Best Graphic Design Schools and Colleges 2021

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Graphic designers create layouts and concepts for print and digital sources. They use special software programs to design illustrations and create images that communicate a client’s message.

A bachelor’s degree in graphic design meets the education requirement for most entry-level careers in graphic design. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), graphic designers earn a median annual salary of over $52,000.

Online graphic design programs train students in design fundamentals, layout, typography, and design software. Learning online makes earning a graphic design degree more accessible to many students, including learners who work full time. An online program also helps prospective graphic design students identify the most affordable graphic design programs.

Our rankings introduce the best online graphic design programs for 2021. This article also covers common graphic design courses, the career and salary outlook for graphic design graduates, and scholarships for graphic design students.

Top 10 Graphic Design Schools and Colleges

Rank School Location
1 Rhode Island School of Design Providence, RI
2 Boston University Boston, MA
3 The New School New York City, NY
4 University of Miami Coral Gables, FL
5 California Institute of the Arts Santa Clarita, CA
6 Pratt Institute Brooklyn, NY
7 Chapman University Orange, CA
8 University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA
9 Ringling College of Art and Design Sarasota, FL
10 George Washington University Washington, DC
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  • What is graphic design?

    The graphic design field communicates messages in visual formats. Advertisements, product packaging, and websites all rely on graphic design to create their visual look.

  • How long does it take to earn a graphic design degree?

    Full-time enrollees typically need four years to earn a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. Transfer students and those who choose an accelerated program may graduate sooner.

  • What kind of graphic design degree can I get?

    Many graphic design schools offer degrees at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s level. Each degree provides specialized training in graphic design and design software.

  • Can I study graphic design online?

    Yes. Online graphic design programs educate students in a virtual format. In these programs, distance learners complete coursework requirements online.

  • What is the difference between graphic design and fine art?

    Graphic design and fine art both work in visual mediums. However, graphic design professionals typically create visual communications for brands or companies, while fine art professionals express individual creativity.

Best Graphic Design Schools and Colleges 2021

What are the best graphic design programs for 2021? Our list ranks the top programs to help prospective graphic designers find the right fit for their interests and career goals. We draw on reliable data sources to provide practical guidance on the most affordable graphic design program and the best online graphic design degrees.

  1. Rhode Island School of Design

    Providence, RI

    Rhode Island School of Design in Providence started in 1877. Currently, more than 2,500 students attend this private university. These candidates benefit from an interactive 9-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio and classes with an average of 14 learners. RISD admitted only 20% of beginning freshmen applicants for 2018-2019. Nearly 30,000 candidates possess RISD alumni status. RISD holds accreditation through the New England Commission of Higher Education.

    RISD offers a top bachelor of fine arts in graphic design that learners can complete in four years. This program emphasizes technical and aesthetic concepts of graphic design for creating projects that reflect client needs. The department also encourages learners to build unique styles for careers as freelance artists and business owners.

    Required courses include drawing, spatial dynamics, and typography. Students can also complete several design-related electives and studios. Assignments for these courses incorporate different media and methods, such as print and magazine development. Enrollees can also use the school's Design Center for this coursework, which includes tools for traditional and digital graphic design. Each candidate can also complete an internship and submit an extensive capstone project to graduate.

    Each applicant must provide a portfolio with at least 12 work samples, artistic responses to prompts, and writing examples.

    RISD students can visit the school's museum for events and lectures on different artistic concepts. The museum also offers resources, such as videos on art history and creative expression; it also provides research fellowships.

  2. Boston University

    Boston, MA

    The Newbury Biblical Institute launched in 1839, which would become the initial school for Boston University. This private school in Massachusetts now boasts more than 35,000 learners and ranks among the top national universities, best colleges for veterans, best value schools, and most innovative schools, according to the U.S. News & World Report. The New England Commission of Higher Education accredits BU.

