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Graphic Design Schools & Colleges

We live in a visual world, and every day we’re bombarded by images from all directions: billboards, magazine covers, Web pages, print ads, television and movies, product packaging, and more. Behind every book cover or company logo that catches our eye is a graphic designer, or a team of designers, who combines text and images to convey a carefully crafted message. Graphic designers may work for advertising firms, publishing houses or design firms, or they may freelance for their own selection of clients.

In a graphic design program, students are taught the basic skills they’ll likely need to enter the industry. There are many specialties within the field, but a general graphic design program may touch on Web design, illustration, typography, computer graphics, and animation, as well as more traditional visual arts such as drawing, sculpting or photography. By the time the degree is completed, students typically have compiled a varied portfolio that will help enable them to pursue a number of avenues within the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2011, 191,550 graphic designers were employed in the U.S., earning a national median income of up to $44,010 per year (BLS.gov/oes). The industry is projected to increase by 13% from 2010 to 2020, which gives it a growth rate that’s about average compared to other industries (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). Learn more about the different types of graphic design programs.

What does a graphic designer do and who is suited for a career in graphic design?

Graphic design is a general term that encompasses many different job possibilities. Depending on your specialized field and whether you work as a freelancer or for a larger company, the day-to-day realities of the job can vary widely. Graphic designers who work for advertising firms help design the ads and marketing materials for companies, while those at publishing houses may design book covers, journals, or other publication materials. Freelancers may specialize in designing Web pages or creating company and product logos. Art directors who work in-house at a company oversee all artwork the company creates, including advertising, multimedia, and product packaging.

People who enter the graphic design field share a common interest and background in visual arts, but where they go from there depends on their particular interests and career goals. Those with a technical bent may wind up in Web design, animation, or technical illustration, while those with a passion for fonts and lettering may gravitate toward logo or book design. People who prefer to work individually, choose their own projects, and set their own hours may wish to pursue one of the freelance-driven areas of the field, such as typography or Web design. Those who prefer the job security and benefits of working for a company, and who work well as part of a team, may prefer to work in advertising or for a design firm.

What education, training, and experience is required to become a graphic designer?

Most graphic designers enter the job market with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design or visual communications, as many colleges call the major (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). Associate degrees or certificate programs can provide basic skills to prepare students for some industry jobs, but those without bachelor’s degrees may find themselves up against stiff competition for the more prestigious graphic design positions. A master’s degree can be valuable for someone who chooses to pursue a highly specialized subfield, enters the graphic design field from another undergraduate background, or wishes to teach graphic design, but otherwise a bachelor’s degree is the standard preparation for entry-level positions.

A strong graphic design program should expose students to multiple areas of the industry and allow them to explore their interests as well as develop a sense of their particular strengths. By the time the degree is completed, students should have a portfolio showcasing their strongest work and demonstrating a range of skills. This portfolio is often beneficial in helping candidates obtain entry-level graphic design jobs or attract their first freelance clients.

Important things to consider when a choosing a graphic design degree program

Students who choose to pursue a graphic design degree should look for a program tailored to their interests. Those with general interests may choose a broad, more all-encompassing program, while those entering with an already-strong sense of their interests or strengths may prefer a program that emphasizes those aspects. Graphic design programs can vary by school — for instance, some place a heavier focus on providing a traditional visual arts background and may emphasize drawing, sculpting, and photography, for instance. These are valuable skills for many graphic design professions, but students with an avid interest in computers who already plan to pursue careers as Web designers or animators may prefer a more technologically focused program.

Regardless of specialized interests, students should investigate the school’s job placement rates, a good measure of the school or program’s reputation within the industry and the quality of education it provides. Smaller class sizes can mean greater attention from professors and stronger connections. A school’s location, costs, and overall atmosphere can also be important factors to a student’s experience.

What type of graphic design degree programs are available?

Graphic design degree programs are available at the certificate, associate, bachelor’s, and graduate levels. A certificate program can offer basic skills or teach students how to use a specific program such as Adobe Photoshop or InDesign. An associate degree program generally lasts around two years and provides a slightly broader set of basic graphic design skills, preparing students for low-level careers in the industry. A bachelor’s degree is the most common choice for those pursuing a graphic design career and is helpful in preparing students for wide range of careers in various fields within the industry. A master’s program can be a good option for those wishing to receive highly specialized training, for those without a previous graphic design background, or for those who wish to teach graphic design.

Some aspiring graphic designers choose to attend art schools, while others seek out graphic design majors at liberal arts universities, depending on their career goals and the degree of specialization they’re looking for. Online degree programs are also available and may be a good option for students who need to pursue their education remotely.

What career and job opportunities are available to students with graphic design degrees?

People with graphic design degrees can choose to take their careers in one of several different directions, depending on their interests and whether they prefer to freelance or work for a larger company. They may choose to freelance as Web designers, creating Web pages for clients. They may design logos or create book covers, either in a freelance capacity or as part of a publishing company. They can work as animators or illustrators, creating storyboards that later become television shows, movies, or video games. Those who prefer to work as part of a team may join advertising firms, creating marketing materials and ad campaigns for various companies. One of the most high-paying and coveted positions in the industry is as an in-house art director or creative director for a company, leading a team that is responsible for all of the artwork a company produces, including advertising, product packaging, and any media presence.

A graphic design degree may prepare students to enter this growing industry in a number of different careers. Whether someone chooses to work freelance creating eye-catching logos or as an art director for a large company, there are many opportunities available to be a part of the graphic design industry and make a mark on the visual landscape.


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