The creative industries are dynamic and competitive, constantly evolving in technological trends and consumer preferences. As a professional graphic designer, the key to success is differentiating your portfolio and refining your skills to capture the best opportunities whenever they arise. One of the simplest ways to level up your skills and perfect your portfolio is to pursue a master’s in fine arts (MFA), which offers a variety of specializations perfectly suited to the modern digital designer.
Master’s in Graphic Design Basics
Many graphic designers would question if a graduate degree in fine arts is the right call for such a technology-driven career. Do university art programs offer any real practical value for industry professionals? What exactly is an MFA anyway?
Fortunately, the field of fine arts is keeping pace with the modern world by integrating the digital production of artistic assets into explicit concentrations within the broader arts curriculum. As these fields grow in commercial importance and career prospects, university art programs commonly adopt modern specializations such as graphic design, film/animation/video (FAV), illustration and animation, and digital media design.
As a graphic designer, the first question to ask is one of specialization. As a functional expert, higher levels of education typically go hand-in-hand with zooming in on one or two particular skills. Start with simple questions. What aspect of graphic design do I genuinely enjoy? Which skills will differentiate me from my peers? What gaps in my knowledge could I fill for self-improvement? Last but not least, do I aspire to lead other creatives and even act as a professional mentor?
One of the more common pieces of advice a designer will hear, both from professors and professionals is to dabble in a few different industries and functions before deciding on the perfect graduate-level concentration of study. It’s always good to dip your toes in a few other tasks before deciding when and where you should start building your career. This means a small working gap between an undergraduate and graduate program. This process will also help produce a more diversified and robust portfolio. As an artist, a strong portfolio is your ticket to excellent graduate schools (not to mention great new gigs!).
Once a designer constructs a personal vision for their career ambitions and artistic capabilities, the question of whether or not an MFA should answer itself. Focus on whether or not you need highly specialized skills to succeed and to what degree you see yourself as a creative leader in the near or distant future.
Master’s in Graphic Design Online?
Most prospective graduate students are busy people, balancing careers with the seemingly endless demands of everyday life. Do you have the time for a graduate degree? Do you have the freedom to move to wherever your preferred program is offered?
One of the upsides to graphic design programs, in particular, is that they are predicated on producing digital work and lend themselves more easily to an online learning environment than traditional art majors. An MFA in sculpting or painting would make an online approach impossible, whereas digital media design naturally lends itself to the long-distance transmission of drafts and final products. This allows professors to collaborate with students over a long distance and deliver lectures from anywhere.
While not all top institutions offer an online approach, such as RISD and Yale, there are still plenty of high-quality options available for the distance learner. A few notable examples are:
- Harvard University Extension
- University of Florida
- School of Art Institute of Chicago
- Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
- Vermont College of Fine Arts
As a final note for the intrepid explorers of online artistic education, the key terminology for an online art program will likely include low residency or Low-Res MFA. As is typical for the academic world, a little jargon goes a long way in finding what you’re looking for. This leads to what an online (or onsite) graduate graphic design program will look like.
Master’s in Graphic Design Programs
While every program has its guiding philosophy and distinctive flavor, a few standard expectations can be set for any aspiring master of graphic design. First and foremost, the expectation will nearly always be the ability to produce a visual demonstration of conceptual mastery. A common phrase in the writing world is ‘show, don’t tell,’ which holds just as true for proving one’s mastery of the visual world. Every student in a graduate program should expect artistic submissions as the primary vehicle which professors will use to grade performance. On the upside, this means very few pop quizzes, essays, and multiple choice exams!
A second common expectation will be the ability to step into the uncomfortable shoes of the strategic critic. As art assets are often business investments, anyone who purports to hold an MFA must be able to assess the quality of visual products at an advanced level. This is more than delivering a thumbs up or thumbs down, but instead describing the space between the strategic intention of the asset and the visuals delivered. As most commercial artists will attest, many rounds of editing and feedback are fairly typical. Of course, it should go without saying that weathering the storm of such critiques on one’s work is also a necessary skill and key expectation within an MFA program.
A third and final expectation is the ability to educate or mentor less experienced artists and creative professionals. The graduate-level student will need to demonstrate the ability to pass on their mastery, either through research or teaching. This is highly relevant for academics and business professionals, as the academics will likely move into the role of professor and professionals into a role of creative leadership.
Any graphic designer who can check these three boxes will likely throw their pointy hat in the air as they are handed (or perhaps emailed) their MFA in Graphic Design, preferably with as little debt at the end of the road as possible.
An MFA is priced similarly to most graduate programs, where one can expect a 2-year time commitment in pursuit of 40-60 credit hours. While the cost per credit hour and the precise number of credit hours required will vary, between $500 to $1,000 per credit hour is pretty standard. This leaves a fairly broad range of total 2-year costs, ranging from $25,000 to $75,000 for the entire program.
