Online Degrees in Graphic Design: Top Schools for 2016

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Talented graphic designers and artists are in demand in industries ranging from manufacturing to government to public relations. Visual communication plays a big role in the lives of millions every day, and not just through the familiar avenue of print media like newspapers, books, magazines and billboards. Graphic design professionals are combining traditional art skills with technology to present their work through websites, animation and video games as well as apps for phones and other mobile devices. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment for designers working in the area of computer systems and services to skyrocket by 35 percent between 2012 and 2022. Technology has expanded not just the choice of vehicles used for visual communication, but also the education and training available for would-be designers.

A Complete Guide to Online Graphic Design Degrees

It’s no secret that technological advances have revolutionized the world we live in. For better or worse, nothing remains untouched. Some domains have changed more than others, and in graphic design, digital technology is doing double duty. First, computers and the Internet have opened up whole new realms in which designers can present their work. Second, distance learning has brought graphic design education into the reach of anyone with a laptop. No longer do creative artists have to relocate to one of a handful of big cities to obtain the knowledge and skills desirable for a professional design career.

This guide has been put together to provide a comprehensive introduction to the world of online graphic design degrees, including the programs currently available and ways in which prospective students can find a program that suits their unique needs and career goals. Also included is an extensive conversation with a student enrolled in an online degree program in graphic design who is already working in the field.

Timeline for Online Graphic Design Degrees

Graphic design is first and foremost a visual medium. Because of that, the study of this field lends itself to the Internet and distance learning – students can use software programs for computerized design assignments such as logos. Online degree providers and prestigious art and design schools alike have become acutely aware of this, and have developed online graphic design programs for every postsecondary level of achievement. It’s up to each student to decide exactly which level fits his or her professional aspirations and determine if the costs in cash, time and effort are worth it. The following is a quick rundown of what online graphic design majors encounter in terms of the time and milestones needed to complete these degrees.

Certificate in Graphic Design (1 Year)

The term “certificate” can mean a lot of things when it comes to postsecondary education. In regard to graphic design, this usually refers to non-degree programs meant as an introduction to basic concepts and skills. While the curriculum varies by school, it typically includes fundamentals for the major and subjects such as production, color theory, typography, photo imaging and more. It’s important to choose a program that is recognized by other institutions: if students later seek additional education, some schools allow credits earned in certificate programs to be applied to associate and even bachelor’s degree studies.

Associate Degree (2 Years)

Associate degree programs are normally the domain of 2-year local community or technical colleges. This not necessarily true in the case of graphic design degree programs, and those offered online may be available from private art institutes and colleges, as well as for-profit primarily online schools. As with certificates, the purpose of a graphic design associate degree is to lay the foundation for a career in the field by providing introductory coursework on key topics such as drawing and perspective, photography and image editing, and the fundamentals of web design and digital illustration. Additionally, general education courses can help students develop skills in communication, reasoning and math, which all play a role in the workplace. Graduates should leave their programs with an extensive portfolio to demonstrate their skills to potential employers and clients or in the event they later wish to apply for more advanced design studies.

Explore Associate’s Degree programs for Graphic Design search programs >>
The New School
  • Enrollment: 8,496
  • Tuition: $39,368
  • College Type: Private
  • State: New York
  • Associate of Arts in Science in Graphic Design At Parsons

Bachelor’s Degree (4 Years)

According to the BLS, the career path for a graphic designer usually begins with a bachelor’s degree in that specific major or a related field. Most bachelor’s degree programs are designed to be completed in four years of full-time study, although the length of online graphic design programs can vary substantially. Web-based programs in particular build in flexible scheduling to accommodate part-time students and working adults.

Graphic design degrees are normally given the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) designation, although some schools offer a Bachelor of Arts, while others have both BA and BFA options. The differences can sometimes be subtle, but BA programs tend to encompass a broader art and design knowledge base while BFA programs emphasize graphic design theory and practice, concentrating on the organization and visual communication of information. With the growing focus on digital tools, there are also targeted online degree programs such as a Bachelor of Science in Graphic Information Technology from Arizona State University.