    Its School of Visual Arts delivers a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design that requires 132 credits. Students can complete courses in tiers, beginning with foundation courses, such as drawing, painting, and sculpture. Second-year courses concentrate on principles of graphic design and include extended studio experiences. Juniors can study audience assessment to construct projects for unique company needs. For senior theses, students apply their individual styles and strategies to modern graphic design concepts. Throughout the program, learners can also complete electives that reflect their professional goals or personal preferences.

    The department requires several projects, with different levels of personal creativity, and it boasts faculty with great professional connections. Faculty can then can connect students with career opportunities. BU also encourages learners to engage with graphic design organizations.

    Individuals in the School of Visual Arts can also interact with the university's other schools and colleges. In particular, graphic design students may work with communication, computing, and business departments for projects and assignments.

    Graphic design students can also build knowledge and experiences outside of classrooms. For example, the School of Visual Arts offers the Visual Arts Resource Library and hosts the Contemporary Perspectives Lecture Series. Additionally, the College of Fine Arts provides art galleries where students can participate in exhibit-building.

  3. The New School

    New York City, NY

    The New School, located in New York, began in 1919 as the New School for Social Research. This institution currently boasts approximately 10,000 students from 116 nations and is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. U.S. News & World Report ranks this institution among the top national universities, best colleges for veterans, and the best value schools.

    The School of Art, Media, and Technology from Parsons School of Design delivers a bachelor of fine arts in communication design. This degree requires 120 credits, with classes that explore typography, imaging, and design history. The curriculum also includes studios, lectures, and seminars. Learners can take elective courses that relate to their personal interests.

    For this program, candidates can explore various types of graphic design, such as motion graphics, advertisements, and brands. Learners may also complete internships that involve other departments or organizations outside of the school. The department prioritizes research and communication skills. All students must complete a senior thesis.

    Each applicant must provide a portfolio of at least eight projects and a statement that addresses program interest. Students may transfer half of their program requirements from other colleges or universities.

    Often, learners can finish this degree in four years and then pursue The New School's master of professional studies in communication design. Candidates may also declare relevant minors in fields such as art and design history, photography, and printmaking.

    Students of the Parsons School of Design can benefit from career services, including a job portal and practice interviews. Candidates can also attend artistic events and displays through the school, such as the yearly Parsons Festival.

  4. University of Miami

    Coral Gables, FL

    The University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida started in 1925 and welcomed its initial class of fewer than 700 students in 1926. In 2017-2018, this private school conferred 2,661 bachelor's degrees and boasted a 92% retention rate for the 2017 cohort. Only 27% of applicants gain admission into UM. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accredits UM, and the U.S. News & World Report ranks the institution among the top national universities, best colleges for veterans, and best value schools.

    UM offers a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design and multimedia that prepares learners to work in print and digital design. Candidates may explore theoretical and aesthetic principles to develop unique styles for art pieces. The department also embraces cross-disciplinary approaches and builds teamwork skills for group projects.

    The program prioritizes seven design concepts: entertainment, applied science, video art, design and craft, cultural theory, public interaction, and painting and sculpture. Students can learn to blend these artistic concepts for projects with specific audiences and messages.

    UM also offers a master of fine arts in illustration and multimedia. Bachelor's and master's degrees require a portfolio and participation in an exhibition. Learners for both programs can access the school's work stations and labs.

    Graphic design and multimedia students can showcase their projects at the UM Gallery in the Wynwood Building. Candidates may also earn prizes in the Department of Art and Art History's Annual Juried Student Art Exhibit contest.

  5. California Institute of the Arts

    Santa Clarita, CA

    The history of the California Institute of the Arts dates back to 1961 after Walt Disney imagined an art institution that embraced multiple fields. CalArts officially started in 1970. This private school educated more than 1,500 learners in fall 2018 and awarded nearly 400 degrees for the 2017-2018 school year, including 193 bachelor of fine arts degrees.

