If you love using color, shape, text, and images to inspire and educate, a graphic design degree may be the first step toward a fulfilling career. Using various types of media, graphic designers compile images and creative typography into user-friendly layouts. They may focus on advertising, illustration, web design, publishing, or several fields at once.
As industries increasingly combine print and electronic media advertising, many different employers work with graphic designers to communicate ideas and reach their target audiences. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), graphic designers enjoy a median salary of $48,700, and those working in advertising and other specialized fields may earn even more. While many positions require a bachelor's degree, earning a graphic design associate degree presents valuable opportunities to build a skill set, develop your interest areas and strengths, and create a portfolio to use for future employment opportunities.
Should I Get an Associate Degree in Graphic Design?
A graphic design associate degree can help you turn your artistic talents into a creative profession. Not only does the field allow for specialization in different media, such as video, print, or web, but it also offers opportunities in many different subject areas. An associate degree in graphic design suits many schedules and learning styles and offers a great starting point for students who are unable to commit to a four-year bachelor's program. Learners can immediately begin building their portfolios and familiarizing themselves with different graphic design software programs. They also take classes on a wide variety of topics, including web design, color theory, design layout, and typography.
An online associate degree often appeals to working professionals, who benefit from flexible, asynchronous scheduling and accelerated courses. In addition, distance education is frequently more affordable than a traditional college education. On-campus programs offer inspiring opportunities for recent high school graduates interested in pursuing an entry-level graphic design career or further education. On-campus students enjoy added support from professors and fellow students, as well as greater opportunities to enroll in hands-on technology classes, participate in internships, and display their work in exhibitions. Most schools also host campus career centers, which offer networking opportunities and job placement assistance for students nearing graduation.
What Can I Do With an Associate in Graphic Design?
The graphic design industry offers many exciting career choices for creative individuals who wish to connect, inform, and inspire others through art. Some designers work in publishing, print advertising, brochure development, or newspaper layout. Others take on public relations jobs, or become self-employed or freelance designers. Below are just a few of many available opportunities in graphic design.
- Multimedia Artist and Animator
Multimedia artists create visual effects, illustrations, and animations that are used in many different media to assist in storytelling. Depending on their style and strengths, they typically focus on movies, commercials, video games, or computer programs. Most positions in the field require a bachelor's degree, though employers may consider designers who hold an associate degree and a well-crafted portfolio. This career often requires applicants to hold at least a bachelor's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $70,530*
- Craft and Fine Artist
These makers create original objects and works. They may specialize in crafting functional pieces, aesthetic creations, or a combination of both. Fine artists hone their skills and talents through practice, and associate-level coursework can help refine your abilities and develop real-world applications for your art.
Median Annual Salary: $49,160*
Photographers specialize in capturing and developing photographic images to tell stories and document events. Along with advanced composition skills, they must master relevant technologies and specialized software. An associate degree imparts the interdisciplinary technical, composition, and design skills needed to successfully capture and process photographs.
Median Annual Salary: $32,490*
- Graphic Designer
Working with multiple media types, graphic designers use visual concepts to express and promote ideas. They may provide web development services, create banner ads, devise layouts for printed materials, or design logos. Earning an associate in graphic design helps candidates develop their portfolios and serves as an entry point into the field.
Median Annual Salary: $48,700*
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
How to Choose an Associate Program in Graphic Design
There are several factors to consider when selecting a graphic design associate degree. A program should align with your career goals, lifestyle, personal interest, and budget. While most programs typically take two years to complete, duration may vary according to curriculum, as well as any transfer credits you may hold. Your availability and enrollment status also affect total program length. Many programs offer both part-time and full-time enrollment options that may further influence your graduation timeline.
It's also important to consider your own learning style. Online graphic design associate degree programs are an ideal option for working professionals who require flexibility and maintain strong time management skills. Each school offers different resources for distance learners, including video counseling and online learning portals. You can view some of the top online associate degree programs in graphic design here. Individuals who prefer a more structured learning environment often benefit from traditional, on-campus programs, which feature in-person instruction, highly interactive classes, and a host of campus resources.
While most associate curricula include a mixture of core classes and electives, each program focuses on slightly different aspects of design. Some provide the option to specialize in areas such as technical design, media communications, or animation. You should also prioritize schools that emphasize portfolio development. Your portfolio is your biggest asset, as it demonstrates your technical skills to potential employers and highlights your interest areas. Some schools that offer graphic design degrees also help students find internships or immersive study programs at local design agencies.
Associate in Graphic Design Program Admissions
While graphic design associate degree admissions standards vary by school and program type, most programs maintain the same baseline prerequisites. Students must hold a high school diploma or GED and need to submit their transcripts along with an application. A general application for admission asks for a prospective student's personal information, academic history, and professional experience documentation.
Some institutions offer completion programs for learners with some previous college credit, so it is important to ensure that you meet all of a program's application requirements before you apply. Because online programs provide less faculty supervision than traditional programs, some online graphic design degrees request additional proof of technical experience and a basic skills assessment to ensure that distance learners can keep up with coursework and meet curriculum objectives. To improve your chances of acceptance, you may wish to apply to several schools that offer your desired specialization.
- Application: While application structure varies by school, most ask for basic biographical and academic information. Some may request a statement of intent, a personal essay, or require prospective students to present a showcase of their work.
- Transcripts: Transcripts provide prospective schools with evidence of your previous coursework and grades. For a small fee, you may order transcripts from your previous institutions and have them sent directly to your prospective schools.
