So what exactly is a bachelor’s in graphic design? What does an artistic undergraduate program entail? Is it worth the time and money invested in it? This guide answers those questions and more.
Artists with a knack for technology are well-positioned for professional success in the modern job market, as the demand for digital art assets has never been higher. From the endless sea of websites to Pixar’s latest animated films, the expert artist in graphic design has quite a palette of professional options to choose from.
As with most specialized career paths, the first question is usually where to start. The trickiest part is getting those first few years of experience, especially when even entry-level jobs demand professional experience and a portfolio before getting hired. Fortunately for the prospects of graphic designers, modern bachelor’s degree programs prioritize building that all-important professional portfolio through hands-on experience.
Graphic Design Bachelor’s Degree
An undergraduate degree in graphic design equips students with the all-important ability to communicate concepts in visual form. The capacity to craft digital assets worthy of building communities is an interesting mix of strategic vision and technical skill, and strong programs will strive to instill both capabilities within their undergraduates.
A concentration in graphic design typically falls under the broader category of a bachelor in fine arts (BFA). The increasing focus on digital asset creation in modern art programs marks a significant shift in academia, focusing on pragmatic professional success and fulfilling the demand for skilled artists capable of working with technological toolkits. Therefore, a graphic design degree is first and foremost a technical training program, much like traditional trade schools.
From the perspective of students looking to build a career, this is an excellent reason to pursue a BFA. Graphic design programs are useful for artists interested in using their passion for visual design to build a long-term career. Picking up a BFA in graphic design (or related fields like digital arts or game arts) is specifically for the artist who’s intent on developing the technical capabilities to transform their passion for art and design into a meaningful career.
If this sounds right up your (creative) alley, picking a program and preparing a portfolio is the next step.
Online Graphic Design Bachelor’s Degree
Most universities offer graphic design or digital media concentration within the art school, with plenty of lists out there to rank which programs are the most reputable. The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Yale consistently rank at the top, but there are plenty of good options for every budget and skill level.
For many aspiring graphic designers, the modern move towards online education is an excellent opportunity to cut some of the costs and inconveniences of a bachelor’s degree program. Of course, there are many pros and cons to consider before choosing an online approach to getting a BFA. Lower costs, no commutes, and access to universities from anywhere in the world are the easy arguments for an online approach.
On the other hand, online programs are only for self-motivated personalities. Freedom is a double-edged sword, and literature on retention rates in online courses supports the notion that sitting yourself in a classroom increases your chances of completing the course. On the upside, a little introspection can spare a prospective student the pain of dropping out. Are you the type of person who follows through without someone looking over your shoulder? Be honest!
Another downside to the online approach is that not all universities offer this option, requiring students to at least take a portion of their courses in the classroom. A final disadvantage to an online degree is the ease of networking! As the adage goes, it’s not what you know but who you know. While this expression is only half true (what you know is very useful indeed), it is much easier to build meaningful professional networks with real, in-person relationships.
The final consideration is the overall availability of online programs, which has been rising for some time now. Some reputable names offer fully-online graphic design programs, such as the University of Florida, Arizona State University, Penn State, Southern New Hampshire University, Savannah College of Art and Design, and the University of Maryland.
Picking the right program starts with considering the curriculum and matching what you’ll learn with what you intend to do with the degree.
Bachelor of Arts Degree in Graphic Design
While each program is slightly different, there are plenty of common core studies that most graphic design BFA programs will require. Digital media production will start with the basics of drawing and composition, most notably the ability to do so in a way that links up with technology. Bachelor students will also be expected to assess, critique, and strategically envision visual communication.
Most courses within a graphic design curriculum will focus on developing the following skills:
- Visual design skills: Whether you craft up your content through mouse and keyboard shortcuts or a drawing tablet, the ability to craft assets is front-and-center in 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. After all, graphic designers should be potential artists at heart!
- Technical integration: The technical side of graphic design can get quite complicated, depending on the application. For web-focused designers, all graphics will have to fit the size and structure requirements of the web developers. For the game designer or digital animation professional, this can extend to 3-D recreations using skins and meshes and the timing of animations. Of course, tools like Adobe, Maya, and GIMP all have their quirks and shortcuts, which great graphic designers will need to master. Managing file types, sizes, and integrations with other creatives is also crucial!
- Assessment and critique: Finally, graphic designers typically collaborate as part of a team within an organization. This means the ability to deliver (and receive) criticism is an important part of aligning artistic development toward shared objectives. Assessing and formulating the best approach to developing visual content that builds a meaningful connection with a target community is a valuable strategic skill (and one that enables upward mobility).
