Getting Your Degree at a Graphic Design School

by Cathy Sivak
Getting Your Degree at a Graphic Design School

An education in graphic design has literally thousands of options: from technical/trade schools to community colleges to state universities to private art colleges of graphic design. Narrowing down the choices of study may seem as difficult as an assignment to translate binary code to Latin.

Just remember, choosing an educational venue is a worthy endeavor - an unwise choice could prove costly in terms of actual dollars as well as the impact on your future career in graphic design. Indeed, having at least a rough idea as to career interests is the first step to choosing a school. Graphic design education includes coursework in advertising, publication design, web site design and perhaps even animation.

College and university programs often offer graphic design under art or communications department banners. Some institutions offer graphic design-specific degrees, others offer a major or concentration in graphic design under the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree programs.

In addition, degrees can be earned at private and public technical or trade schools; coursework will concentrate heavily on graphic design, but may not offer the broader liberal arts experience of a 4-year state school. Coursework could result in a certificate, an associate's degree or even a four-year degree, depending on the school and the student.

It is critical for students to have at least an idea of their career choice prior to choosing a school. For instance, animation courses are not offered at all venues due to the high cost of the programs and the limited number of animation faculty available.

"Ours is a software-driven industry, so students need to make sure their courses supply what they need to land the job they want," says Eric Chimenti, director of art in the graphic design program at the Chapman University Art Department in Orange, California. Chapman is a private institution with about 4,000 students.

"After four or five years, depending on how long it takes to get the degree, students are hoping to go out and get a job. If they leave school with a lot of head knowledge and a beautiful portfolio, then get a job where everything is done in Quark X-press while they were taught everything in PageMaker, that's a knock against them," Chimenti notes. "Find the right school, find the right teachers, find the program that can challenge you and make you grow so that you are properly trained and equipped to do something that you love to do."

The Graphic Approach

Graphic design schools offer different approaches and varying levels of certifications, associates, bachelors and masters degrees. Most graphic design programs will teach students how to 'push the buttons,' industry parlance for learning a program. But will the institution also teach creativity and critical thinking? Will it offer out-of-class learning opportunities such as field trips and internships?

Course requirements for graphic design students are typically time-intensive. Time must be budgeted not only for classes, but also for creatively completing assignments, explains Pat Cheak, head of the visuals arts department (and graphic design professor) at the University of Illinois, Springfield (UIS). "You can't turn creativity on and off like a faucet. The more time you spend, the better the grade is going to be."

Portfolio Priority

Some graphic design programs have stringent requirements for entry such as portfolio submission, while others are positioned to help students build a portfolio throughout the course of their educations. Graphic design educators agree future employers are primarily concerned with the skills displayed in a job-seeker's portfolio and presentation. Each school has a different approach, but a portfolio at the end of the process is a must.

At Chicago-area technical venue Westwood College, building a portfolio is part of the process. "Students are encouraged to create work for their portfolios immediately. Every class project has relevancy to the pursuit of your career; all assignments are suitable examples to show a prospective employer," notes Phylane Becker, program director of visual communications, graphic design and animation. The career-driven school offers varying certificates and accelerated degrees at its three campuses; Becker is based at O'Hare campus in Schiller Park, Ill.

An entire term of the Westwood associate's program in graphic design is devoted to portfolio development. The culmination is a portfolio show attended by industry professionals seeking to fill positions, reports Becker. "This is a unique opportunity to concentrate on design refinements with industry and career-specific guidance," she notes.

Independent Study

Graphic design professionals are quick to encourage students to become observers of good (and bad) design. Go to art galleries, review magazines and web sites for insight on current trends, and see for yourself what works, what doesn't.

"To make information that could be very boring and present it in a fun or exciting way is to me, as a designer and an educator, an awesome responsibility," Chapman's Chimenti says. "It offers the chance to affect the culture in a positive way… and I might sell more widgets, too."

More Graphic Design School Resources

Making Choices About the Study of Graphic Design is a briefing paper produced by the American Institute of Graphic Arts and NASAD. The AIGA website also offers a special section for students:

Related Information

NASAD also works with the U.S. Department of Education and peer associations such as:

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