In this ranking article, we’ll answer questions like: Where can I get an online associate’s in graphic design? How much do graphic designers get paid? What kind of work will I do as a graphic designer?
Introduction: What is graphic design?
Graphic design is all about communication. It is a synthesis of art and information. It considers the whole picture of aesthetics, information, brand and creativity and strives to reach its audience as clearly and concisely as possible.
What skills should I have as a graphic designer?
Graphic designers must:
- Be proficient with industry-standard software
- Have creative design skills
- Have self-management skills
- Have exceptional social skills
The software that you should be familiar with are anything from Adobe, (like Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator), the ability to use WordPress, and some programming languages like CSS and HTML. Anything else you can add to the list, like video, photography, and animation, helps you to not fall behind the competition. Creative design skills mean your ability to think up creative solutions to visual design problems, such as “What is the best way to communicate this in as few words as possible, in as clear a way as possible, and still look aesthetically pleasing?”
Self-management skills are absolutely imperative for freelancers but still important for graphic designers employed by a company. You should be able to manage your time to meet deadlines, pay attention to detail, and prioritize goals. If you have been given multiple goals for a given project, you need to know which one is most important for your client’s vision to deliver a product that fits their needs. Lastly, if you have difficulty communicating with and interpreting the needs of your customers, you will not last long in graphic design. If you work as a member of a team, this is even more true.
You must be able to deal with other people, accept criticism, communicate your own vision, and explain to your clients how your idea will best serve their needs. To top it all off, you need to be learning all the time. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to get another degree. As someone working in a field that is deeply rooted in technology, which is constantly changing and evolving, you must never stop teaching yourself new trends and developments.
What types of positions can a graphic designer work in?
As a graphic designer, you could work in various levels and types of jobs. Titles include designers, senior designers, art or creative directors, visual designers, interactive designers, experiential graphic designers, or brand managers. You may work alone as a freelancer or on a team of other designers. You could work with a boss who leads your team and makes many of the overarching decisions, or you could be the leader of a team. You may work on a design firm, creating projects for multiple companies or clients, or you could work as a graphic designer employed by a single company. If you are a freelancer, you’ll have more creative control, but all of the responsibility to have enough work will be on you. In contrast, if you work for a company or design firm, you’ll have less control, but can be reasonably sure of your income month to month.
How do I find the right area of graphic design as a career?
You should know yourself and your personality in order to best find what area of graphic design to work in. You may get more of a direction as you study and create different projects during your education. Pay attention to which projects give you the most energy, and which seem to drain you of energy. A good online associate’s in graphic design program will give you experience creating digital work, interactive digital work, printed 2-dimensional products like magazines, postcards and posters, and 3-dimensional objects like packaging designs. You may find that you naturally lean towards one of these areas.
Also, you need to know if you’re good at working with people. Most graphic design jobs depend on having good interpersonal skills. Ask yourself if you can create a good product, listen to criticism from people who do not know anything about graphic design (your clients, possibly), incorporate it into your work without growing too attached, and still make something that you are proud of. If you answered yes, then you may be well-suited for working on a graphic design firm. If you just answered “NO” to the questions above, then you may want to work as a freelance graphic designer, where you can have more control over your choice of client or customer. Another layer to look at is, what is your level of education? This will also play a part in what employers will look at your application. In the next section you’ll learn more about how your level of education may affect your marketability.
Is an Associate’s Degree in Graphic Design worth it?
An associates degree in graphic design online gives you specific skills and knowledge necessary for working in the field of design. You will work in the Adobe Creative Suite often. However, like many skill-based degrees, you can also teach yourself these same skills. If you are intending to eventually get a bachelor’s or to work in an environment that requires a college degree, then an associate’s degree could be a good choice. If this is the case, then make sure to clearly look at your school options to see if it is accredited, recognized by other institutions in your state, other institutions that you would potentially transfer to, and that your school has a reasonable reputation in the field of graphic design. At the same time, the name of the school on your degree does little good when your portfolio shows a lack of ability. Conversely, a great portfolio may overshadow a lack of degree or a degree from an unknown school. Therefore, you should look at all your options in light of the goal you are trying to achieve. Are you trying to work for yourself as a freelancer? Then you may only need a degree for your own personal confidence and training. The main idea, however, is to never think a degree will automatically get you a job, let alone a well-paying one. You are the secret sauce.
