Digital Graphic Design: Bachelor, Associate & Online Degree Info

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What will you learn in a digital graphic 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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Digital Graphic Design Associate's and Bachelor's Degrees at a Glance

Digital graphic designers use computer software to design and create graphics for many different purposes. As a student in a graphic design program, you can expect to learn about graphics and Web design, illustration, animation and digital photography. In addition to technical courses, you will also learn about business and communication in order to start a career in the graphic design field.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected employment for graphic designers to grow at an average pace of 13% from 2010-2020, but the field is very competitive and a bachelor's degree is the typical requirement. An associate's degree may qualify you for a position as a desktop publisher, where you can create and design layouts for websites, magazines, newspapers and advertisements. According to the BLS, employment in the desktop publishing field was expected to decline by 15% from 2010-2020, but individuals with a degree should have the best prospects.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? People with little or no experience who want an entry-level position in the graphic design field People who want to become graphic designers
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) Desktop publisher ($37,000)* - Graphic Designer ($44,000)*
- Multimedia artist and animator ($61,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 4 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - About 60 credit hours - About 120 credit hours
- Portfolio
Prerequisites High school diploma or GED High school diploma or GED
Online Availability Yes Yes

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

Associate's Degree in Digital Graphic Design

Associate's degree programs in digital graphic design introduce you to a variety of graphic design software programs and teach you how to create effective media for advertising, business and creative purposes. Associate's degree programs typically include general education in addition to core courses. You can also expect to learn about business and communication in order to market your skills to potential clients and employers. However, you may need to continue your education at the bachelor's degree level to obtain entry-level digital graphic design jobs.

Pros and Cons


  • Can enter the graphic design field in two years or less
  • Helps you gain a wide variety of skills (graphic design, photography, illustration, etc.)
  • May qualify you for a bachelor's degree program


  • Most employers of graphic designers prefer candidates with bachelor's degrees*
  • Jobs are declining in the desktop publishing field (15% job decline from 2010-2020)*
  • Associate's degree programs typically provide only introductory courses

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

Courses and Requirements

Coursework in digital graphics design associate's degree programs typically consist of basic graphic design subjects and general education courses. Examples of coursework at the associate's degree level include:

  • Graphic design
  • Photography
  • Typography
  • Digital illustration
  • Communications

Online Info

Fully online associate's degree programs do exist, but hybrid programs are more common; this format combines online and on-campus courses. You may want to consult with your school's advisor to see which courses are available online.

Stand Out with This Degree

Most employers in the graphic design field prefer to hire individuals with a 4-year degree, so you may want to continue your studies and obtain a bachelor's degree in digital graphic design. You may also benefit from focusing on and developing your skills in a specific area, such as illustration or Web design. Skill and experience is necessary in order to advance to higher positions, so you may want to create a portfolio of your best work to show clients and employers. It's also important to continue your education to stay up-to-date with the latest software programs in the field.

Alternative Degree Options

Those interested in more of the technical side of drawing and creating images can pursue an associate's degree in computer-aided drafting (CAD) technology. Drafters use software programs to design and specify dimensions for engineering projects and manufacturing products. Courses in an associate's degree program include technical drawing, parametric modeling, electrical drawings and CAD management. The BLS reports that employment for drafters is projected to increase six percent from 2010-2020, which is slower than average.

Bachelor's Degree in Digital Graphic Design

Schools typically offer bachelor's degree programs in graphic arts with an emphasis in digital design. The coursework tends to focus more on advanced graphic design subjects, enabling you to develop your skills in a particular area. Depending on the program, you may be able to choose a concentration, such as video, print, Web design or illustration. Competition for jobs is high, and in addition to earning a degree, you will need to have a strong portfolio to show employers.

Pros and Cons


  • Fast job growth for graphic designers working in jobs related to computer systems design (61% job growth from 2010-2020)*
  • Some programs allow you to focus on specific areas in graphic design and digital media
  • Many schools enable you to create your own portfolio


  • Few schools offer the entire degree program online
  • Can take up to eight years to complete with part-time study
  • Many schools require you to complete basic art and design courses before enrolling

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses and Requirements

Courses for graphic design bachelor's degree programs vary, depending on whether you choose a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program or a non-BFA program. The core courses are nearly identical for both types of degrees, though the BFA programs typically include additional coursework in fine arts subjects. Some schools may also give you the option to concentrate in a specific area. In addition to coursework, you may be required to complete a capstone project and assemble a portfolio in order to graduate.

Here are some examples of coursework you might take at the bachelor's level:

  • Digital imaging
  • Art history
  • Client-side development
  • Marketing
  • Color theory

Online Degree Options

Online digital graphic design bachelor's degree programs exist, but they're not as common as on-campus programs. Some schools offer fully online degree programs, and others offer individual courses online. You may want to contact your school to see which courses and programs they offer in an online format.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

The graphic design field is competitive and ever-changing, so you'll need to keep up with the latest software and design techniques in order to stand out. You may also benefit from developing a strong portfolio, focusing on fast-growing areas, such as mobile applications, marketing and advertising. Concentrating your studies in a specific area, such as video, animation or Web application development, can give you a distinct advantage.

Alternative Degree Options

If you want to pursue a creative career in a business setting, you can choose to enroll in a marketing degree program at the bachelor's degree level. Courses in the program cover topics in operations management, marketing principles, sales management, business policy and customer behavior. With a marketing degree, you can create advertising campaigns, design layouts and conduct market research. From 2010-2020, careers in the marketing field are projected to grow 14%, according to the BLS.

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