Which Graphic Design Degree is Right for You?

by Cathy Sivak
Which Graphic Design Degree is Right for You?

Quick graphic design courses, advertised on late night TV claiming you can earn a six-figure salary based on a certificate, may appeal to potential students facing a lack of time or funding for a traditional four-year education. But as with all advertising, skepticism as to the claims of fortunes without much formal training is in order.

It is certainly true that as market demand grows for technologically- and design-savvy individuals to create print publications, construct or updateweb sites or serve as technical support for the video arts industry, increased employment opportunities are available to career-track students at specialized schools for graphic design or community colleges. Indeed, talented individuals with outstanding portfolios in hand could have an edge over the student from a four-year university sidetracked by the "college life" experience.

However, if a certificate or an associate's degree is the sole training, opportunities may be limited to production-type positions as opposed to career growth into more advanced graphic design work, educators and professionals agree. Essentially, the choice as to where to earn graphic design credentials -- degrees, Associate's degrees or certifications -- comes down to the student's scholastic and artistic ability, career goals and finances.

"If you can produce the work, you can get a job. The most important thing is your commitment, your creativity and ability to do the work," says Pat Cheak, head of the Visuals Arts Department and a graphic design professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield. As an instructor at a university and as a professional in the graphic design field, he also is quick to note that lifelong salary and career opportunities can be hindered by the lack of the liberal arts education derived from a four-year degree.

Indeed, Bachelor's of Arts (BA) or Bachelor's of Fine Arts (BFA) graduates of colleges and universities have an edge throughout their graphic design careers, starting with the hiring process, Cheak says. "If there are numerous applicants for a graphic design job, and only five that have a degree, the employer is going to look at the candidates with degrees first," warns Cheak.

Coursework for graphic design will vary by institution and by program focus, but it is important that students remain intent on achieving (and continually maintaining) expertise in the industry-standard programs. Certificate programs can be an asset, particularly if the student has previously earned an academic degree and is looking to boost skill levels learned on the job.

Entering a graphic design educational program of any type should be predicated by creative and artistic talent, says Carol Hurlburt, communications director and head of the education committee for The Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies (NPES, for short). "Even though most design today is done on computers, it's very helpful for design students to be able to draw; you have much better perception if you've had classical art training."

Need for Speed

An accelerated approach is offered by design schools including Westwood College in the Chicago metro area. Phylane Becker, Program Director of Visual Communications, Graphic Design and Animation at Westwood's O'Hare/Schiller Park campus, advises students to commit to constantly learning: "Entry into the profession of graphic design is directly related to the evidence of skills displayed in a prospective employee's portfolio and demonstrative skill level."

Courses for the Associate's degree at Westwood's three campuses are designed to challenge student creativity throughout the process, with a full term devoted to portfolio development. In addition to the expected classes in computer design, Westwood requires its students to develop excellent communication and problem-solving skills through a broad grounding in fine art, marketing and creativity. "You are expected to model the same behavior in your classes that your employers and clients will expect of you as an industry professional," she says.

Graphic design employers typically require a minimum of a two-year degree for attainment of positions at certain levels, with most showing a preference for a Bachelor's, Becker notes. "At Westwood, our goal is to prepare students for a life-long career and our support continues well after they receive their degrees," she says.

What Four...?

With increasing levels of sophistication in graphic design at community high schools and community colleges and additional Associate's of Art (AA) degrees available from technical schools, it may seem redundant to seek out a four-year degree.

But being a graphic designer is different than simply "pushing buttons" on a program to make what is known in the industry as "eye candy," asserts Eric Chimenti, Director of Art in the graphic design program at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

"At Chapman, we argue that graphic design students need a full liberal arts education. They will be working with people who have Bachelor's or Master's degrees or even PhD's, from chemists to business people," he notes. "If your education has just been in an insular shell of computer design courses, it will limit you."

Case in point: Students who transfer into Chapman's graphic design program with a two-year Associate's of Art certificate from a community college or trade school are often well-grounded in technical aspects: software and hardware. "Basically they've been taught how to make the computer make eye candy...design with no substance. It just looks pretty," he says. "We see a much smaller concentration on the aesthetic and conceptual, the critical thinking skills, in these students."

Professional associations, such as the American Institute for Graphic Design, offer students aptitude testing, as do many institutions of higher learning. "The problem with asking someone else if you have talent is that it is all subjective," says Hurlburt. It is more appropriate for students to ask themselves if they are truly committed to entering the field, and if they are able to not only create, but also take care of the detail work involved, she adds. "Graphic design is not all artistic."

Related Articles