- Application Fee: Most schools charge an application fee to cover assessment and handling costs. Application fees are typically $75 or less; however, students who demonstrate financial need may apply to have these charges waived.
Educational Paths for Graphic Design Associate Programs
Earning an associate degree in graphic design often serves as a stepping stone for students who wish to pursue a specialized bachelor's degree. According to the BLS, most graphic design professions require a bachelor's degree at minimum. However, individuals who must work while taking classes may benefit from starting with a more flexible associate degree. Associate programs allow candidates to develop a strong skill set and build a portfolio, which may increase their chances of being accepted to baccalaureate programs.
- Bachelor's Degree in Graphic Design
A bachelor's degree in graphic design is usually the minimum credential needed to land entry-level positions in the field. Students learn to use industry standard design software and explore major concepts in visual communication, color theory, and typography. As they build a professional portfolio, candidates learn to develop ideas from sketches or concepts into display-ready multimedia designs.
- Bachelor's Degree in Digital Art
This undergraduate degree builds students' technical and digital skills while emphasizing traditional design principles like color and composition. As an interdisciplinary degree, digital art majors explore animation and motion, special effects, storytelling, and computer graphics. They also master design software such as Adobe Creative Cloud.
- Bachelor's Degree in Animation
Often offered as part of a bachelor of art or fine arts, an animation degree develops the professional skills required to work in media arts and animation. Coursework covers 2D and 3D animation, industry-related software programs, web design and programming, computer modeling, storytelling, and character animation.
What Else Can I Expect From an Associate Program in Graphic Design?
After selecting an educational path, it's time to choose a program with a class selection, timeline, and cost that fits your goals and budget. While most graphic design associate degree programs share some general characteristics, each offers something different, such as elective courses and internship opportunities.
Courses in an Associate Program in Graphic Design
Most graphic design curricula include a mixture of core and elective courses, and some schools allow students to choose a specialization or pursue a particular interest area. While every program features slightly different course offerings, most include one or more of the foundational classes listed below.
- Introduction to Visual Communication
This course introduces crucial concepts in visual rhetoric and literacy. By exploring visual imagery's impact on emotional response, meaning, and message, future graphic designers of every kind learn to understand and create narrative through design.
- Introduction to Adobe Creative Cloud
Whatever their specialty, all graphic designers use Adobe Creative Cloud on a daily basis. Coursework builds InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop proficiencies through hands-on projects. Learners use the software to create new vectors, manipulate existing images, and produce and integrate page layouts.
Students interested in advertising and visual marketing careers must understand typography to create effective promotional materials. This class examines typefaces, fonts, and how they impact viewers. Learners become acquainted with manipulating type in different layouts, selecting appropriate typefaces, and design new fonts.
- Color Theory
Examining human understanding and usage of color in society, color theory helps form the backbone of graphic design studies. Students survey color's cultural and psychological significance, as well as the science behind clashing and other color interactions.
- Graphic Design Fundamentals
Aimed at all prospective designers, this introductory course provides a baseline for understanding composition and organization in visual media. Learners analyze multiple visual communications components, including research, typography, and color as they begin to develop their professional portfolios.
How Long Does It Take to Get an Associate in Graphic Design?
The amount of time it takes to earn a graphic design associate degree depends on several variables. Full-time students typically earn their degree in around two years, while learners working at a part-time pace may take up to five years to graduate. However, many associate programs tailor their curriculum to candidates with previous college credit.
Credits earned at accredited institutions may be eligible for transfer, allowing students to complete an associate degree in as little as one year. Semester-based programs generally require around 60 credit hours, while schools that operate on a quarter system require approximately 90 credits. Some asynchronous online programs offer accelerated or self-paced courses, which may be completed as quickly as the student prefers. Many online and on-campus programs; however, are cohort-based. These programs, which feature a greater deal of structure and more rigid deadlines, typically take longer to complete than asynchronous programs.
How Much Is an Associate in Graphic Design?
Pursuing a graphic design associate degree is a major financial undertaking. Total program costs ultimately depend on several factors, including program format and state residency. Students attending a program in their home state generally pay lower tuition rates than out-of-state learners. Many distance education programs; however, charge a flat, per-credit rate for all online students, regardless of their location. Credit requirements also influence cost, and programs which include more credits are typically more expensive. Many learners save money by transferring previously-earned credits, or undergoing prior learning assessments to test out of certain courses.
Several other attributes may affect how much you pay for an associate degree in graphic design. Online students are often required to pay technology or distance learning fees and may need to purchase additional technology, such as a new laptop or special computer equipment. However, distance learners avoid many of the transportation, campus facility, and housing expenses required of traditional, on-campus students. In addition, all students must pay for textbooks and course materials, and many graphic design courses call for specialized software.
Professional Organizations in Graphic Design
Professional organizations provide opportunities for graphic design students and recent graduates to expand their knowledge and networks. Organization members gain access to continuing education programs, networking events and conferences, discounts, and field-specific career assistance. Some allow members to publicly displaying their portfolios. Below are three major graphic design professional organizations you may wish to explore further.
AIGA connects more than 25,000 graphic artists through community events, lectures, and conferences. Members enjoy professional development programs and exclusive career services.
The Guild seeks to raise industry standards and support creative professionals' career goals. In addition to a large variety of resources and educational materials, members receive discounts, referrals, and an online portfolio.
Dedicated to the art of illustration and design, this organization allows members to attend gallery events for free or reduced admission. The Society also hosts and invites members to display their work in open exhibits.