What is a Commercial Art Degree?

Commercial art brings art to commerce. This is the distinction between it and fine art. Fine art – a painting or a sculpture, for example – exists for its own sake and appeals to the wide spectrum of human emotions. The primary purpose of commercial art – or advertising art, as it is sometimes called – is more practical than aesthetic.

Its focus is the promotion and sale of products and services. Its objective is to appeal to consumer emotions that drive customers to buy. The best commercial art is an engaging combination of message and medium, of information and inspiration.

Degree programs in the field prepare students to work as commercial artists – artists who appreciate business as much as art, who use their talents to create art for branding, marketing, advertising, and selling. Components of the curriculum include drawing, photography, color theory, design composition and layout, and typography.

Program Options

Certificate in Commercial Art – One Year Duration
Certificate programs in commercial art introduce major-specific concepts, skills, and methods only. In other words, they do not go beyond the focused commercial art curriculum to include any general education classes.

Associate Degree in Commercial Art – Two Year Duration
A commercial art education at the associate level combines foundational courses in the major with classes in English composition, math, science, professional communication, and basic computer skills such as word processing and spreadsheets.

Bachelor’s Degree in Commercial Art – Four Year Duration
This is the most common degree held by commercial artists. The bachelor’s curriculum is comprehensive and incorporates the most in-depth commercial art curriculum with supporting classes in the arts and sciences.

The following are examples of specific courses in these three programs:

  • Visual Literacy for Designers – examination of the concepts of visual thinking through the analysis of visual imagery
  • Drawing – the fundamentals of drawing – edges, lines, angles, proportion, perspective, shadow, highlights, tone – and drawing techniques and media
  • Digital Photography – digital technology, visual design concepts, digital file formats, editing of color and black-and-white images, digital photography in print and new media
  • Two-Dimensional Design - 2D design in graphic design
  • Design and Color – color theory and design application
  • History of Graphic Design – the evolution of graphic design and design movements, the computer graphics revolution
  • Introduction to Three-Dimensional Design – 3D design theory and concepts, 3D design projects
  • Introduction to Type Design – history of typography, type design in various media, use of layout software
  • Fundamentals of Computer Graphics – introduction to the use of vector graphics in electronic design, type and image layout design software
  • Introduction to Web Page Development – planning, designing, creating, and maintaining static Web pages
  • Introduction to Graphic Design – graphic design technology, materials, and methods; assignments – advertisements, logos, corporate documents, book covers, restaurant menus, and other commercial art projects
  • Advanced Type Design – aesthetics and uses of letterforms in text-centered work
  • Advanced Computer Graphics – electronic imaging hardware and software, importing and digital editing of photographic images
  • Introduction to Graphic Design for the Internet – web design fundamentals, typography, imagery, color, and layout; creating user-friendly websites
  • Portfolio – development of a personal portfolio of concepts and artwork in preparation of entering the commercial art field

Degrees Similar to Commercial Art

Degree programs in advertising are made up of courses that demonstrate how to develop a brand and communicate it through the various advertising channels of print, television, radio, and online media.

Animators are artists. Their art is producing images or ‘frames’ that when combined in sequence create an illusion of movement called ‘animation.’ Degree programs in the field teach students how to use animation software and hardware to create characters and stories for the motion picture, television, and video game industries.

Typical components of the curriculum include two-dimensional and three-dimensional art and animation, storyboarding, life/human and background drawing, layout, and digital painting.

Computer Graphics
This degree field teaches students how to develop graphics software. Coursework includes drawing, graphic design, digital modeling, multimedia applications, and software engineering.

Fashion Merchandising
Fashion merchandisers combine the art of fashion with the business of fashion. Degree programs in the field cover fashion history, the fashion seasons, and the structure and performance of fabrics. They examine consumer behavior and target markets and look at the processes involved in forecasting trends and product lifecycles, negotiating with manufacturers, determining sales projections, making purchasing decisions, and pricing inventory.

They are also about building brands and marketing and creating visual presentations for both brick-and-mortar and online stores. In short, students of fashion merchandising learn to appreciate budgets and spreadsheets as much as design and style.

Fine Arts
The fine arts provide several other similar degree options. Painting, photography, sculpture, and animation are some examples.

Game Design
Degree programs in game design teach students how to create, develop, and produce video and computer games. Foundations of a game design curriculum typically include game theory and history, pre-production and production techniques, storytelling, graphics, animation, digital music and sound, and programming.

Graphic Design
The goal of graphic design is to produce visual concepts to communicate messages. The discipline uses layout, color, and other creative concepts to design logos and branding packages that inspire and captivate consumers.

Illustration degree programs teach students how to tell stories and communicate ideas visually. They cover traditional manual drawing, digital art technologies, and art and illustration history. Some programs may include painting classes or offer concentrations in a specific kind of illustration, such as book illustration, fashion illustration, exhibit drawing, animation and cartoon drawing, and medical illustration.

Industrial Design
Industrial designers design the way that we live our lives, by creating, innovating, and styling the common mass-produced items that we buy, use, and consume. They research, build, and test prototypes to maximize the functionality and desirability of products, from cars to food packaging to consumer electronics. Students of industrial design study the history of the field, design conceptualization, drawing, dimensional and computer-aided design, materials and processes, and model making.

Photography is communication via images. Photography degree programs teach the technical, creative, and business skills required to be a professional photographer. Typical coursework includes history of photography, black-and-white photography, color photography, lighting techniques, materials and processes, two-dimensional design, and digital photography.

Visual Communication
Visual communication degree programs combine instruction in diverse media, such as photojournalism, painting, sculpture, and graphic design.

Web Design
Degree programs in this field teach the principles and practices of web design and the communication, collaboration, and project planning and execution skills demanded by employers and clients.

Skills You’ll Learn

While earning their degree, students of commercial art gain skills that are valued in the world at large. They learn to:

  • be creative and to appreciate creativity and design
  • look at the world through many different lenses
  • develop and express their own style
  • understand that everyone has a different viewpoint
  • observe and pay attention to details
  • look for ways to improve their work
  • accept and use criticism
  • be courageous in proposing sometimes bold and daring ideas
  • collaborate and work in teams
  • interpret data concerning consumer psychology and behavior
  • use creative software
  • be entrepreneurial

What Can You Do with a Commercial Art Degree?

These are the fields in which commercial artists primarily work, either as salaried employees or freelancers:

Advertising / Marketing / Graphic Design / Industrial Design / Environmental Design
They sketch and digitally design graphics and images used in advertising campaigns, brochures, billboards, product packaging, logos, product design conceptualization, and environmental / experiential design.

Publishing and Communications
They create art and layouts for newspapers, magazines, and books.

In addition, they may create commercial art directly for companies in these sectors:

  • Corporations / Multinational Corporations
  • Fashion
  • Government
  • Healthcare
  • Manufacturing
  • Restaurants
  • Television / Film / Web

They may also teach commercial art at technical schools, colleges, and universities.


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