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Graphic Designer: Education, Training, and Certifications

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 4/27/2022

Although graphic designers are often hired on the strength of their portfolios, it's equally important to have an education in design. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most graphic arts jobs — from general designers to 3D animators to website developers, and even up to managing creative directors — need a bachelor's degree in graphic design. This guide provides more detail on the degree levels and educational opportunities for graphic artists.

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What Does a Graphic Designer Do?

Graphic designers use their visual arts and technical skills to develop the look of both printed and digital forms of communication. Their goal is to tell a story or represent a brand through their choice and arrangement of words, images, and other design elements. When creating digital products, they also consider how to enhance the user experience through design. Graphic artists often work collaboratively with art directors, photographers, copywriters, and marketing specialists. Perhaps most importantly, designers work closely with clients to make sure the final product fulfills its purpose.

Graphic designers use their visual arts and technical skills to develop the look of both printed and digital forms of communication.

Education Requirements For Graphic Designers

Degrees in graphic design are available at every level. Although it's possible to earn a PhD in design at a few international universities, most students in the U.S. opt for an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree in graphic design.

Most community colleges and some vocational schools offer associate degrees and other certificate or diploma programs. The design courses cover the fundamentals of design and color theory, as well as the basics of using design software. To earn an associate degree in graphic design, students must complete approximately 60 credit hours, about half of which are visual arts courses and the other half of which are general education courses, such as literature, physical science, and mathematics.
Many four-year colleges offer on-campus and online programs for bachelor's degrees in graphic design. The curriculum for a Bachelor of Arts degree explores graphic design skills in depth, usually by requiring the completion of about 44-48 credit hours of design courses. The remaining courses in a typical 120-credit hour program are devoted to liberal arts subjects. Students often take individual design courses on visual principles, color, typography, web development, and multimedia conceptualization. They are required to use industry standard software programs, such as Adobe Photoshop and InDesign, to create projects. These simulated design products can be included in a student's portfolio of work, which is usually one of the primary requirements for graduation. A few schools also offer concentrations in subjects like 3D animation and UI/UX design. If a design school offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree, the program typically requires more design courses and fewer general education classes.
At the master's level, students often specialize in one particular aspect of design and earn a Master of Fine Arts in that specialty. Game design, modeling and animation, and strategic visual communication are just a few of the possible areas of concentration. Programs may be offered through a school's art department or perhaps through the marketing or communications department, and they typically require the completion of 45-60 credit hours. Most master's programs include a capstone design project or portfolio.

Application Process

To apply to a bachelor's program in design, applicants usually need to submit an application, transcripts from all previous high school and college coursework typically demonstrating a GPA of at least 2.8, and one or more of the following: an essay, letters of recommendation, and a resume or list of extracurricular activities. An in-person or virtual interview, including a review of the applicant's portfolio of student work, is often the final step in the process. Some schools, however, may require first-year students to complete two or three introductory design courses before they're accepted into the program.

Applying to a master's program in graphics is fairly similar. Applicants need to submit their college transcripts with their application form, and they're typically required to show a GPA of 3.0 or higher. They may also be evaluated on the quality of their portfolio of design work.

Enrolling in an associate or certificate graphics program, on the other hand, is fairly simple. Students usually need to submit only their high school transcripts with an application.

Further Education for Graphic Designers

In addition to taking design courses at colleges and universities, graphic designers have several options for extending their skill sets through education. While still in school, graphic design students may want to serve one or more internships, even if it's not a requirement for graduation. This real-world experience allows students to work with clients and develop actual design concepts that they can later include in their graphic design portfolios.

Graphic designers who want to level up their skills, or prospective design students who want to learn more about the field before enrolling in a graphic design program, may be interested in taking other types of courses. Websites like Udemy, edX, and Coursera offer free and subscription graphic design courses that can be completed online. The content of many of these courses have been developed by design experts at organizations such as Adobe.

If you're not sure about pursuing a graphic design degree, you may want to consider programs in related fields. Learn more about online bachelor's degrees in art, interior design, web design, and fashion.

Graphic Designer Certifications

Certification is not generally required for most graphic designer jobs. However, in this highly competitive occupation, earning certification may make you a more attractive job candidate. Certification not only demonstrates expertise in a particular area, it also shows that you're committed to long-term professional growth. The following is a list of some certifications available for graphic designers.

This certification tells employers and clients that you're an expert in the use of one of Adobe's best-known graphic design software programs. You can earn certification in Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and four other programs. If you complete certification in two or more programs, you can earn a specialty credential in Visual, Video, or Web Design. Applicants are expected to have accumulated at least 150 hours of coursework and hands-on work experience before taking the certification exam.
3ds Max is a software program used to model 3D animations. Autodesk offers a skill-building course that prepares you to demonstrate your competency with this software in the certification exam.
Google has created a UX design certification program, delivered through Coursera. The program is broken down into seven modules, which can be completed in less than six months. You'll use programs such as Figma and Adobe XD to complete three major projects for your portfolio.

Careers for Graphic Designers

Graphic designers work in a wide range of industries and work environments. Some work for design firms or professional service providers, some work as in-house graphic designers for larger organizations, and some work for themselves, creating designs for a host of clients. Most designers specialize in either print design — the visual look and layout for printed items, such as magazines, books, and advertisements — or in digital design for websites, mobile apps, mobile ads, and animations. With so many graphic design career paths available, it's not surprising that median annual salaries for graphic design positions vary significantly, ranging from about $47,000 to $77,000.

FAQs About Graphic Design Education

What Degree Do You Need to Become a Graphic Designer?

According to the BLS, most employers prefer to hire job candidates with bachelor's degrees in graphic design, even for entry-level positions. Employers may also be willing to hire candidates with an associate degree in design or with other bachelor's degrees, but those individuals will need to demonstrate their design expertise and technological skills through their portfolios.

What Qualifications Do You Need to Be a Graphic Designer?

Graphic artists need both creative skills and technology expertise to excel in their graphic design careers. Design degree programs help prepare students for success by teaching them how to use color theory, typography, and design principles to create effective, eye-catching designs. Courses also enable students to develop their skills in using layout, graphic imaging, video creation, video editing, and web page and website design software programs. It's also beneficial for designers to be innovative and solutions-oriented.

How Many Years Does It Take To Become a Graphic Designer?

The number of years it takes to become a graphic designer depends largely on the designer's educational path. Some individuals may decide to get an associate degree in graphic design, which usually takes about two years to complete, while others may opt for a bachelor's degree, which generally requires four or slightly more years to complete. A few design schools offer accelerated programs, which enable enrollees to earn a bachelor's degree in approximately three years.

What Are the Duties and Responsibilities of a Graphic Designer?

Perhaps the most important responsibility of a graphic designer is to create design concepts that meet the needs and expectations of the client, whether that's the designer's employer or an external client. With a clear understanding of the purpose and intention of the final print or digital product, graphic designers can move forward with developing their ideas. Their duty is to use their knowledge of design and their technology skills to create visually appealing communications that engage and inform the intended audience.

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