With over 9,000 graphic designers living and working in Illinois, the Chicago area is one of the top hotspots in the nation for design thinkers to find an excellent education and a lucrative career.
This is all not to mention over 24,000 roles in marketing, which will inevitably be predicated on digital marketing and the digital design that enables it here in the 21st century.
Illinois is well-positioned for continued growth in design jobs with the fifth largest GDP in the country (by state), which includes business services such as marketing and design coming as the second largest industry in Illinois.
As an aspiring graphic designer, UX/UI professional, or digital marketer, Chicago in particular will be rich with job opportunities and marketing agencies in need of technical artists with a knack for understanding the customer.
Most businesses are going to be on the lookout for talented artists who have a solid portfolio and an undergraduate degree. Chicago, and Illinois more broadly, has plenty of top-notch universities with undergraduate programs in design.
If you’re a local in Illinois, it’s well worth exploring state schools and community colleges to check the undergraduate degree box at a discount, with the option to pick up an MFA in a design field from a reputable university later on. This is a great way to get that reputable degree at the lowest possible price.
Marketing professionals and artists, with a few years of experience under their belts already, could also consider the graduate degree route. There are loads of well-known graduate schools scattered across the state.
The tricky part will be selecting a concentration among the many options like graphic design, animation, digital media, and UX/UI. We’ll touch on each of these, and the best institutions offering them, in the next section.
An MFA in some form of digital design will give professionals that much-needed edge in the highly competitive fields of digital design. Let’s weigh some graduate school options.
Design Master’s Programs in Illinois
Getting a graduate degree in a design field is going to be the best bet for aspiring digital designers, both in terms of opening doors and increasing one’s qualifications.
Not only is this the most reputable approach, but these institutions also have comprehensive career services departments specifically focused on enabling networking with prospective employers. After all, the point of all of this is getting a better job!
With the huge variety of universities in the United States, it’s never easy to make that final selection. Narrowing down that list to the state of Illinois helps us out a bit, but we can narrow that down even further based on expertise in digital design disciplines specifically.
Below we map out the primary disciplines a digital design MFA program tends to revolve around, along with a top higher education institution that offers it:
- Graphic Design: Let’s start with the most common degree in digital design, which is simply designing static graphics. Graphic design requires a huge amount of technical knowledge, typically revolving around a software suite like the Adobe suite (or GIMP, if you’re looking for a free alternative).
The key to this program is translating competency in art design with the technical tools to turn these visuals into computer graphics. A top school in the nation is the University of Illinois Chicago, which offers an MFA program in Graphic Design.
- Interaction Design (UX/UI): Computers and humans are fairly new friends, and they’re still learning how to get along. As website development evolves to better suit the human mind, professionals with a knack for marketing, technology, and artistic design are filling this gap in a new field called user experience (UX) and user interface (UI). There are some great programs in Illinois for human-computer interactive design, including Columbia College Chicago.
- Motion Design (animation): Motion design can include a huge range of media, but typically refers to the tricky process of translating graphic designs into motion graphics (think Pixar). This is a highly specialized field that finds plenty of opportunities within film, game development, and short video production (marketing). The School of the Art Institute of Chicago has a program in Film, Video, New Media, and Animation worth checking out.
- Interactive Media (i.e. Game Design): The truly tech-savvy designer, interested in linking up UX/UI with an entirely interactive artistic experience could consider developing expertise in game design. Game designers often require fairly heavy coding skills, so this pursuit isn’t for the faint of heart! Compensation tends to be quite high, however, so it may be a worthwhile investment. DePaul University has an MFA in Game Design well worth a look.
If you still haven’t made up your mind about exactly where you’ll fit into the digital design world, DePaul University is going to be your best bet for flexibility in which program you pursue.
Considering the price tag and time investment of graduate degrees, you may be wondering if there are options for an online learning experience. The answer is… yes!
Online Design Programs in Illinois
Not all universities offer online degree programs, and fewer still offer online graduate degrees in design fields specifically. Digging up all the graduate design degree programs in Illinois takes a fair bit of time and research.
That’s why we went ahead and did it for you. Here are a couple of great graduate options for aspiring design professionals in the Chicago area:
- DePaul University: In addition to DePaul’s great lineup of digital design graduate degree concentrations, they also offer a completely online MA in Human-Computer Interaction.
It’s rather fitting, as you’ll learn how to design experiences between humans and computers in a complete human-to-computer educational environment! That’s a great example of ‘show, don’t tell’ right there!
- Northern Illinois University: For professionals looking to enter the digital design landscape from a more marketing-based perspective, Northern Illinois University has the perfect remote learning opportunity with its MS in Digital Marketing.
This would be a great fit for accomplished graphic designers with aspirations to lead creative teams and attain the role of creative director within a large firm’s marketing department.