Please note that if the company you want to work for is large, they may use degrees as a way to narrow down applicant pools, and may want to see a bachelor’s degree. The smaller the company, the more chance you have that they will look at the quality of your portfolio rather than the length of your degree. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 1 in 5 graphic designers were self-employed in 2016. If you are self-employed, the degree is more about what skills it helped you to master, rather than something to put on your resume. As a self-employed freelancer, your resume is actually your portfolio and your list of satisfied customers. Additionally, internships are an important way for you to gain skills and prove that you can finish projects well while networking in your field. There are also specific certifications (outside the main diploma) in individual software applications that you can take to show your skills. For example, you can become an Adobe Certified Expert in Dreamweaver, Illustrator, InDesign, or Photoshop. You may also want to consider becoming a member of the AIGA, American Institute of Graphic Arts, a well-known professional association of designers.
In conclusion, there are many factors to consider about what degree you’d like to end up with and a variety of ways to prove your ability in the field of graphic design. So, figure out your career goals first, and then work backwards from there. For some more reading on the topic, you may want to read this article from GDUSA Magazine.
What type of online graphic design associate’s degrees are out there?
There is a variety of graphic design associate degrees online, being offered by public, private for-profit, and private not-for-profit institutions as well as 100% online schools, and schools that have physical campuses. Some have unique schedules, while others follow the typical semester models. The common factor across online graphic design degrees are that they are meant to prepare students to use the industry standard Adobe software, including InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop, while building creativity and visual problem-solving skills.
What is it like to study graphic design online?
This depends on the program. Some schools are better equipped to accommodate online students than others. In fact, the best schools treat their online students as a community of students with unique needs, and offer a variety of services to ensure their success. Other schools may offer an online degree but do so with little additional support to those who participate only in distance education. However, in comparison with other degree concentrations, graphic design is particularly well suited for online study, given the fact that most of the student artifacts and portfolios are already digital products. In addition, in a ‘real world’ entrepreneurial setting, you may do freelance for a customer without ever meeting the person face-to-face.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of a graphic design online associate’s degree?
The advantages to an online degree in graphic design are that it may closely replicate the real-world freelance scenario for web-based clients that you may never meet. Being able to meet goals and exchange information over the internet in order to create a design product for your degree would mirror the skills and abilities necessary in the ‘real world’. Disadvantages may come in the form of a feeling of disconnect from peers and professors, and a feeling of a lack of ability to network effectively. If you need to see someone face-to-face in order to feel connected, or to be motivated to work, this may not be the method of education for you. The good news is that many schools offer online learning tests to determine whether online education is a good fit for your personality and abilities.
How can I afford and pay for my online associate’s degree?
Many online associate’s degrees are extremely affordable, especially those that are offered by public institutions. In addition, the benefit of studying online means that you are able to work a part or full time job while still completing your degree. Some schools even allow for you to complete your degree at a slower pace. When considering where to get your degree, it is strongly recommended that you avoid student loans at all costs. The statistics on student loans show that more than half of those who take out student loans regret the decision, and would do it differently if they could. Work with the admissions office to find out every financial package available, apply for scholarships, and of course fill out the FAFSA (Federal Application for Student Aid). If you plan to take out loans, estimate what your future monthly loan repayments would look like, and be honest with yourself about how quickly you can get a high enough income to afford to repay your loan and the rest of your bills. In the next section we’ll talk more about the expected salaries for graphic designers, which should play a part in your assessment.
What kind of salary do graphic designers have?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the mean hourly wage for graphic designers was just over $25 an hour, and the mean annual wage was around $52,000. When looking at these numbers, it is important to remember that entry-level graphic designers may not be able to count on being paid these amounts at the beginning of their careers. Therefore, it is important to consider that the bottom 10th percentile of graphic designers was paid $13 an hour, and those in the bottom 25th percentile were paid $17 an hour. Their annual wages were just under $28,000 and $35,000, respectively. The annual wage also depended on where the graphic designers lived. Those in the mid-atlantic region and the West Coast were paid the most, in states like New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, Oregon, and California. The states where graphic designers were paid the lowest included Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Idaho. Finally, it also depended on how close the graphic designers in those states lived to large metropolitan areas. For instance, some areas of California still had graphic designers paid as little as the average in Idaho. Those in the 90th percentile, or the top 10% of wage earners in the field of graphic design, earned almost $40 an hour, with an annual wage of about $82,000. For more information see the BLS page.
What are some other important things to remember when considering an online associate’s degree in graphic design?
Even though a program may be offered online, it does not necessarily mean that anyone from any state can or should enroll. Check with the admissions officers at each school to confirm reciprocity with your state and its accreditations. If you are planning to continue your education to a bachelor’s degree, then you should also check with this institution to make sure how many credits and courses it will accept as credit to its own program. Always do your research before paying for a degree, and avoid student loans at all costs. Education is a means of gaining skills and a credential on your resume to show that you were able to complete an educational program, but it is not a guarantee of a job.
