What is an Illustration Degree?

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, or animation and cartoon drawing.

The goal of every curriculum, from those that award an illustration degree online to graduate programs that award a Master’s Degree in Illustration, is to develop both technical skills and a visual philosophy that graduates can apply in a variety of illustration careers.

Program Options

Associate Degree in Illustration – Two Year Duration
At the associate level, many schools do not offer a specific degree in illustration. Instead, students have the option to choose illustration as their concentration in a fine arts program. An associate degree in this field often serves as preparation for further study in a bachelor’s program. Although a bachelor’s is needed in many full-time positions, associate graduates may qualify for some entry-level / internship roles or they may pursue freelance work.

The typical associate program introduces students to these basic concepts and techniques of illustration:

  • Manual drawing – examples: life/figure drawing, fashion drawing
  • Digital drawing / Photoshop and other digital tools
  • Typography – the visual component of the written word; the art and technique of arranging type
  • Composition in illustration
  • Stylization: consistency versus randomness in composition

Bachelor’s Degree in Illustration – Four Year Duration
Graduates of a Bachelor’s Degree in Illustration generally qualify for most intermediate and some senior roles in the field. These may include positions as illustrators, artists, and animators.

The goal of this undergraduate program is to develop visual creativity, technical expertise, and basic business sense. Coursework is made up of classroom and studio components. Students are given several opportunities to complete and present projects that become part of their illustration portfolio.

Here are some sample courses offered at the bachelor’s level:

  • The History of Illustration and Graphic Design
  • Visual Culture
  • Life / Figure Drawing
  • Representational Drawing
  • Form and Space
  • Principles of Illustration Design
  • Typography for Illustrators
  • Color, Space, Lighting, and Design
  • Principles of Digital Media
  • Illustration for Digital Media
  • 3D Design and Motion
  • Contemporary Issues in Illustration
  • Illustration Business Studies
  • English – Composition and Rhetoric

Master’s Degree in Illustration – Two Year Duration
Holders of this graduate degree may choose to work as art directors or senior graphic designers. Some run their own business. Most master’s degree illustration programs combine advanced drawing and illustration courses with significant instruction in creative writing, digital media and communications technology, and business practices. At this level, students spend a lot of time in studio, working on projects that contribute to their thesis. Therefore, master’s coursework varies, depending on individual students’ choice of electives, workshops, and studio/practicum options.

Degrees Similar to Illustration

Creative expression is at the heart of many degree options for individuals who may initially consider studying illustration:

There is a clear connection between architecture and illustration. Architectural drawings are an important part of the architectural process.

Art History
Individuals with a degree in art history have completed the academic study of the history and development of drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, filmmaking, and architecture.

Commercial Art
Professionals in this field combine art and business by using their creative skills to market and sell products and services. The degree gives students a background in branding, account planning and management, as well as the aesthetic concepts of color theory and composition.

Digital Arts
As the name suggests, the curriculum for this degree is computer-focused, introducing students to web video, 3D modeling, and animation.

Exhibit and Set Design
The world of set and exhibit design for large exhibitions and movie, television, and theatre sets offers yet another option to students with a visual/design bent.

Fashion Design
One of the first steps of fashion design is the drawing of the fashion sketch. The fashion industry allows students to combine a passion for design with a passion for fabric, clothes, and apparel.

Fine Arts
In addition to drawing/illustration, the fine arts provide several other similar degree options. Painting, photography, sculpture, and animation are some examples.

Interactive Media Design
The design of interactive media with animation, graphics, and sound is perhaps the modern-day equivalent of the creation of years- and centuries- old original works of art.

Graphic Design
The common goal of illustration and graphic design is to produce visual concepts. Both disciplines employ layout, color, and other creative concepts to inspire and captivate.

Interior Design
Architectural drafting, color theory, lighting design, and materials sustainability are the primary components of interior design degree programs.

Like illustration, 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.

Skills You’ll Learn

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

  • be creative and to appreciate creativity and design
  • develop their own style
  • use creative software
  • look at the world through many different lenses
  • understand that everyone has a different viewpoint
  • look for ways to improve their work

What Can You Do with an Illustration Degree?

The drawing and digital design skills of illustrators are needed in a wide variety of industries and sectors:

  • Advertising – storyboard sketching for commercials; packaging design, promotional material, instruction manuals, and sales brochures for products and services; billboards
  • Architecture
  • Comic Book Illustration / Animation
  • Courts – sketching of courtroom images
  • Event Management Companies – drawing custom artwork for high-profile events and conventions
  • Fashion Design
  • Film and Television – storyboard and special effects sketching for movies and TV shows; film posters
  • Fine Arts – fine artists create works to sell for their aesthetic value
  • Forensic Art – sketching crime scenes, evidence, suspects, and skeletal remains
  • Furniture Design
  • Government – drawing for information services, such as health and education reference materials
  • Medical / Science Illustration – anatomy and surgical illustration for medical textbooks, medical journals, information pamphlets, scientific exhibits; this field is governed by the Board of Certification of Medical Illustrators and requires additional certification
  • Multimedia – storyboard sketching for video games; web design and drawing for online media
  • Product Development – for stationery and greeting card companies, textile producers
  • Publishing – drawing for books, magazines, newspapers


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