What is a Visual Communication Degree?

Visual communication is about visual storytelling. Degree programs in the field teach students how to tell stories using words, symbols, and images, how to communicate ideas and information to targeted audiences in all kinds of media, from electronic and printed magazines and books to branding packages and logos, signage and billboards, apps, websites, maps, and museum displays.

The visual communication curriculum prepares students to work in a rapidly evolving, technologically advanced profession. It explores typography, image generation, visual structure, color and composition, and motion design. Simply stated, it fosters an understanding of medium and message, of form and function.

Program Options

Associate Degree in Visual Communication – Two Year Duration
A visual communication associate program combines introductory courses in the major with some liberal arts classes in subjects such as English literature and composition and the social sciences. Some two-year programs focus on a particular area of visual communication, such as multimedia or advertising design. Some may include a practicum component. Grads with this associate degree typically qualify for entry-level jobs in the field or go on to further study at the bachelor’s level.

Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Communication – Four Year Duration
The broadcast journalism bachelor’s degree is the most common credential in the field. Programs at this level incorporate more extensive hands-on learning experiences and often more than a single practicum/internship. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Communication, graduates are ready to progress from entry-level positions through to supervisory and middle management roles.

Despite the differences described above, visual communication courses like the following are at the heart of both of these programs. The longer bachelor’s curriculum takes a more in-depth, comprehensive approach to the subject matter.

  • Design Fundamentals – introduction to the basic visual components that create form and meaning, methods of visual organization, appropriate use of color in communication design, the roles of research and theory in design
  • University Writing Strategies – core skills for critical reading, analytical thinking, and clear writing; editing, revision, and digital literacy
  • Survey and Principles of Illustration I – review of notable artists and their work and social influences on visual expression from the Renaissance until the mid-20th century; principles of light, form, and color
  • Visual Studio – introduction to line, form, ad light through exploration of drawing and photography; principles of perception, observation, proportion, and perspective
  • Survey and Principles of Design I – the origins of written communication and its role in the development of typography and the design and advertising fields
  • Creative Thinking for Designers – idea generation, big picture thinking, design for good and sustainable design, how audiences interact with information
  • Survey and Principles of Illustration II – review of notable illustrators and their work and economic and historical influences on visual expression from the Golden Age to present day; techniques, voice, and storytelling in illustration
  • Survey and Principles of Design II – examination of graphic design typography from the mid-20th century to present day; the impacts of modernist, post-modernist, and information age movements on graphic design and advertising
  • Digital Media I – introduction to the digital technologies and media used in the design and advertising industries; setting up and maintaining digital platforms and tools and working with image-making software for both static and dynamic media; the basics of building the interactive experience: information architecture, navigation design, user interface design, and the user experience
  • Technology Intensive I – introduction to professional page layout software for print and digital publishing; managing fonts and color systems; preparing files for production
  • Illustration Studio I – students begin to develop their own style and voice by working through the process of completing an illustration project through concept, sketches, client approval, and finished work
  • Design Studio I – student immersion in the design process by analyzing design problems, working through creative briefs, creating design solutions, and developing rationales; design-related software
  • Survey and Principles of Typography – exploration of typography as a core element of visual communication; the evolution of type from the mid-1400s to present day; the principles of best typographic practice and their application to print and digital media
  • Digital Media II – the role of the designer / illustrator in the creation of visual communication for static and dynamic media; addressing the needs of various real-world digital communication scenarios
  • Technology Intensive II – introduction to digital illustration for dynamic media; image making and using motion graphic software
  • Illustration Studio II – the development of illustration styles for visual communication using voice and storytelling; the roles of the illustrator and art director in the process of creating illustration for advertising, design, and publishing
  • Design Studio II – introduction to ways in which design solutions can reflect environmental, cultural, social, and economic responsibility
  • Brand Identity – students complete a branding assignment as it would typically be handled in a design studio or advertising agency; components include creative brief, strategy, logo development, and marketing materials design
  • Design Thinking and Research – how design thinking is used to identify solutions to problems; how cultural differences can influence design; how ethnographic research can reveal audience values
  • Technology Intensive III – front-end technologies for digital media production; user interface design and navigation for different types of screen technologies
  • Visual Communication Studios – illustration, branding, and interactive studios
  • Professional Development – developing personal branding and self-promotional materials
  • Technology Intensive IV – development of professional portfolio websites for designers and illustrators
  • Industry Practicum – off-campus work experience within a studio / agency environment

Master’s Degree in Visual Communication – Two to Three Year Duration
At the master’s level, visual communication students typically focus their coursework around a concentration specific to their intended professional field. Common specializations include:

  • Web and digital media
  • Design reproduction technology
  • Communication design
  • Interaction and interactive design
  • User experience
  • Motion design
  • 3D digital design

Here is an example of how a master’s program in visual communication might be structured:

  • Introduction to Visual Design Systems
  • History of Art and Design
  • Research Methods in Design
  • Introduction to Motion design
  • Persuasion in Graphic Design
  • Elements of Commercial Design
  • Visual Design Tools and Software
  • Sustainability and Design
  • Design Leadership and Management
  • Branding Principles and Design
  • Typography and User Experience
  • Professional Practices in Visual Communication
  • Thesis Research
  • Thesis Writing and Defense

Degrees Similar to Visual Communication

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.

Commercial Art
Degree programs in the commercial art 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.

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.

Drafting Technology
This degree field teaches students to use computer programs to create drawings that are used in construction or manufacturing.

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.

Multimedia Arts
Degree programs in multimedia arts prepare students to work in the fields of animation, game and interactive media design, visual effects, and media and computer technology.

Photography degree programs teach the technical, creative, and business skills required to be a professional photographer. Courses cover the history of photography, black-and-white photography, color photography, lighting techniques, materials and processes, two-dimensional design, digital photography, and photography as a business.

Skills You’ll Learn

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

  • be creative and to appreciate creativity, art, 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
  • be entrepreneurial
  • develop spatial reasoning
  • interpret data concerning consumer psychology and behavior
  • use design software
  • use computers, printers, scanners, and other technologies

What Can You Do with a Visual Communication Degree?

Most, if not all, major industries and organizations need to communicate their messages through visual media. This means that opportunities for visual communication graduates are wide and varied. Their work often involves analyzing business trends and then designing communication strategies that respond to those trends.

Career opportunities exist with:

  • Advertising agencies
  • App designers / developers
  • Architectural offices
  • Cultural sector – art galleries, museums, theaters, etc.
  • Design consulting offices
  • Design studios
  • Fashion houses
  • Film / TV / video production companies
  • Game designers / developers
  • Government media or communications offices
  • In-house corporate design departments
  • Magazine / book publishers
  • News organizations
  • Public relations firms
  • Social media groups
  • University media or communications offices

Possible positions / titles include:

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