What are some similar degree concentrations?
Similar areas to graphic design, some of which are included on this list of degrees, are graphic arts, commercial and advertising art, design and applied arts, and design and visual communications. Although the names are different, you can figure out if they may be related by seeing if they focus on communicating visually, integrating text and images, communicating ideas with images and text in clear and appealing ways, and using the industry standard software in Adobe Creative Suite.
Ranking the Online Associate’s in Graphic Design Offerings
10. Penn Foster College Graphic Design Associate of Science Degree
Penn Foster College is a private, for-profit college that is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. It specializes in online education: high school degrees, career diplomas, associate degrees and two bachelor’s degrees. Penn Foster College offers an extremely affordable degree, comparable to the price of 2-year public colleges. The national average for public, 2-year college tuition is $3,350, and Penn Foster’s tuition comes in at around $2,568, making it a great value.
The curriculum covers the following integral programs for graphic designers: Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks. In addition to the design-focus classes, you’ll be responsible for English Composition, Art Appreciation, Business and Technical Writing, Intermediate Algebra, Essentials of Psychology, and a science class such as Nutrition. At the end of each semester, there are proctored exams. You get to choose where and when you take these exams, as well as who the proctor will be. These are important exams for your degree, so there are special procedures to take, and you should know that the proctor is someone in your area who has completed at least an associate degree, and who is not related to you.
Estimated Tuition and Fees: $2,568/year (65 credits at $79/cr)
9. Sessions College for Professional Design Associate of Occupational Studies in Graphic Design
Sessions College for Professional Design is a private, for-profit college specializing in only art-focused programs, all completely online. It is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). Sessions College awarded 16 associate degrees in graphic design in 2015-16 and had a graduation rate of 38%. In addition to Graphic Design, it also offers associate’s degrees in Web Design, Digital Media, Illustration, Advertising Design, Digital Photography and Fine Arts. Sessions College is recognized as a 2017 Top Design School by GDUSA Magazine.
During the online Graphic Design program at Sessions College, you’ll take classes that explore important computer programs for every graphic designer. These include Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, and Dreamweaver. The two years of study are broken up into 3 semesters each. At the end of your degree, you’ll be responsible for creating a capstone project and preparing for a portfolio review. For the capstone project, you’ll create a package design, brochure, logo, and related design elements. You’ll work closely with the faculty who will evaluate your work and provide multiple critiques. The portfolio review will help you to create a body of work that clearly shows your talent.
Tuition and Fees: $12,600/yr
8. Online Associate of Science in Graphic Design Degree at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh-Online Division
The Art Institute of Pittsburgh is part of The Art Institutes. The Art Institutes is a system of 37 schools that are managed by two separate companies. Twenty-five of the 37 schools are non-profit campuses run by Dream Center Education Holdings. This is a recent change, as they were acquired by DCEH in October 2017. Six of the campuses are still run by Education Management Corporation as for-profit, and are no longer accepting new students. The Art Institute of Pittsburgh is one of the remaining six schools that are still owned by the for-profit EDMC, but are scheduled to be sold to the non-profit DCEH by early 2018.
Aside from the financial and ownership details of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, let’s talk about the details of the online graphic design degree. In order to apply for admission, you should have a high school GPA of 2.0 or higher, or hold a GED. In order to complete all the work, you’ll need to have the necessary software installed on your computer, including Adobe Creative Cloud (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc.) and Microsoft Office Professional. You’d also need a printer, scanner, digital camera, and, of course, drawing supplies. The degree is 91 credits total for most states, which you take over 8 quarters. General Education courses include Communications, English Composition, and College Math. You’ll take classes like Design Fundamentals, Observational Drawing, Perspective Drawing, Typography, History and Analysis of Design, Packaging Design, and Corporate Identity.
Tuition and Fees: $17,016
7. Independence University’s Online Degree in Associate of Applied Science in Graphic Arts
Independence University is a private, not-for-profit college that offers online associate’s through master’s degrees in Healthcare, Business, Technology, and Graphic Arts. It is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC). Independence University distinguishes itself by its high level of student support through its Student Success Center and its Career staff. You’ll be assigned an associate dean who is there to help you succeed. The online Student Success Center offers learning coaches at scheduled times during the week. Both students and alumni have access to Career Services. The Career Services advisors can help you revise your resume, refine your job search, and sharpen your interview skills.
The online associate’s in Graphic Design program is 99.5 credits, which you can complete in as little as 20 months. You’ll be sure to work in Adobe® InDesign®, Photoshop®, and Illustrator throughout required courses such as Logo and Identity Design, Layout Design, Package Design, and Advertising Design. Of course you’ll still have general education courses like English, Algebra, American Civilization, and Sociology. You may also be interested to know that they offer an online bachelor of science in graphic arts as well.
