Online Undergraduate Degrees in Design: Program Options

Get info about online programs in design. Read about program requirements, course topics and degree levels, and check out career and continuing education options.

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Essential Information

Many schools offer online-only associate's and bachelor's degree programs in design. This is a broad field with many options for study, but the more common degree programs include Web design, graphic design and game design. These degrees generally can be earned entirely through online study, with students completing lessons as their schedules allow, within established deadlines.

A high-speed Internet connection is needed, and many of these computer-reliant programs mandate a specific type of computer. Students also may have to purchase special software for their courses.

All of these programs require a high school diploma or GED certificate. Students must complete general education courses in topics such as mathematics, science and social studies.

Within each of these programs, there are several options. Students of Web design can choose a program that focuses on the programming aspect of the field or one that offers more creative work. Students who want to study graphic design can lean more towards the technical side of the work or concentrate primarily on the artistic elements. All programs, however, usually provide graduates with knowledge of all aspects of the field.

Associate's Degree in Web Design

Web design programs combine design theory, visual communications, computer programming and database management in an Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) program. AAS programs usually emphasize programming more than A.A. programs, which focus more on creative elements. Graduates from all programs are qualified to design, construct and manage interactive multimedia websites using graphics, audio and animation.

Associate's degree candidates must have a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Prerequisite skills include proficiency in computer fundamentals and a general knowledge of operating systems organization.

Program Information and Requirements

Students complete 60-72 credit hours of courses, including general education requirements in math, sciences, humanities and language arts. Online readings, assignments, lectures, discussions and demonstrations are delivered through a learning management system and in most cases can be accessed at any time. Students are responsible for weekly assignments and may be required to participate in scheduled online events such as discussion groups or exams.

Online content may be accessed on Mac or PC systems and usually requires a high-speed Internet connection. Students may have to purchase textbooks and their own copy of Web design software.

Course Topics

Coursework can cover the technical and artistic elements of Web media. The courses listed below provide some of the basic skills required in Web design.

Basic Web Design

In this introductory course, students learn the fundamentals of Web page construction. They are introduced to markup languages such as XHTML and XML, cascading style sheets and industry-standard software programs.

Graphic Design

Students become acquainted with the tools and principles of visual design for Web page layout. Elements of graphic design explored include typography, digital images, illustrations and color selection.

Motion Graphics

This project-based course teaches students to incorporate 2D animation into multimedia projects. Students use motion graphics software such as Adobe Flash to create games, quizzes and other interactive content.

Web Scripting

Students learn how to use scripting languages such as JavaScript to enhance website interactivity. Common topics include control structures, functions, data validation, data types, operators, decision statements, arrays and expressions.

Web Project Management

Coursework covers the tools and techniques of project management for Web development. Students learn about research, setting objectives, workflow, budgeting and team management.

Bachelor's Degree in Graphic Design

Online bachelor's degree programs in graphic design train students to produce commercial graphics in traditional and multimedia formats. Schools may offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or a more technology-oriented Bachelor of Science (B.S.). Applicants generally need a high school diploma, GED certificate or a high school proficiency exam, along with letters of recommendation or an interview with admissions officers.

Program Information and Requirements

Degree candidates complete 124-132 credit hours of design and liberal arts courses, usually over 3-4 years. Instruction is delivered as online lectures, videos, animations, assignments and podcasts. Interaction with teachers and classmates may take place via e-mail, video chats, discussion forums and collaborative online tools. In most cases, students can access instruction at any time, within the demands of assignment deadlines.

Individual courses may require software that is only available for either Mac or Windows operating systems. In general, students must have reliable access to a high-speed Internet connection. Peripherals such as speakers, microphones, headphones, scanners and digital cameras may also be required.

Course Topics

Graphic designers need to know design theory, marketing theory, industry standards and current tools and techniques. The following core courses are typically found in online graphic design bachelor's degree programs.

Introduction to Graphic Design

Students acquire fundamental knowledge and skills for both print and electronic media. Topics covered include terminology, methods, layout devices, print production techniques, vector graphics and content development.

Color Theory

This course explores the psychology of color, principles of color space, color calibration and color model theory. Students also learn about variations in color effect in different types of media, using multiple hardware and software tools.

Digital Imaging

Instruction focuses on the creation, manipulation and application of digital images in visual design projects. Students acquire basic photography skills such as composition, lighting and cropping, and learn how to use standard photo editing software.