A graduate degree isn’t the only option on the table for aspiring designers, as many lower-cost alternatives have been cropping up in the past decade or so. The keyword to find these programs is ‘bootcamp’.
Bootcamps provide professional certification in a variety of technical fields, with a lower cost and time commitment than graduate degrees. If a graduate degree is too pricey and too difficult to squeeze into your schedule, this could be a viable alternative.
Design Bootcamps in Illinois
Bootcamps are all about taking a tactical approach to developing highly specific technical skills. This is accomplished by consolidating graduate-level courses into a streamlined certification process.
Many of the universities listed above offer some form of a certification process, which can act as a less intensive replacement for a graduate program.
Selecting a good program can be difficult, as this bootcamp approach hasn’t trickled down to every educational institution just yet. There are complete remote options like Udemy, Coursera, or edX, which are reasonable starting points for extremely low-cost learning for the highly self-motivated.
For folks in the Chicago area, some onsite programs will allow for better networking, access to career services, and a more comprehensive (and onsite) experience. Let’s outline a few options:
|Bootcamp Provider||Name of Program||Focus Area||Time||Cost|
|Northwestern University||UX/UI Bootcamp||UX/UI||6 months||$12,495|
|School of the Art Institute of Chicago||Graphic Design Bootcamp||Graphic Design||4 months||$5,250|
|Chicago State University||UX/UI Design||Graphic Design||6 weeks||$115|
|University of Illinois Chicago||Digital Marketing Certificate||Digital Design||3 months||$13,440|
While these programs vary in duration, quality, and cost, the key decisive factor is going to boil down to what skills you need to develop. Most folks interested in a career change into technical design are going to want a longer, more intensive program.
This will allow for better networking, access to university career services departments, and significant technical practice.
Once you’ve decided how you’ll boost your resume, craft your portfolio, and refine your technical skills, the final step is getting that gig!
Five In-Demand Design Jobs in Illinois
As a local in the Illinois area, the next question is going to be what jobs are in demand.
While every area will be slightly different, most tech companies and digital production organizations are going to be found in and around the Chicago area.
Many gigs will offer remote contracts, so it’s a good idea to keep in mind your proximity to some of the urban areas where the Fortune 500 companies are going to have offices.
Regardless of your location, here are some useful facts and links regarding job titles, salaries, and vacancies across the state of Illinois:
- UX/UI Designer: Of all the jobs listed in this section, Illinois seems to have a uniquely high demand for UX/UI designers. UX/UI pros specialize in linking consumer behavior with digital experience design.
With thousands of job postings that include a reference to user experience, designers with a knack for web development will find plenty of offers for their skills.
UX/UI designers clock in with a relatively high median salary of $78k/year. This type of professional is also well-positioned between upper-level marketing managers and software engineers, which positions them well for future promotions.
- Graphic Designer: Graphic designers are the heart and soul of many projects, visualizing the core value proposition and building a context and style for websites. Graphic designers tend to excel in using digital design tools like Photoshop to contribute to the projects they work on.
The median salary comes in around $58k/year, with plenty of opportunities to work remotely and accept smaller gig jobs and contracts.
- Digital Marketer: Digital marketers are a good umbrella term for business professionals with a background in marketing and a knack for digital design thinking.
Translating traditional marketing capabilities into graphic design and digital experiences requires a unique kind of marketing professional and one that tends to specialize in integrating digital design within a marketing strategy.
Digital marketers can expect a median salary of $63k/year and will find plenty of opportunities to ply their trade in and around the Chicago area.
- Motion Designer (animation): Motion designers are more of a niche profession, with fewer opportunities in Illinois than in the other jobs listed in this section. However, it’s also quite a rare skill, as it’s a difficult process to craft the illusion of motion through layering graphics.
As a result, motion designers can expect a reasonably high median salary of $47k/year. Keep in mind that the key to getting hired here is going to be proof of skill, which means professional certifications alongside a hefty portfolio.
- Creative Director: Graduate students are particularly well-positioned for creative leadership, so long as they have a demonstrable ability to communicate both internally and externally. This is a high-responsibility position, which comes with an equally high median salary of around $94k/year.
To set yourself up for success in this role, make sure to have plenty of references of your leadership abilities, and plenty of proof of your design chops via a portfolio of successful campaigns. There are plenty of jobs to be found in Illinois, so long as you qualify!
Regardless of which specialization you pursue, Illinois is going to be one of the top states in the country to evolve your career prospects in technology and digital design.
The best bet for ambitious creative leaders is going to be attaining an MFA in design from a reputable Illinois university, and translating those skills into the perfect portfolio. Add in a dash of networking, and your new career path in design will be up and running in no time!