This guide is all about graphic design associate degree programs. It includes details like program lengths, cost, and curriculum. It also talks about online graphic design associate programs.
For folks willing to bring an eye for aesthetics together with some software solutions, a career in graphic design is a highly-profitable career prospect. A graphic designer is well-positioned in an increasingly digital job market, from TV and film to animating video game assets to carefully curating website design.
So how does one go about gaining experience in graphic design? Are there associate-level degree programs available to get started?
What Is an Associate in Graphic Design Degree?
Associate of Arts (AA) degrees are an excellent option for pragmatic professionals, as the time and capital commitment is much lower than a four-year degree program. While the curriculum contains less depth and detail due to these constraints, an associate-level education is an excellent fit for technical, hands-on learners looking to fast-track their way into a job offer.
Students pursuing an AA in graphic design can expect a professionally-oriented artistic education, where the focal point of the degree program revolves around real-world applications of web design, typography, marketing, and the basics of art history. As graphic design is the study of conveying a message through visual means, the primary objective is to equip students to grasp an organization’s vision and translate that into visually appealing and accurate depictions of digital transmission (usually via websites, ads, or short videos).
The primary reason to get an AA in graphic design is to fulfill that role, either as a professional employee or freelancer. Freelancing is particularly prominent in this field and is an excellent way for the inexperienced to trade their time to gain insights and build a portfolio. An AA in graphic design is the proper fit for students looking to master the basics and get started in a junior role. The objective is simple: gain the core theory and skills required, build a portfolio, and then use that portfolio to get a lower-level gig or full-time job as a graphic designer.
So why should I get an AA instead of a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)? Isn’t it better to go for a four-year program?
Associate Degree in Graphic Design versus Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design
An AA is a strong decision because it saves two years (and two years’ worth of tuition). After a student obtains their degree, they now have two extra years in the professional world to gain experience compared to the path of the BFA. The primary consideration for a prospective graphic designer is the value of those two years of experience compared to the depth of study enabled by an extra two years of study.
Picking up a BFA in graphic design is specifically for the artist who intends to develop highly-specialized technical capabilities by concentrating their efforts on specific facets of the field. Some graphic designers will focus on user experience and web development, while others may specialize in in-game asset development or animation. The extra two years also give undecided students time to explore their options and make an informed decision.
A BFA also has a broader range of options, many of which come from top-tier institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Yale. Of course, students intent on these high-profile programs better be well-prepared for a highly competitive application process. Many of the strongest programs in the country accept less than 10% of applicants.
Deciding between the two program options mostly comes down to how highly one values classroom experience compared to professional expertise and how driven the student is to obtain their freelance work or professional job opportunities upon graduation. Two extra years of working experience can easily rival a BFA, so long as the student is organized, self-motivated, and able to communicate their experiences via an attractive portfolio.
Now that you have what you need to choose between a two-year and four-year program, the next question is typically where exactly to go to get started. Can I obtain my AA online? Are their local community colleges offering strong programs?
Online Associate in Graphic Design Degree
As online education continues to climb to prominence in the higher education industry, it’s no doubt tempting to outsource the classroom to our web browsers. There are some simple pros and cons to this decision, which are fairly intuitive.
Online programs offer excellent flexibility, plenty of cost savings, and a more comprehensive range of institutions. Offline programs benefit from the in-person mentorship, the live classroom interactions, the networking, and the much higher degree completion rates. As a final note, not all institutions offer online learning options, either due to their teaching philosophy or IT limitations. The decision is mostly one of personal preference. Some students are simply well-equipped to learn independently (i.e., online), while others need real-life social reinforcement of material in the classroom.
If an offline degree program sounds like the right fit, the best starting point is a brief Google search of technical and/or community colleges within your area. These programs are often relatively affordable and of similar curriculum design to online programs. The next step is taking a little time to visit these institutions, perhaps even sit in and observe a class or two.
The options become much broader and more difficult to filter for those in favor of the online approach. A strong starting point is to seek out some reliable sources that rank the quality of AA in Graphic Design programs. While some of these may be limited to offline programs, most of them will have online options worth looking at. Other resources offer ranked lists of online AA programs specifically designed for the digital learner. A few online programs which often receive high ratings include The Academy of Art University, Miami International University of Art & Design, and The University of Phoenix.
Once you have your shortlist of programs, the next consideration is the curriculum, internship opportunities, and general degree scope.
Graphic Design Curriculum
The AA student is studying to be a functional specialist right out of the gates. That means a hands-on curriculum combining art theory, software skills, marketing know-how, and sometimes a bit of psychology regarding how users will experience certain visual environments. The objective of the curriculum is to build a customized portfolio for each student, both proofing and demonstrating the technical abilities required to succeed in the workplace. It’s worth touching on each of the main points in the curriculum in detail.
To start, the graphic designer must demonstrate the ability to produce art via their computer. Whether you craft up your content through mouse and keyboard shortcuts or a drawing tablet, the ability to craft assets is central to a solid graphic design curriculum. This means learning all of the theories any traditional artist will need to know, such as spatial dynamics, conceptions of color theory, lighting, and perspective. Courses such as art history, drawing, typography, and composition will be a part of most curricula.
