Pennsylvania (PA) is well-known for having a massive manufacturing sector, but very few people know that business and professional services represent an equally booming $100+ billion sector. This sector is going to include programmers, designers, and digital artists as well.
Pennsylvania ranks 6th in overall GDP by state and is home to a huge variety of top-quality higher education institutions. As a digital designer eager to boost your skills, build a portfolio, and find work, Pennsylvania is a great choice to kickstart your professional ambitions.
There are currently over 8,000 graphic designers and 3,000 web designers living and working in PA, with plenty of new openings popping up every single day. Whether you’re currently residing in the Keystone State, or contemplating a move, this quick guide will walk through the educational and professional opportunities PA has to offer.
The goal is to outline qualifications that boost a digital designer’s options, translating these skills into jobs and paying gigs.
As most design professionals hold undergraduate qualifications in art, marketing, or technology already, the first step for upping your professional game is considering a Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) or an MS in Design. Graduate degrees in the artistic fields have evolved significantly over the past few decades, migrating the creation of art from the canvas to the computer screen.
An MFA will zoom in on the skills required to produce visually appealing aesthetics within a digital design environment. Put more simply, many digital design MFA degrees will combine technical skills, artistic skills, and marketing skills to better adapt the artist to the modern job market.
For folks who cringe at the prospect of additional years of expensive schooling, there are also plenty of short-term bootcamps and professional certification programs that can round out your skills while boosting the quality of your portfolio.
While a graduate degree will likely be the best option for most design career paths, experienced and self-motivated designers who need to fill skill gaps can benefit significantly from signing up for a specialized certification program.
Let’s start with a quick outline of top graduate programs in design in Pennsylvania.
Design Master’s Programs in Pennsylvania
Before diving headfirst into a design degree program, it’s useful to understand the distinction between the varying specializations and professional roles these degree programs are designed to prepare you for.
The broadest umbrella is the field of graphic design, or the formulation of digital art assets in various shapes, sizes, styles, and file types. However, more nuanced fields like animation, interaction design, game design, and digital media strategy are all core concentrations within the field of design.
Understanding how your current and potential skills may map to these specific concentrations will help you select the best graduate program to suit your needs. Let’s explore each option in more detail:
- Graphic Design: Far and away the highest-demand job in design is the production of digital assets. It takes time, skill, and patience to craft appealing digital graphics, and graphic designers need to master a variety of technical skills and software suites to stay on top of their field. A good starting point for this concentration will be Penn State University’s MFA in Graphic Design.
- Interaction Design (UX/UI): One of the difficulties with integrating visual arts within web development is the nature of human-computer interaction. Humans and computers speak different languages, and the job of bridging this communication gap falls on interaction designers (also referred to as user experience and user interface). If you are an artist with a knack for web development, an MFA in Human-Centered Interaction Design like the one at Harrisburg University is going to be a great starting point for you.
- Game Design: Interaction design has nothing at all on the massive amount of interaction and visual interplay housed within the gaming industry. Game developers, game artists, and game animators are highly in demand, particularly as the gaming industry blows past other forms of media in terms of annual revenue generation. Folks with an interest in game design will want to consider 3D modeling, game design principles, and computer graphics. A program like The University of Pennsylvania’s Computer Graphics and Game Technology graduate degree is going to be a perfect fit.
- Motion Design/Animation: A highly profitable niche, closely related to game design fields, is motion design. From film studios like Pixar and Disney to game development behemoths like Activision and EA have a nigh-endless demand for talented animators to help breathe life into their graphical narratives. If this sounds up your alley, PennWest Edinboro has a program dedicated specifically to Animation worth checking out.
Choosing a specialization opens some doors while closing others, so make sure to do some introspection before committing to a one-to-two-year graduate degree program. The ideal situation is linking what you’re good at with what types of jobs are in demand, while also accounting for the type of work you wouldn’t mind doing day-in and day-out.
Of course, not everyone has the time to commit to an onsite graduate degree program. Let’s take a look at online options in Pennsylvania, where a graduate degree in design could be obtained on a budget.
Online Design Programs in Pennsylvania
Online graduate degrees will vary in duration, commitment, cost, and concentrations available. Many online programs will be more within theoretical domains, as hands-on skill development benefits significantly from being onsite and working together in creative teams.
Fortunately for Pennsylvanians, there are two excellent graduate degrees in design to consider, both of which can be completed completely from the comfort of your own home.
First up is Drexel University, which is a highly reputable school with a huge variety of online and offline programs worth scoping out. The program we’re looking at in particular is the online graduate degree in Digital Media.
