If you have a talent for turning ideas into realities, a knack for project management, and an eye for good design, a master's in graphic design may provide the training and credentials you need to elevate your career to the next level.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), industry-specific fields and the public relations and advertising industries had the highest demand for graphic designers across the U.S. in 2017. Graphic designers employed by the federal executive government and the aerospace manufacturing field made over 60% more each year than the average American worker. Innovative designers who are attuned to evolving technologies and industries and boast skills in computer programming or business communications have a competitive advantage in the graphic design field.
Read more about whether a master's in graphic design is the right choice for your career goals, what to consider when choosing a graduate program, and program benefits during and after graduation.
Should I Get a Master's in Graphic Design?
Graphic design master's degree programs draw on a strong foundation in the fine arts and a deep understanding of social and cultural influences on visual communication. Graphic design is an interdisciplinary field, and many graduate students in graphic design have undergraduate degrees in complementary areas such as journalism, literature, or cultural studies. Some schools offer two graduate pathways: a two-year program for professionals with an undergraduate degree in graphic design, and a three-year program for those new to graphic design who need to cover basic design and theory.
When choosing a graduate program in graphic design, pay attention to each prospective program's philosophy on the subject and its elective offerings. Some degrees focus on the advanced study of traditional design elements, like typography and drawing, while others concentrate on digital and interactive design areas.
Regardless of your specific professional goals, enrolling in a graduate program can provide you with advanced training and mentorship to develop an expert design portfolio. Combining a design portfolio, internship experience, and graduate degree credentials qualifies you for a wider array of design jobs, along with the opportunity to advance and earn a higher income post-graduation.
What Can I Do With a Master's in Graphic Design?
The cross-disciplinary nature of a master's in graphic design opens up a number of career paths for graduates, including freelance graphic designer and industrial designer in manufacturing. The most successful graphic designers are excellent communicators, have strong empathy for others' needs and ideas, and complete their work efficiently and in a timely manner. Some of the following positions require additional study, but a degree in graphic design provides the foundational aesthetic and technical skills for these roles.
- Graphic Designer
Graphic designers develop visual ideas and turn them into digital and web-based products that educate and engage viewers. Designers may create brochures, infographics, and brand logos, and many choose a specific niche, such as education or fashion. Graphic designers may work in a variety of settings, including nonprofit organizations and major corporations.
Median Annual Salary: $48,700
Projected Growth Rate: 4%
- Art Director
An art director oversees the creative production process from start to finish for visual products such as magazines, films, and packaging. In addition to overall creative concept, directors are tasked with the job of assembling talented artists and designers to help create the final layouts and artwork. Many art directors choose to create their own design companies or freelance, and otherwise may work in advertising firms, magazine publishers, or the motion picture industry.
Median Annual Salary: $92,500
Projected Growth Rate: 5%
- Multimedia Artist and Animator
Multimedia artists and animators are the minds and hands behind the animation and visual effects that surround us daily in television, movies, and games. Many multimedia artists have at least a bachelor's degree in graphics, art, or a related field, though a master's degree can provide training and experience to build a stand-out portfolio for this competitive domain.
Median Annual Salary: $70,530
Projected Growth Rate: 8%
- Crafts and Fine Artist
In addition to painting and illustrating, crafts and fine artists apply their design skills to textiles, pottery, and other handmade items. A master's degree is common for fine artists, who often choose to train in and study a specific area of art -- like design -- more deeply in order to cultivate their craft. Many artists are independent, though some may work for commercial or fine arts studios.
Median Annual Salary: $49,160
Projected Growth Rate: 6%
- Industrial Designer
Industrial designers apply their design skills to create manufactured products like toys, appliances, and cars. In addition to aesthetics, these professionals must consider function, production costs, and other business and engineering elements. These designers spend much of their time in an office, but may also work at client exhibit sites and manufacturing or design centers. A master's degree can help you advance in this field.
Median Annual Salary: $65,970
Projected Growth Rate: 4%
How to Choose a Master's Program in Graphic Design
Expect to dedicate at least two years of full-time study to your master's degree in graphic design. If you plan to attend a program part time and complete your degree over a longer period, make sure your prospective schools offer this option, and ask about time caps on completing their program requirements.
A typical master's in graphic graphic design curriculum includes a deep study of design history and theory, as well as advanced study in design concepts like typography and design research. Some programs offer a three-year track for students without an undergraduate degree in graphic design. These tracks usually include basic design courses during their first year. Culminating courses usually include open studio time and a master's thesis.