    Admission is competitive, with CalArts only accepting 27% of applicants in fall 2018. CalArts is accredited by both the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

    The School of Art offers a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design that prioritizes technical knowledge, artistic theory, and personal style across different media. For instance, the program explores design concepts for books, film graphics, and branding through courses such as skills for visualization, design issues, typography, and digital photography. Classes often include group conversations and appraisals of artistic pieces and concepts. The School of Art also offers a digital arts minor for further field credentials.

    A candidate can graduate with a graphic design bachelor's in four years but must complete several workshops and a graduate portfolio review. After graduating, individuals can pursue the school's master of fine arts in graphic design or find work as artists, educators, and field historians.

    Resources include 24-hour studios and a blog regarding relevant topics in the field. Candidates can also participate in CalArts events, such as an annual print fair and a t-Shirt show. CalArts also provides extended studies opportunities for multiple types of art, including graphic design, visual art, animation, and film and video.

  6. Pratt Institute

    Brooklyn, NY

    Pratt Institute began in 1887 as one of the few U.S. schools to embrace male, female, and racially diverse learners. Today, this private school in New York boasts campuses in Brooklyn, Utica, and Manhattan to educate more than 4,500 learners. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design accredit Pratt.

    Students can pursue Pratt's four-year bachelor of fine arts in communications design. This degree trains learners to consider their audiences and intended messages to create clear designs in storytelling. The department introduces candidates to emerging media and technological tools for art projects. The curriculum also hones communication skills for building projects in groups and unveiling final products to clients and audiences. Candidates can explore social contexts for art design, as well as the field's history.

    Learners can choose focuses in graphic design, illustration, and advertising art direction. The graphic design emphasis addresses topics such as typography, film graphics, publishing, and product usability through classes like digital prototyping and themes in art and culture. Candidates may also complete labs, studios, projects, and internships for this degree.

    Graduates can consider related master's programs from Pratt, including creative arts therapy, fine arts, and digital arts and animation.

    Pratt helps learners study abroad in areas such as Berlin and Rome. The school also offers art-related events, such as awards exhibitions, through the Pratt Manhattan Gallery and the Rubelle and Norman Schafler Gallery.

  7. Chapman University

    Orange, CA

    Located in Orange, California, Chapman University started in 1861 and currently boasts approximately 50,000 alumni, more than 8,000 students, and over 175 student groups. This private school holds accreditation through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission and placement on several U.S. News & World Report lists. Specifically, Chapman ranks at 40th for best value schools, fifth for regional universities in the West, and third for most innovative schools.

    The institution offers one of the best graphic design degrees through the Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. This bachelor of fine arts in graphic design prioritizes techniques and individual styles for designing digital and print projects. Specific courses include book arts, four-dimensional design, visualization, web design, color, and branding and advertising design.

    Candidates may also explore the history of graphic design and learn to build projects that cater to audience, purpose, and project regulations. Other emphasized skills include research and communication, along with self-reflection and assessment for project critiques. The curriculum also involves an internship and a graphic design portfolio.

    Forty-two percent of Chapman students participate in study abroad experiences. For this program, students can enroll in Graphic Design 308, which includes design experience in London.

    Program students can participate in the Margo Pawell Design Symposium, the OC Portfolio Design Club, and the Visual Thinker Lecture Series. The department also provides the Commpost magazine that updates readers on faculty, student, and graduate accomplishments. Students can access Commpost online. Candidates can also connect with the school's Digital Arts Club.

  8. University of Southern California

    Los Angeles, CA

    The University of Southern California welcomed its first class of 53 learners in 1880. In the 2018-2019 school year, about 47,500 students attended this private institution, with less than 13% of applicants earning admission. USC awarded more than 15,000 degrees in June 2018 and currently boasts nearly 400,00 alumni. The institution holds accreditation through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission. The U.S. News & World Report ranks USC at 28th for most innovative schools, 37th for best value schools, 22nd for national universities, and fifth for best colleges for veterans.

