic design classes can be taken online.
This small school in Monrovia, a city in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California, ranked No. 3 for the prominence of its graphic design degree programs. Just two other schools that made our top ten had a higher percentage of graphic design graduates among their graduating classes in 2015.
The visual design concentration of Mt Sierra's Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in media arts and design takes a tech-focused approach to graphic arts training. The diverse set of courses in the curriculum includes user interface design, interaction design, multichannel design and more from the cutting edge as design evolves more and more into an interactive, multimedia discipline.
This Midwestern school that closes out our list at No. 10 counted affordability as its top asset in our analysis. No other school on our list charged students less for the 2015-16 academic year than the average of $6,508 reported at Pittsburg State University.
The graphic design degree programs at this Pittsburg, Kansas, institution are offered under the banner of a bachelor's program in graphic communications, with six possible concentrations available for students who want to target their education toward a specific segment of the working world. Students can choose to focus on general graphic design, web design and interactive media, print media, packaging graphics, digital media and graphics management.
Degrees and common career paths in graphic design
Educational requirements for graphic design careers tend to vary based on the employer, the position and the level of responsibility listed in the job description. Here's an overview of some top graphic design positions available to graduates at each academic level.
Associate degree programs in graphic design
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.
- Printing press operators configure and use a variety of printing machines, including digital, letterpress, lithographic and short-run offset printing presses
- Etchers and engravers use hand tools and computerized machines to engrave or etch metal, wood, rubber, hard plastic and other materials
Bachelor's degree programs in graphic design
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.
- Graphic designers develop and produce visual concepts designed to inform, inspire and communicate with viewers, often contributing as well to layout and production design
- Art directors take responsibility for the overall visual aesthetic of team projects such as magazines, newspapers, commercial product releases and film and television productions
- Multimedia artists and animators work in digital formats to create animations, 3-D models and graphic effects for movies, video games, television and other audio-visual media
Career outlook for graphic design
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.
Expected Job Growth
Q&A with an expert
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.
Professional organizations for graphic design
Tools and trends have a tendency to move fast in the graphic design field, and belonging to a professional organization can help you stay near the elusive cutting edge of your discipline. Most national organizations and associations hold annual conferences and conduct a range of other professional events, and valuable print or Web resources for artists and freelancers may also be available to you once you pay your membership dues. Here's a quick look at a few of the top professional organizations for graphic designers.
- American Institute of Graphic Arts: (AIGA) The oldest and largest professional association of designers and works to advance the value of design both regionally and worldwide
- Graphic Artists Guild: An organization for both students and professionals in graphic design and produces lectures, networking events and skills training in five U.S. regions
- World Design Organization: Formerly known as the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, is a global network of 140 member organizations from 40 nations
Financial aid and scholarships for graphic design majors
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.