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Graphic Design Education:  Two-Year or Four-Year Degree


graphic design course length


by Bill Long

Graphic design is probably as old as man himself; the cave writings in Lascaux, France are 15,000 (or more) year old graphic designs.  Illuminated manuscripts from the Medieval Period are graphic designs.  Anything that uses pictures and symbols to communicate something is a graphic design. 

In the last half of the twentieth century, graphic design moved from the drafting table to the computer.  During this time of transition, computer skills were more important than design skills.  Computerized graphic design programs were complicated and difficult for most people to use.  If you were computer savvy, you could learn enough about design to find employment as a graphic designer without post-secondary education. 

That’s no longer true.  In the 21st century, most people have some computer skills and graphic design programs are easier to use.  The pendulum is swinging back toward the artistic expression of graphic design and it’s very difficult to get a job as a graphic artist without at least some college education. 

There are many types of graphic design educational programs available—certificate programs, associate degree programs, bachelor’s degree programs and graduate programs.  All of these programs have their pros and cons.  The one that’s best for you is the one that will enable you to meet your career goals.  This article will compare several features of associate and bachelor’s degree programs in order to help you choose the best program for you.

Cost:  An associate degree program costs less than a bachelor’s degree program.  Partly, that is because you are paying for fewer years of education. 

If you get your associate degree at a community college, the cost per credit will be lower than at any four-year college or university.  (That may not be true of an associate degree program from a career or technical college.) 

There are other less obvious cost advantages to an associate degree program, too.  You can usually find one close to where you live, so you don’t have relocation or campus housing expenses.  Two years less education also means two years less book and other fees.  And it means two years less lost work time.

Career path:  You’ll begin your career faster with an associate degree, and you’ll probably qualify for the same jobs that a bachelor’s degree graduate qualifies for. 

There will probably come a time, however, when an associate degree graduate hits a career dead end; a point where you cannot advance any further without getting more education.  Advanced professional positions and positions in management and education are usually closed to associate degree graduates.

Because they can advance further in their careers, bachelor’s degree graphic designers usually have higher lifetime earnings than those with associate degrees.  The more education you have, the more money you are likely to earn.

Professional status:  Unfairly and unfortunately, there is a negative stigma attached to having “only” an associate degree.  Some employers believe that the best and brightest, most talented and smartest will attend a four year school and that if you didn’t you are “less” than the best.  It’s not an accurate evaluation and it’s not fair, but it is reality.  If you have an associate degree and you are competing head-to-head with someone with a bachelor’s degree, there’s a good chance the job or project will go to the other guy.  All other things being equal, education wins every time.

An associate degree program is usually focused and concentrates on skill acquisition, rather than developing a broad educational base.  You can graduate with an associate degree and be a very good, very skilled, very talented graphic artist—but you do not have the scope of education that someone with a bachelor’s degree does.  All of those core educational courses in a bachelor’s program are designed to broaden your mind and help you develop personally as well as professionally. 

Perhaps most importantly, a bachelor’s degree in graphic design gives you better tools for communicating with other professionals.  Graphic design is all about communication, and being able to “speak the language” of other professional people is a distinct advantage.

Other things to consider:
You could choose a career path that begins with an associate degree, planning to get a bachelor’s degree later.  There are some good reasons to do this:

  • It costs less—if you plan right.
  • You can establish yourself in your career quickly, and get your bachelor’s degree before you’re ready for more advanced positions.

If you do plan to get a bachelor’s degree later in your career, make sure that your associate degree classes will transfer to a four-year school.  Some programs are not transferable and some others may only be partially transferable.  You don’t want to put the time and money into getting an associate degree and then have to start all over at the beginning when you are ready to pursue your bachelor’s degree.

Whether you choose an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree program, you’ll enter an exciting, challenging profession that is continuing to evolve as new technologies become available.  Graphic design is increasingly a part of our visually focused world, and as a result graphic artists are increasingly in demand.  As a graphic designer you can work in almost any industry or you can develop your own business. Look at your career goals and at your personal situation and choose the program that will help you get where you want to be, that will help you achieve your professional goals.



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