Graphic Design Degrees & Schools Guide

Associate, Bachelor's & Master's Degree in Graphic Design Options & Salary

What Does a Career in Graphic Design Entail?


Are you interested in pursuing a career in graphic design? If you enjoy using computer software to create visual concepts and communicate ideas, then this may be an ideal profession. Graphic designers also develop imagery by hand and strive to inspire others with their work. Many are employed full-time, but some prefer to offer their services on a contractual basis. While specific responsibilities vary drastically from job to job, most professional graphic designers are tasked with generating layouts for advertising materials, such as brochures, magazines, or corporate reports. Other common duties include:

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Liberal Arts Degrees & Career Paths


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Components of a Successful Career in Graphic Design

Graphic design is not a career that works for everyone. Many individuals simply are not capable of effectively combining art and technology to communicate the concepts that companies and organizations want. Whether for websites or printed pages, these professionals must know how to utilize design elements to achieve the desired results. Because of this, graphic designers must learn to hone a variety of skills. Those interested in the field should sharpen the following essential traits:

  • Excellent typography to ensure proper fonts are used for every project
  • Firm understanding of industry basics and how they apply to project preparation
  • Detail-oriented nature and an eye for accuracy, especially when dealing with logo and web-design projects
  • Exceptional grasp of various industry standard software options and when to use them
  • Creativity that allows them to think of and create new, innovative designs
  • Outstanding communication with clients and company or organization management
  • Familiarity with all the necessary graphic design tools
  • Knowledge of the industry market and production process
  • Self-motived work ethic, passion, and artistic drive
  • Ability to listen to and internalize constructive criticism

How to Become a Graphic Designer


Becoming a graphic designer is relatively simple. While being successful in the field requires hard work and dedication, one of the hardest parts of the process is utilizing and strengthening an abstract artistic talent into a useable, functioning skill set. You can do this by completing the necessary coursework after being admitted to a college or university program. A streamlined, step-by-step explanation of the process consists of the following:

  • Develop and hone your interest in and skill with graphic design techniques

  • Decide what level of education best suits your career goals (associate, undergraduate, or graduate)

  • Research possible college and university programs

  • Create, request, and organize any needed application materials

  • Determine which program best meets your personal and career objectives

  • Submit applications to at least three different programs (first, second, and third choices)

  • Enroll in courses that align with your specific interests in the field

  • Graduate from your chosen college or university

  • Create a compelling portfolio to showcase during interviews

What is a Graphic Designer?


Graphic designers are professionals who design and create visuals that convey a specific message or information. They often work for themselves as a freelance contractor or for a company. While their skillset generally means they have the ability to develop many types of materials or content, some of the most common graphics they offer include:

  • Posters
  • Bus Wraps
  • Billboards
  • Packaging
  • Logos
  • Marketing Materials
  • Brochures
  • Magazines
  • Corporate Reports (infographics)

These professionals can find work within almost any industry that has an advertising and/or marketing department. Some of the most popular employers include magazines and marketing agencies.

Typical Graphic Design Degree Requirements

graphic-design_degree_requirements At minimum, professional graphic designers must attain an associate’s degree. Many people, however, choose to pursue an undergraduate degree in the field. Graduate programs are also available. Program specifics at every academic level vary from institution to institution, but often require enrolled students to take classes like principles of design and color, desktop publishing, graphics for the web, digital photography, and animation.

Typically, a bachelor’s degree in graphic design can be completed within a four-year period. Some schools offer accelerated programs for people who want to join the workforce as soon as possible.

While graphic designers are not required to pursue a graduate degree, it can be quite beneficial. These programs cover more advanced skills which can greatly enhance the quality of products produced. This can also result in higher pay. It is not uncommon for graduates to work as community college instructors or senior graphic designers.

Typical Graphic Design Certifications Needed

Once a degree in graphic design has been attained, there are no field-specific certifications needed in order to work professionally. That said, there are a few certifications that can be extremely beneficial. Two very popular options include the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification and the Adobe Certified Expert (ACE) certification.

Academic Standards for Graphic Designers


Every college and university’s graphic design program is different, but there are a number of basic expectations most of them share. Common admittance standards include:

  • High School Transcript(s)
  • Application Fee
  • College Admission Tests (either ACT or SAT)
  • Letter(s) of Recommendation
  • Application Essay
  • An Interview
  • A Portfolio

It is important to keep in mind that GPA requirements, application fees, and test score expectations can vary significantly. You will need to carefully research each potential institution prior to applying to ensure you meet all of the necessary requirements.