    USC established the Gayle Garner Roski School of Art and Design in 1895. This school offers a bachelor of fine arts in design that builds research and artistic skills related to different media. This program involves explorations of two-dimensional and three-dimensional artistry, along with workshops, seminars, internships, and a thesis project. The department also relates graphic design topics to various disciplines and offers minors in fields such as advertising, communication, and business.

    Junior-level students may enter the BFA/MFA degree path. Bachelor's admission requires a portfolio with at least 10 original pieces, a declaration of artistic philosophy, and an overview of relevant experiences. Candidates can complete the degree in four years.

    The Roski School of Art and Design offers study abroad opportunities in England, Australia, Italy, and South Africa, along with prizes and fellowships for areas such as drawing and photography. Learners can also participate in the Annual Student Exhibition or request an Independent Student Exhibition through USC.

  9. Ringling College of Art and Design

    Sarasota, FL

    Ringling College of Art and Design started in 1931 and currently boasts around 16,000 students who learn through an interactive 11-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. This private college in Sarasota, Florida boasts accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

    Degree-seekers can pursue Ringling College's bachelor of fine arts in graphic design that examines various media, including two-dimensional and three-dimensional options. Candidates study the graphic design process, including material and technique selection. Students learn to consider purpose and audience and to interact with individuals from other fields, such as illustrators and copywriters.

    Learners can choose from interactive design, packaging, and branding specializations, though the department does not require a focus. Candidates can also declare a minor to personalize the degree. Relevant minors include film studies, art history, visual development, and photography and imaging.

    Notable graphic design alumni include art designers, product designers, visual designers, and creative assistants for companies such as Nickelodeon, Instagram, Facebook, and Walt Disney Imagineering.

    Ringling College offers three clubs related to graphic design: the American Institute of Graphic Arts group, the Type Club, and the Screen Printing Club. The department also welcomes graphic designers who can share expertise through guest lectures and at events.

    A student earning a graphic design degree can use the school's Design Center and assist with constructing the college viewbook. The institution's Collaboratory Commitment provides all degree-seekers with in-field learning opportunities, and the Career Services Center directs candidates on obtaining internships. Additional assistance from the Career Services Center includes professional coaching and workshops that address career enhancement.

  10. George Washington University

    Washington, DC

    George Washington University in Washington D.C. dates back to 1821. Today, this private institution includes 10 colleges and schools, 15 honors societies, and over 450 student groups. Enrollment exceeds 26,000 and represents over 100 nations. GW holds accreditation through the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and placement on U.S. News & World Report lists for national universities, best value schools, best colleges for veterans, and most innovative schools.

    The Corcoran School of the Arts and Design delivers a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design that requires 120 credits. The program addresses technology and aesthetics for building designs that reflect their purposes and audiences. Learners can explore concepts such as branding, typography, motion graphics, and publication styles for business and cultural needs.

    Candidates can take classes such as design fundamentals, art history, and digital media culture, along with completing studio components that address drawing, lighting, and project materials. Each degree-seeker must also complete a thesis. This capstone requires each learner to consult a design expert, write a paper, and design a project. The department showcases these thesis projects at its yearly NEXT showcase.

    Each learner pursuing this graphic design degree must provide a portfolio with at least 12 pieces for admission.

    GW offers events that relate to graphic design, including information sessions. The department also delivers the Visiting Designer Series, where professionals offer field guidance through lectures. The school's Visiting Artist opportunity may also allow learners to obtain thesis guidance from field experts.

Career and Salary Outlook for Graphic Design

Graphic designers benefit from a strong career and salary outlook. The median salary for graphic designers exceeds $52,000 per year, with the highest-paid graphic designers earning over $89,000 annually. While the BLS projects a slight decline in graphic design jobs between 2019 and 2029, the field will still employ a projected 270,000 employees by 2029.

Graphic designers perform many duties, including selecting text and images, working with art directors to bring concepts to life, and creating layouts in Adobe InDesign or Illustrator. Some graphic designers specialize in areas like product packaging or publishing. They often work in advertising, media, and public relations.