Course Load for Graphic Design Majors

Curricula for graphic design bachelor’s degrees vary from program to program, sometimes significantly, based upon a particular school’s academic point-of-view or area of emphasis. Nevertheless, most follow a format built on the usual undergraduate general education component with an emphasis on English composition, combined with a series of foundational courses centered on art, design and drawing. Courses typically include design theory and application, with mandatory subjects for the major and the concentration, if applicable, plus elective classes. Below is a list of common core courses that students are likely to encounter at the bachelor’s degree level:

  • Color Theory and Application

    This subject concerns the understanding of color properties and their relationship to design, particularly in regard to their application to advertising layout and visual merchandising.

  • Form and Image

    Teaches the basics skills and techniques of drawing through the study of form, light, proportion, scale and spatial depth. Skills are developed through the use of sketch books, quick studies, thumbnail sketches and digital resources.

  • Interface Design

    An introduction to the variety of visual, navigational and structural approaches relating to interfaces. Topics include navigation systems, basic animation, CSS, visual hierarchy, image preparation and file transferring protocols.

  • Typography

    Simply put, typography is the arrangement of type. It is a key component to graphic design. Choices regarding typeface, layout, grid and color are crucial to the impact and strength of graphic design.

Students should also expect to successfully complete courses in areas such as art and graphic design history, media management, motion graphics, and business-related domains like marketing and entrepreneurship.

Requirements for Admission and Graduation

Admission procedures for a graphic design program are similar in many aspects to those for other majors, with a few notable differences. Specific requirements vary by school, but in addition to the usual application materials, students may need to submit samples of their design work, such as sketches or prior assignments from art classes.

Graduation requirements reflect desired program outcomes. Many schools focus on preparing graduates to enter the working world with the knowledge and skills necessary for gainful employment. Specifically, those who earn bachelor’s degrees should possess the demonstrable abilities to produce work of a professional quality, solve creative problems and execute their solutions based on art and design principles, while recognizing major cultural and aesthetic trends as they relate to graphic design.

The most important practical outcome of any graphic design degree program is the student portfolio, the importance of which cannot be overstated. The portfolio is a resume brought to life, a calling card that graduates can use to gain employment and attract clients. This achievement represents the starting point of a career, and professionals add to and edit this record of their work over the years. As such, this project is a fundamental component to every graphic design degree program.

Explore Bachelor’s Degree programs for Graphic Design search programs >>
Savannah College of Art and Design
  • Enrollment: 32,405
  • Tuition: $9,962
  • College Type: Private
  • State: Georgia
  • Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design
Southern New Hampshire University
  • Enrollment: 20,509
  • Tuition: $28,050
  • College Type: Private
  • State: New Hampshire
  • Bachelor of Arts Graphic Design
Upper Iowa University
  • Enrollment: 7,464
  • Tuition: $24,400
  • College Type: Private
  • State: Iowa
  • Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design
University of South Florida-St. Petersburg
  • Enrollment: 4,940
  • Tuition: $5,716
  • College Type: Public
  • State: Florida
  • Art Graphic Design

Master’s Degree (6 Years+)

There are numerous degree designations on this level, including the Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), Master of Professional Studies (MPS), Master of Design (MDes) and Design Master of Business Administration (DMBA). Each comes with its own emphasis and graduation requirements. The three most common designations in the United States by far are the MA, MS and MFA.

For most online and on-campus students alike, MFAs in graphic design require a 2- to 3-year time commitment following completion of a BFA or similar degree. The time frame for earning an MA or MS can be considerably shorter at 12 to 18 months. In all three cases, schools offering their programs online are keenly aware that students may wish to complete their degrees in less time than usual or require more time due to work and family demands.

