Degree Programs and Professional Preparation

The presence of communication design content in college courses and curriculum, or even its designation as an area of emphasis or concentration, does not automatically indicate that the degree program adequately prepares students for professional practice. While the profession does not prefer a single curricular structure and encourages students to choose an educational path that best meets their goals, there is a minimal threshold of competency for communication design practice that generally requires a four-year professional degree program that provides a comprehensive education in the discipline.

Programs that address some, but not all, issues of practice may provide opportunities for curricular breadth in art or other subjects. It is expected that students graduating from these programs will acquire the essential competencies for design practice through later study, such as a graduate program, before pursuing employment in the field. Given the tremendous diversity among programs with communication design content, any claim that all curricula offering some study in the field produce the same outcome — a student fully qualified for entry to the profession — is misleading. Students are encouraged to compare college curricula to standards established by AIGA and NASAD (NASAD Accreditation Handbook, pp. 114-120) before making choices to enroll in particular programs.

Undergraduate Degrees

Four-year professional degree programs with majors in communication design: Within the framework of a four-year undergraduate program, the professional degree with a major in communication design is intended to prepare students with the knowledge and skills required for a career in the field. These degrees are usually titled Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communication Design, Bachelor of Communication Design, or a bachelor’s degree in one of related titles mentioned above. At least 65% of the coursework in these degree programs is dedicated to design-related coursework with at least 25% specifically in communication design. The remaining credits are taken in the liberal arts. The professional degree program is specialized, rather than broad-based, and designed for students who know they want to become communication designers. 

Although no curriculum can guarantee a specific career, successful graduates of accreditable four-year professional programs should be qualified for many entry-level positions in the field. Their specific coursework may also make them qualified for subspecialties (for example, advertising versus software design). Further, these students should possess the education necessary to move forward to leadership positions or advanced graduate study in the field of communication design.

Four-year professional studio art degrees with majors other than communication design: The professional undergraduate degree in studio art focuses on the creation and study of art with part of that study being possible in design. Normally, at least 65% of the coursework is devoted to overall studies in art and design with the remainder to studies in the liberal arts. Bachelor of Fine Arts is the typical degree title. Within this framework, there are many ways in which communication design content may be included. Some of the most common are: a small amount (less than 25%) of required or elective coursework, usually in the upper two years of study; a set of courses that constitute and area of emphasis, specialization, or concentration within a larger major in general design or art; or coursework or projects assigned under an independent study program.

Depending on their goals and objectives, content, and the range and depth of communication design studies, these programs provide students with a little, some, or significant amount of pre-professional preparation for practice in communication design. However, AIGA and NASAD do not recognize professional undergraduate degree programs with less than a full major in communication design as providing full preparation for entry and later upward mobility within the profession. Students who enroll in these programs should view them as a way of: gaining a broad, studio-based professional degree in art or design, or a specific professional degree in a field other than communication design; acquiring some aspects of the common body of knowledge and skills related to professional practice in communication design; and developing a sense of where communication design fits into future education and career plans. Students holding this degree should pursue additional study at the bachelor’s or master’s level to qualify for practice careers.

Four-year liberal arts programs: Liberal arts programs are the most common undergraduate degree in the United States. They place greater emphasis on general education and lesser emphasis on studio design and visual arts studies than professional degree programs. Normally, 30-45% of the total credits are in art and design, with the remainder being in coursework across a range of fields. Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science are the usual degree titles.

In these programs, communication design can never be more than a small part of the total credits required for graduation. The number of qualified communication design faculty is also likely to be smaller than in professional degree programs, limiting the range of coursework the program can appropriately deliver. Promotional materials for these programs, however, too frequently describe a communication design focus, specialization, concentration, or major. Although consistent with the way in which these terms are used elsewhere in the institution, such titles can mislead students and employers to believe that the degree will qualify them for employment in design at any level.

AIGA and NASAD do not recognize a four-year liberal arts degree in art or design as adequate preparation for entry as a communication design professional. Such programs have value to many students, especially those who are unclear about career aspirations, but they are not structured to provide the requisite knowledge and skills. Graduates of these programs who gain employment in the field of communication design are usually limited in their advancement in the profession and require extensive apprenticeship training by employers. In a challenged economy, such opportunities may be less available. Many graduates of these programs discover they must pursue a second bachelor’s degree or master’s study in order to compete professionally with their more qualified peers. Students who enroll in liberal arts programs should view them as a way of: gaining the valuable knowledge and skills inherent in a broad liberal education, acquiring a general foundation for later design study, and determining their level of interest in communication design. 

Two-year programs in communication design: Community colleges and technical schools offer courses and curricula described as communication design, graphic design, interaction design, and visual communication in a two-year program of study. Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, and Associate of Fine Arts are typical degree titles. Effective programs prepare students for technical support positions in the field of communication design and/or transfer to a design program in a four-year institution.