Tuition and Fees: $16,968/yr
6. Online Associate of Applied Science Degree in Graphic Design at Gateway Technical College
Gateway Technical College is a two-year public college in Wisconsin that offers several online programs at the lowest price on this list. Gateway holds regional accreditation status with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) and is part of the Wisconsin Technical College System. The Associate of Applied Science Degree in Graphic Design is accredited with the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs. Though its out-of-state tuition is already extremely affordable, you can apply for remission of the out-of-state fees. To be eligible, you should be in good academic standing and demonstrate financial need. If you receive the tuition remission, that will shave off an additional $2,000!
The program has a minimum of 60 credits, including general education classes like English Composition, Math, and Psychology. Courses in the arts field include important foundational courses like Digital Photography, Design Concepts, and Design Publishing and Prepress. Additionally, if you have interest in transferring to another college to receive a bachelor’s, Gateway has transfer agreements with several colleges, including the University of Wisconsin and Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. Carthage College, in particular, offers an outstanding agreement, by guaranteeing admission to all of its bachelor’s programs except Education, Nursing, and Social Work.
Tuition and Fees: $6,106
5. Wake Technical Community College’s Online Advertising & Graphic Design Associate in Applied Science Degree
Wake Tech Community College offers over 200 programs with over 20 online associate degrees. It’s accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Wake Tech is a 2-year public college and the largest community college in North Carolina. Even though you may be far from campus, you’ll have access to student support services offered by the Individualized Learning Center. This center offers free tutorial services online to those enrolled in online courses. This tutoring will help you in your general education courses in biology, math, writing, and study skills. Since you’re pursuing graphic design, there are also online tutoring services through CompuTutor, which is specifically for students in computer-related courses.
The online Advertising & Graphic Design Associate in Applied Science Degree is made up of 71 credit hours. Wake Tech’s Program Planning Guide for this degree suggests a timeline of 3 years to complete the program including summers: Fall 1, Spring 1, Summer 1, Fall 2, Spring 2, Summer 2, Fall 3, Spring 3, and Summer 3. General education courses include Writing and Inquiry, Algebra or Mathematical Measurement and Literacy, and Intro to Interpersonal Communication or Public Speaking. For your Graphic Design courses, you’ll take Typography, Drawing Fundamentals, Graphic Design I and II, Web Design, Social Media, and Digital Print Production. Near the end of your degree you’ll take classes like Portfolio Design and Client/Media Relations. During the program you’ll work in the Adobe software to create logos, brochures, posters, and advertisements. You’ll also be able to create web sites and gain a working knowledge of using CSS.
Tuition and Fees: $8,912
4. Rasmussen College–Online Graphic Design Associate’s Degree
Rasmussen College is a private, for-profit college that is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Rasmussen College has been around for over 100 years, first being founded as a business school. Besides a wide variety of completely online programs, Rasmussen also has 22 campus locations across 6 states: Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. So, if you happen to live near one of those campuses, you could even take advantage of Rasmussen’s blended learning option. In order to apply, you should at least have a high school diploma or the equivalent.
In your online associate’s degree in graphic design from Rasmussen, you can choose to specialize in either Web and Interactive Design or Animation and Motion Graphics. With your Web and Interactive Design, you’ll have access to the Adobe Creative Suite and Autodesk Max software, and a Wacom digital drawing tablet included in your tuition. Adobe Creative Suite is an integral part of any graphic designer’s toolkit, and you’ll be sure to use different programs in courses like Typography, Digital Photography, and Motion Graphics. Also included in your tuition is the chance to take the Adobe Certified Associate: Visual Communication certification exam in Adobe Photoshop®. This is an industry standard and a must have for your resume. Rasmussen also will reimburse you for the application fees for the first attempt on two other industry certification exams. Rasmussen may even have practice exams and materials available for you, so you can see if you’re ready to take the exams beforehand. Rasmussen also includes courses in Career Development and Portfolio Development in your degree to help you prepare a portfolio and seek employment in your field of graphic design. Of course your A.S. Degree in Graphic Design must also include general education courses in English, math, social sciences, and the humanities to round out your college preparation. In addition to an Art Appreciation course, you may want to study Film Appreciation or Creative Writing. These courses will help you develop a portfolio that showcases a thorough knowledge of the arts, in addition to your technical skill.
