What is a Computer Graphics Degree?

Computer graphics designers are part artist, part mathematician, part scientist. They use computers to create and manipulate pictures or designs for various purposes. Their work is essential in many fields, from commercial art and entertainment to education.

The art, math, and science aspects of computer graphics are clearly reflected in the field’s curriculum, which encompasses 3D models and animation, algorithms and computational geometry, and the behavior of light and shadow.

Program Options

Certificate in Computer Graphics – Six Month to One Year Duration
Certificate programs teach only subjects in the major. They are focused exclusively on the various aspects of computer graphics.

Associate Degree in Computer Graphics – One to Two Year Duration
A computer graphics associate program combines courses in the major with some liberal arts classes in subjects such as English literature and composition and the social sciences.

Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Graphics – Three to Four Year Duration
The computer graphics bachelor’s degree is the most comprehensive credential in the field. Programs at this level incorporate more extensive lab experiences and often a practicum/internship component. Graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Graphics qualify for supervisory and management positions.

A limited number of schools offer a Master’s Degree in Computer Graphics. However, graduate level programs in the field are not typically standalone programs. They are more likely to be available as a Master’s Degree in Computer Science, with a concentration in computer graphics.

Despite the differences described above, all computer graphics programs are built around the three main themes of computer graphics: modeling, animation, and rendering. Below is a snapshot of the topics that are central to each of these themes.


How to represent or model 3D objects and environments

  • Shape
  • The geometry of the object
  • Appearance
  • Emission
  • Reflection
  • Transmission of light

How to construct models for specific objects

  • Manual description / written formula
  • Interactive manipulation
  • Writing a generating program
  • Scanning a real object
  • Laser scanners
  • Computer vision


How to represent the motion of objects

  • Positions, view angles, etc. as functions of time

How to control / specify this motion

  • Generate poses by hand
  • Behavioral simulation
  • Physical simulation
  • Motion capture


How to simulate the formation of images

  • Incoming light is focused by a lens
  • Light energy exposes a light sensitive film
  • Represent images as discrete 2D arrays of pixels

How to simulate the real-world behavior of light

  • Consider light as photons (light particles)
  • Trace straight line motions of photons
  • Model interactions when light hits surfaces – refraction, reflection, etc.

Here are samples of courses that computer graphics students take to become proficient in the skills of modeling, animation, and rendering:

  • Computer Vision – image analysis and interpreting the 3D world from image data; subjects include segmentation, motion estimation, image mosaics, 3D-shape construction, object recognition, and image retrieval
  • Mathematical Foundations of Computer Graphics and Visualization – algorithms and techniques in geometric modeling, computer graphics, visualization, image processing, computer vision, robotics, and computational geometry
  • Computer Graphics – computer image synthesis, modeling, and animation; subjects include visual perception, displays and framebuffers, image processing, affine and projective transformations, hierarchical modeling, hidden surface elimination, shading, ray-tracing, anti-aliasing, texture mapping, curves, surfaces, particle systems, dynamics, character animation, and animation principles
  • Geometric Modeling – representations of curves using Bézier curves and splines; modeling of natural phenomena and processes such as animal movement, atmospheric and subsurface light scattering, fire and smoke, glare effects, lighting and fireworks, and plants and trees
  • Computer Animation – fundamental principles of computer-generated animation, modeling and lighting of animated characters
  • Advanced Topics in Digital Animation – student projects: 2D and 3D animatics, special effects design, character animation techniques, 3D paint techniques and integration, short design, sequence planning, non-photorealistic rendering options, interactive animation, advanced production techniques
  • Rendering – 3D rendering to bring models to life and scenes to life with lighting, shadows, reflections, and global illumination; rendering in software programs such as Maya, Cinema 4D, 3ds Max, and Blender

Degrees Similar to Computer Graphics

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 Programming
Computer programming students learn how to write and test code – the instructions that enable applications and software programs to operate.

Computer Science
The field of computer science is focused on computer systems and how humans interact with them. Courses cover mathematics for computer science, artificial intelligence, data structures and algorithms, and introduction to program design.

Desktop and Web Publishing
Programs in desktop and web publishing teach the design and layout of printed and digital documents. Coursework includes web design, multimedia design, writing, and editing.

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.

Simulation Programming
Simulation programmers develop computer simulations that allow us to predict, see, think about, test, and manipulate real-world products, services, systems, processes, conditions, situations, and issues, without taking the risk and incurring the costs of doing so in the real world. Math, engineering, and computer science are the overlapping disciplines that simulation relies on. Degree programs in the field are made up of courses in these technical and scientific areas, but they are also focused on teaching the skills of abstracting, theorizing, hypothesizing, and intellectualizing. In other words, simulation programming students learn everything they need to conceptualize the world into models that are designed to reach solutions to many of the world’s challenges and problems.

Software Engineering
Degree programs in software engineering teach students how to apply engineering principles to software development. Students learn how to design, build, test, implement, and maintain computer operating systems, as well as applications that allow end users to accomplish tasks on their computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices. The typical curriculum includes several programming languages, because the work of software engineers involves instructing computer programmers how to write the code they need.

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

Skills You’ll Learn

Creativity / Design Concepts
Students of computer graphics learn to appreciate art and design, to be imaginative and creative, and to convey information through images. They become proficient in color theory and visual color discrimination.

Technology Skills
While computer graphics is definitely a creative discipline, it is also one that involves a lot of technology. Graduates of the field come away from their studies with knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD) and various software programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects.

Business Skills

  • Attention to Detail
  • Business Planning
  • Observation and Problem-Solving
  • Teamwork
  • Time and Project Management
  • Verbal and Written Communication

What Can You Do with a Computer Graphics Degree?

Computer graphics designers apply their skills in a particularly diverse group of fields. Opportunities exist in:

Architecture and Engineering
Architects and engineers rely on computer graphics and computer-aided design to consider design options and resolve planning and layout issues.

With the help of computer graphics, molecular biologists are able to study the structure of molecules.

Computer-generated maps are extremely useful to urban planners and civil engineers.

Commercial Art
Computer graphics are essential to the creation of television advertisements, websites, and apps.

Computer-generated models and software are used as educational aids in a wide array of disciplines.

One of the main fields of application of computer graphics is the entertainment industry, specifically computer games, virtual reality, and movies.

Presentation Graphics
Businesses of all kinds use graphics – bar charts, line graphs, pie charts, etc. – to present information like financial reports, marketing and advertising plans, and sales projections.

Printing Technology and Textile Design
Computer graphics are essential to printing technology and textile design.

Computer graphics allow professionals in a variety of fields to visualize their subject matter. Medical scientists and researchers, meteorologists, financial planners, and air traffic controllers are just a few examples. The institutions and companies that employ them may hire computer graphic artists to produce the models they need to do their work.


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