Many graduate-level design programs also require an internship, or offer a design fellowship. This real-world experience can help you build a credible design portfolio and stay ahead of the competition after graduation.
Some master's in graphic design programs are available in an online format, but many require an in-person internship or thesis presentation. For this reason, students should seriously consider location when choosing a master's program in graphic design. On-campus programs and internships provide students with the opportunity to form a professional network and find potential career opportunities. If you're thinking of moving to a different region or city for a career, consider attending school in that area, as well.
Programmatic Accreditation for Master's Programs in Graphic Design
Accreditation is formal recognition from an accrediting organization that a school or program meets quality standards in its curriculum, instructional approach, and other student-centered services and systems. Accreditation exists on both school-wide and program-specific levels. Programmatic accreditation is specific to a particular program, like graphic design, and usually bases its quality review in part on professional industry standards.
When choosing a graphic design master's degree, seek programs with accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, which accredits more than 350 institutional art and design programs nationwide. Accreditation can impact your qualification for financial aid and employment. Most federal aid and scholarship opportunities are reserved for students attending accredited programs. Employers, particularly in governmental branches, also look for candidates with accredited degrees.
Master's in Graphic Design Program Admissions
On-campus and online programs hold similar admissions standards. The admissions process for master's in graphic design programs is generally more involved than that for other programs, because it requires the standard admissions materials along with a portfolio of work. Work portfolios typically include 10 to 20 examples of your work, and are submitted digitally. Some schools may also require GRE scores or an interview with program faculty.
Consider choosing three to five schools for application, most of which should be programs you feel confident will accept you. Otherwise, apply to one or two “reach” schools, which may be more challenging based on your qualifications. Before you start applying, consider the best way to keep all application dates and requirements organized, as these requirements vary by school. Start collecting these materials a few months in advance of the application date. Take advantage of early admission, as some programs offer priority to students who submit a completed application before a specified date.
- Bachelor's Degree: Most graduate-level graphic design programs require a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. In many cases, a degree in design, art, or a related field is preferable. If you lack previous academic experience in art but have a strong portfolio of design work, some programs may consider this merit as part of a holistic application.
- Professional Experience: Many programs ask for a professional resume, but admissions officers generally care more about your portfolio of work and statement of purpose.
- Minimum GPA: Most graduate programs for graphic design don't set a minimum GPA requirement. However, admission is competitive, and a GPA of at least 3.0 is preferable.
- Application: Once you have all the required application materials available, including test scores, a personal statement, and other identifying information; most online applications take no more than 15 minutes to complete. Most schools allow you to create an account, start an application, and submit it at a later date.
- Transcripts: All graduate programs require an official transcript. You can order official transcripts online or over the phone through your prior colleges' registrar office.
- Letters of Recommendation: Graphic design master's programs typically require two letters of recommendation from a former professor or professional mentor, and many programs ask for three letters. Request these letters in-person, and confirm over email, which allows you to give a polite follow up if needed. Plan to give letter writers at least a month's notice.
- Test Scores: Plan to complete the GRE before applying to schools. Not all programs require test scores, but you will probably apply to one or two schools that do ask for GRE scores.
- Application Fee: Budget an average of $60 per graduate application, though application fees vary by program. Some programs may not require a formal application fee, but charge a related fee for checking financial aid eligibility. Schools may waive application fees for students who attended the school as an undergraduate, or for military members and their immediate family members.
What Else Can I Expect From a Master's Program in Graphic Design?
Courses in a Master's in Graphic Design Program
Each graphic design program offers a unique curriculum, but these curricula tend to include a common blend of design history, studio research, and professional seminar courses. See below for a sample curriculum of introductory-level and elective courses that you might find in a master's in graphic design program.
- History of Graphic Design
A history of graphic design explores graphics communication from the earliest human forms to today's digital and evolving visual symbols and interactions. This course typically examines the social, economic, and political influences on graphic design and communication across epochs. Students build an understanding of how history does and can inspire current work in the field.
Graduate-level typography provides a deep dive into typographic elements -- such as voice, composition, and grid systems -- and emphasize how these elements work together to affect the meaning of typography across media forms. Hands-on exercises and projects provide practice in designing and using various typographies.
- Web and Mixed Media Design
- Publication Design
This course provides students with practice in weaving together the technical, aesthetic, and social elements of graphic design to produce a functional and beautiful product that communicates an intended message to a key audience. This course may also focus on design cohesion, especially regarding a brand across multiple publications.