Savannah College of Art and Design
  • Enrollment: 2,745
  • Tuition: $34,250
  • College Type: Private
  • State: Georgia
  • Master of Fine Arts in Graphic Design
  • Master of Arts in Graphic Design

Doctorate Degree in Graphic Design

Although doctorate degree programs in graphic design do exist, they are a relatively new beast and their standing in the professional and academic worlds is less than certain. For the time being, the master’s in graphic design – in most cases the MFA – remains the terminal professional degree in the United States. This means in practical terms that a master’s in graphic design is the qualifying degree for teaching on the postsecondary level or work at the highest levels of practice. As an alternative to an advanced degree, the BLS notes that leadership positions in the field call for significant work experience.

Signs of a Strong Online Graphic Design Program

Determining the suitability of any distance learning program can be tricky. When it comes to graphic design degrees online, there are several components to watch out for. Here are three of the most important:

Accreditation

Postsecondary accreditation is a vetting method of colleges, universities and other educational institutions, as well as their individual programs. It assures that schools provide students with a legitimate and quality education. Accreditation of postsecondary schools is primarily handled by regional accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Alternatively, online schools may be accredited at the national or programmatic level. Graphic design degree programs can be accredited by one or more nonprofit organizations such as the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), which accredits at least 300 postsecondary institutions. Students should insist on proper accreditation for any online graphic design degree program.

Internships

Experience in the field can play a crucial role in a graphic design student’s academic and employment success. Internships provide a much needed entry point into what can seem a closed professional world for beginners without any real-world experience. Internships are so important that many degree programs, particularly those on the bachelor’s level, include them as a requirement for graduation. Even schools that do not require internships normally value them, and some programs award credit for up to three internships. A number of online schools employ specialized coordinators to help match students to opportunities in their local areas. Interested students should check the availability of placement and counseling services at schools under consideration.

Alumni Success

Possibly the best objective measure of the value of an online graphic design degree program relates to the professional achievements of alumni. The problem is finding a practical and meaningful method of measurement. Placement rates, retention rates, average salaries and return on investment (ROI) estimates are a few. Whatever the specific metric, more and more degree programs, both online and onsite, are eager to share good news about the careers of former students. Individuals considering earning their graphic design degree online are therefore advised to request this type of data from prospective degree programs.

Professional Certification in Graphic Design

Certification refers to designations offered by industry and professional organizations that can indicate a particular expertise or qualification in a specialization or area of practice. There are currently no professional certifications available specifically for graphic designers. However, vendors and developers of graphic design-related software offer a number of certifications in connection with their products. For example, Adobe has designations such as Adobe Certified Expert (ACE) and Adobe Certified Associate (ACA). In addition, trade organizations such as AIGA host courses and conferences aimed at professional development.

Specific occupations may require additional qualifications, and these vary by state. Graphic design instructors in public schools typically need a teaching license. There are distance learning programs available in art education: for example, the Academy of Art University has an online post-bachelor’s program for those seeking an art teaching credential.

Interview with an Online Graphic Design Degree Student

Nothing beats personal knowledge when it comes to understanding the ins and outs of an online degree program. Cindy Orellana works as a communications specialist for the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. She is also currently in the last year of an online bachelor’s degree program at University of Maryland University College, majoring in graphic communication with a minor in digital media. Here is what she had to say about her online education experience.

What led you to pursuing a bachelor’s degree in graphic design?

I moved to Washington, D.C. and found a job as a communications specialist. I was there for a few months and our communications manager, who was also the graphics designer, the marketing person – everything – decided to leave our agency and start her own business. Ultimately, all the major design projects that she had were given to me. I actually did not have much graphic design experience, but I’ve always been a visual person and wanted to tell stories and solve problems in a creative way. So, in order for me to be efficient at what was expected from me at work, I decided to go back to school and learn about graphic design.

How did you come upon the online program at UMUC?