A graphic design degree also prepares graduates for careers as web designers, UX/UI designers, or multimedia artists. In these fields, graphic design graduates apply their creative and technical training to create the visual look of websites, design 3D animations, and build user-friendly platforms.

Graphic designers also advance their career by moving into art director positions. Art directors create visual concepts and oversee teams of graphic designers. The median annual salary for art directors exceeds $94,000.

Graphic Designers

Lowest 10% Median Annual Salary Highest 10%
Less than $30,810 $52,110 More than $89,210

Source: BLS

Accreditation for Graphic Design

Prospective graphic design students should always choose an accredited school. Accredited institutions follow the best practices for educating students and granting degrees. Students at accredited schools also qualify for federal financial aid programs.

Applicants should look for regional accreditation when researching a graphic design college or graphic design university. The National Association of Schools of Art & Design grants accreditation to graphic design schools. Learn more about why accreditation matters in our accreditation guide.

Courses in a Graphic Design Program

Graphic design programs train students to create visually engaging material that communicates a message. At a graphic design school or a graphic design college, undergraduates take courses in typography, print design, digital design, and packaging design. Many programs also offer specializations like web design or UX/UI design.

Most bachelor’s programs in graphic design also include general education requirements to strengthen communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Depending on the program, graphic design majors may complete an internship or senior project to strengthen their career-ready skills.

This section includes a sample curriculum for a graphic design program. While the course requirements and descriptions vary by school, most programs include these classes.

  • Introduction to Graphic Design

    Introductory courses examine the field of graphic design and the role of visual communications in different industries. Students learn about advertising, web design, print design, and other fields that rely on design training. The course also introduces learners to key software programs such as Photoshop and InDesign.

  • Typography

    Typography represents a core part of visual communication. In typography courses, students examine the history of type, text-based communication, and selecting typographic elements. Learners may also design their own typeface and evaluate typographic designs based on their readability and user experience. The course prepares print and web graphic designers to incorporate text in their designs.

  • Web Design

    Graphic design students learn to design visual content for websites. The course introduces programming languages like HTML and CSS. Learners strengthen their technical skills while creating prototypes and using software programs to create websites. Topics such as user-focused design, web design testing, and design critiquing strengthen the skills necessary for careers in web design.

  • UX/UI Design

    User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design examines the contact between consumers and products. Learners study how to identify user needs and apply data to improve user experience. The course also covers content strategies, design concepts, and usability metrics. Students may create a final project that applies their UX/UI design knowledge.

  • Package Design

    In packaging design courses, graphic design majors learn to create commercial packaging. The course covers the development of a concept, layout and prototyping, and form choices that consider user experience. Students also consider sustainability and brand messaging in package design. These skills prepare graduates for careers in advertising and marketing.

Scholarships for Graphic Design

Graphic design students may qualify for multiple scholarships to fund their degree. Professional associations, private foundations, and private companies all support future graphic designers through scholarships. In addition to the following scholarships, graphic design majors should research opportunities based on their specific field, career goals, and state. Colleges and universities also award scholarships to students.

Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation

Who Can Apply: PGSF offers multiple scholarships for full-time and part-time students. Applicants must major in printing or graphics and must submit official transcripts showing a minimum 3.0 GPA and two recommendation referrals. Students at technical schools also qualify.

Amount: Varies

Woodward Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The Iowa Newspaper Association awards a scholarship for students studying graphic design, photojournalism, or a related field. Applicants must attend a college or university in Iowa, Illinois, or Wisconsin. The scholarship amount varies depending on the fund’s growth.

Amount: Varies

Dolphin Galleries Scholarship for the Creative and Visual Arts

Who Can Apply: Dolphin Galleries sponsors this annual award for students in good academic standing. Applicants must pursue or plan to pursue an arts-related degree at an accredited college or university. Applicants must submit a digital portfolio featuring five of their best pieces that relate to the expression of culture in the modern age. They must also include a 100-word description of each piece.

Amount: $1,000

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