As of May 2021, there are over 200,000 graphic designers in the United States alone. As this is a fairly specialized set of skills, it offers a solid median salary of around $60k/year. Finding a great design gig is all about building up a proper portfolio, snagging the necessary certifications, and positioning oneself for success in the market. It’s particularly important to know where the highest professional demand is, which helps new professionals build those all-important networks and get a foot in the door.
While a significant proportion of these professionals have the option to work remote, there are a few key U.S. locations that act as hotspots for job opportunities when it comes to design work.
The top state for graphic design is California, largely due to the thriving tech companies in and around Silicon Valley. Looking through open positions by state, California represents around 15 percent of all design jobs in the United States. This is a huge market opportunity for the aspiring designer, and has resulted in the emergence of many design schools and university programs for design within California.
There are plenty of options for folks looking to get started on a career in design, whether they are new professionals or old marketing hats looking to expand their skill set for the digital world. As design jobs often expect a bachelor’s degree, one of the many California-based undergraduate programs in digital design is a great place to start for new professionals.
For working professionals looking to rack up a few certifications in design-related specialities, California state schools offer tons of short-term programs in highly specific fields like UX/UI, digital marketing, web design, and animation.
Depending on your career goals, obtaining a Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) in digital design is another great option for boosting your career prospects. Graduate-level degrees often require one-to-two years of commitment, alongside a particular specialization in which to write up a thesis to contribute to that field. Some successful graduate students even go on with their research towards the PhD-level, which often involves a long-term career in contributing to the academic quality of future design programs and professions.
Are you a marketing professional with an interest in making a move towards digital design? Let’s explore some graduate-level options to make that move a success.
Design Master’s Programs in California
California is the place to be for digital design graduate degrees. Graduate-level educational programs are all about gaining highly-specific professional knowledge while building a well-rounded network to expand your career options. As California is something of a hub for digital designers of all kinds, there is plenty of opportunity for grad students to take courses from seasoned professionals, network, obtain internships, and even find some gig work to keep those bills paid while studying.
The first step in pursuing an MFA in design is picking the perfect concentration for what it is you’d like to do professionally. Digital design is a general term, which incorporates graphic design, interaction design (UX/UI), motion design (animation), and even game design. Understanding each of these skill sets, and how they might contribute to advancing your career goals, is the first step in incorporating design principles into your career. Let’s take a look at available programs in each specialization, with a focus on what type of professional or undergraduate might benefit from pursuing it:
- Graphic Design: Far and away the most common career path for designers is the crafting of graphical assets. We encounter the work of graphic designers dozens (if not hundreds) of times per day, and businesses are well-aware of the importance of graphic design work to their success. Undergrads and/or professionals with a background in marketing, art, and/or advertising are well-positioned to pursue an MFA in Graphic Design specifically, so long as they have a portfolio that proves they can craft digital assets to some degree already. There are tons of great graduate programs in California, with California College of the Arts’ three-year Graphic Design MFA being a great place to start exploring your options.
- Interaction Design (UX/UI): UX/UI is the art (and science) of how computers and humans interact with one another. As such, this field is best for technical specialists with a knack for web development and code work. Front-end developers, software engineers, and tech-savvy marketing professionals stand to benefit most from a UX/UI-focused graduate degree. If you think your technical skills are up to snuff, Stanford’s Human-Computer Interaction Graduate Program is a top-notch option.
- Motion Design (animation): Often overlooked and nearly always in demand, animators are needed for both 2D and 3D applications. The easiest way to think of a motion designer is the step after a graphic designer in a pipeline, where various graphical assets can be brought to life through applying time-based visual shifts (producing the illusion of motion). This is another field where some technical abilities are required, as animation software does come with a bit of a learning curve. Professional artists are the best fit for this specialization, as an aesthetic eye is going to be a key success factor. USC’s School of Cinematic Arts has a highly-rated MFA focused specifically on animation within digital art design.
While this is a lot to take in at first, the simplest approach is to narrow down your graduate program search based on your desired specialty. Graduate programs are the best fit for traditional marketers, designers, programmers, and technical art specialists with an interest in translating their skills and experience into a more modern (and in-demand) format. Working professionals could even obtain sponsorship for continued education from their employers.
Speaking of saving money, some savvy professionals with the drive to learn things on their own would do well to consider picking up their MFA online.
Online Design Programs in California
While digital classrooms aren’t for everyone, the self-motivated professional can capture the advantages of lower tuition and greater flexibility in scheduling by simply signing up for one of California’s many online MFA programs.
Before diving into some of the more popular online degree programs, it’s useful to consider how busy professionals will benefit from taking them. As the design industry has such a significant investment in California specifically, seeking out MFA programs that provide industry partnerships, internships, and other career services should be front-and-center in a student’s decision-making process. This takes a little extra due diligence on the student’s part, but many online MFA degrees will have a section of their website describing their industry partnerships. Networking is all about building bridges, and a graduate program is a great bridge-builder.