Exam / Experience Needed for Graphic Designers

The mass majority of colleges and universities that offer graphic design degrees expect students to take a college admission test prior to admittance. This means you will need to take either the ACT or SAT.

experience_needed_for_graphic_designersBoth are similar and both are generally accepted by higher education institutions in the United States, but there are a number of minor distinctions. For example, the ACT consists of more questions that must be answered within a shorter time period. It also allows students to utilize calculators and includes a science section.

Additionally, the ACT and SAT are scored differently. The total SAT score range is between 400 and 1600; each of the two sections (math and reading and writing) range from 200 to 800. Test-takers also receive three scores ranging between 2 and 8 for the essay section. Overall, ACT scores range from 1-36; the number is determined based on the scores earned in each of the four sections of the exam.

Research both exam options thoroughly before registering. You should select the one that aligns best with your personal preferences and testing style. It is also a good idea to verify the test score expectations of your favorite colleges and universities ahead of time.

Important Questions to Ask


Individuals interested in a career in graphic design should ask the following questions before committing to the field:

How long does it take to earn a graphic design bachelor’s degree online?


graphic_design_bachelors_degree_online On average, it will take four years for a full-time student to complete a traditional bachelor’s degree. Online programs are ideal for individuals who are unable to attend courses on campus, but the graduation requirements are generally the same. It is important to note that most people who need the flexibility of distance learning often work full-time or have other personal obligations that may impact the number of credit hours they can complete each semester. As a result, it is not uncommon for traditional online bachelor’s degree programs to take five or eight years to complete.

How much does a graphic design bachelor’s degree cost?


Graphic design course titles will vary from one institution to another, but class topics commonly include:

  • Design Fundamentals
  • Intro to Typography
  • Color Theory
  • Web Design
  • Art History
  • Design History
  • Digital Image Illustration
  • Drawing
  • Concept Development
  • Design Marketing
  • Packaging and Advertising Design
  • Graphic Symbolism
  • Portfolio Creation

Does the school have the major(s) you are considering?


graphic-design_school_have_the_majors_you_are_considering Many colleges and universities offer a graphic design major, but not all of them will. If this is your intended degree program, it is imperative that you verify the institution in question has it as an option before applying. Keep in mind that some schools will offer an art major with a concentration in graphic design. This may or may not be acceptable, depending on your specific career goals.

How many students graduate “on time,” or within four years?


Before selecting a college or university for its graphic design degree, it is important to find out what the typical graduation timeframe is. Knowing whether or not students usually complete requirements on time, or at all, will help you determine if the program is right for you. While most students graduate from traditional undergraduate programs within four years, some institutions have a reputation for taking longer. Additionally, knowing the overall graduation rate is also helpful.

This type of information is generally found on the college or university website. If, however, you cannot find it, contact the graphic design department directly. Someone should be able to provide these important statistics, along with additional insight into the program’s job placement, employment success, and average starting salaries after graduation.

How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?


graphic-design_students_graduate_on_time This is known as the graduation rate and it’s a metric most schools provide. If the schools you’re looking at do not provide it on their website, you can usually find it online. This number, if very low, can indicate that there are issues within the school or individual program that may make it more difficult to graduate. Be sure to also look at student reviews of the programs you are interested in to get a more in-depth view.

What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How it is regarded in the field?


The most reputable colleges and universities choose to have their graphic design program accredited by an international or regional accreditation agency. While institutions are not required to go through the accreditation process, most do because it confirms that they meet a certain academic standard.

The most prominent international accreditation organization for design degrees is the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). This agency currently accredits programs provided by 363 schools, conservatories, colleges, and universities. The national standards it has established for undergraduate and graduate degrees give these institutions direction and ensures art students across the world receive similar quality educations.

A college or university may also seek accreditation from a regional agency. While these organizations do not accredit the specific art or graphic design degree program, they do affirm that the institution as a whole meets certain standards. Regional accreditation organizations include:

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  • North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCACS)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS COC)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Schools (WASC ACS)

It is important to realize that degrees earned from schools that are regionally accredited may not prepare you to work as a professional graphic designer everywhere in the world. These organizations are meant to ensure that a specific college or university meets the expectations set within a certain region. This means that employers in the region will be satisfied with the degree. And, though most employers outside the region will recognize the accreditation as well, you may want to check if you have a dream job you’re hoping to land, that they also accept the accreditation. Or, you can plan to attend a school accredited by NASAD.

