Design Degrees: Bachelor's, Associate & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a design degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of an associate's and bachelor's degree and potential careers.
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Studying Design: Degrees at a Glance

A design degree can prepare you for a variety of occupations in several different fields, such as graphic design, interior design, fashion design, web design or architectural design. Designers are hired by many industries, including manufacturing, architectural, engineering and construction. Many designers also work for companies that specialize in design services. Depending on your design focus, you could also find work in advertising, public relations, furniture stores and clothing stores.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), designers may be self-employed and some work for companies that hire out their design services to other companies that may not need a full-time designer on staff. The job outlook for designers varies based on the industry. For example, graphic designers are projected to see a 13% increase in jobs, while fashion designers may see little or no increase from 2010-2020.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who Is This Degree For? Students with an interest in learning the basics of form and function in the design process Students who want to delve deeper into the design process and have the best opportunity for advancement
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Web designer ($52,000)**
- Fashion designer ($65,000)*
- Interior designer ($48,000)*
-Commercial and industrial designer ($61,000)*
- Graphic designer ($44,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years, full-time 4 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Design courses
- General education courses
- Internship or a studio project may be required
- Design coursework
- General education courses
- Studio project may be required
Prerequisites - A high-school diploma or a GED
- Some schools may require artist samples, a portfolio or a creative assignment
- Same prerequisites as for the associate's degree
Online Availability Yes Limited availability

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures), **Salary.com (July 2012 figures).

Associate's in Design

Degree programs at the associate's level are available in several areas of design, including graphic design, interior design, web design and industrial design. As you evaluate programs, keep in mind that design programs are typically designed to provide practical expertise in current theories, tools and techniques. This means that you will be required to complete studio courses working with the technologies used in the field. You may be expected to complete creative projects or a portfolio to demonstrate your talents. Additionally, some associate's design programs, such as those in industrial design, are designed as transfer programs and may only provide you with an introduction to the field.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Design is a broad area that allows you to specialize in several fields
  • Self-employment opportunities available in several design fields
  • Associate's degree programs provide you with a solid foundation of skills for further study or entry-level assistant design careers

Cons

  • Many design careers require a bachelor's degree; therefore, depending on your field further study may be necessary
  • Designers typically have to update their skills and techniques frequently, depending on technology upgrades or new trends in the marketplace*
  • Freelance designers may have to work long hours to meet tight deadlines

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Within design programs, you'll examine concepts in design theories, techniques and technologies, as well as current industry standards. You may complete courses in drawing, color theory, imaging and visual design. For example, subject specific courses in a graphic design program could include typography, graphic design software, digital layout, logo design and print design. A program in fashion design may include courses in the history of fashion, fashion and marketing, color and design, computers and fashion, sewing techniques and fashion illustration. Degree programs in web design may include courses in digital photography, web design and design technology. In addition to coursework, some 2-year design programs may require a final portfolio and/or capstone project.

Online Degree Options

The online degree options are usually the same, or very similar, to the on-campus degree options. Schools that offer both options tend to include the same classes for each. The only difference is that online students have to use online learning platforms to interact with peers and instructors. In addition to an up-to-date computer and high-speed internet, online programs may require you to purchase design software and update your computer software to meet technical requirements.

Stand Out With This Degree

Creativity and technical savvy are particularly important in design programs. Therefore, while you are working toward your design associate's degree, you may want to consider taking courses that hone your creativity and technical knowledge. For example, graphic design programs may offer you elective courses that allow advanced exploration into design software, such as Adobe Creative Suites. Additionally, most design programs include a final portfolio class or project that allows you to highlight the skills that you have learned during the course of your two years of study. According to the BLS, hiring decisions rely heavily on your portfolio. Given this knowledge, you may want to pay special attention to the creation of your portfolio to ensure that it demonstrates your style, as well as your grasp of techniques used in the field.

Bachelor's in Design

Programs for bachelor's degrees in design vary widely. For instance, Bachelor of Fine Arts programs in design usually focus on graphic design, fashion design or interior design. Bachelor of Arts programs can sometimes have a more general focus, such as design studies and more emphasis on liberal arts.

Many design degree programs emphasize a combination of the creative, technical and business elements of design. Most design degree programs also require that you work in labs and studios to create and complete designs for your class projects. Due to the studio and creative requirements of the coursework, you may be required to spend additional time on-campus working in labs or studios creating projects.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Most bachelor's degree programs are designed to provide you with the skills to gain professional careers upon graduation
  • Programs provide hands-on practical experience gained through professional internships and studio requirements
  • Designers may have telecommunicating options available

Cons

  • Prior to delving into your major coursework, you may be required to complete a foundations program
  • Admission may be dependent on your portfolio
  • Designers may have to work evenings and weekends to meet deadlines or clients needs

Courses and Requirements

The first two years of a bachelor's degree program for graphic design, interior design and industrial design may be similar to that of an associate's degree program. However, within your last two years, you gain in-depth knowledge and technological skills in your focus area. Common courses that may be found in many design degree programs include graphic layout, design history, design and color and design concepts. In addition to courses, you may complete a professional internship, senior seminar and thesis. Additionally, programs may include a portfolio course and/or exhibition.

Online Degree Options

Accredited schools offering bachelor's degree programs completely online are available; however, they may be hard to find to due to the hands-on nature of design programs. If the schools you're interested in don't offer online or hybrid programs, you may want to see if they offer independent study options where you can arrange to study remotely for part of your courses. Additionally, if your program is available in an online format, you will want to research options carefully for accreditation.

Stand Out With This Degree

According to the BLS, to stand out you need to make sure you are up-to-date on the latest computer tech and software. Even design jobs that require skills in hand drawing also require skills in using specific design software, such as computer-aided design (CAD). Therefore, you may want to consider taking additional courses in the newest design software and apply the techniques to your work. In addition to completing an internship, you may want to consider completing real-world experience during summer sessions by working as an intern or by volunteering your design services to non-profit organizations. Hands-on experiences can provide you with additional projects or ideas that can be used to bolster your portfolio and resume.

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