Let’s explore a couple California-based online graduate degrees in graphic design:
- Academy of Art University: This university focuses specifically on art, with a huge range of courses available online for graduate students interested in one of the many concentrations within graphic design. Tuition is a fairly moderate, coming in at just over $1,000 per credit hour. Students can expect to take 20 courses over a two-year time frame, which will equate to 60 credit hours total for graduation.
- USC Online: The University of Southern California offers a wide range of online degree programs for graduate students, including a program in Digital Media Management. This is a great way for aspiring graphic designers and marketing professionals to climb the corporate ladder by developing a strategic perspective on graphic design principles. Of course, USC is a highly-reputable university with a price tag to match. Expect to invest $2,000 per credit, with an expectation of 54-60 credit hours to obtain that graduate degree.
If you’re thinking that both of these graduate programs sound a little too time-intensive and cost-prohibitive, you’re certainly not alone. Let’s take a look at the short-term educational programs available for professionals looking to make the leap into digital design more economically.
Design Bootcamps in California
The academic landscape has been going through some growing pains in the past couple of decades, particularly as technology has created so many brand new career paths and functional specializations. As careers evolve and change more rapidly, so too does the certification process professionals go through.
Design bootcamps are comparatively shorter-term and less expensive approaches to developing and demonstrating expertise, and fields like graphic design and UX/UI have seen explosions of interest in programs that can be completed in a few weeks or months (as opposed to years). Training in these programs is designed to be tactical, which essentially means hands-on and practical in pursuit of proving new competencies in the data and design space.
Let’s outline a few top choices to get up-and-coming designers started:
|Bootcamp Provider||Name of Program||Focus Area||Time||Cost|
|UCLA Extension||User Experience Certificate||UX/UI||12 months||$4,734|
|UC San Diego||User Experience (UX) Design||UX/UI||15-21 months||$5,400|
|UC Irvine||UX/UI Bootcamp||UX/UI||3-4 months||$11,995|
|UC Berkeley||UX/UI Bootcamp||UX/UI||6 months||$12,995|
|UC Davis||UX/UI Bootcamp||UX/UI||6 months||$10,995|
While there are plenty of online-only non-California options as well, such as edX, Udemy, and Coursera, these bootcamps listed above are designed specifically to bring professionals together and build meaningful networks within the California area. Locals to California would benefit greatly from finding a nearby boot camp where they can build meaningful relationships while pursuing certification. This is the best pathway to a job offer. Speaking of job offers, let’s dive into the current opportunities commonly found in the California area for modern designers.
Five In-Demand Design Jobs in California
As a pro designer moves from certification or graduate programs into the professional world, it’s useful to know exactly what roles are most in demand in the California area. The bullets below should give you a good idea of what type of job you might prefer, and what qualifications will be expected of you prior to getting hired:
- Graphic Designer: Straightforward and to the point, the typical graphic designer requires no experience (per se) but will expect an undergraduate degree in art, marketing, advertising, or a related field. Graphic designers are hired based on the quality and relevance of their portfolio, which is the best way to prove your skills. Salary expectations come in around $60k/year, and often a bit higher in California specifically. Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of these roles are typically remote, while the rest will prefer the designer to come by the office on a regular basis. This gives CA residents an edge!
- Design Manager: Design managers are higher-level designers, almost always with a few years of experience under their belts. A graduate level degree is highly useful here, particularly one that bridges the gap between design and product management/product development. This role includes both strategic thinking regarding how to approach design, as well as the technical ability to lead teams of designers in executing this vision. Salary comes in at $67k/year, with a much higher necessity of being onsite in order to manage small teams and work with other management professionals.
- Motion Designer (animator): Animators are highly prized for their specialized technical expertise, and typically require both a portfolio and undergraduate degree in fine arts or animation. Graduate degrees, particularly in motion picture/film, can be hugely useful here as well. Animators typically make around $62k/year, although California salaries do trend towards higher than the national average. These professionals do particularly well in California due to the huge amount of game companies, not to mention Hollywood (which has an enormous demand due to special effects in film).
- Creative Director: Creative directors handle the strategic management of design teams, often outlining design approaches for large firms. The typical job profile is going to require an undergraduate degree, prefer a graduate degree, and expect 5+ years of experience with increasing levels of responsibility. A background in fine arts coupled with technical certifications in digital design will be expected for this role, as well as a robust portfolio of relevant work. Salary averages at $91k/year, with a particularly high concentration of jobs in California, New York, and Texas.
For professionals in design, Silicon Valley and Hollywood both offer great professional opportunities and a necessary environment for professional networking.
Taking courses or obtaining local certification is a great way to navigate the job market in the California-area, as well as help aspiring designers narrow down their skill development in a way that leads to a profitable and fulfilling career. The first thing an aspiring designer should design is their own career path!