Best Master's in Graphic Design Programs

Mar 15, 2021

What Is a Master's in Graphic Design Degree?

The field of graphic design examines how to creatively and clearly communicate ideas and information through visuals. Master's degree programs in the field aim to further develop students' artistic abilities and knowledge in the theories, methods, and technologies used in the field. Typically, these programs are offered as Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree programs, with MFA programs usually being longer and more competitive in nature. These programs are designed for both students looking to enter the field of graphic design and for current designers looking to further advance their knowledge and skills in the field. Below, we examine various aspects of these master's degree programs in greater detail.

Common Undergraduate Degrees for Graphic Design

Many students who have studied a design-related field, such as graphic design or architecture, may decide to earn a master's degree in graphic design to further advance their design skills. However, most of these programs do not require applicants to have a design-related degree and accept students from areas such as journalism, photography, communications, the liberal or fine arts, and more. Students with a non-design background could have to explain in their artist statement how their prior experiences have prepared them for a degree in design and/or have to take leveling courses in addition to the program's curriculum to learn foundational design concepts.

Admissions Requirements for Graphic Design Master's Programs

Although requirements for admission to graphic design master's programs vary slightly by school, several of these programs have similar admission standards. Applicants typically need to hold a bachelor's degree, but can usually be in non-design-, as well as design-related areas. Many of these programs do not require the GRE or a minimum GPA requirement. Instead, students must present a detailed artist/designer statement and a portfolio. The artist statement may also be called a statement of purpose or goal statement and usually explains the student's academic and professional goals, as well as how their experiences have prepared them for a design program. Portfolios for these master's programs may consist of as many as 10 to 25 pieces of original artwork, depending on the program. These pieces must demonstrate students' skills and abilities in the field. Other common application materials for graphic design programs include transcripts, demonstration of English proficiency for international students, letters of recommendation, and a resume.

How to Choose a Master's in Graphic Design Program

Choosing a master's program in graphic design can come down to several different factors, such as the type of degree, personal preferences, and the total cost. Students first need to decide between earning an MA and an MFA in Graphic Design. MFA programs are usually longer, more competitive, and go further in depth with artistic skills. Students may also consider any culminating projects and compare their desire to complete a thesis, internship, or master's project. Some students likely want and need a full-time program, while others prefer a program that offers different time table options, such as a 2-year or 3-year track. Finally, comparing the cost of master's programs in graphic design and any available aid can help students decide which program is right for them.

Master's in Graphic Design Program Accreditation

Accreditation is also an important factor in choosing a graphic design program. Many schools are regionally accredited from organizations such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which means they have met general academic standards and qualify students to receive financial aid. However, some master's programs in graphic design hold an additional level of accreditation that is subject-specific. For instance, master's programs in graphic design may be accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). This type of accreditation could be preferred by employers as it indicates that programs have met academic standards more specifically designed for the field of art and design. This may mean that graduates from these accredited programs are better prepared for a future career in the field.

Graphic Design Master's Degree Courses

MA degrees in graphic design can require between 30 and 46 credits of coursework, while MFA degrees commonly require between 60 and 90 credits of coursework. Students commonly take traditional courses, seminars, and studio courses. Usually, these programs are broken into advanced graphic design coursework for core courses and then open or studio electives to allow students to further focus their studies. Many master's programs in graphic design conclude with a hands-on, culminating experience of some kind. Explore different course topics below.

Graphic Design Foundational Courses

Core graphic design courses focus on the theories and methods of the field, and work to further develop students' artistic abilities. These courses typically include graduate seminars, graphic design studio, thesis, or internship courses. Some programs bring in visiting designers during these courses to give students a wide perspective of the field. Most commonly, these programs require a final thesis, but some programs give students the option to take or require an internship for real-world experience. Thesis courses usually include thesis research courses that focus on preparing for the thesis and thesis studio courses where students begin creating their thesis. Other course topics may include:

  • Typography
  • Design theory and practice
  • Design research
  • Visual design
  • Experience design
  • Ideation models

Graphic Design Specialist & Elective Courses

Depending on the set up of the program, students can choose from liberal arts electives, graphic design electives, studio electives, or other open electives. These programs are intended to allow students to explore various areas of interest that may tie into their thesis and career goals. Some programs, usually MA programs, include an optional internship experience as an elective. Some programs also offer independent study as an elective option, which can further allow for flexibility for students to explore topics of their own choosing. Other elective options for these programs may include:

  • Mobile design
  • Experimental design
  • UX/UI design
  • Art history

Licensure & Certification in Graphic Design

Licensure for graphic designers is not typically required. Certification in the field is optional and usually corresponds with a specific software product used in the field. For example, students can pursue a wide range of certifications from Adobe, which owns programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator. Adobe offers certifications for different products at multiple levels. Students can pursue certifications as Certified Professionals, Certified Masters, or Certified Experts. Typically, certification requires professionals to meet any eligibility requirements and then pass an exam. Although certification is optional, it can help designers be more competitive in the market as it demonstrates their skills and expertise using various products.