 Students prepared to provide technical support services are not considered fully trained as designers responsible for the invention of appropriate form, development of communication strategy, or management of design practices. They gain computer skills used to prepare designers’ work for printing or the web. Some learn to configure and provide support for computer systems in design offices while others prepare for work in the printing industry. AIGA and NASAD do not recognize a two-year program in communication design as adequate preparation for a communication design professional or strategist who must accomplish the full range of challenges expected in the field. While graduates of two-year programs may be hired in entry-level positions to provide technical support, there is a limit to the advancement that can be expected without exposure to a broader range of courses in the common body of knowledge and skills required. 

Two-year programs that advertise the potential for transfer to four-year programs in communication design at other institutions are responsible for curriculum coordination, articulation agreements that define equivalencies between courses at the two institutions, and evidence that their students graduate from four-year programs in less than four years. It is common that two-year programs try to serve both students who wish to prepare for entry-level and technical support positions and who wish to transfer to four-year programs through the same curriculum. The all-too-frequent result is a compressed, generalized set of courses that may not be acceptable as transfer credit by four-year programs in which discrete topics, such as typography, are examined in greater depth across a longer sequence of courses. Applicants to two-year programs who want to continue their studies in four-year programs should question admissions counselors about specific courses that transfer to four-year programs.

Graduate Degrees in Communication Design

The initial Master of Arts or Master of Science (30 semester hours) is offered by a number of institutions. The terminal Master of Fine Arts (60 hours) or equivalent (Master of Design, for example) is more typical and required by most colleges and universities when hiring communication design faculty. At present, the master’s degree is not required for professional practice and there is no professional licensing or certification of communication designers. Students should look for a good match between their purpose for pursuing master’s study and program content and structure. Because graduate students work closely with faculty, applicants should determine the appropriateness of faculty qualifications and interests to ensure a good fit. There are several program profiles among current graduate offerings. 

General practice orientation: Students with educational experience other than the four-year professional undergraduate degree with a major in communication design prepare for practice or undergraduate teaching careers through this type of degree program. Instruction often resembles office practice and students’ work is largely in applied problems that replicate assignments in the field. These curricula generally follow the model of fine arts with high concentrations in studio instruction and a final project or exhibition of visual work required for graduation.

Specialized practice orientation: Students focus on a segment of practice, such as interaction or service design, or a particular philosophical approach to communication design, such as design for social change or human-centered design methods. These programs narrow the range of issues addressed in the curriculum and rely heavily on in-depth investigations that push the boundaries of a practice specialization or focus on personally defined problems. They may lead to a way of looking at design that differs from mainstream practice. The conclusion of studies generally takes the form of a final project or exhibition. Students in these programs often hold professional undergraduate degrees in communication design and may have practice experiences that inform their selection of a specialization.

Research orientation: This profile responds to the growing field of design research and doctoral degrees in design. Students enter these programs to develop research skills and to speculate on emerging issues and areas of practice. Students are less concerned about (re)entering the field of communication design as it is currently practiced and more interested in developing the body of knowledge about design. While some graduates of these programs do return to practice, many enter research positions or teaching at the college level. Coursework may include: study of research in non-design disciplines that hold significance for design (for example, anthropology, computer science, cognitive science, etc.), and at the master’s level, studios that address theoretical issues beyond those of the typical design office. Graduation requirements may range from a written thesis, to a final project, to a research project situated within a practice-oriented context. 

Admissions Processes and Portfolios

Undergraduate admissions processes vary across institutions, departments, and majors. In some schools, admission to the undergraduate design program is open to any student who qualifies for admission to the college or university. Other programs have additional admissions processes that screen students for aptitudes particular to study in art and/or design. These second-level admissions reviews may be applied at the time of application to the institution or after one or two years of art and design study. In design programs located within colleges or departments of art, a review for admission to a communication design major may be in addition to any screening for admission to the art college or department. The timing and criteria for admission to a communication design program should be described on the web and applicants should inquire about the number of students accepted and options for students who are rejected through these processes.

In cases where a design-specific review is required for admission to the program, a portfolio submission is typical. A portfolio is usually 8-12 examples of visual work, although the institution may publish specific requirements for their program. Portfolios include work developed over time, not all at once in the days before application. While students should consider the competencies demanded for design study when compiling these artifacts, not all schools expect portfolios of high school students to include applied design work. Faculty are skilled at judging aptitudes for communication design study from a variety of visual artifacts. Students should remember that faculty are seeking insight into how applicants process the world around them; copying exercises rarely provide this kind of information. Some schools ask for responses to specific visual assignments and/or writing samples. In reviews for admission to the communication design major that occur after one or two years of art study in the school, the portfolio typically includes work completed in the general art program.