If this sounds a bit intimidating, keep in mind that this is just a broad-stroke overview of four full years of education. The best part of pursuing a BFA is developing a broad base of skills, all of which can be illustrated (pun intended) in portfolio form! This is typically capped with an internship which allows students to try their hand in a professional environment.
The final part of the curriculum worth mentioning is relevant to both the initial application process and the completion criteria. As opposed to many other degree programs, being accepted into one of these programs is typically contingent on submitting a portfolio. Actions speak louder than words in this particular field of study, and your portfolio will represent a tangible record of your ability and growth over time.
Upon completing a BFA, artists should be able to see just how much they’ve grown as an artist by the end of the program. Professors will use visual submissions (and critiques) as a primary vehicle for assessing whether or not a student passes a course. Upon completing an entire program, employers will focus much more on your portfolio than anything else (even your resume). This is the primary benefit of a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, namely that proof of your abilities is something you can carry with you to any future job interview. Not bad, right?
Cost of Graphic Design Degree
Speaking of job interviews, the next consideration is whether or not an undergraduate degree is a good investment from a financial perspective. Will this result in job opportunities that offset the capital requirements of a degree program? How expensive are these degrees, anyway?
There are a few different ways to view the overall cost structure like most university degrees. The simplest method is to look at the cost per credit hour with the normative assumption that 120 credits will be required to graduate and obtain a degree. The range of cost per credit can be quite wide, with some of the lowest being around $200 per credit hour and the highest being $2,000 per credit hour. With a 120 credit requirement, this ranges from $24,000 for the entire program up to $240,000!
Thankfully, most programs tend more towards the former than the latter. While there’s too much variation for an easy average, $500 per credit hour is a fairly safe bet for a reasonably reputable degree program. This will come to around $15,000 per year or $60,000 for the program from start to finish. This assumes no financial aid or scholarships to help, which is always worth looking into and adding to the calculations.
Fortunately, there are almost too many scholarship options to list out here. Instead, browse through these links to get started on your very own scholarship research project! If you win one, it’ll be well worth the time invested in researching and applying to them. Once you know which program you intend to enroll in, how much it’ll cost, and how much you might save in scholarships, it’s time to compare it to your expected salary as a full-time graphic designer!
Career Path for Graphic Designers
Graphic designers and the many related fields that are emerging in digital art development offer excellent job prospects for well-qualified candidates. While this list could quickly become exhaustive, here are the most common career paths for the tech-savvy digital artist:
- Graphic Designer: As a recent graduate, this is an excellent starting point for a BFA-holder in digital media. Graphic designers typically work on developing images used on websites, print publications, and other types of media platforms. A solid media salary expectation is between $50k/year and $56k/year.
- Motion Designer (Animator): For those with the skill to craft images that illustrate behaviors over time, animation work is highly challenging and rewarding. Industries like film, gaming, and media creation offer great opportunities with median salaries around $60k/year.
- UX/UI Designer: Upwards mobility in graphic design typically comes from technical/software experience or strategic leadership abilities. For a graphic designer with a knack for writing code, a UX/UI designer is an excellent career move. This role combines front-end web design with graphic design and pulls in a median salary of $75k/year.
- Art Director: For those with a knack for strategic leadership and the ability to assess and improve the work of others, the ideal role is that of an art director (or possibly a creative director). Graphic designers can combine their technical and artistic abilities with the management of a creative team. This is a real value add for organizations, and the median salary is around $100k/year.
Designers can increase their value through specialization as graphic design combines tech knowledge with functional skills (art creation and design). There are plenty of lateral and vertical growth opportunities for folks who put the time and effort into self-improvement as a professional. Of course, that time and effort start with an undergraduate degree in graphic design.
Frequently Asked Questions
This will vary fairly dramatically, depending on the institution you are applying for. According to some sources, acceptance rates can be as low as 6% (at Yale) and as high as 96% at the Savannah College of Art and Design. The best strategy is to pick a couple of “reach schools,” a fair number of skill matches to your level, and a couple of “safety schools.” Who knows, you might get lucky!
Entry-level roles in graphic design tend to hover around $50,000 per year or $25 per hour for contractors. Specializing in web design, animation, or leadership is a great way to boost that salary significantly.
As technology continues to evolve, our reliance on graphical experts also continues to increase. A typical graphic design job usually involves producing 2D content for websites or publications. However, with the increasing relevance of 3D animation in video games, films, and even VR/AR environments, animation work is an excellent growth opportunity for graphic artists. Code monkeys with a knack for web design can enter the fields of UX/UI, while managerial adepts can pursue a career as an art director.
There are plenty of good options for undergraduates to obtain their degrees online. It’s also worth checking around your locality for universities nearby, which may offer either entirely online or hybrid (part online and part offline) programs.