Post-Graduate Options After Master's in Graphic Design

Master's degree programs in graphic design are typically considered the terminal degree for the field. However, students wishing to further advance their knowledge of design can pursue doctoral programs in the broader subject of design. For instance, Doctor of Design (DDes) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programs are available in areas such as design or design, environment, and the arts. These are usually on-campus programs that focus on design research and help prepare students for careers in design research, leadership, or education.

Graphic Design Professional Organizations

Graphic designers who wish to stay updated on their skills and the current technologies in the field can join various professional organizations related to graphic design. Many of these organizations provide a variety of resources to professionals with the intention of further advancing the field. Each group has unique goals and focuses, but in general, supports professionals with continuing education and professional development opportunities. A couple of examples of graphic design groups include:

  • American Institute of Graphic Arts- The AIGA offers membership and has local chapters. The group hosts events and provides educational resources to students, such as school and career information, and educators, including lesson plans. Professionals can also access the group's job postings and ethical standards.
  • Graphic Artists Guild- The Graphic Artists Guild also offers membership and is highly involved in advocacy initiatives. The group participates in legislative, judicial, and regulatory affairs and offers advocacy alerts for interested parties. Professionals can take advantage of the organization's webinars, virtual and in-person events, and publications.

What Can I Do with a Graphic Design Master's Degree?

Career information for a degree in graphic design most commonly includes information for a graphic designer. While many graduates pursue a career as a graphic designer, there are also closely related positions, such as careers in graphic design production or other related areas that may utilize aspects of graphic design. For instance, while there are some differences between a web designer and a graphic designer, web designers often need to create visuals and creative designs for a website. Those who are interested in becoming a graphic designer can pursue positions in a variety of settings. Graphic designers may apply their design skills in areas such as advertising, public relations, education, animation, and more.

Job Outlook for a Master's in Graphic Design

Overall, careers in graphic design are very competitive. Those who stay updated on the most current techniques and technologies in the field may be at an advantage. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for graphic designers is to decrease by 4% from 2019 to 2029. This may be due to decline in positions in various forms of media, such as books and newspapers. The use of digital graphic designers may increase. For instance, the BLS reported that the job outlook for web developers and digital designers was 8% during the same time period, which is much faster than the average. The job outlook for other art- and design-related positions vary. The BLS reported that the outlook for art directors would decline by 2% from 2019 to 2029, while the outlook for special effects artists and animators was 4%, which is as fast as the average.

How to Become a Graphic Designer

Graphic designers typically need to hold at least a bachelor's degree in graphic design or a closely related field. It is very important for graphic designers to stay updated with the most current techniques and technologies in their field, usually through participation in a professional organization. It is also necessary for graphic designers to keep a detailed and updated version of their professional portfolio to show potential employers. These designers should continuously add to this portfolio as they acquire new skills. Experience in the field is also beneficial and may come through internships. Certification in the field is not required, but may help designers stay competitive. Opportunities for advancement for graphic designers usually comes with experience.

As of 2019, the BLS stated that graphic designers made a median annual salary of $52,110. These designers can work in various industries as they create various types of visual designs for reports, brochures, advertisements, and more. Usually, they use software programs to create their designs and final designs must be approved by an art director or client. The images they create need to effectively convey the desired message and be visually appealing. This requires both creativity and artistic ability.

How to Become an Art Director

Some graphic designers may gain experience and then move into leadership positions as art directors. These directors must have at least a bachelor's degree, typically in an art- or design-related field, and some work experience. Some art directors hold an MFA degree, which may be accepted in place of experience, but also demonstrates their managerial abilities. While it varies for each position, art directors usually have at least 5 years of work experience. It is still important for these directors to keep an updated portfolio of their work.

Per the BLS, the median annual salary for art directors was $94,220, as of 2019. Art directors are responsible for creating the overall style and design of movie productions, magazines, product packaging, or other forms of media. They usually work closely with clients to understand the goal, determine the best way to visually explain concepts, and then oversee the work of various artists and designers working on a project. They are also responsible for managing the budget and timeline for projects.

Master's in Graphic Design Program Financial Aid & Scholarship Resources

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a great starting place for students looking for help to finance their graduate education. The FAFSA is for both undergraduate and graduate students to help them find any available federal or state loans or grants that they may qualify for to help pay for school. After filling out the form, students should also check into various scholarship opportunities. These awards are available from diverse sources for diverse reasons, including academic merit, major/interests, and demographics.

Scholarships that are specifically geared to graphic design students may be available from schools that offer these programs and outside organizations. These awards vary in amount, and some may be renewable. A couple of examples of graduate scholarships in the field include:

  • Suffolk University Merit Scholarship- Students in Suffolk University's MA in Graphic Design can compete for this merit-based award that gives up to $14,750 each academic year. Students are automatically considered upon admission.
  • AIGA Worldstudio Scholarship Program- The AIGA offers scholarships between $2,500 and $3,000, as well as up to two top prizes of $5,000 to undergraduate or graduate students in graphic design, photography, or illustration. Honorable mention winners receive $500 and all recipients earn a 1-year membership to AIGA. Applicants must meet a minimum GPA requirement and submit a portfolio.
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