Looking in Maryland, there were a few colleges to choose from. One of my coworkers went to UMUC’s nursing college and was really enthused about it, so I looked online and realized that they had a graphic communication program, and after looking at it and looking at a minor in digital media, I decided to go for it. UMUC also has a partnership with the government as far as getting a reduced cost, so it was a no-brainer in choosing them. I did consider an on-campus program, but because of my schedule and the flexibility at UMUC, I decided to go that route.

Did you have any experience with online learning before starting your degree program?

No.

What were your biggest concerns with an online program before you started?

I guess one of my concerns was, “Will I actually learn something?” I mean, going online I really didn’t know what to expect. It was the situation where I wasn’t going to have that networking experience with classmates, it was just going to be me. And that was my concern going into it.

Did you find a way of dealing with that concern once you began the program?

Yes. One of the things that has happened over the course of the three years I’ve been in the program is that I’ve gradually developed relationships with my classmates.

How were your classes accessed and your coursework done?

With graphic design, the majority of the classes were projects. For example, we would have to create a logo or visuals. So I would go online Monday or Tuesday after work to see what I had to do, and then throughout the course of the week I would work on my project, leaving the finalizing of my project for the weekend.

What have you found to be the biggest benefits to an online degree program?

I think flexibility and the fact that I can go to work full-time and also go to school full-time. The other thing would be the time saved. I’m in Washington, D.C., one of the cities with the worst traffic ever, and I can save two hours a day not going to a class, using that time to actually work and study. Also the constant availability, the fact that if I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and I want to do some work, I can go online and do that.

Did you encounter any difficulties or challenges that you weren’t expecting when compared to a traditional on-campus program?

The only difficulty was when I had a question. In a traditional program, I could get an answer right away. With the online program, I might have to wait an hour or a day to get my answer.

Do you foresee returning to school in the future to continue your education?

Yes, I actually intend to go back to school and earn a master’s in communication, and I’ve looked at a few colleges that have online courses for that.

One last question: If someone came to you and asked about your online education experience, what would be your big piece of advice?

I would say, “Go for it.” If you are considering online classes, the biggest thing is to not think negatively about it. Online is just as good as traditional and you will end up learning all the stuff that you want to.

Graphic Design Degree Search Tool

While students may not think of graphic design as a typical online degree, advances in digital design technology have made the program accessible for online students. With options ranging from certificates to master’s degrees and offering numerous concentrations, prospective students will have no trouble finding a program with the right combination of academics, real-world opportunities, proper accreditation and great cost for value. The search tool below will make this process easier by highlighting schools matched to student wants and needs.

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Best Online Graphic Design Degree for 2015-2016

From certificate programs to doctorate degrees, online graphics design programs have found a fitting environment in the virtual classroom. A good graphics design program will offer cutting-edge technology, supportive staff and multiple specializations to pursue; a great one will also give students the chance at internships, full college accreditation and continued support post-graduation. We’ve ranked colleges’ online graphics degrees programs to determine which schools offered the very best options for potential students as determined by our methodology. See who made the list of Best Online Graphics Degree Programs for 2015-2016 below.


RANK COLLEGE ScoreStudent-Teacher RatioFinancial AidCostMORE INFO
1 Hodges University 98.0614:199%

Hodges University offers three format options for students in the Bachelor of Science in Digital Design and Graphics degree program. Students can take all the courses online or on campus during a normal semester or do the entire program at their own pace. Regardless, this 120-credit program focuses on print, packaging, identity, environmental, interactive and 3-dimensional design. The program is very diverse in its offerings. Beyond design courses, students also take 18 credits in business, 24 credits in digital media and 30 credits in liberal arts. So whether they go into advertising, software development or another area, they're well-rounded candidates.

2 University of Florida 97.5821:196%

The Bachelor of Arts in Digital Arts & Sciences from the University of Florida is very interdisciplinary. The program as a whole combines various aspects of digital arts, communications, technology and live performance. Students can choose from three concentrations: Systems Design, Media & Storytelling and Design & Production. System Design focuses on technical art and digital animation. Media & Storytelling focuses on learning strategic digital communication. And Design & Production focuses on designing "virtual and augmented environments, projection and audio design, and digitally-enhanced performances."Students can complete the program entirely online, on campus or a hybrid of both.