- Motion Graphics
Students enrolled in motion graphics learn the language, workflow process of design and sequencing, and software to produce graphics and animations. Students usually use Adobe's After Effects software, which is considered an industry standard.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Graphic Design?
Most graphic design master's programs require at least two years of full-time enrollment and at least 60 credits to earn the degree. Students in three-year programs may have to complete more credits. Internship requirements, which vary by school, may also extend program length.
Most programs explicitly ask students to commit to full-time, in-person study, though some do allow students to attend class part-time. Aspiring designers who cannot attend classes during the day can find select graduate programs in graphic design that offer most or all courses online, with the exception of an in-person internship requirement. If you're interested in finishing your degree faster, some programs may allow you to transfer prior graduate-level course credits.
How Much Is a Master's in Graphic Design?
Graduate design master's programs are relatively expensive, and you should expect to invest $70,000 or more over the course of your program. Out-of-state students often pay much more, as do part-time students. Online and hybrid programs in graphic design may offer a lower tuition.
In addition to tuition, students should plan to allot about $3,000 to books, materials, and other studio fees, though this amount ranges by program. Students planning to live on campus should also account for housing expenses, meal plans, and student insurance costs. Many graduate students choose to live off campus, but still spend funds commuting to and from classes and purchasing food on or near campus.
Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Graphic Design Prepares For
- Basics of Web Development and Coding
Design has moved from the page to the web in recent years, which is why every graphic designer should develop at least basic skills in creating and coding web pages. This specialization may be available online at some universities, and typically takes three months to complete.
- Adobe Certified Expert
The Adobe software suite is the industry standard for design professionals, and becoming a certified expert provides evidence of your expertise in these programs. Adobe offers a series of training courses and online proctored exams for certification.
- Animation and Motion Media Certification
Some programs offer courses in animation and motion graphics, but graphic designers looking to stay ahead in a competitive industry may consider pursuing certification in this specific skill set. Students find a range of certification offerings, including self-paced online modules and on-campus university programs, which can take up to two years to complete.
- Mobile App Development Specialist
Developing well-designed, user-friendly mobile applications is another evolving specialization that can open up career pathways for designers. Learning Tree and other industry-leading organizations offer different levels of certification, which generally require two or more courses and an associated exam.
- Business Communication Certificate
Self-employed graphic designers are in need of excellent business sense and communication skills. Many college extension programs offer business communication certifications, which typically require two or three courses and examinations. These programs typically take a year and a half to complete.
Resources for Graduate Graphic Design Students
It's Nice That is a UK-based online hub for creative news and ideas in art, graphic design, animation, and related fields. The site is updated daily and also offers a bi-annual magazine.
This online, global community of graphic and web designers offers a platform for posting and receiving feedback on work, finding design jobs and workshops, and networking with thousands of other designers and companies.
A go-to source for any graphic designer, Flickr provides access to thousands of photos and videos shared by photographers around the world and organized by various types of Creative Commons licenses.
RIT offers a well-known graphic design archive, where students can find biographical information on some of the most iconic graphic design artists of the 20th century.
This expansive archive provides information and download links to thousands of typographies. Students can find design examples, typefaces, and information on the designers associated with each typography.
Professional Organizations in Graphic Design
Professional graphic design organizations have much to offer current students and recent graduates, starting with access to design resources. Many organizations offer students discounted membership rates and provide access to benefits such as professional design portfolios, free design webinars and events, and discounts on design products and collaborative workspaces. Many organizations also offer regional chapters with local events that allow students and professionals to network in person.
AIGA is the largest professional design organization worldwide, with more than 25,000 members and 70 chapters. In addition to membership benefits like professional development and a design job board, AIGA offers a diverse and active board that advocates for designers and helps define global design standards.
This national organization provides professional development opportunities and helps set standards for graphic designers, animators, and other artists. In addition to other benefits, members receive a copy of the industry-standard Pricing & Ethical Guidelines handbook for design professionals.
Open to artists across many industries and backgrounds, The One Club offers professional portfolio reviews and other membership benefits for professionals. It also works with schools and youth organizations to provide creative opportunities and scholarships. The organization also hosts the longest-running annual design award in the world.
This Boston-based organization offers global membership and connects designers with business clients across industries. Members receive discounts on annual conferences in the design space, a subscription to an industry-leading quarterly review, and access to an extensive membership network.
SPD brings together visual storytellers and their work from across the globe. Members receive discounts on SPD design and storytelling competitions, access to members-only events, and eligibility to serve on the SPD Board of Directors.