What is a Graphic Design Degree?

Graphic design has the ability to influence our emotions and the way we look at things. How? By communicating ideas or messages to us in a visual way. Because of that, our brain is trained to make decisions (specifically in terms of the items we buy) based more on looks, than on efficiency or practicality.

If you enjoy expressing your creativity and have an artistic eye, pursuing a degree in graphic design might be something you’d like to consider. This field produces visual content to communicate messages and to create visual designs that inspire, inform, and captivate us.

This can come in the form of advertisements, brochures, magazines, and even corporate literature. There is continued demand for graphic designers from design firms, advertisers, and publishers. In fact, the number of design jobs is expected to grow by 10 percent in the next decade!

A graphic design degree will guide you through important conceptual and practical design fundamentals such as design theory and practice, prototyping, and usability testing. Design courses will help you develop visual storytelling and communication skills, ensuring that you are equipped with top-notch graphic and user design skills upon graduation.

During the course of your degree, you’ll develop an understanding of effective graphic communication and build a good mix of subject-specific and technical skills. These include design skills and methods such as:

  • Drawing and sketching
  • Printmaking
  • Photography
  • Typography
  • Moving image
  • Digital media
  • Studio art
  • Principles of design
  • Computerized design
  • Commercial graphics production
  • Printing techniques
  • Website design

Program Options

There are various educational paths one can look at in the graphic design field. Pre-college graphic design courses (certifications) prepare students for an undergraduate degree program. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees are offered at most colleges, universities and design schools throughout the United States and Canada.

Associate Degree in Graphic Design - Two Year Duration

  • Associate of Arts in Graphic Design
  • Associate of Science in Graphic Design
  • Associate of Fine Arts in Graphic Design

An associate degree offers a great starting point for students who are interested in graphic design and want to familiarize themselves with different graphic design software programs. Examples of classes are: web design, color theory, design layout, and typography.

Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design - Four Year Duration

  • Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design
  • Bachelor of Science in Graphic Design
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design

Students are taught basic and advanced design concepts, such as two-dimensional and three-dimensional design, computer graphics, animation, and typography. Examples of classes are: principles of design and color, desktop publishing, graphics for the web, digital photography, and multimedia and animation.

Master’s Degree in Graphic Design - Two to Three Year Duration

  • Master of Fine Arts in Graphic Design
  • Master of Design
  • Design Master of Business Administration

Graphic design master’s programs are usually offered as Master of Fine Arts (MFA) and Master of Arts (MA) degrees. Some schools allow students to choose their own courses, however other schools have a set curriculum. Some examples of classes are: graphic design history, typography, visual thinking, digital design studio, research and writing, and professional practices.

Doctorate in Graphic Design - Two to Five Year Duration
Doctoral degree programs in graphic design are available, but they are rare. Depending on the chosen concentration, courses may include: qualitative and quantitative research methods, design theory and criticism, human interaction with designed objects, multicultural communication, design education, digital design, advanced typography, or design history. A thesis project or dissertation is also required.

Degrees Similar to Graphic Design

Fine Arts
A Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts is a standard degree for those looking for education in the visual or performing arts. This degree typically requires choosing an area of specialty such as: acting, music, game design, computer animation, creative writing, dance, drawing, film production, visual effects, animation, graphic design, illustration, industrial design, visual arts, technical arts, interior design, new media, painting, photography, sculpture, or television production. 

User Experience (UX) Design
A user experience (UX) degree provides students with the skills needed to produce a great digital experience for end users. Creativity, critical design thinking, user research, and cultural awareness go into creating a user’s digital experience - this degree helps students envision, design, and produce marketable and user friendly products.

Illustration is one of the main forms of visual communication. An illustration degree teaches students to think critically and innovatively in order to engage a number of audiences. Illustration courses look at pictorial strategies and various technical approaches while showing students how to adapt to many areas and opportunities (from art galleries to mass-media).

Animators learn how to use hand-drawn techniques, electronic tools, and 3D modeling programs to tell stories and bring their designs to life. An undergraduate animation degree prepares students for careers in graphic design, movies, website developing, or video game illustrating.

Skills You’ll Learn

A graphic design degree provides graduates with usable transferrable skills—useful for many types of careers.

Attention to Detail
Students are taught to pay attention to the detail of a design by examining and polishing every element of their designs and only including what is necessary. This skill is necessary whether a project is simple or complicated. 

Analytical Skills
It is important to be able to look at a project from the prospective of a consumer. Students are taught to examine how the designs they create and develop for their clients can carry the intended message to the end user, and how different colors or shapes can influence consumer decisions. 

Communication Skills
Graphic designers need to be able to listen and communicate with their clients in order to understand their needs and provide them with an accurate reflection of what they asked for. Students learn how to explain technical and visual information to clients and to do so in a way that is simple to understand (most clients are not versed in design or anything tech related). 

Computer Skills & Web Design
Graphic designers need to be able to use specialized graphic design software. Students are introduced to Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, QuarkExpress, PageMaker, and InDesign. Coding knowledge (especially if the design task pertains to website development) is also needed, such as HTML, CSS, and javascript.

Fonts can make a big difference to the look and feel of a product. They can affect readability and overall experience for the end user. Students learn how, why, and what colors and typography can attract customers, and also become familiar with line-height and tracking.

Artistic Ability
Through practice and experience, students learn how to create artistically interesting concepts and designs that are eye-catching to both clients and consumers. They are shown how to hand sketch or use computer programs to produce rough illustrations of their design ideas. 

Creative Skills
Graphic designers must be able to think outside of the box and be able to develop unique designs for their clients. Students are encouraged to generate solutions for their clients through creative means.

What Can You Do with a Graphic Design Degree?

A graphic design degree can prepare individuals for success in a variety of fields and industries. The following are the various areas a graphic design graduate can find employment in:

  • Communication & Marketing
  • Advertising & Public Relations
  • Publishing
  • User Experience/User Interface (UX/UI)
  • Web Design
  • Product/Industrial Design
  • Animation/Multimedia
  • Illustration
  • Exhibition Design
  • Printmaking
  • Interior Design
  • Fashion


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