The next category is the technical and software elements. As most visual content is geared towards enhancing a company’s web presence, a basic understanding of front-end development is extremely useful. All graphics will have to fit the size and structure requirements of the tech team. These assets will be crafted using tools like Adobe, Maya, and GIMP, each of which will have its pros, cons, benefits, and frustrations. Courses like visual design tools, web development, and UX/UI are fairly common in this regard.
Once these foundations are established, AA students will have some flexibility regarding optional coursework, such as 3D modeling or animation, and the pursuit of internships and work-study programs. During the final six months of the program, the goal is to transition students from an academic approach to a professional one, and capitalizing at this stage is a great way to turn school into a job.
Maintaining and updating an attractive and professional portfolio is also a significant aspect of passing the degree program and getting your first gig. Upon completing the program, employers will focus more on your portfolio than anything else (even your resume). The proof is in the portfolio!
Associate Design Degree Cost
Speaking of job interviews, the next consideration is whether the time, effort, and cost are worth the payoff. How much does a two-year degree in graphic design typically cost? Are there ways to save some money?
For starters, universities and colleges tend to run off a credit system. Most courses are worth three credits and completed degree programs require between 45-60 completed course credits. That means the easiest measure of cost is on a per-credit basis. Higher-end degree programs can run as high as $1,000/credit hour, which comes out to a whopping $45-60k for a completed program. Median costs per credit are around $400-500 per credit hour, which means an AA could be achieved for less than $30k.
It’s worth noting that community colleges are often cheaper than that, with a media cost-per-credit coming in at a low $141. Multiplying this by an assumption of 60 credit hours, the total costs of an AA in graphic design could be as low as $8500! Staying local is an excellent option for conservative spenders, and there are plenty of community colleges offering online options if there are no options nearby. At $8500 for the entire degree, it’s easy to develop a positive cost-benefit analysis if the student spends their time wisely and builds their skills.
To get that bill even lower, it’s always worth browsing the scholarships on offer at any given moment. While some will be limited to specific demographics, regions, or degree levels (undergraduate or graduate, for example), there are always good options regardless of your circumstances. Here are two (one and two) useful scholarship queries specifically catering to graphic designers to get you started.
With the costs out of the way, what are the benefits? What type of career expectations can an associate degree holder anticipate? How about median salaries?
There is an extensive range of roles for professionals who occupy the space between art and design, with annual incomes ranging from $49k to $120k per year. Here are a few examples of great starting points for the recent AA in graphic design graduate:
- Illustrator: Simple, straightforward, and highly rewarding for the true artistic type, an illustrator uses tools like Adobe Illustrator and Gimp to create original art assets for their clients. Some clients will request logos or website imagery, while others need more comprehensive work like animated short films and game objects. Illustrators can expect to make around $49k per year.
- Web Design: The web designer’s role is more towards the technical side than an illustrator, integrating basic front-end development skills with an aesthetic eye. Understanding the various elements of a web page, the appropriate image sizes and file types, and how to work in basic web development platforms like WordPress. Annual salaries tend to hover around $51k per year, with plenty of room for professional growth.
- Animator: Animation work is a gratifying career path for the illustrator with immense patience and a knack for timing. Whether it’s short-form animated GIFs or the latest and greatest Pixar film, animators combine a sense of timing and behavioral motion with their aesthetic and technical abilities. The media salary clocks in at around $57k/year.
- User Experience (UX) Designer: For the web developer and graphic designer who brings a good eye for marketing to the table, the role of UX designer is a great option. The demand for this particular skill set is on the rise, as many digital products and services require professionals with an eye for aesthetics to analyze the full customer experience from start to finish. This role pulls in a median salary of $75k/year but may require some previous marketing experience to qualify.
With an associate degree in graphic design, the best starting point is a bit of freelancing to see where you might fit best. Freelance rates around $20 per hour are fairly common, with tons of job boards to explore for short-term commitments. The best place to start is by choosing an affordable AA program and building out that all-important portfolio. After that, you may very well achieve the dream job of being a not-at-all-starving artist!
Frequently Asked Questions
At the associate level, these programs are pretty open to new students with limited experience in art. The typical process will be the submission of a portfolio, as much to understand your level as to determine if you’ll be a good fit for the program.
Holding an AA in graphic design at the lower end will likely translate to either $40-50k per year or $20-25 per hour. This will depend mainly on the quality of your portfolio and the area in which you live (and presumably work).
The interplay between art and tech is rich in job opportunities, ranging from simpler work like graphic design to more specialized animation and UX design. Someone with an AA in graphic design and interested in the tech industries should focus on filling gaps between the IT team and the creative team. That’s where the jobs are most available!
There are plenty of online options for the aspiring digital artist, with top-ranked online AA programs only a quick Google search away. The next best approach is to contact your local universities, community colleges, and technical schools to see if they offer an entirely online curriculum. Many most likely will offer either fully online or hybrid options.