Corporate Identity Design

Students explore the impact of visual ad campaigns and corporate branding and develop their own ad-campaign portfolio. They study marketing principles, direct mail advertising, branding process and the effect of logos, symbols and trademarks on consumer behavior.

Basic Web Design

This course provides fundamental skills for designing interactive Web content using industry-standard software and tools. Students create websites using basic coding and Web authoring programs, while applying principles of color, typography, layout and usability.

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Bachelor's Degree in Game Design

Game designers need computer programming, visual art, communication and marketing skills, and online bachelor's degree programs are available to provide all of these. Art-oriented schools are more likely to offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program and technical schools are more likely to offer a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) program. The B.S. degree in game design usually provides a stronger background in programming.

For admission, students must have a high school diploma or GED certificate and demonstrate proficiency in prerequisite computer skills. In addition, some schools may require academic letters of recommendation, SAT or ACT test scores or placement tests.

Program Information and Requirements

Bachelor's degree candidates complete 127-132 credit hours of coursework, usually within eight semesters. Along with technical game design courses, students may take several math, behavioral science and writing classes. Course delivery is mostly asynchronous, meaning students can access lectures, assignments and other instruction at their convenience through an online learning platform. Communication with instructors and classmates can take place via e-mail, online conferencing, threaded conversations and chat rooms.

Students must have reliable, high-speed Internet access. Technical requirements for game design can be very specific, and not all software is available for both Mac and Windows. Software programs may have to be purchased at additional cost.

Course Topics

While programs may differ in their emphasis on programming or design skills, all have common elements of game theory, design process and development tools. Some form of the courses listed below are usually found in both BFA and B.S. in Game Design programs.

Basic Game Design

This introduction to game design explores common development strategies and processes, game genres, terminology, industry standards and practices. Different companies and platforms are compared, and students invent and document their own game concept.

Game Theory and Analysis

By deconstructing and evaluating current video games, students learn about game theory, components and methods for testing and analysis. This process develops technical, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills and challenges students to critique and improve upon existing games.

Level Design

Students learn how to analyze and design game levels with an eye toward player objectives, game pacing and flow. Topics covered generally include goal setting, game balancing, storytelling and play testing.

Game Design Tools

Students become familiar with the game engines and design tools needed to make their game concepts work. Tools used include asset libraries, 3D graphics renderers, graphic art software programs, level-editing tools and virtual consoles.


This course emphasizes the importance of prototyping in the game design process. Students learn how to create simplified versions of a game to test it for technical integrity and usability.

Career Information

Graduates of Web-design programs are prepared for entry-level jobs in Web development and administration, Internet publishing, multimedia animation and graphic design. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2015, salaries averaged $84,360 a year for computer programmers, $82,200 for network and computer administrators (Web masters), and $70,300 for multimedia artists and animators. The BLS predicted an 8% decline in employment for computer programmers from 2014-2024 ( During the same decade, network and computer administrators should see 8% growth and multimedia artists and animators, 6%.

Graphic designers can apply their skills in publishing, package design, advertising, environmental graphics, Web design or computer animation. The BLS reported in May 2015 that the average salary for graphic designers was $51,640. The Bureau predicted 1% employment growth for graphic designers from 2014-2024, with significant competition for job positions.

Game design is a form of computer software engineering, and graduates may find jobs beyond the video game industry. With a background in visual communications, 3D animation, computer systems and programming, they can be employed in other multimedia-intensive fields such as instructional design, combat systems design, computer animation and Web design. The BLS predicted that jobs for computer software developers in general would increase by 17% from 2014-2024, among the fastest growing of all occupations. According to BLS statistics as of May 2015, the average salary was $102,160 for applications-oriented computer systems engineers and $108,760 for those specializing in software systems.

Continuing Education Information

Online bachelor's and master's degree programs in Web design are available, most often in private, for-profit colleges and universities. Certificate programs and individual courses online allow professionals seeking to specialize or upgrade skills.

Online master's degree programs in graphic design are available for those who seek more advanced skills. Graphic designers who wish to stay current with specific digital tools, techniques and software can also find numerous individual online courses and graduate certificate programs.

Master's degree programs in game design are available, and some are completely online. Along with advanced instruction in game technology and design, master's level programs provide graduates with leadership and management skills. Schools may also offer individual courses and graduate certificate programs to help game designers stay current.

Undergraduate degree programs in design are available to students in a fully online format. Popular specializations include Web, graphic and game design. Students learn about the artistic and technical elements of design, as well as the design process and development tools.

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