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  • How do design programs differ?

    There are hundreds of design programs in the United States, and their content and philosophies vary widely. This gives you a lot of options, but is also means that identifying the particular programs best suited to your needs and interests can be difficult. The following information can help you understand and compare your options.

    Graphic design programs are found in a number of different kinds of institutions and in different areas within these institutions. You need to look carefully at each program; its curriculum, the ratio of hands-on design work to academic classes in design or other disciplines, and the type of degree awarded. You also need to assess your short-term and long-term objectives, the kind of college experience you want, and the kinds of career opportunities available after graduation.

    Generally, four kinds of institutions of higher learning can prepare you for a career in graphic design. A university will typically offer either a four-year undergraduate program leading to a BS (bachelor of science) or BA (bachelor of arts) degree. Many universities also offer a graduate degree, the MFA (master of fine arts). Within a university, graphic design is likely to be a major in the College of Fine Arts; smaller universities might offer graphic design as a concentration within a fine arts major. Four-year colleges offer only undergraduate programs leading to a BA. Typically, graphic design courses are part of the offerings in a fine arts major.

    Art schools, often called schools of design or institutes of design, offer a more intensive design education than colleges or universities. On the undergraduate level, four-year programs lead to a BFA (bachelor of fine arts). In an art school, you will usually find a comprehensive graphic design major in its own department. Some art schools also offer the MFA graduate degree.

    Two-year programs leading to an AA (associate degree) are available from community colleges. These programs are often designed to allow students to transfer credits to a college, university or art school program. Check requirements carefully to leave your options open.

    Because there are exceptions to these typical programs, you should look carefully at the curriculum and degree requirements of any program you are considering. Always make sure that you understand how the program prepares you both for employment and for additional study.

    Particularly important is the number of graphic design courses available versus the quantity of humanities courses (or, in some cases, science courses) available or required. This ratio can be very important to your post-graduate opportunities.

    For example, in most college or university programs, students receive a broad liberal arts education. Because their design program may not be as comprehensive as art school programs, college students may wish to supplement their education with internships or concentrated summer programs in graphic design, and then get a graduate design degree. However, because designers work with diverse clients whose messages might involve content from abstract art to zoology, a broad exposure to ideas and a well-rounded education are often an advantage. By contrast, art schools offer fewer humanities and social studies courses than colleges or universities, but students are intensively prepared for current job opportunities.

    An associate degree program in a community college gives students the technical skills to become production artists who prepare art for printing. Graduates might work as assistants in the design or printing industry. These programs give students immediately marketable skills, but advancement in the field may be difficult without additional study.

    Graphic Design: A Career Guide and Education Directory
    Edited by Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl

    AIGA update:
    There exists another type of two-year program that goes beyond the tech-school education in both intent and result. This type of program is rigorous and likened to a graduate school in intensity and in the fact that most of those who enroll already have four-year liberal arts degrees from reputable universities and colleges. Employing respected industry leaders as instructors, these schools offer intensive, comprehensive design education, with an emphasis on the process of design, especially as it is applied to branding. These schools take an interdisciplinary approach that parallels a real industry representation across all practices including design, advertising, graphic design, media architecture, photography and illustration. Graduates of these schools are prepared to create a single brand experience across all media environments and are capable of moving easily between the various media. The structure of these programs parallels the industry, wherein designers, art directors, writers, media architects, illustrators, and photographers serve as immediate resources for one another. These schools allow for individual attention, the nurturing of each student's particular talents and strengths, and a great degree of self-expression and experimentation.

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