Graphic Design Degrees: Bachelor's, Associate & Online Training Info

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

Graphic designers communicate ideas through arrangements of words, images, color and space. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that a bachelor's degree in graphic design is usually required, but, if you already have a bachelor's degree in another field, you may complete an associate's degree or certificate program to gain the technical design skills you'll need.

The BLS reported that overall employment of graphic designers was expected to increase 13%, an average rate, from 2010-2020. The computer systems graphic design industry was expected to have a much greater employment increase of 61% over the same time period. In contrast, those who work for print companies were expected to see only a 2% increase, while those working for publishing companies could expect a 4% decline. Because of the increased use of the Internet, graphic designers are needed to create images for websites, electronic publications and portable devices.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who Is This Degree For? -First-time students who would like to start graphic design careers
-Individuals with bachelor's degrees in other areas who want to change careers
First-time students who wish to become graphic designers
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) Graphic designer ($49,000)* Graphic designer ($49,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years, full-time 4 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements Graphic design portfolio Graphic design portfolio
Prerequisites High school diploma or equivalent High school diploma or equivalent
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Associate's Degree in Graphic Design

You may need to submit samples of artistic and creative work to be accepted into a graphic design program. As a student in an associate's degree program, you'll receive training in the various elements of graphic design, such as color theory, drawing and typography. Because the future of graphic design lies in digital media, many programs focus on Web-based and digital design concepts.

Some programs are designed to be equivalent to the first two years of a bachelor's degree program, enabling you to earn your bachelor's degree in graphic design in an additional two years. Other programs focus on helping you enter a career immediately after earning your degree. If you already have a bachelor's degree, you could also enter an associate's degree program to learn the skills you need for a career switch.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Associate's degree programs can be completed in as little as one year in an accelerated program.
  • Schools may help you arrange optional internships or cooperative programs.
  • Many programs require you to build a portfolio, which can help you find a job after you graduate.
  • Graphic designers with interactive media and website design experience should have favorable job prospects (a 61% predicted increase between 2010 and 2020).*

Cons

  • A bachelor's degree is often required to obtain graphic design jobs.
  • Associate's programs may require you to take up to 17 units per semester.
  • Graphic design jobs in the publishing and print industries are expected to experience a 4% decline and only 2% increase, respectively, over the 2010-2020 decade.*
  • It is necessary to stay up-to-date with computer and software technologies throughout your career in order to remain competitive in the job market.

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses and Requirements

Associate's degree programs in graphic design often teach traditional art and design principles in conjunction with more modern digital techniques. Many programs require a portfolio preparation course in which you assemble a professional portfolio of your work. Examples of other courses you might take at the associate's degree level include:

  • Typography
  • Graphic design
  • Digital layout
  • Illustration
  • History of graphic design

Online Info

Online associate's degree programs in graphic design are fairly common. It is possible to find programs that can be completed fully online, and these programs typically have the same curricula as their on-campus counterparts. You can usually view class materials on your own time and participate in discussion boards.

However, if you wish to enroll in an online associate's degree program, you may need to have completed a previous undergraduate degree or have completed undergraduate general education courses. If it is convenient for you, there are also hybrid programs that allow you to complete some courses online and others in person.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

Because computer skills are so important, you'll want to thoroughly familiarize yourself with industry software, such as Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator. If required courses don't cover many software programs, you should enroll in electives. Many schools allow you to complete an internship or other practical experience with elective credits. Getting this real job experience is strongly suggested and may help overcome that you don't have a bachelor's degree in the field.

Bachelor's Degree in Graphic Design

Bachelor's degree programs in graphic design also commonly request sample artwork in an application package. As with associate's degree programs, many bachelor's programs focus on computer and digital technology as it relates to the graphic design field. Though often not required, programs may give you the opportunity to gain hands-on experience through internships or other projects working with real clients. In addition to design principles and techniques, you may learn how to work with clients and other designers, conduct research and give presentations.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Since most employers look for graphic designers with bachelor's degrees, you'll qualify for more jobs than you would with only an associate's degree.
  • Bachelor's degree programs may provide internship opportunities, allowing you to gain valuable work experience.
  • During your four years of study, you'll have more time to create pieces for your professional portfolio than you would in an associate's degree program.

Cons

  • Choosing a bachelor's degree over an associate's degree may not make much difference in salary.
  • Bachelor's degree programs in graphic design may require you to take up to 18 units in a single semester.
  • The BLS notes that there is stiff competition for graphic design positions since many individuals are attracted to this field.

Courses and Requirements

While pursuing your bachelor's degree in graphic design, you'll receive a foundational education in composition, color and design. You'll also receive training in the latest computer applications and tools of the trade. The courses in your curriculum are likely to be very similar to the courses found at the associate's degree level. However, you'll also be able to take more advanced versions of these courses, such as advanced typography and advanced computer illustration. You'll also have more opportunities to take elective courses, such as digital photography, printmaking and Web graphics. Some programs require a portfolio workshop or senior portfolio review.

Online Info

If you'd like to earn your bachelor's degree in graphic design at home, fully online programs are fairly common. The same professors who teach on-campus usually teach the courses found in online programs. Using collaborative software, you can view demonstrations and communicate with fellow students and your professors. Online library, tutoring and help desk systems can make your distance learning experience easier.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

Like is true at the associate's level, consider completing an internship if your program doesn't require one. Bachelor's programs also sometimes offer internship elective credits that can be applied toward earning your degree. An internship provides you with valuable experience that you can put on your resume, and it may even lead to a permanent position. Another way to improve your chances of finding employment is to spend time becoming proficient in creating designs for websites and other electronic media. You may consider taking elective courses in Web graphics, new media design or a related subject. Keeping up-to-date with technology is also a way to get an edge in the job market.

Degree Alternative

If you'd like to have a wider variety of job options and higher earning potential, but still be able to invoke creativity and design into your career, consider earning a bachelor's degree in advertising. Degree programs typically include courses in communications, business, and graphic design topics. You learn about company and client relationships, marketing research, marketing techniques, graphics and design layout principles.

Among the jobs that you could attain are copywriter, media planner, advertising manager and creative director. According to the BLS, advertising and promotions managers had a median annual wage of around $88,000 in May 2011. Though advertising jobs are typically competitive, with years of experience, you could advance to a high-level advertising leadership position. The top 10% of advertising managers brought home annual wages of $187,000 and upward in 2011. The BLS predicted an average increase of 14% in employment of marketing, promotions and advertising managers from 2010-2020.

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