This is a master in science rather than an MFA and concentrates specifically on advanced digital design including 3D modeling, animation, interactivity, gaming, and digital media history, theory, and methods. A great program to set you up for a creative directorship!
The second online option for locals in PA is Point Park University’s online graduate degree in Multimedia The focus here will be on the generation of complex digital multimedia platforms, like websites and online services. A graphic designer with a graduate degree in the strategic integration of multimedia will be well-positioned for future leadership positions, as it dovetails nicely with more technical skills in graphic design.
It’s important to keep in mind that an online program, while convenient, won’t provide those key networking and mentorship opportunities more commonly found in onsite university programs. This path is best reserved for the highly self-motivated designer who already has a fairly rich network to source job opportunities and mentors. It’s tempting to take an online program, but think carefully before investing in one!
This brings us to the last education option, which is quite a bit newer than traditional graduate degrees. We are (of course) referring to the rise of the tech bootcamp!
Design Bootcamps in Pennsylvania
Sometimes all you need is a boost in a specific skill, and a certification to prove you’ve attained adequate mastery in that technical capacity. If that’s the case, the best bet by far is the bootcamp. Bootcamps are short-term programs, typically 3-6 months in duration, which are hosted by reputable universities for ongoing professional development.
Cheaper, quicker, and more specifically focused than a graduate degree, these modular certifications are growing in popularity and reputation. The keyword in these programs is going to be technical skills, tactically improved through a carefully designed curriculum. For designers residing in PA, there are plenty of bootcamp options at your proverbial fingertips:
|Name of Program
|Pennsylvania College of Art and Design
|UX/UI Design Certificate
|Graduate Certificate in Digital Media Marketing
|Enhanced Front-End Web Development
|Pennsylvania College of Art and Design
|Pennsylvania College of Art and Design
|Game Art Certificate
Of course, the professional certification bootcamp has long been established by massive open online education (MOOC) organizations like edX, Udemy, and Coursera, and curious designers can always dive in and take an online bootcamp at extremely low cost. However, the local programs above will provide a far richer opportunity to learn onsite in a tactile manner, while bolstering your professional network.
After weighing the pros and cons of graduate degrees, online graduate degrees, bootcamps, and MOOCs, and procuring those all-important qualifications, you should be ready to launch into the job search! Let’s take a look at the career options for pro designers.
Five In-Demand Design Jobs in Pennsylvania
It’s easy to get lost in an avalanche of opportunities in the modern gig economy, and querying with specificity will help filter out the signal from the noise. As a design professional, there are four or five common job titles worth a gander as you peruse the many digital job boards of the 21st century:
- Graphic Designer: With a median salary of around $58k/year, graphic designers are great gigs for remote workers looking to craft cool graphics for a living. While there are plenty of onsite jobs and remote gig work to search through, the real key is deciding what your professional objectives are. If you’re looking to manage other creatives in the long term, you’ll want to seek out roles where you’ll work at a company’s HQ and learn from other pros and creative managers. The key to getting hired is going to reside in your portfolio, so make sure you invest some serious time in building it up!
- Game Artist/Designer: Finding your way into the gaming industry is no small feat, but it’s well worth the journey for talented artists. Game designers have huge backlogs of assets to create, and will never let their digital pens run dry. The salary is fairly good as well, coming in at around $58k/year on average. Game companies also have lots of room for upward mobility, particularly for folks interested in creative directorships or lead production roles. Bring along that graduate degree to boost your chances!
- Motion Designer: Animators score about $64k/year on average, though this niche job tends to be harder to land than many of the others on this list. Animators are going to need to demonstrate mastery with the key animation software, and just like with graphic design they’ll want to spend lots of time boosting that portfolio. This is a role that requires high proof of competence via lots of work samples, so save everything you do! You never know when it might score you a gig.
- Creative Director: Managing creatives is a lot like herding cats, so you’ll want to get plenty of practice working for other great creative directors while you work your way up. Creative directors thrive in organizations like marketing agencies, large corporations, game development companies, and consulting agencies. Salaries come in around $95k/year, but this average is quite low depending on the value you can bring to the organization. What’s great about a leadership position like this is accountability. The better your team performs, the better your salary will be. Of course, with great power comes great responsibility! This role is not for the faint of heart.
Regardless of your ultimate objective, understanding the evolving design landscape will equip you for success in the 21st century of digital communication and interaction. Stay tuned in to industry evolutions (and even revolutions), maintaining competency within new fields as they emerge and develop.
Success in these highly volatile and competitive fields is all about staying agile and moving with the tides. Good luck on whatever journey you design for yourself!