The best approach is to pursue an MFA locally for the cost-conscious folks out there. The difference between the cost of a private university and a state university can be as high as 3:1. To put this in context, the typical state school will run a graduate just over $6,000 per semester, while a private university can clock in at around $18,000 per semester. It’s always worth doing a little research to find the most affordable route and compare that to the investment’s expected return.
Speaking of graphic design, there are nearly a quarter-million jobs in the U.S. alone (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). A highly qualified graphic designer can expect to make that money back fairly quickly, with a median salary of $55,000 per annum at the professional level and $64,000 a year at the senior level (as of 2022).
As a graduate degree holder, it’s a fairly safe assumption that compensation will be higher than the median. The upper 25 percent of earners in this field typically make between $70k to 80k a year, with plenty of career growth opportunities for creative lead roles (such as an Art Director). It’s particularly important to note the strategic importance of a master’s degree, which indicates leadership ability (and all the upwards mobility that goes along with it). This opens the doors to horizontal and vertical growth, particularly for artists with a knack for adapting to new technological trends.
Graphic Design in Tech
A graphic designer operates between technology and art, which presents plenty of opportunity for both lateral and vertical growth. On the lateral side, a graphic designer with a knack for animation can quickly expand their portfolio (and salary) by integrating motion within their designs. Animators are highly sought after in many industries and high-profile companies, from developing AAA games to storyboarding the next blockbuster at Pixar.
Another lateral play is towards the emergent fields of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) within web development. It’s no easy task to find an artist with the capacity to weave in some HTML, which enables crafting a visual journey within a website. The role of a graphic designer who emphasizes UX/UI is not to create a single graphic design but instead to integrate a variety of graphics, web pages, copy, and styles within a broader customer pipeline. A dash of business analytics knowledge wouldn’t go amiss either. As this is a relatively new field, there’s still plenty of room for new artists with some combination of these capabilities.
In addition to these related disciplines, a highly qualified graphic designer can also pursue a path of creative management. A few executive roles are well-suited to the professional artist with graduate-level training, the most common being an Art Director or Creative Director. While there are subtle differences between these roles, they share a few common qualifications that MFA-holders are prepared for in their programs.
A common joke in the industry is that leading creatives is like herding cats. The first and most important skill is gracefully navigating the often divergent and individualistic styles of a diverse creative team while keeping everyone motivated and on message. Producing and communicating a shared vision, and aligning the skills of the designers who work for you, is a skillset worthy of a six-figure salary. This requires mastery in mentorship, clarity of vision, and the technical capacity to fill any gaps that emerge along the way. It’s a great long-term objective for any graphic designer, mainly for graduate-level designers with experience in strategic critique.
This objective of attaining a creative leadership role serves as a rather apropos conclusion. For anyone considering a long-term career in graphic design and the graduate-level degree to prove it, the first step is setting medium to long-term career objectives with an eye for senior-level functional roles or creative leadership positions. This path will justify the cost of entry, offsetting the financial investment required to pursue a high-quality education with significantly higher salary prospects.
These skills will also empower an artist through developing a discerning eye and the strategic skills necessary to lift the artists around them through leadership, vision, and mentorship. There is great personal satisfaction in attaining this level of expertise.
Frequently Asked Questions
The top-tier schools are quite competitive indeed, such as Yale and RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), which can have acceptance rates as low as the single digits. However, most MFA programs are far less stringent. The primary concern for any aspiring MFA student is curating their portfolio. Focus on producing as much quality content as possible, and then apply to a broad reputational range of programs to find out where you’ll fit in best.
This depends on what you plan to do with it. The median salary range will likely be between $55k and $99k per year. The lower end of the salary is for a typical graphic designer, with the higher end for a creative director and highly competent functional specialist. A strong designer with an MFA can expect a career path with more upward mobility.
As a graphic designer, technology is your new best friend. Technology has exponentially increased the distribution and variety of creative assets. A strong graphic designer can meet the requirements for roles in media (gaming, comics, and film), web development (UX/UI), online marketing, and the creation of digital assets of all shapes and sizes. Job titles such as graphic designer, visual designer, character designer, UX/UI designer, animator, art director, and creative director will require overlap between art and technology and will be well-served by an MFA.
Yes, in most cases, an undergraduate degree and undergraduate portfolio will be required during the application process. Exceptions can be made in rare instances where professionals have extensive industry experience.
They do indeed! They are often called low residency MFA programs, where minimal onsite interactions are required for the coursework. Courses are conducted via virtual classrooms, and work is typically submitted in the digital formats requested by the professors.