3 Savannah College of Art and Design 95.9018:198%

For a comprehensive education, look no further than Savannah College of Art and Design. The graphic design concentration in the visual communication bachelor's degree program requires 180-credit hours. The program can be done completely online or on the Atlanta or Savannah campuses. It requires 25 credits of foundational drawing and design classes, 90 credits of general core classes, 45 credits of the graphic design concentration and 20 credits of electives. This ensures students not only have a grasp of graphic design, topography, drawing and other design competencies, but also the liberal arts and basic math and science. Hello well-rounded job candidate!

4 Arizona State University-Tempe 95.4723:191%

Students earning an online bachelor's degree in graphic information technology from Arizona State University get treated really well. Just a few reasons why: The same on-campus instructors teach the online classes; there are success coaches to help students stay on track; and the school uses innovative tools in its format (even consulting Google). And then there's the program itself, which according to its website provides students with "a creative, technological, and managerial understanding of graphic information and content creation."More specifically, students will study web development and interactive technologies, computer illustration and digital publishing and photography for online delivery.

5 Upper Iowa University 92.7917:185%

A portfolio-driven program, the bachelor's degree program in graphic design from Upper Iowa University is very hands-on. Students use professional softwares, including Adobe Creative Cloud, to create original work in every course. According to the website, courses are sequences in such a way that "design problems require more complex responses as students work through the various levels."Students learn to respond with unique solutions through a combination of mastering the software and building conceptual abilities and critical thinking. Graduates go on to become everything from graphic designers to art directors. The program can be done online or at select campus locations.

6 California Baptist University 92.1718:195%

The online Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design and Digital Media from California Baptist University covers a variety of topics in graphic design, web design, video and animation. The program can be completed entirely online or through a hybrid of online and on-campus courses. Regardless, it's very hands-on. Students build portfolios, often completing internships, and use software used by professionals, such as Photoshop, InDesign and Final Cut Pro. They can also expect to learn key principles in design, typography, imaging, web design, color theory, photography, lighting and drawing. Classes start every eight weeks, during three semesters year-round.

7 Bellevue University 92.0533:1100%

The Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design at Bellevue University integrates hands-on, applied learning with theory. Students develop a professional portfolio of creative design work on a wide range of print and digital design projects, as well as take courses such as Branding and Interactivity Basics. According to the school's website, students will learn to "conceptualize and translate concepts into multiple design solutions for a wide variety of media and for multiple audiences"and will see "how a design project moves from an initial idea to a final finished product."The program can be done completely online or on campus.

8 Southern New Hampshire University 90.3926:194%

Get classes done quicker at Southern New Hampshire University. In the bachelor's degree program in graphic design and media arts, students take 9-week classes, over six terms a year. The program has two concentrations to choose from: 3D Modeling & Animation and Web Design. The 3D Modeling & Animation concentration focuses on designing wireframe 3D models, animating character function and rendering photorealistic effects. The web design concentration focuses on conducting "usability testing on multiple platforms and interfaces, from mobile phones to tablets to desktop computers."Both concentrations require 120 credits each, can be completed entirely online and include courses in typography and digital imaging.

9 University of Maryland-University College 90.1617:177%

The bachelor's degree in graphic communication program at the University of Maryland University College is portfolio-intensive. Meaning, students produce projects using a number of professional softwares, including Photoshop and After Effects. The program includes training in graphic art and design, computer graphics and communication and business-oriented writing. The coursework teaches students how to: produce effective visual communications; create active solutions in user interfaces, mobile applications, mobile graphics and web designs; direct creative strategy in a business environment; use technical design skills to support a team; and much more. The program requires 120-credit hours and can be completed fully online.