Tuition and Fees: $9360/yr
3. Full Sail University’s Online Associate of Science in Graphic Design Degree
Full Sail University boasts an astounding list of accomplished alumni in the fields of the arts, media, and entertainment. Full Sail University is listed as a 2017 Top Graphic Design School by GDUSA. It is a private, for-profit university in Winter Park, Florida. If you don’t know where that is, you’ll know where this nearby attraction is: Disneyland. If you think that won’t matter to you if you’re doing an online degree, think again. Full Sail University makes a strong effort to include its online students in its community by live-streaming events like performances and guest speakers. Another event that is live-streamed is Full Sail’s Hall of Fame week. During this week, Full Sail inducts several of its alumni who have made amazing accomplishments in their fields into its Hall of Fame. There are also advisors, library access, and career development tools like Full Sail’s Connect site, which gives you access to resources and networking opportunities.The online learning management system that Full Sail uses is its own custom program, meaning that it was created to fit perfectly into Full Sail’s course structure and formats. As part of the learning management system that Full Sail customized, you’ll purchase what is called a “Launchbox.” For graphic design students, this is a current-generation Apple MacBook Pro with Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Cloud, Final Cut Pro, and a Sony Alpha a6000 Camera and lens.
As far as courses go, you’ll find that Full Sail offers a refreshingly different format. Rather than taking 5 classes at a time across four months of a semester, you’ll take one to two courses at a time in a single month. The following month, you will take a different course, and so on. This means that you don’t have to worry about whether the classes that you need to graduate will run, or choose which classes you’ll take in a given semester. From Day 1 of your acceptance to Full Sail, you’ll know exactly what course you will be taking, and when. The associate’s program consists of the first 16 months of the bachelor’s program’s 29 total months. It amounts to 60 credit hours and includes English Composition, College Mathematics, Art History, Graphic Principles I and II, Digital Audio and Video, and Typography and Page Layout.
2. Surry Community College’s Online Associate Degree in Advertising and Graphic Design Technology
Surry Community College is a 2-year public institution with several campuses in the Surry and Yadkin counties of North Carolina. They offer 48 areas of study total, 8 of which are complete associate degrees online. These are: Accounting, Advertising and Graphic Design Technology, Associate in Arts, Business Administration, Criminal Justice Technology, Early Childhood Education, Medical Office Administration, and Office Administration. If you happen to be a resident of North Carolina, these prices can’t be beat. If you are not a resident of North Carolina, not to worry–the price tag is still the second lowest on this list. Their Academic Support Center offers free online tutoring to students.
Your online associate degree in Advertising and Graphic Design Technology will follow the same exact program of study as a face-to-face program. The expected completion time for this online degree is 2 years across 5 semesters. That means you’ll take classes in the fall, the next spring, during the summer, and again the following fall and spring. It is 66 total credits, some of which will be in general education classes in writing, math, and the social sciences. You’ll dive into your degree concentration more with classes like Art Appreciation, 2-D Design, Typography, Drawing, Computer Graphics, Digital Photography I and II, and Graphic Design I, II, and III. During your last semester you’ll take important courses that will prepare you for getting a job in the graphic design field, like Portfolio Design and Design Career Exploration. Don’t forget that you’ll have to purchase an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, but if you’re planning on working in graphic design, this is necessary to your career anyway.
Tuition and Fees: $8,684
1. Academy of Art University’s Online Associate of Arts Graphic Design Degree
The Academy of Art University is a private, for-profit university located in San Francisco, California. It is not only listed as a 2017 GDUSA Top Design School, but two of its faculty, Director Emeritus Mary Scott and Program Director Phil Hamlett were also both recognized on the “2017 GDUSA Educators to Watch” list. Its resources for online students are robust: from recorded career workshops, online student and alumni mixers, online community groups, to industry panel live streams, online academic support, and software tutorials, the Academy of Art University caters to its online student body. Not to mention, all enrolled students receive free access to Adobe Creative Cloud.
The online Associate of Arts in Graphic Design is a 2-year program that consists of 66 “units”. Each course is divided into 15 “modules” which are made available at regular intervals, spacing out the content evenly across the semester. You’ll access this content via the Academy of Art University’s customized learning management system. The LMS is also your source for class updates, grades, tutoring, and teacher feedback. General education classes include composition and critical thinking, employment communications and practices, and art historical awareness. Your core courses are: Digital Photography, Color Fundamentals, Typography 1 and 2, Graphic Design 1 and 2, Package Design 1, and Web Design 1.
Tuition and Fees: $25,424
Three factors were used to determine the ranking of these schools: graduation rate, cohort default rate, and the cost of 2016-2017 tuition and fees. Up to 20 points were awarded for tuition, 30 points for graduation rate, and 50 points for how low the cohort default rate was.
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