Software and Technology Skills Needed


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Individuals interested in a graphic design career will need to learn how to utilize numerous software and technologies. The specific tools used most frequently will depend upon the kind of graphic design projects completed (i.e. print or digital). Some of the most commonly used programs include:

  • QuarkXPress
  • CorelDraw Graphic Suite
  • Macromedia HomeSite
  • Autodesk Maya
  • CINEMA 4D
  • 3D Studio Max
  • MoGraph
  • Adobe (FrameMaker, InDesign, PageMaker, Illustrator, Fireworks, FreeHand, Photoshop, Flash Player, Dreamweaver, After Effects)

Individuals interested in graphic design have several degree options to choose from. In fact, every degree level offers some form of graphic design degree program.

Associate’s Degree


An associate degree in graphic design is perfect if you are interested gaining the basic skills necessary to begin working in the field right away. These programs usually consist of 60 credit hours of coursework and take approximately two years to complete. Associate degrees usually provide an introduction to graphic design as well as other fundamental liberal arts and sciences curriculum. Graduates can either transfer the resulting credits to a four-year undergraduate institution or find entry-level work as an animator, illustrator, printmaker, production designer, or advertising artist. Every college and university is different, but coursework frequently covers:

Associate’s degree sample courses


  • Design Fundamentals
  • Intro to Typography
  • Color Theory
  • Web Design
  • Computer Aided Drawing
  • Advertising
  • Marketing
  • Advertising Techniques

Bachelor’s Degree


While an associate degree provides an introduction to the field and qualifies graduates for entry-level positions, most professionals enroll in undergraduate level graphic design programs. Common degree options include a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS), or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). These degrees usually consist of 120 credit hours of coursework and take about four years to complete. Curriculum consists of both major-specific and general liberal arts coursework designed to provide students with hands-on experience creating design concepts. Graduates can either enroll in a graduate degree program or find work as a graphic designer, web designer, creative director, art director, or user experience designer. Coursework usually includes:

Bachelor’s degree sample courses


  • Production for Digital and Print Environments
  • Media Management in Digital Design
  • Graphic Designer as Entrepreneur
  • Portfolio Development
  • Typography and Page Layout
  • Digital Publishing
  • Design and Art Theory
  • Digital Audio and Video
  • Creating Brand Experience
  • Concepts in Advertising

Master’s Degree


A master’s degree in graphic design is not necessary, but it can be helpful. Common degree options include the Master of Arts (MA) and the Master of Fine Arts (MFA). While MA programs tend to be more theoretical, MFA programs allow students to explore various aspects of creative art development. Most graphic design professionals prefer MFA degrees for this reason. Generally, graduate programs consist of approximately 60 credit hours and take two years to complete, although some can take as long as three years. Graduates frequently find work as teachers and community college professors. This degree usually qualifies graphic designers for higher pay, faster promotions, better job security, and the opportunity to complete more challenging projects. College and university coursework frequently includes:

Master’s degree sample courses


  • Design Research, Analysis, and Discourse
  • Ideation Models and Process
  • Methods of Contextual Research
  • Typographic Voice and Visual Narrative
  • Visual Analysis of Static Content
  • Professional Practices for Visual Design
  • Curated Narrative for Dynamic Content
  • Experience Design for Physical Spaces
  • User-Centered Strategy and Process
  • Visual Design for Interactive Contexts

Career and Salary Information


According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for most graphic designers in 2017 was $48,700. The median hourly wage in 2017 was $23.41. The yearly salary is well above the median annual wage of $37,690 for all other jobs.

Earning Potential for Graphic Design Degree Fields and Occupations


Overall, the earning potential for graphic designers is decent. The professional in the top ten percent of highest paying jobs can expect to make more than $83,140 a year. In most cases, however, these individuals have undergone extensive training. Earning a graduate degree definitely gives professionals an edge over the competition and often results in higher pay. Those with associate degrees are more likely to remain in entry-level positions that provide fewer benefits and smaller salaries. Professionals in the bottom ten percent of the field can make less than $28,560.

Salary by Field of Study

Field of StudyEntry Level Median Annual SalaryMid-Career Median Annual Salary
Graphic Design$39,210$48,700
Printing and Support$42,930$44,180
Advertising and Public Relations$54,440$71,160
Print Publishing$47,720$59,090

Film and Video Editors and Camera Operators

Film and video editors work to create and manipulate multimedia images from television shows, motion pictures, music videos, documentaries, news, and sports events. They often organize digital footage and must have an in-depth understanding of video-editing software. These professionals frequently collaborate with directors to establish the overall product vision.

Advertising, Promotions, and Marketing Managers

Advertising, promotions, and marketing managers are responsible for designing projects that will draw attention to company products and/or services. They often work with others to determine budgets, marketing plans, and advertising media. It is not uncommon for these professionals to orchestrate promotional campaigns, negotiate advertising contracts, and perform market research.

Multimedia Artists and Animators

Multimedia artists and animators create models, animations, and visual effects for various media outlets, including television, movies, and video games. They often utilize computer programs and work with a team of other animators. These professionals frequently develop storyboards, edit effects, and conduct research to ensure designs are realistic.

Salary by Occupation

OccupationEntry Level Median Annual SalaryMid-Career Median Annual SalaryLate Career Median Annual Salary
Advertising, Promotions, and Marketing Managers$93,590$106,130$141,900
Multimedia Artists and Animators$67,700$70,530$80,850
Web Developers$65,620$67,990$71,060
Art Directors$81,650$92,500$112,800
Film and Video Editors and Camera Operators$47,410$53,550$63,770

Graphic Design Scholarships


There are many scholarship opportunities available for individuals interested in pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree in graphic design. It is important to remember, however, that most scholarships will not cover your entire yearly tuition and fees. Some popular financial awards for graphic designers include:

  • Andy and Julie Plata Honorary Scholarship
    The Andy and Julie Plata Honorary Scholarship is sponsored by the EDSF Board of Directors. It consists of $2,000 in aid that is awarded annually to a student enrolled in a graphic design, graphic communication, or related field.

  • Ann Arbor Graphic Arts Memorial Scholarship
    The Ann Arbor Graphic Arts Memorial Scholarship is sponsored by the Ann Arbor Graphic Arts Memorial Foundation. It consists of at least $2,500 in aid and is awarded annually to a student interested in a career in the printing industry.

  • CBC Spouses Visual Arts Scholarship
    The CBC Spouses Visual Arts Scholarship is sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. It consists of $3,000 in aid and is awarded annually to a student majoring in visual arts.

  • Professional Graphic Design Organizations
    There are a plethora of professional organizations and associations intended for graphic designers. Membership generally provides extensive access to various resources, support, networking, and idea-sharing opportunities. Some of the most popular ones are:

  • American Institute of Graphic Arts
    The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) provides a place for graphic designers and other creative professionals to meet like-minded individuals, share ideas, and enhance the overall profession.

  • Graphic Artists Guild
    The Graphic Artists Guild strives to provide advanced education opportunities to professional graphic designers. It also works to protect its members’ creative rights, legally, with a designated “Legal Defense Fund.”

  • International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA)
    The International Council of Graphic Design Associations seeks to establish best practices for professional graphic designers. It also offers numerous competitions and provides opportunities for professionals to promote their work at retreats and regional meetings.

If you think a career in graphic design is right for you, it is important to begin preparing now. Start by taking as many art courses as possible and then begin looking for a degree program that suits your lifestyle, career goals, and budget. Keep the following tips in mind as you compare various college and university offerings.

Choosing an Accredited College


Finding an accredited institution or graphic design program is imperative. Accreditation proves that certain standards are met and maintained within the program. Attending a college or university without proper accreditation may result in an inability to transfer credits, apply for further education, or earn a good salary.

Online vs. On-Campus vs. Hybrid Degree Programs


Depending on your situation, a traditional on-campus graphic design program may be out of the question. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Online degrees offer flexible scheduling and allow those enrolled to work simultaneously. These do not offer much opportunity for networking, however. If this is important to you, consider choosing a hybrid degree program. While most of the coursework will take place online, this type of program requires short, on-campus residencies that allow for in-person interaction with professors and peers.

Additional Questions


Post Graduate Job Placement Assistance

It is also a good idea to look for colleges and universities that offer job placement assistance after graduation. While employment is not guaranteed, these programs offer many helpful resources, such as interview preparation, resume creation, and career coaching.

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